Homes not Hostels: Rethinking Homeless Policy
Peter McVerry SJ, Executive Director of the Peter McVerry Trust, which provides accommodation and care for homeless young people
Eoin Carroll, Advocacy and Social Policy Research Officer with the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice
Most homeless people simply want a place they can call home. Some need varying levels of support to enable them to keep a home. But a key to their own front door is the symbol of the desires of homeless people.
Our failure to provide suitable, permanent accommodation for homeless people has necessitated the development of a complex labyrinth of services to cater for the needs of people, some of whom remain homeless, year after year, becoming increasingly damaged and frustrated. The consequence is that it becomes more and more difficult to meet their needs – which then leads to a further expansion and specialisation of homeless services.
This article is not a criticism of these services (some of which are provided by one of the authors!) or of the commitment and professionalism of most of the staff in the services, but it is a criticism of the lack of political will to provide suitable, permanent accommodation for those who are poor, including those who are homeless. The article also challenges the conventional wisdom that this multiplicity of homeless services is necessary.
Simon Brooke, in an excellent review of staffing in homeless services (published in 2005),1 identified 57 organisations which were employing 800 staff in 140 projects to meet the needs of 2,500 homeless people nationally. However, it should be noted that the study looked only at homeless people accommodated in mainstream services, therefore excluding rough sleepers, B&B accommodation, and other inappropriate forms of accommodation. If responses to this wider group (estimated to be at least another 2,500.2) are included, the range of services is even greater.
The total statutory budget for homeless services, provided by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the health authorities in 2005 was €81.2 million (excluding capital costs).3
Homeless Services in Dublin
It is in Dublin that homeless services have been most developed, under the watchful eye of the Homeless Agency. The Homeless Agency was established to take responsibility for the management and coordination of services for people who are homeless in the Dublin area. It has very successfully developed services to fill gaps which existed, raised standards in the services it funds, and ensured better coordination between services, both statutory and voluntary. In short, homeless people in Dublin today get a better quality of service than ever before, thanks largely to the existence and commitment of the Homeless Agency.
There are about 2,000 homeless people in Dublin.4 To meet their needs, there is an array of forums and consultative committees, as well as various statutory and non-statutory projects and support programmes. These include:
- The Board of the Homeless Agency, consisting of about fourteen persons drawn from a wide variety of agencies. This Board meets six times a year. (The Board proposes plans to the Cross Departmental Team, Local Authority Strategic Policy Committees and Councils, the Health Service Executive and other statutory agencies.)
- A Consultative Forum, consisting of twenty-seven persons, drawn from a wide variety of agencies. This Forum meets four times a year. Its role is to advise the Homeless Agency, monitor its action plans and develop partnership between organisations and sectors.
- Eight ‘Local Forums’ (five in the Dublin City Council area, and three in Fingal, Dun Laoghaire–Rathdown and South County Dublin), again with some twenty people each, who meet regularly to consider issues and services relating to homelessness at a local level.
- Several Neighbourhood Forums, such as Ballymun Homeless Network, which meet regularly and which feed into the Local Forums.
- Nine networks, co-ordinated by the Homeless Agency, to identify issues in relation to specific areas of homelessness.
- Six working groups, commissioned by the Homeless Agency to address particular issues in relation to homelessness.
- The Homeless Network, an umbrella group of about twenty-one voluntary organisations working with homeless people, which feeds into the Consultative Forum.
- Sixty projects, employing about 700 people, including volunteers.
In addition, national level structures include:
- A Cross Departmental Team on Homelessness, consisting of ten representatives from various government departments and statutory organisations. The team reports directly to the Cabinet Sub Committee on Social Inclusion. The Homeless Agency also makes six-monthly reports to the Sub Committee.
- A National Homeless Consultative Committee (NHCC), consisting of twelve representatives from government departments, statutory and voluntary sector organisations. Established in April 2007, the purpose of the NHCC is to facilitate homeless service providers in making an input into the next government homeless strategy.
The statutory budget for homeless services in Dublin amounts to approximately €54 million per annum.5
This sum is the equivalent of spending €74 per homeless person per day over the course of a year. In comparison, the daily mortgage repayment for a first-time buyer (assuming an average house price of €270,0006) would be €46.22.7
Most voluntary organisations in the sector also engage in significant levels of fund-raising to meet their needs, adding perhaps a further €10 million to the budget for homeless services.
Yet, despite all this colossal activity and substantial expenditure, many homeless people remain homeless, year after year.
Is there an alternative?
Permanent Housing with Support
The core shortcoming of present homeless services is encapsulated in the statement: ‘When someone is “accommodated” be it in emergency, B&B or transitional accommodation, they are still homeless.’8 Our response to homelessness cannot be compartmentalised into some distinct set of policy measures, separate from housing policy generally. Instead, homelessness policy needs to be integrated into overall housing policy and housing for homeless people needs to be incorporated into mainstream housing provision. Rather than focusing on the complexities of homelessness, we need first and foremost to recognise that: ‘the primary need to someone who is homeless is housing’9 and to acknowledge that the provision of housing should be the central focus of homeless policy.
A shift away from the provision of hostel and other dedicated types of accommodation for homeless people to permanent ‘normal’ accommodation, in the community, with suitable supports, is gaining favour in some other countries.
If such a shift in policy were to occur in this country, it would eliminate the need for many of the projects currently serving homeless people. Resources could then be concentrated on deploying a skilled and professional group of people who would provide a range of supports to assist (formerly homeless) people with their social and life issues.
The Midlands Simon Community Regional Settlement Service is a positive example of where the primary focus is the provision of appropriate long-term accommodation.10 The Settlement Service has taken an inter-agency approach by creating a partnership with the Health Service Executive, local authorities, other statutory agencies, homeless fora and voluntary agencies. The Service aims to support a move out of homelessness by:
- Assisting people to secure suitable accommodation;
- Supporting people to move into their new home;
- Providing support to people to enable them to maintain their new home.
Within the first year of the Community Regional Settlement Service, over half (thirty-seven) of its referrals resulted in service users being provided with appropriate, and in most instances long-term, accommodation.11
Obstacles to a Shift in Policy
Lack of Social Housing
Of the several obstacles to a shift in policy, the foremost is the dire shortage of suitable mainstream accommodation. Report after report on homeless services identifies the failure to provide appropriate long-term accommodation as the primary factor that keeps people homeless and prevents any significant progress in reducing homelessness. During the past twelve years of unprecedented economic growth and surplus government revenues, the neglect of the Government to invest in an adequate expansion of social housing has been one of its most inexcusable failures.
In the eleven years from 1996 to 2006 an average of 5,35712 social housing units were provided each year. However, when the sale of social housing units (yearly average of 1,837)13, and the demolition of others, is taken into account, only around 3,400 net social housing units per year were provided.
The lack of foresight and commitment in relation to investing in public housing has resulted in a colossal need for social housing. In recognition of this, the December 2004 National Economic and Social Council (NESC) report on housing recommended that 73,000 new social housing units should be provided in the eight-year period 2005–2012, a yearly average of 9,000.14 (Achieving this figure would require a gross increase of at least 10,850 new social houses, in order to allow for continued sales and demolitions of local authority houses.) In the two years following the NESC report, social housing provision was much lower than the recommended 9,000 net new units: in 2005, 6,477 units of social housing were built or purchased; in 2006, the figure was 6,361. Since, however, as sales of local authority housing were 1,738 in 2005 and 1,855 in 2006,15 the net increase was much lower.
The actual commitment made by Government in relation to social housing provision is, in fact, to a significantly lower level of output than that recommended by NESC. The National Development Plan, published in January 2007, envisages the building of 8,600 gross new social housing units each year over the next seven years (amounting to an estimated 7,400 net new social housing units each year over that period).16 This is 2,000 (18 per cent) fewer houses per year than was recommended by NESC. Yet it is significantly more than has been achieved over the last seven years. It remains to be seen whether this target will actually be met, given how previous projections for increased provision remained unrealised and given also the fact that only 3,167 units of social housing were completed in the first six months of 2007.17
The failure to invest in social housing has left local authorities with competing demands for an inadequate supply of social housing from a range of groups all of whom have pressing housing needs. The most recent data show that in 2005 there were 43,700 households nationally waiting for social housing.18 On the waiting lists, the needs of homeless people (75 per cent of whom are single) vie with those of families living in hopelessly inappropriate or overcrowded accommodation. Dublin City Council, to its credit, allocates one-third of its lettings to homeless people. But most local authorities leave homeless people at the bottom of their housing waiting lists for years on end.
Reliance on the Private Rented Sector
Government policy is still focusing on providing ‘accommodation solutions’ through the private sector rather than making a firm commitment to increasing the stock of social housing. The Rent Supplement Scheme – originally devised as a short-term income maintenance scheme to assist households experiencing temporary difficulties in paying their rent, as a result of, for example, the loss of a job – now provides accommodation support for 53,000 households, accounting for one third of all households receiving state housing assistance.19 The majority (in excess of 70 per cent) of Rent Supplement recipients have long-term housing needs, and may or may not be on the housing waiting list.
Even as a short-term solution to housing need, the Rent Supplement Scheme is failing in significant ways – for example, a considerable proportion of landlords will not accept tenants who are on Rent Supplement and the level of payment has not been indexed to keep pace with the general increase in rents.20
In a supposed cost-saving exercise – and also to improve standards and provide increased security to tenants in the private rented sector – the Government has developed the Rental Accommodation Scheme (RAS). Through RAS, a local authority can lease accommodation with private landlords and then sub-let it to persons in need of housing. The property is then classified as being part of public housing provision! A contractual agreement between the local authority and private landlord lasts between four and twenty years. It is envisaged that 30,000 households will move from Rent Supplement to the Rental Accommodation Scheme. It needs to be asked: Is this cost effective in the long term or would it be more efficient to invest in direct public provision of housing? The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report, Rent Supplements, declares:
‘This [decision] is analogous to the choice households with sufficient income may make in choosing to rent or buy’21
The choice, we suggest, that nearly all households would make would be to buy. This example of the Government’s apparently ferocious appetite for private sector solutions to public policy needs was introduced without any prior comprehensive economic and social analysis. The Comptroller and Auditor’s report states that while the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government ‘has carried out some analysis of the relative cost of renting and investing in social housing’ no specific targets have been set in relation to the savings to be achieved and that ‘there is no easy way to determine which is more cost efficient’.22
A further obstacle to a major shift in overall homeless policy is the attitude of communities. Experience shows that there will be resistance from local communities to proposals to accommodate homeless people in their midst. The resistance will be even greater in the case of proposals regarding those homeless people who have personal issues such as addictions, mental health problems, personality disorders or behaviour problems, even if such people are receiving intensive support with these issues. Indeed, this latter group, a minority of homeless people, are more likely to be evicted from local authority accommodation than offered it! And there are not too many private landlords who will be enthusiastic about providing them with rented accommodation. However, evidence from other countries shows that this difficult group, with suitable, sometimes intensive, support, can be sustained in their own accommodation without creating problems for their neighbours.
There is the additional obstacle of the reluctance of many local authorities to stand firm in the face of opposition from the community to the allocation of tenancies to homeless people. This reluctance can be rationalised by saying that homeless people with issues such as addiction, mental health or behaviour problems are not suitable for ‘normal’ housing and must address their problems before they can be considered for such. They therefore require temporary housing in order to allow them time for stabilisation. This policy ensures that they remain on the margins of society. It fails to recognise that the vast majority of the 15,000 heroin users, for example, are, in fact, living in ‘normal’ accommodation, with family or friends, and can maintain that accommodation with their support and the support of their doctor, clinic or counsellor. Similarly, the vast majority of people with mental health problems are living in ‘normal’ accommodation with support from family, friends and professional medical services. Furthermore, it fails to recognise that it is extremely difficult for homeless people to address their problems if they remain consigned to the margins and have no safe and secure place in which to live – indeed, in these circumstances, their problems are only likely to get worse.
This article proposes a shift away from meeting the needs of homeless people in ‘supported housing’, of varying types, to meeting their needs in ‘housing with support’. Instead of their housing being temporary and their supports being more or less permanent, their housing would be permanent and their supports could be more or less temporary, depending on their needs.
In this regard, Ireland has much to learn from developments in other countries. In his report, Simon Brooke refers to the ‘Pathways to Housing’ project in New York City: this moves homeless people with addictions and psychiatric disabilities directly from the streets into permanent housing.23 Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) teams then deliver services to these formerly homeless people, in their own homes. Research has shown that this approach is more successful in getting homeless people out of homelessness, and keeping them out of homelessness, than conventional services, of the type we typically use in Ireland.
Another example is the transformation in the use of the Prince George, once the most fashionable hotel in Manhattan, New York. When it closed, it fell into disrepair. It was totally renovated, back to its former glory, in 1999, and re-opened to provide accommodation for 416 people, half of them formerly homeless, and half of them working, but on low incomes that would make it difficult for them to pay for suitable accommodation. All rooms are self-contained and en-suite. Tenants pay a differential rent, related to their income. On the ground floor of the hotel is a range of services, such as addiction services, mental health services and welfare and advice services, which are open, Monday to Saturday, to all tenants. Also available are workshops on, for example, money management, nutritional cooking, yoga and painting; a monthly dentistry service arrives in a dentist van. The hotel has a state-of-the-art security system and a 24-hour laundry. It has a 95 per cent success rate. The running costs of the project are US$22 per person per night.24
The Need for a Social Housing Boom
The Homeless Agency’s Action Plan and the current Social Partnership Agreement, Towards 2016, have set as goals the elimination of the need for anyone to sleep rough and the ending of long-term homelessness: these goals are to be achieved by 2010.25 The Action Plan acknowledges that ‘the most fundamental need of people experiencing homelessness is appropriate long-term housing’.26 This article strongly endorses this view.
There needs to be policy shift towards the provision of good quality homes for people, with supports provided where necessary. However, assessing the evidence of political will, or the lack of it, in relation to housing policy generally, and examining social housing output over the past decade, lead to the conclusion that the goal of ending homelessness by 2010 is not going to be realised. Quite simply, that objective cannot be achieved unless there is a social housing boom and a significant change in policy in regard to homelessness.
- 1. Simon Brooke, Work Worth Doing: A Review of Staffing in Homeless Services, Dublin: Brunswick Press, 2005.
- 2. Voluntary organisations working in the sector generally agree that the number of people who are homeless is in excess of 5,000
- 3. Fitzpatrick Associates Economic Consultants, Review of the Implementation of the Government’s Integrated and Preventative Homeless Strategies, Dublin: Stationery Office, 2006, p. 6.
- 4. This figure is based on: Homeless Agency, Counted In, Dublin: Homeless Agency, 2005.
- 5. Homeless Agency, Annual Report 2005: Making it Home, Dublin: Homeless Agency, 2006.
- 6. Dara Deering, ‘EBS/DKM Affordability Index’, Irish Property Buyer, September 2007, p. 25.
- 7. This value excludes mortgage interest relief and possible tax relief. It is based on EBS mortgage calculator – ‘Standard Variable’ for a 35 year mortgage www.ebs.ie, October 2007.
- 8. Simon Communities of Ireland, Taking the Integrated Strategy Forward, Conference Papers, National Conference, 21 February 2004, p. 4.
- 9. Ibid.
- 10. This is just one example of the growing number of settlement services.
- 11. Joan O’Flynn, Providing Solutions to Homelessness: Inter-Agency Partnership in Action, Athlone: Midlands Simon Community, 2007.
- 12. Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Annual Housing Statistics Bulletin, Years 2000 to 2006, Dublin: Stationery Office.
- 13. Ibid.
- 14. National Economic and Social Council, Housing in Ireland: Performance and Policy, Dublin: National Economic and Social Council, 2004 (Report No. 112), p. 152.
- 15. Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Annual Housing Statistics Bulletin 2006, Dublin: Stationery Office, 2007.
- 16. Government of Ireland, Transforming Ireland: A Better Quality of Life for All, National Development Plan 2007–2013, Dublin: Stationery Office, 2007.
- 17. Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Quarterly Housing Statistics: Quarter 2 2007, 26 September 2007.
- 18. There are probably many more households whose housing needs would allow them to qualify for inclusion on the waiting lists but who for one reason or another have not applied.
- 19. Comptroller and Auditor General, Report on Value for Money Examination, Department of Social and Family Affairs: Rent Supplements, Dublin, 2006.
- 20. Clients of the housing organisation Threshold have experienced rent inflation of up to 20 per cent this year. John Downes, ‘“Working Poor” Increasingly in Arrears’, The Irish Times, 23 October 2007.
- 21. Comptroller and Auditor General, op. cit., p. 58.
- 22. Ibid.
- 23. Simon Brooke, op. cit., p. 56.
- 24. David Chater, ‘An Elegant Solution’, The Guardian, 14 December 2005.
- 25. Homeless Agency, A Key to the Door: Action Plan on Homelessness in Dublin 2007–2010, Dublin, Homeless Agency, 2007; Towards 2016: Ten-Year Framework Social Partnership Agreement 2006–2015, Dublin: Stationery Office.
- 26. Homeless Agency, A Key to the Door: Action Plan on Homelessness in Dublin 2007–2010, op. cit., p. 5.