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Homelessness: Open letter to the Taoiseach from Mike Allen

Resources are the problem; and political will, and the delays associated with borrowing

Focus Ireland

9-12 High St

Dublin 8

Dear Taoiseach,

Last month, you were asked about a family with three children who narrowly avoided having to sleep rough on a bench in Mountjoy Square. You responded that “resources were not the problem” in addressing Ireland’s family homelessness crisis. Since then I have been talking to our front-line staff about whether this reflects their experience or the experience of the families they meet every day. I want to share those reflections with you.
For over three years now Focus Ireland has been warning that the problem of family homelessness was escalating at an alarming rate. If, say, €850 million had been invested in social housing then, what a difference it would now be making! Month on month over those three years the situation has become worse and worse.
When Focus Ireland, with local authority support, set up its ‘Family Homelessness New Presenters Team’ in 2012, there were 8 families becoming homeless each month. The number has doubled every twelve months. In July this year, 77 families became homeless, 70 of them for the first time.
Your Government, as part of its commitment to Housing First, funds through the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive (DRHE), a street ‘Intake’ team, run jointly by Focus Ireland and Peter McVerry Trust. During July alone this team intervened, late at night, to ensure that 19 families did not have to sleep rough. Only one of those cases got media attention, but all those children will remember that evening for the rest of their lives.
At regular intervals over that time, we have proposed specific and practical measures which would help stem the flow into homelessness: rent controls, rent supplement levels that reflect real market rents, measures to protect the tenancies where a buy-to-let is repossessed, tax reliefs for landlords, better cross-agency co-ordination, greater urgency on the social housing building programme, and so on. Most of these proposals have featured in ‘action lists’ from Ministers, but few of them have turned into action.
People want to know, if lack of resources was not the reason you ignored our warnings, what was the reason?
It might be useful to let you know what the situation looks like to one mother, Louise who has two children. She has just lost her home because her landlord’s property was repossessed by his bank and they want to sell the house. She was paying her rent, a good bit more than the Rent Supplement people were willing to give her. As a result of stretching her income too far, she has no savings to pay a deposit and months rent in advance. She can’t find anywhere else to live.
She brings her two children down to the one-stop shop in Parkgate Street. There they sit and wait to meet an official who will assess her claim to be homeless.  She and other families share the crowded waiting area with other desperate people who have active drug and mental health problems and whose behavior is erratic and upsetting for her children. There are no facilities for children. She has nothing against the people with drug addictions, but wants to protect her young children from this side of life.
Eventually she gets to meet an official and makes her case. Her circumstances are clear cut and she has the paperwork to show what happened. They assess her as being ‘homeless’ and accept that she and her children have nowhere to stay tonight. The official tells her that the local authority will pay for a hotel room but she has to find it herself. They call it ‘self-accommodation’.
It can take several hours of phone calls to hotels to secure a room for the family, and, with many other individuals and families still waiting in the queue to be assessed, the DRHE official explains she does not have that time. Louise is tired, fearful, and vulnerable. She has no experience booking hotel rooms. But now she has to find her own room for the night, while she is grateful that DRHE will pay for it.
Surely, if ‘resources were no problem’, the Government would have made sure that there was emergency accommodation for her and her family? They would have block-rented rooms. What about those NAMA hotels? Surely if there was enough resources the hard pressed DRHE official would have had time to ensure Louise had a room before she was back out on the street. Surely, if resources were no problem, someone would have arranged a decent space with a few phones in it, and a place for the children to play, where she could go and ring the hotels. If it was not a matter of ‘resources’ would the DRHE official really just tell her to look after herself?
Louise is back out on the street then, calling hotels from her mobile while she tries to keep her children from crying. Now they need to be fed. She heads down to the Focus Ireland Coffee Shop where the staff will give her the use of a phone or make the calls themselves if they have the time. You remember the Coffee Shop, Taoiseach? You came down there three years ago and commented on the good work we were doing.
Imagine that small place, the front area filled up with folded buggies and several families stuck there for hours making calls and getting desperate. If no hotel can be found by closing time at 5 o’clock, the staff stay on, sometimes for hours, to help. Eventually they have to hand over to the night time staff – the intake team run jointly by Focus Ireland and Peter McVerry Trust.
If resources were not a problem, she would not have to wait until ten o’clock that night before she gets a room confirmed. If resources were not a problem, she would not have to start all over again in Parkgate Street the following day because the hotel only had the room for one night?
But Louise’s experience in homeless services is only the tip of the iceberg. She lost her home because nothing has been done to protect the tenants of buy-to-let landlords who are repossessed. She had no resources to secure a new flat because of the refusal to increase rent supplement to match market rent. At the heart of her problem is that there is a shortage of the most fundamental resource of any decent society – affordable homes for its people.
That brings me back to the €850 million I mentioned. You could build over 4,000 homes with that. The reason the Government did not invest that sort of money in housing in 2014 was because of … well, lack of resources. It was unthinkable to have that sort of debt on the Government books, you said.
Yes, you did introduce all sorts of borrowing and lending schemes in late 2014, but the amount of money you actually put on the table with the instruction to ‘get building!’ was tiny. Borrowing and lending take time and you can’t issue an instruction to anyone to build if you want them to have the loan on their books at the end of the day. So the 4,000 homes did not get started.
Now, I didn’t just pick the figure of €850 million out of thin air. You may recognise it. It is the amount of borrowing that has now landed on the Government books as a result of the Irish Water debacle. We all heard that the entire Government agreed that suddenly having that new debt on the books turned out to be no problem at all. We wonder why it was such a problem to borrow it in 2014, so that Louise, the 550 other families in emergency accommodation and the thousands in overcrowded insecure housing, could have had a secure home?
So it does appear that you are right. The problem is not lack of resources. The problem is the political priorities and competence with which resources are deployed. There is one thing that you need to know. For Louise and her children, sitting tonight in a hotel room where the fridge has been taken out to prevent her cooking for her kids, worrying about how she is to get her children to school next week, wondering home many months or years she will have to live like this, resources really are a problem.
When Louise hears you say that they are not a problem she feels you are out of touch with her life and whatever hope your leadership has brought her in the past is extinguished.

Yours sincerely,

Mike Allen, Director of Advocacy in Focus Ireland