Home: Dream or Possibility? Challenges for the Homeless Services

on Monday, 13 June 2005. Posted in Issue 50 Housing the New Ireland, 2005

Peter McVerry, SJ
June 2005

Introduction

The evaluation of existing plans and services for homeless people currently being undertaken by the independent review of 1 provides an opportunity to reflect on the progress that has been made in recent years in addressing homelessness in Dublin and to highlight the significant challenges that are still ahead if the aim of eliminating homelessness in the capital by 2010 is to be realised.

In many respects, there have been significant improvements in the quality and range of services available to homeless people in Dublin since 2001. In particular, there has been a huge increase in the use of B&B accommodation (while the details are not published to avoid stigmatising those B&Bs which provide services to homeless people, one private landlord is estimated to be earning well over €1 million per year from the provision of B&B accommodation to homeless people). Dublin\'s first \'wet hostel\' has been opened, so that homeless drinkers who are unable, for whatever reason, to leave behind their drink in order to access accommodation for the night, now have a hostel where they can bring in drink with them. There has been the provision of new, bright, and cheerful premises to replace old and dreary ones and the opening of a hostel for sixteen to twenty-one year olds. Other significant advances are the ready availability of good quality training courses for staff working with homeless people and an emphasis on quality standards, subject to evaluation, in services for homeless people. This list is not by any means exhaustive, but it gives a flavour of the improvements that have taken place in services for homeless people in Dublin.

A key factor in bringing about these improvements is undoubtedly the Homeless Agency. Established as part of the Government strategy on homelessness, the Homeless Agency is responsible for the overall management and coordination of services to people who are homeless in the Dublin area, for the delivery of funding to services in the homeless sector, and for the implementation of agreed action plans towards achieving the goal of eliminating homelessness by 2010. The Agency is a partnership structure, bringing together the voluntary and statutory agencies responsible for the planning, funding and delivery of services to people who are homeless.

The first Action Plan produced by the Homeless Agency, , covered the period 2001-20032 and stated the intention of the Agency to eliminate homelessness in Dublin by 2010.The Homeless Agency\'s second Action Plan, Making it Home, covers the period 2004-20063. Its focus is on the prevention of homelessness, early intervention and settlement into permanent accommodation as distinct from living in hostels.

Despite the progress that has undoubtedly been made, my experience of providing hostel accommodation for homeless young people shows that there remain several major concerns.

Accommodation for Single Men
When it comes to providing accommodation, there is, appropriately, a hierarchy within the ranks of homeless people: adults with children clearly have the highest priority, single homeless females come next as they are more vulnerable and, finally,
single homeless males.

With the expansion of B&B
facilities, the number of people who cannot access emergency accommodation has dropped considerably. Some nights, there are actually empty beds in some of the emergency hostels for
single homeless men. However, the reason for this has to be carefully analysed.

There are a considerable number of hostels for homeless people in Dublin, some of them catering for people with special needs, such as mental health problems, and many of them very sought after. They provide excellent accommodation, on a long-term basis. Hence, vacancies do not arise very often; when they do, there are far more applications than can be catered for. As a result, these hostels have waiting lists, sometimes long waiting lists.

If I, as a single man, become homeless today, and seek accommodation from the Homeless Persons Unit in the Dublin area through its dedicated free phone number, 1800-724-724, I will usually be referred to one of two emergency hostels. Both these hostels provide accommodation in dormitories, on a first come, first served basis. One of them also has single rooms but they are in high demand and a person normally has to be resident in the dormitory section for a period of several months before they would qualify for a single room. These hostels cater for all-comers, including chronic drug users, career criminals and disturbed people. This is not a criticism of the hostels, as everyone is entitled to accommodation and it is to the great credit of the management and staff of these hostels that they can cope with this very difficult end of the homeless spectrum. But there are three categories of single homeless males who often refuse to accept a place in these hostels.

People who are drug-free
These homeless people may be reluctant to go into a hostel situation where drugs are being used and where drugs may be offered to them. They may, themselves, have been drug-users in the past and are trying to remain drug-free, or they may never have used hard drugs but find themselves under pressure to \'belong\' or to experiment. For their own health and safety, and with concerns for their future, they often refuse an offer of a bed in such a hostel. Refusal to accept accommodation in a hostel will result in their unemployment assistance payments being stopped, as they now have no address (an address is a requirement for welfare payments, although with people\'s details and payment history now available on computer to welfare staff, it is difficult to see the rationale for this requirement). They may end up living on the street, penniless.

People who have been
sexually abused as children

Many homeless men whom I know who have been sexually abused as children, are, reasonably enough, afraid to sleep in a dormitory with strangers. They talk of breaking out in sweats at the very thought of it, and of staying awake all night out of fear. This is not to suggest that their dormitory companions would, in fact, interfere sexually with them (though it may occasionally happen) but their state of mind is one where sleeping in the company of strangers brings back memories and fears. These homeless people prefer the streets to a hostel.

People who are not streetwise
Some young homeless people are very vulnerable and find living with others who have been long-term homeless, with behaviour difficulties or addictions, very frightening. Some homeless people prey on the more vulnerable and I have heard allegations of being robbed in the dormitory, sometimes at knife-point, and of being pressured into using drugs. Some sleep with their runners under their pillow to ensure that they will still have them in the morning. These vulnerable homeless people also feel more secure on the street than in the hostels.

There is no adequate system for assessing the needs of homeless people who seek emergency accommodation and for providing them with accommodation that is to their situation. The only information a person is required to give is their name and date of birth, and they are then allocated a hostel bed, if one is available.

B&B accommodation is much sought-after by homeless people as an alternative to hostels. While the number of places in B&Bs has expanded significantly and at enormous cost (money which, it could be argued, would be more effectively used by providing a direct provision service rather than private, for-profit, accommodation), priority is clearly given to homeless adults with children and to homeless females. Single homeless males may access B&B accommodation if they can provide medical evidence that hostels are not suitable for their needs, but otherwise they find it very difficult to avoid the hostel circuit.

Move-on Accommodation

A person who becomes homeless needs emergency accommodation. If they have other difficulties, such as addictions, behaviour problems or emotional or psychological problems requiring specialist help, they may require a period of time in a hostel to stabilise their life, begin to heal the hurts they have experienced and learn the skills they will need for independent living. However, there obviously comes a time when such a person needs to move beyond their dependency on the hostel and begin to live a more independent life. Unfortunately, they will then encounter the chronic shortage of suitable move-on accommodation.

There are three options for a person trying to move out of hostel dwelling - local authority, private rented, and voluntary housing sector accommodation - but in each case provision does not meet need.

Local authority housing
During the late 1980s and early 1990s the number of local authority housing units being built dropped sharply, because of the crisis in the public finances. Furthermore, there was a very successful effort made to sell local authority housing, at very attractive prices, to sitting tenants both to raise money and to reduce expenditure on maintenance. Thus the housing waiting lists grew from 17,600 in 1988 to 28,600 in 1993. Due to the obscene increase in the cost of housing, the numbers on the waiting lists grew further to 48,400 in 2002. Homeless adults with children have found themselves waiting longer and longer in B&B accommodation before they can access local authority housing. Single homeless people, who are at the bottom of the waiting lists, have more chance of winning the Lotto than getting a local authority home.

Private rented
As the possibility of obtaining a local authority home grew less and less, many formerly homeless people sought independent accommodation in the private rented sector. This was possible through the provision, by the then Department of Social Welfare, of a rent supplement. Rent supplement was originally intended to help people over a crisis; for example, if someone was in employment and living in private rented accommodation but suddenly found themselves out of work for whatever reason, rent supplement was a way of ensuring that they did not find themselves also out of a home. However, for people who were long-term dependent on social welfare (due to prolonged unemployment or lone parenthood, for example) rent allowance became a necessary on-going supplement to their income. Meantime, the possibility of their obtaining local authority housing, which could offer rented accommodation at a rent related to their income, receded as local authority housing provision declined and waiting lists grew longer and longer. As a result, more and more people needed rent supplements for longer and longer periods of time, some of them permanently. Between 1994 and 2004 the numbers availing of rent supplement grew from 30,000 to 57,500. At the same time, the cost of renting grew obscenely, in line with the cost of housing, and so the Department of Social and Family Affairs found itself spending enormous amounts of money (€354 million in 2004) supplementing rents in the private sector for people who could not get local authority accommodation - with no asset accruing to the State for this enormous expenditure. This unplanned expansion meant that the private rented sector had become a vital strand of Irish housing policy. The Department of Social and Family Affairs rebelled, and told the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government that it was no longer prepared to do its job for it. The money would be much better spent on investing in social housing, through which the State would acquire valuable housing stock for its money, taxpayers would see their taxes invested in tangible public goods which benefit society and tenants would get secure, affordable accommodation from landlords who are accountable. So, in 2002, the Department of Social and Family Affairs introduced a ceiling on the amount of rent a tenant could agree to pay and still be eligible for rent supplement, thus condemning single applicants for the supplement to the grottiest bedsits in the private sector. In 2003, the Department brought in restrictions that made it very difficult for most new applicants to get a rent supplement at all. Homeless people are exempt from the curtailment in entitlement to rent supplement but they are still subject to the cap on the rent level allowed for the supplement.

While homeless people have, in theory, access to private rented accommodation, in reality they will find it extremely difficult to obtain a suitable place to live. Since March 2004, the voluntary organisation, Threshold, has carried out a survey every three months to establish the actual availability of rented accommodation in the Dublin area that would be suitable for single people dependent on rent supplement. For each survey, Threshold has made enquiries about every bedsit advertised over a two-week period - bedsits being the cheapest form of private rented accommodation for a person on their own. In April 2005, for example, 126 besits were advertised, but just 52 were at or below the rent cap of €115 per week. In only twelve of these cases were landlords willing to accept a tenant who was relying on rent supplement, and of these landlords nine were unwilling to accept male tenants. Of the remaining three bedsits, two were not self-contained (as may be required to receive rent supplement). Therefore, of the 126 bedsits advertised during the fortnight, just one was suitable for a single man dependent on rent supplement.4

{mosimage}The reality, then, is that private rented accommodation for single homeless people is difficult to get, and most of it is of very poor quality and guaranteed to depress you. This is a particularly significant drawback for people who have overcome serious problems in their life, such as alcohol or drug addiction or who have problems such as mental health. Moving into a small, damp, depressing bedsit is not conducive to their ongoing and difficult efforts to recover. Further, qualifying for rent supplement entails going through a set of administrative hoops which requires great determination and some people just get fed up going from one office to another, in different parts of the city, to get a plethora of forms stamped before they can even make their application. Most importantly of all, however, people in the private rented sector could, until recently, be evicted with one month\'s notice, even through no fault of their own. In many cases, they would be told to leave within 24 hours and if they failed to do so, the landlord waited until they went out and then changed the locks on the doors, leaving all their belongings in the garden. Although this was completely illegal, there was nothing the tenant could do. Theoretically, he or she could begin court proceedings to vindicate their rights, but that was not going to get them accommodation that night - which was their priority - and it was not a course of action that the now homeless person would be likely to have the self-confidence to undertake. Moreover, the landlord would frequently refuse to refund the deposit paid, so that the person now had no deposit for alternative private rented accommodation. Under the Residential Tenancies Act 2004, people in private rented accommodation who have been renting for six months will have security of tenure for a further three and a half years (except in specified circumstances), which is a major improvement. No doubt some landlords will exercise their right to evict after five months!

While homeless people still have some chance of accessing private rented accommodation, that possibility is now closed off to others who need it. For example, a person who successfully completes a residential drug treatment programme, and returns to the community drug-free, may have no safe place to live. They can physically return home, but home may also be home to drug-using brothers or sisters, or even parents. Such a situation guarantees that they will return to using drugs. Or they may owe money to local drug dealers arising from the months of drug use prior to entering treatment, and to return to their own neighbourhood guarantees that they will have to either rob or sell drugs to repay the money, or else they will end up in hospital or the morgue. We in the Aruppe Society frequently get requests from drug treatment centres
asking if we can provide drug-free accommodation for someone who is due shortly to be discharged and has nowhere safe to go, and while we have two such houses, we cannot meet the demand.

Voluntary sector housing
Until the 1990s, voluntary housing associations had been very insignificant players in the provision of accommodation, unlike Britain where they are a major provider of accommodation for low-income households. Now, however, they provide 14,000 accommodation units, much of it for people with special needs, such as the elderly or people with disabilities, but there has been a significant increase also in provision for homeless people. Organisations such as Focus Ireland and Respond offer accommodation, both transitional and permanent, to homeless people but the scale of demand ensures that long waiting lists often apply.

Prevention of Homelessness
Given that private rented accommodation is the only realistic option (apart from hostels) for someone who needs to, or has to, move out of their present accommodation, the requirement to prove that you cannot remain where you are, and that you have no other option open to you, in order to qualify for rent supplement, makes it extremely difficult for many people to leave what may be an unsafe housing situation. A 19 year old girl who is been sexually abused by her father, a person who is being beaten by the partner with whom they live, a person who wishes to leave the family home because of the stress of living with alcoholic parents, or an elderly person whose relationship with their partner breaks down, for example, must convince the Community Welfare Officer of the danger to themselves, or the total unsuitability, of remaining in their accommodation. They may be considered for rent supplement if they provide written confirmation of their situation. From the point of view of the Community Welfare Officer, this is necessary as he or she has no way of knowing whether the person applying is telling the truth, or is instead looking for a pad to live in with the boy/girlfriend whom they met at a party last night and now want to live with for the rest of their lives. However, it may be impossible, and usually embarrassing, for someone to provide written confirmation of sexual or physical assault by a family member. Hence they become homeless, because that is the one way they can become eligible for rent supplement. But this means joining the hostel scene with all the dangers which that may pose and the loss of self-esteem which accompanies it.

One of the key objectives of the Homeless Agency\'s Action Plan for 2004-2006, , is the prevention of homelessness. Yet it appears that the Department of Social and Family Affairs is acting directly contrary to that objective, by implementing regulations that may lead to homelessness.

Homelessness and Housing Policy
Clearly, homelessness is related to the housing options open to poor people. There are no consistent or joined-up policies in relation to housing. The focus of housing policy is on the private market sector, trying to ensure that people who vote (or at least some of them) are not totally priced out of the housing market (while at the same time making sure that builders and speculators can continue making exorbitant profits and contribute to the party funds). Although there has been a housing crisis for poor people since the mid-1980s, there was no concern expressed or action taken by Government. Only when the crisis began to affect middle-class people from the mid-1990s onwards was any action taken. Then we had a flurry of reports, most noticeably three Bacon reports. A whole new category of housing came into being: previously there was \'social housing\' and \'private housing\', but now there is also \'affordable housing\'. Most of the concern now for people who are unable to enter the private housing market is focused on \'affordable housing\' with \'social housing\' being pushed even further to the margins. Indeed, in the ten years up to 2004, some 9,000 units of social housing, for which Government had allocated the money, were not provided by local authorities, as the money was diverted to other projects. In 1960, just 50 per cent of all housing output was for private housing, the rest was for social housing; today, 90 per cent is for private housing. The encouragement to tenants of social housing to purchase their homes
continues apace, so that there are now fewer social housing units available to poor people in the State than there were in 1966.
The social housing sector is patently incapable of providing, at any time in the foreseeable future, for those on low incomes who require housing, including the homeless. Yet at the same time, the only other avenue to accommodation - private rented - is becoming increasingly difficult to access.

The one bright light in the area of social housing is the increased provision by housing associations, though they still remain a minor player in the housing arena. However, while Government funding is readily available for the capital cost of providing accommodation, it remains extremely difficult, sometimes impossible, to get funding to cover running costs, including salaries for staff. This makes organisations very hesitant to provide accommodation for people who require support, as the funding to pay for that support may not materialise. One of the emphases in the Homeless Agency\'s new Action Plan, , is on the need to provide appropriate support for homeless people who secure their own accommodation, as the failure to do so often ensures that they are unable to sustain their tenancy in either the private rented sector or the local authority sector. This will require establishing policies and structures for ensuring that voluntary organisations can access funding to pay support staff, as no such policies now exist, except on an ad-hoc basis.

Homeless People with Mental Health Problems

In the Aruppe Society we are increasingly dealing with young homeless adults with mental health problems and finding it, almost always, impossible to access any sort of adequate mental health service. Some of these young people had been children in the care of the health boards, where services were so hopelessly inadequate (particularly for those homeless children who had special needs) that they have now become homeless adults with a significantly increased mental health problem. Although our hostel for homeless adults is primarily for those with an addiction, we find ourselves having to provide accommodation for people without an addiction but with mental health problems, as the alternative for them would be the streets. Not only is our hostel inappropriate for such homeless people but we find it extremely difficult to access psychiatric services which can help them, and us, to cope with their health problems. Without such help, homeless people with mental health problems are incapable of living independently and are consigned to hostels and the street for much of their lives.

A further issue arises where a person with a mental health problem also has an addiction. In our experience, the psychiatric services just don\'t want to know. The person\'s problem is identified as, at source, an addiction problem and they are referred to the addiction services. Due to their mental health problems, the addiction services may not be able to cope with their behaviour or their capacity to maintain a regular programme at the addiction services is impaired. While it is difficult to access adequate services for homeless people with only a mental health problem, it is well nigh impossible to access any mental health service for homeless people who also have an addiction problem.

Increased cooperation between the Homeless Agency (through the multi-disciplinary team) and the psychiatric services needs to develop in order to address the problems of homeless people who have mental health and/or addiction problems. However, cooperation alone will not result in an adequate service. The psychiatric services available to poor people generally are hopelessly inadequate and under-funded. Significantly increased funding and a re-structuring of the psychiatric services will be required if these needs are to be adequately addressed.

The target of eliminating homelessness in Dublin by 2010 is a very ambitious one. It can be achieved, but only if considerably more resources are made available, integrated housing strategies are developed, an immediate expansion in local authority housing is undertaken and voluntary housing associations are provided with on-going funding to enable them to support those to whom they provide accommodation.

Recommendations

  • All emergency accommodation should be in single rooms; dormitory accommodation should be phased out as quickly as possible.
  • A greater range of emergency accommodation options should be available, so that the needs of young, vulnerable, or drug-free single males can be met.
    l The recommendation of NESC that an additional 73,000 units of social housing should be provided over the next eight years should be implemented5, and local authorities should consider the needs of single homeless people when planning their social housing starts.
  • An integrated \'social\' housing strategy comprising local authority housing, voluntary housing associations and private rented housing should be expanded.
  • The capacity of voluntary housing associations to expand provision should be recognised and supported, in particular by significantly increasing funding for support services and staff.
  • A review of the psychiatric services available to low-income people needs to be undertaken by the Health Service Executive and increased resources provided to improve radically the service on which homeless people - as well as others - depend.


References
1. This article is an expanded version of a February 2005 submission by the Arrupe Society to the independent review of , Dublin: Department of the Environment and Local Government, 2000.
2. Homeless Agency (2001) : Homeless Agency.
3. Homeless Agency (2004) : Homeless Agency.
4. Threshold Access Housing Unit Bedsit Survey.
5. NESC (2005), , Dublin: National Economic and Social Council (Report No. 112).