by Mannix Flynn
The root cause of the homelessness crisis in Ireland is the broken housing system. Ireland does not have a public housing system to meet the needs of the society.
The biggest mistake was the decision by Labour’s Joan Burton to cut social housing spending by 72% between 2008 and 2012 (€1.38bn to €390m), but Rent Supplement levels, rising rents, easy evictions and reduced welfare rates for under-25s all represent serious policy failures.
It is four years since the Fine Gael government introduced ‘Rebuilding Ireland’, their insincere and uninformed strategy to reduce homelessness. Nearly every single month for that period the number of homeless people has gone up.
Even though there are over 180,000 vacant dwellings – excluding hoilday homes – in Ireland, there are now around 9000 homeless people across Ireland. The number of homeless families has increased 115% in the last five years of economic ascendancy. More than one in three people in emergency accommodation is a child. However, this number does not include ‘hidden homelessness’ – women and children staying in domestic violence refuges or people who are sleeping rough.
In November 2019, the official rough sleeping count confirmed 92 people sleeping rough in Dublin, with an additional number in the Night Café, without a place to sleep.
Accountancy firm Mazars found there were more than 75 housing and homelessness service-providers in Ireland.
In 2019, a total of €170 million was spent providing temporary and emergency accommodation for the homeless, an increase of 19 per cent over 2018. The numbers of homeless accommodated in hotels and B&Bs increased by 15.6 per cent from 2,282 in January 2019 to 2,638 in December 2019. €80.16 million was paid to hotels and B&Bs; €70.26, an increase of 16% over 2018, was paid to homelessness charities for temporary and emergency accommodation, including family hubs; €19.9 million was paid to ‘other’.
Hotels received payments totalling €56.6 million to provide temporary and emergency accommodation. 19 Dublin hotels each received payments in excess of €1 million. One hotel received payments of €4 million-€5 million
There are nearly 3000 homeless adults in private temporary or emergency accommodation in Dublin – which is more than in charity-run facilities, according to the Department of Housing. Fr Peter McVerry, the anti-homelessness campaigner, recently told the Dublin Inquirer he was surprised by that distribution.
In Glasgow most homeless people have their own rooms yet, apart from the Iveagh Trust, most homeless hostels for single people in Dublin accommodate people in shared rooms or dorms.
The conditions in most of Dublin’s temporary and emergency accommodation and hostels are simply appalling. They are ghettos staffed by untrained individuals with no real understanding of the homeless and the traumas they’ve been through, acting ad hoc. Of the respondents to a 2018 Dublin Inquirer/Amárach survey of homelessness-hostel users, 61 percent said noise levels and privacy were “poor”, and 40 percent said cleanliness was “poor”. Of the 126 people surveyed, over 90 percent said they had witnessed drinking or drug-taking at one-night-only hostels, and 89 percent said they had experienced bullying or intimidation.
38 percent of those surveyed said staying in one-night-only hostels had a “very negative” impact on their physical health, and 41 percent a “very negative” impact on their mental health.
Survey respondents used hostels run by Depaul, Peter McVerry Trust and Iveagh Trust most frequently. The Depaul hostel on Little Britain Street was rated highest, and Peter McVerry Trust’s emergency accommodation was ranked lowest.
Although a captive media rarely gets beyond parroting the incoherent mantras of the middle-class worthies who front these pampered institutions, officials have admitted to me that they themselves are deeply disturbed with the appalling management of facilities that they were spending nearly €170m annually on, but which are not inspected or properly regulated and the rights of whose users remain unclear.
I remember one incident where an untrained staff member gave a homeless client the wrong medication which resulted in a complete breakdown of the individual and the person being sectioned by the Garda who had to be called in to restrain the individual who had such a bad reaction to the wrong medication. But none of this is recorded and nothing is ever done about it.
Until recently charities that ran hostels would say that they have their own standards in place. But it was never clear whose role it was to ensure these standards were high enough, and adhered to.
Neither Peter McVerry Trust nor Cedar House Crosscare Homeless Shelter responded to queries about quality-control in hostels.
These queries included what oversight is in place to monitor standards, how many times their hostels had been inspected in 2018, whether they gathered feedback from their users, and what measures were in place for addressing complaints.
Depaul and Focus Ireland did respond to the queries. A spokesperson for Depaul referred to the DRHE’s National Quality Standards Framework.
Focus Ireland adopted a full set of “standards of customer services” around 2008 according to Mike Allen, director of advocacy. It carries out “detailed customer-satisfaction surveys” every three years, he said.
For “customers who have disengaged with our services”, the charity calls them six months later, asking questions including about quality of service.
Some of those surveyed also mentioned the Iveagh Trust hostel, even though it isn’t a one-night-only hostel.
Peter Fitzpatrick, a spokesperson for Iveagh Trust, told the Dublin Inquirer the Iveagh Hostel differs from other hostels in Dublin because all residents have their own individual room and are free to stay for as long as they choose.
Having single rooms “affords a level of privacy and significantly reduces the potential for issues to arise between residents”, said Fitzpatrick.
This is key to the future of homelessness services. If you provide decent facilities you get better results for users, local authorities and the public.
The Dublin Regional Homeless Executive (DHRE) is provided by Dublin City Council as the lead statutory local authority in the response to homelessness in Dublin.
It was set up to provide accommodation and support for those falling into homelessness. DHRE is an ambulance without wheels. It is failing as a supervisory authority. Check out its uninstructive and out-of-date website at https://www.homelessdublin.ie/info/facts.
After years when there were no standards, and HIQA refused to intervene, the DHRE published National Quality Framework Standards in 2019. These were to apply to all types of services, including those run by private companies. The standards require in-depth assessment and support planning for each resident to help them achieve health, well-being, education, and training goals as well as to address their housing needs. All homeless services are to have a code of conduct for staff, a complaints procedure and an appeals procedure.
But DHRE is not implementing its own standards. Peter McVerry says “There is an issue of standards in all hostels, even in our hostels. I’m quite critical of having four people in a room”. He claims private hostels are a lot quicker to evict people than charities. “They will throw you out a moment’s notice for what would appear to me to be very minor breaches”.
Much is made of the fact that children suffer the deepest impact of homelessness. So where are the child protection state funded agencies? Tusla? Barnardos? The Children’s Ombudsman? And where, after all, is HIQA, the States’s independent Health Information and Quality Authority “driving high-quality and safe care for people using our health and social care services in Ireland”.
Health Information and Quality Authority is an independent authority established to drive high-quality and safe care for people using our health and social care service
While the list for those waiting for housing gets ever longer, and the appalling conditions for many of those in Dublin City Council social housing estates gets worse due to dilapidation, the coffers of the empires of housing charities grow fat on the backs of the poor. The Peter McVerry Trust boasted in December that it alone had grown its housing stock to 450 units between 2016 and 2020 with its strategic plan delivering a more than doubling of its housing units over that period. The charity said it planned to add a minimum 100 further units this year.
The Peter Mc Verry Trust, Focus Ireland, The Simon community, De Paul and the myriad approved housing bodies are worth tens of millions. With tens of millions on deposit.
Not-for-profit does not indicate non-commercial. Scandalously, homelessness is a business like any other, except when it comes to accountability and transparency. Many of these entities have become fiefs in competition with each other for clients and real estate. One is reminded of the residential institutions and their greed to fill their institutions with the poor in order to make money per head
Homeless and housing charity empires have sprung up in the last 20 years without any proper independent oversight and governance. Vast sums of money and sprawling assets are under the control of these untouchables. What’s at play here is agency-capture as worthy intentions get corrupted by entanglements with conservative bureaucracy.
The saying goes that ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. It was a byword for many of our grandest institutions like the Catholic Church.
The CEOs of these institutions, the supposed charities, are on top dollar. They control huge resources and operate like corporations. In 2016 Ashley Balbirnie, CEO of Focus Ireland, drew a €115,000 salary for overseeing 327 staff with revenue of €19,596,418 in 2014. Kerry Anthony, CEO of Depaul Ireland, drew an €82,831 salary for overseeing, including in Northern Ireland, 325 staff and revenue of €12,923,195. Joyce Loughnan of Focus Ireland was drawing €125,000 in 2013. In 2014, Dublin Simon’s chief executive, Sam McGuinness, was on a salary of €93,338.
A 2018 survey by the Wheel suggested of all charities the homelessness ones paid their CEOs the most, with average salaries of over €80,000.
According to the Irish Times, in 2014 staff costs at the four main homeless agencies in the city absorbed all funds, and more, granted them by the State for the provision of homelessness services. Dublin Simon, the Peter McVerry Trust, Depaul Ireland and Focus Ireland received a total of €33.6 million in grants from State agencies in 2014, but spent €35.8 million on staff costs on the 875 people they employed in 2014.
As the canal banks fill up with tents and the footpaths with sleeping bags with no end of hand-wringing, anyone can slap on a hi-vis jacket and call themselves an outreach worker. Within a short space of time they can elevate themselves to becoming senior executives, or their own CEO.
The point is that the victims are always the poorest. The danger is institutionalisation Even though you may get housed, many find it difficult to exit the homelessness experience that is exploited by the charities who emotionally blackmail money from the government and the general public.
Take a look around Dublin City Centre in July 2020: at the long line of hungry, of sick, of homeless; and match that with the grand offices and coffers of all those self-appointed NGOs who wear the logo of social justice activism but actually seem to have in practice accepted that they are not going to achieve their ostensible agendas. It is amazing how difficult it is to follow what the official agendas are of many of these organisations. One of the reasons is that the actual agenda is to keep the crises running so they can remain in business. They contrive to make their tasks Sisyphean and their messages always Cassandran.
It is the ineptitude of the charities that strikes hardest. During the Apollo house circus of a few years back when we had celebrity priests and celebrity rock stars jumping about the place a couple of yards away from Apollo house, the McVerry Trust sat on a number of blocks of housing that were boarded up and empty. These were former family homes. Yet many of the Left, right-on, activists didn’t want to know about this uncomfortable truth because this was their big moment, this was their platform, their fake revolution and they were going to exploit everything they possibly could – to squeeze the poorest and most vulnerable for their propaganda value.
Have you ever asked yourself whatever happened to the thousands of Euros that the Apollo house Home Sweet Home took in?
The McVerry houses remain vacant to this day.
Avalon house on Aungier St was until recently occupied by a branch of Starbucks cafe and a backpackers’ hostel. A lease on the building was signed by the McVerry trust for an emergency accommodation shelter at a rent of €2 million per annum on a 20-year contract, for a building that’s not fit for purpose. At 150 beds, it would be the state’s largest homeless hostel. There was no tendering process and none of us in the City Council ever saw the contract. It was all cloak and dagger, until the local community found out, when there was an outcry and I initiated a High Court case. The Peter McVerry Trust backed down and has said it will provide a 25-family emergency hub instead. We are continuing our legal challenge against the project.
Or consider the case of the ‘Staircase’ building, a seventeenth-century restored registered National Monument, also on Aungier Street, at number 21. Around the year 2000 it was pressed into unauthorised use as a long-term hostel providing residential accommodation for the Immigration Service, and latterly to the Department of Justice as a step-down facility for young offenders. This use was in breach of the authorised guesthouse use. Work to convert the building into a homeless hostel was stopped on heritage grounds in 2017 following the intervention of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Three years later Dublin City Council is paying almost €200,000 a year to lease the empty building for an emergency homeless shelter. The Council said it was working with the McVerry Trust to market the building and hoped its “commitment to this property will cease in 2020”. Let’s hope.
The Catholic Housing Association (CHAS), now known as Cabhrú, simply evicted their elderly, frail long-term tenants at their Berkeley Road housing compound in Dublin 7. The tenants were duped out of their homes under a rather peculiar demolition/redevelopment scheme. No sooner were they gone than their homes were turned into a money-making racket for student accommodation.
Nobody listened to the elderly people. Nobody heard their distress or their trauma until it was too late. The former CEO of CHAS has stood down. Dublin City Council accepts all was not right here and the Charity regulator is conducting a full-blown investigation.
Approved housing bodies and housing charities have replaced local authorities as builders of social housing. It has all become too difficult for the Councils. They are not interested in the economic, social, or political problems of the communities of our inner cities or anywhere else.
We, in the City Council, get very little information on the acquisition of houses bought in the name of addressing homelessness. or other premises that are to be used as family hubs. The homeless are ghosted into these buildings in order to keep local communities and everyone else in the dark.
All they do is crunch the numbers and tell us that their ‘strategies are working going forward’ and the homeless housing list is falling.
But it’s not true.
Mannix Flynn is a Councillor for Dublin’s South East Inner City