A strategy to end the homelessness crisis

Bruno Theodoro looks at a successful worldwide initiative against homelessness and wonders can it be applied to the Irish crisis.

Ireland is facing an increasing crisis of homelessness, which has reached its worst level ever. In the light of such an appalling situation, what are the right steps to confront and end this problem once and for all?

Ireland has surpassed the number of 1,000 families homeless for the first time, according to a report from the Department of Housing. The latest figures show that 4,377 adults are homeless across the country.

Earlier this year 142 people were found sleeping rough in Dublin, representing a 40 per cent rise in the numbers since last April, according to figures issued by the Dublin Region Homeless Executive. In addition to that, a record number of over 2,400 children are homeless nationwide, as stated by Focus Ireland.

It is believed that the main cause is the increased pressure in the private-rent sector. “Families around the country are suffering from the impact of the current housing crisis, mainly due to rapidly rising rents, difficulty finding accommodation and being forced to accept unsuitable housing,” said Aideen Hayden, chair of Threshold.

Private rents rose in the third quarter of 2016. Dublin rents are now 5 per cent higher than a previous peak in 2007, according to the last quarterly rent index from the Residential Tenants Board.

“The private rented sector is the most expensive and least secure form of housing in Ireland – families across the country are living in constant fear of losing their homes. For those living in private rented accommodation, which now provides homes for one in five households in Ireland, they are always a matter of weeks away from homelessness if they fall on hard times.”

To analyse how the problem should be dealt in this country, it is essential to contrast how it has been tackled around the world. Some places have been successful in identifying their specific needs and acting accordingly.

“The private rented sector is the most expensive and least secure form of housing in Ireland – families across the country are living in constant fear of losing their homes”

The state of Utah in the United States is an example. The population of chronically homeless people has dropped by 91 per cent thanks to an efficacious strategy called House First.

The programme was adopted in 2005 with the goal of ending homelessness in the state. The core idea is to give people a house and provide services later. Recipients do have to pay some rent — either 30 per cent of income or up to $50 a month, whichever is greater. This, in addition to low income-tax credits, make it possible to pay for the costs, making the programme self-sufficient.

The difference from others programmes is that normally it is required from the person to be sober and get a job before being given more permanent options. In the House First project, once people have their own house, it is believed to be easier for them to seek therapy and healthcare, because they have stability.

The solution can be met with scepticism at first, as it could result in the state spending money with people who would gain without paying. However, it is a cheaper solution when looked at in a broader scale, once the state will save money on shelter, jail, ambulance and hospital services. Those services for a single homeless person typically cost the American government around $20,000 per year, while permanent housing costs $8,000, reported The New Yorker.

Denmark is another example of adopting the housing-first approach. The skæve huse model provides people with a house under a conventional tenancy agreement without any threat of losing their homes, even if the recipients continue with habits such as alcohol or drug abuse. Once they are established, social workers start to pay visits to support and provide services.

For this model to succeed, it is necessary to be goal oriented, but with other initiatives contributing to manage the problems and specific needs of the individuals, focusing on the citizen’s economic situation, according to the Danish Homelessness Strategy.

So far the Dublin Housing First project has reached 63 people. The challenge faced by the charities working with homelessness now is to overcome the lack of affordable houses. Focus Ireland in partnership with the Peter McVerry Trust are working on a project to increase the number to 300 houses across Dublin.

Another plan to tackle the housing shortage was launched in July 2016 by the Government. Rebuilding Ireland – an Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness addresses the high number of households in emergency accommodation by creating rapid-build units, vacant units sourced by the Housing Agency and Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) Homeless Tenancies.

This year’s budget committed €1.2 billion for the implementation of the housing-action plan. Although it was welcomed by charities, the strategy was accused of being too modest.

“The 5 per cent increased relief for landlords seems unlikely to change the mind of the increasing number of landlords selling – which is one of the main reasons many people are becoming homeless. This relief already exists for landlords with social-housing tenants,” said Mike Allen, director of advocacy for Focus Ireland.

An additional €28 million has been allocated for emergency accommodation, but the charities want to focus on long-term solutions rather than dealing only with the consequences.

Threshold emphasises that the focus should be on prevention. “Due to a chronic lack of supply and high demand, rents continue to increase. We must ensure that a huge gap does not open up again to exclude rent supplement or HAP recipients from being able to remain in their homes or secure alternative accommodation,” said Aideen Hayden.

Focus Ireland also targets the high number of buy-to-let homes being repossessed or sold as the cause of the constant rise in the homelessness numbers.

“There are over 15,000 buy-to-let landlords who are in arrears by over two years. Banks and financial institutions are repossessing these homes and evicting the tenants at a rate of 100 a month. We are calling on the Government to outlaw this practice and ensure that where banks repossess such properties, they sell them on with the tenant still in place,” said Mike Allen.

With the House First initiative and the funds for emergency accommodation, it is possible to see Ireland on the right track, however far from the solution. Much political effort will be necessary to really tackle the problem, and help from all the charities to keep pushing this agenda.

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