Homelessness - the hidden Ireland
Returning emigrants, enticed back to the old country with the promise of cashing in on the tiger economy, may have noticed a feature on the streets of Dublin not evident before they left. In the last ten years, Dublin has joined other rich, successful cities like London and San Francisco in developing a very visible homeless problem.
Every night, the doorways of city centre offices and the portals of churches are occupied by people sleeping rough. When the weather is milder, public spaces like Merrion Square and St Stephen's Green become dormitories for the city's homeless.
But the dozens of people grimly laying out their blankets on Dublin pavements each evening are only the most evident aspect of a crisis that is also spilling out onto the streets of Cork, Waterford, Galway and other Irish towns. Emergency accommodation for the homeless is full to overflowing. Families are living in bed and breakfasts because there is nowhere else for them to stay. Unprecedented numbers of young people are living out of home.
In an act of great bravery recently, a homeless man was one of two people who saved the life of a Dublin Bus Eireann, whose bus went into the Liffey through the wall at Butt Bridge. The homeless man, Tony Paget who is 26, was later presented with an Irish Water Safety award. After helping to save the driver and also after the award, Tony returned to the streets.
According to Jean Rafter, who runs a drop-in centre for homeless under-18s in Dublin city centre, these young people are ill-equipped to deal with the brutality of the street culture they enter.
"Young people end up homeless because they opt out of children's homes, or are asked to leave because of difficult behaviour or drug and alcohol abuse", she said. "Its a sudden, huge step to go from foster care or residential care into homeless services".
"Young people do not realise what awaits them when they leave those supports", she added. "They may think that they might go back in a few months, but in the meantime, they get involved in street culture, criminal activity or drug use, and then they can not just step back into those structures they left".
While it is difficult to reconcile the image of children sleeping on the streets with our current booming economy, it is that very success which has helped to fuel our homelessness crisis. As house prices soared in recent years, past what even an affluent young working couple could afford, it became inevitable that the less well off would start to find themselves without a roof over their heads.
As property prices have risen, naturally too has the cost of renting. Landlords who had paid enormous amounts of money for investment properties had only one route open to them to recoup the expense. For those on very low incomes, or receiving social welfare payments, the private rental sector has become prohibitively expensive. The remaining housing option, local authority housing, is much sought after. The lack of investment in such housing by successive governments has led to enormous waiting lists - all demand, no supply.
Ciaran Stenson runs a coffee shop and drop-in centre for the homeless in the middle of Dublin's cultural quarter, Temple Bar. In his time working for Focus Ireland, he has seen Dublin's homeless problem grow exponentially.
"When I first started in this job 12 years ago, you could get somebody a local authority house within three weeks", he said. "Now it's three years before you can get someone a place. The only people who realistically have a chance of getting one are families because all the stock is two and three bedroom houses. So single men and women can be on a housing list but they are never going to get a house.
"You have this crazy social policy that the more kids you have, the better chance you have of getting a house", he continued. "The only exception is senior citizen housing, but you have to be 66 to get that, which can mean a long wait. There are many homeless people who do not even bother putting their name down".
The thousands at the bottom of council housing lists are only one aspect of Ireland's hidden homeless. The Council of Europe defined the homeless in 1992 as 'persons or families that are socially excluded from permanently occupying a personal and adequate home'. That definition includes squatters, people housed in B&Bs, hostels and other emergency accommodation, and people sleeping on the floors and couches of friends and family.
In 1997, the EU estimated the extent of Europe's homeless population as being between three and five million people. It is widely accepted that homelessness statistics are flawed and underestimate the true extent of the problem, especially here in Ireland. Generally, any survey of homeless numbers is conducted via emergency shelter services, such as hostels and B&Bs. If there are no services for the homeless in a particular region, such as Cavan and Monaghan, then there are no homeless figures recorded.
Figures on the homeless
According to the Housing Statistics Bulletin for the September 1999 quarter, 5,234 people were homeless in Ireland, double the 2,501 reported in 1996. But the director of the Simon Community, Conaill MacRiocard, believes even these figures should be taken with a pinch of salt.
"The bulletin lists 12 county councils, including Cavan and Monaghan, as having absolutely no homeless people in their area", he said. "These two counties were among those studied by Simon's cross-border research project, which found major defects undermining the reliability and validity of homeless assessments carried out by local authorities in this region". The Simon Community estimates the real total of Irish homeless people to be over 10,000.
The problem with any estimate of the levels of homelessness is the fact that the scale is essentially unmeasurable. Homeless people are transitory and do not stay anywhere long enough to be counted. Furthermore, the phenomenon of 'hidden' homelessness, where people stay on the floors and couches of friends, is impossible to assess.
A countrywide problem
Homelessness is generally seen as a problem primarily affecting Dublin. However, the fact that outreach services for homeless people do not exist in rural areas leads them to migrate to where those services can be found. The Simon Community recently found that their shelter in Dundalk was receiving clients from as far afield as Cavan, Meath, Monaghan and Northern Ireland.
Homelessness, of course, is nothing new. The homeless, like the poor, have always been with us, largely because the two issues of poverty and homelessness affect each other so profoundly. But recent years have seen a change in the homeless demographics. The stereotype of the homeless as bearded, alcoholic old men no longer applies.
Labour TD, Eamon Gilmore recently claimed that over 1,000 young people were homeless in the Greater Dublin area, and according to Roughan MacNamara of Focus Ireland, at least 100 of them are sleeping out on their own.
Women sleeping rough
Every voluntary agency reports a vast increase in the number of women becoming homeless. With only 221 hostel beds available for women in Dublin, it is likely that many women are sleeping rough, or are forced to stay in dangerous accommodation. Women without a home can be trapped in situations where they are forced to trade sex for accommodation, or where they are brutalised by the man who owns the roof over their head.
Despite the bleak and deteriorating situation, all the agencies, statutory and voluntary, believe that Ireland's homelessness problem can still be solved. Government bodies have long been criticised for their complacency in tackling the issue head on, but recent initiatives by the local authorities and the Department of Health demonstrate that statutory bodies are beginning to acknowledge and rectify the crisis.
Much remains to be done, however, and while throwing money at the problem will not by itself make it go away, increasing the funds available to organisations like the Simon Community, St Vincent de Paul, the Homeless Initiative and Focus Ireland can make a vital difference. For this reason, irishhealth.com has decided to partner with Dublin Simon to highlight the growing problem of Irish homelessness.
Like to help? Register now with irishhealth.com and we will donate £2 to Dublin Simon on your behalf. Click here to register.
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