Homelessness was always a winter story and affected individuals only. Now it’s an all-year narrative and the homeless are no longer just isolated individuals -although they are still there – but families, in all their forms and colour.
Our recent research for the Housing Agency report, ‘Family experiences of path- ways into homelessness – the families’perspective’, sheds some light on the causes,consequences and features of these unwelcome developments. The research was basedon interviews with a sample of 30 families,including a mixture of family types (couples and one-parent households with children of differing ages, as well as families from minority – Traveller and migrant – backgrounds).
The human story was com- pelling. Both of us, ‘seasoned’ researchers long involved in the homeless field, were shocked by the conditions and circumstances in which the families found themselves. Some were homeless for months, but for others it was years. We met families living for months in one room of a hotel. Others lived in damp basements and rooms, with heat turned on for only a few hours a day.
Most of the families we met no longer had possessions, apart from those they could put in a suitcase. They were broke, having used up whatever savings they had. Parents were distressed, despairing, humiliated – often eg under curfew – but absolutely determined to ensure their children survived the experience.
At a policy level there were clear findings. Almost all the families had lived in private rented accommodation: none were dispossessed mortgage-holders. Many had been in private rented accommodation that they liked, some in the same home, for long periods, whilst others moved around frequently.The problem was that this time, when they left or were evicted (the euphemistic term is ‘issued with a Notice of Termination’), they could not find an affordable alternative. They could not get back in. They typically called prospective landlords, or called door-to-door, 50, 60 times only to find the accommodation already gone, or, more likely, to be assailed with “no rent allowance here”.
For some, leaving or being evicted was a sudden and brutal process: eg a violent ex-partner turning up and causing trouble, a ratinvasion or the roof falling in. For the majority, though their departure was the landlord deciding to get more rent from tenants. For tenants told to leave, the one thing theyneeded more than anything else was a reference for the next landlord, so they did not argue. Campaigns for tenants to be ‘better informed’ of their ‘rights’, when they have almost none, overlook the inequality of power.
With little new housing built in recent years and a dearth of social housing, which can be traced to 1987, a previous austerity period and its cuts in spending on local authority housing, our rising population has put more pressure on accommodation. The bottom of the private rental market gets ‘squeezed’, and those on low incomes are squeezed out.
As demand rises, landlords know that they can charge more. Rents move higher and higher above the rent supplement levels that the Department of Social Protection pays, putting them out of reach of those on low incomes. The introduction of the Homeless Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) which permits a 20% increase in rent supplement marks a welcome recognition that rent supplement levels are no longer adequate.
The homeless families to whom we spoke had many ideas on how to solve the homelessness crisis, including the opening up of boarded-up local authority homes. For them(and we should listen), local authority accommodation was the ultimate solution, offering security, acceptable standards and affordable rent.
The Social Housing Strategy 2020 – a six-year plan to address social-housing needs – commits to the provision of 35,000 new social-housing units, over half (18,000 units) of which are due to come on stream by the end of 2017, with the remainder (17,000 units) scheduled for completion by the end of 2020 at a cost of €3.8bn.While the requirement is clearly immediate, a useful additional measure has been the introduction of a Ministerial direction which requires named local authorities to allocate up to half of available social housing units to homeless (and other special needs) households for the first six months of 2015. Notably, no-one we spoke to expected to get back to private rented accommodation, ever.
Kathy Walsh and Brian Harvey
Kathy Walsh is Director of KW Research and Associates Ltd, and an experienced social researcher and strategic thinker with expertise in equality and integration.