Without a home this winter

homelessRough sleeping has increased sharply over the last year and homelessness, in all its forms, is affecting almost 4,000 people, including nearly 300 families.  Peter Cheney reports.

A census study has given a new insight into the needs of Ireland’s homeless people and reaffirmed that homelessness takes many forms, including rough sleeping and living in shelters and temporary accommodation as people wait for a lasting home.

The 2011 Census, held on 10 April, was the first time that the Central Statistics Office (CSO) had identified homeless people by their location, rather than asking them to declare themselves homeless.

Out of 3,808 homeless people recorded, the vast majority (3,744) were in some form of accommodation with 64 sleeping rough (59 in Dublin).  The 1,648 people in emergency accommodation would clearly have been at risk of living on the street if that shelter had not been available.
“Living on the streets is a harsh and dangerous existence,” Dublin Simon Chief Executive Sam McGuinness remarks. “In recent years, the age of people using our services who have passed away was averaging 40. This is frightening when one considers life expectancy in a developed country like Ireland is 78 years of age.”

The figure of 59 Dublin rough sleepers then rose to a peak of 87 in November 2011 and stood at 73 in April 2012, according to counts by the Dublin Region Homeless Executive.  Rough sleeping had been decreasing until 2009 and had remained relatively unchanged until the last year’s increase.  The count itself is viewed as an absolute minimum as it covers those sleeping on the street but not in parks, under bridges, or in squats or living rooms.

The majority of homeless people (66.7 per cent) were male, as expected, but the overall count included 296 family units.  While 1,660 homeless adults considered themselves to be in the labour force, only 274 were at work with the remainder either unemployed or looking for their first job.  However, almost half of homeless adults were only qualified to lower secondary level, thus limiting their prospects.

2,375 homeless people enumerated by the CSO lived in Dublin i.e. 62.4 per cent.  The South East, South West and Mid West were the regions with the next largest counts: 403, 301 and 273 respectively.

Almost three-quarters (73 per cent) of the homeless were working age adults, compared to a 56 per cent share in the general population.  The proportions of older and younger people were low by comparison but represent small groups of particularly vulnerable people in society: 641 aged under 19 (including 457 children under 14) and 386 aged over 60.

Relationship breakdown, ill-health and poor qualifications were all far more common among the homeless than the general population. Among the 1,581 homeless people with a disability, psychological conditions were most common (740 cases), followed by pain, chronic illness and breathing difficulties (697) and difficulties with learning, remembering or concentrating (532).

Policy response

A person is officially considered homeless if there is no accommodation available  in which he or she “might reasonably be expected to reside”, if they are living in a shelter or similar place because that accommodation is not available, or if he or she cannot provide accommodation from his own resources.

Local authorities have a responsibility to consider the needs of homeless people and take action in response e.g. releasing some of their own housing stock, agreements with voluntary bodies, or an allowance to the homeless person to help them find a home.

Ireland’s current homelessness strategy, ‘The Way Home’, was published in August 2008, just before the economic crisis took hold.  Setting the ambition of eliminating long-term homelessness and the need for rough sleeping by the end of 2010, it focused on better planning and co-ordination.  Long-term homelessness is defined as living in emergency accommodation for longer than six months.  The strategy recognises that some people would prefer to sleep rough even if accommodation were available to house them for the night.

It appears idealistic when considered in today’s circumstances but the Government still has the same goals.  The Programme for Government pledges a reviewed and updated strategy, which would include a specific focus on youth homelessness.

The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government will issue that strategy “shortly” but it will be affected by a €6.6 million cut in funding from the department over the last year. 

Funding now stands below 2007 levels, mainly due to the State’s financial crisis.  The department declined to elaborate but it has stated that the shift from hostels to homes will also reduce costs.

Separately, a €5 million development fund is supporting Simon’s work in sourcing fit-for-purpose properties in Dublin, Wicklow and Kildare. 
There has been a move away from the traditional one-night stay to a seven-night stay for people using homeless service in Dublin. “A number of properties which were not suitable for accommodation purposes were closed in Dublin and clients were moved on to more appropriate accommodation,” a departmental spokesman added.

Responding to the CSO data, Housing Minister Jan O’Sullivan reiterated the Government’s determination to move to housing-led solutions: “This change will take time to implement, but I am committed to seeing it through. People deserve the dignity of a home.”

Sam McGuinness’ own motivation to tackle homelessness comes from his belief that every person “no matter how desperate their situation” should have somewhere to turn for help. “In these very tough times, everybody is under severe financial pressure and we are finding that the typical perception of homelessness is changing,” he adds.  “People now realise that homelessness is something that could happen to anybody.”

Make a difference: how you can help

Scarves, socks, vests and hats are all needed at Dublin’s homeless shelters and drop-in centres as the winter nights set in.  Simon is appealing for members of the public to come forward with donations of warm clothing.
Support can also be given to Focus Ireland, Dublin Christian Mission and the city’s Catholic missions. Homeless services are listed at
Simon also encourages businesses to make a donation in lieu of Christmas cards or gifts to its House of Cards appeal.  In return, company logos are featured in an Irish Times feature and a three-day Christmas light show in the city centre.  People can also get involved in the Sing for Simon and Food for Simon programmes, and more information is available from the fundraising team at 01 671 5551.

Funding drop

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