Initiatives but few results for homelessness crisis

The issue dominated almost every aspect of public and political discourse this year

Homelessness permeated almost every aspect of public and political discourse in 2017, yet by most measures the problems have got worse, not better.

The year started on a hopeful note with the occupation of Apollo House by homeless activists, putting the problem at the centre of the public consciousness.

Some questioned how helpful a short-term, illegal takeover of a Dublin office block could be but there was one thing the critics had to admit – no one died on the streets of the capital over Christmas and New Year.

The Apollo House occupation, which was ended by a court order on January 11th, also prompted the Government to set in train a new series of housing initiatives, including the third housing plan in four years, in an effort to end the crisis.


And it led to a brief clamour for the use of National Asset Management Agency-controlled commercial buildings to be released for housing. The group behind Apollo House, Home Sweet Home, said this could end homelessness within the year.

The idea failed to get political traction, partly because of the revelation that many homes made available by NAMA were rejected by local councils as unsuitable. If real homes weren’t deemed suitable there was little hope vacant office blocks would be.

Rebuilding Ireland

The Government started the year promoting the ambitious €5 billion Rebuilding Ireland plan. The plan did result in an uptick in house construction but failed to get a handle on many of the most visible and destructive problems in the housing market.

Rebuilding Ireland promised to take all homeless families out of unsuitable hotel and B&B accommodation by July. That target was missed and today the number of families staying in temporary accommodation is higher than this time last year.

By nearly every measure, the homeless problem got worse in 2017. The latest headline figure shows some 8,300 homeless people in Ireland, perilously close to the 10,000 figure which, according to the Simon Community, will be reached by the middle of 2018 unless drastic action is taken.

There has been an increase in the number of people sleeping rough, using emergency accommodation and at risk of losing their home.

Last month it was reported the number of people sleeping rough in Dublin has increased by 33 per cent since April, reaching a record high of 184.

According to the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Ireland's rate of child homelessness has risen by 287 per cent in three years and is unmatched anywhere in Europe. It is estimated about one-third of the country's homeless population are minors.

The monthly release of dire homeless figures throughout the year has been regularly punctuated by news of another death of a rough sleeper. Within the last two months at least eight people have died on Irish streets.

In August, Shane “Jack” Watson, a previous resident of Apollo House, died while sleeping rough on Suffolk Street in Dublin. (A vigil to mark his death was cancelled after it emerged Watson had convictions in Australia for the indecent assault of two girls.)

In September, Jennifer Dennehy was found dead by her partner in a tent in Cork. She had been evicted from her home just days before.

Government reaction

Reacting to news of another two deaths in November, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dáil between 40 and 50 homeless people die every year in Ireland and "each one is a tragedy".

However, he insisted it was not a factor in dealing with housing and homelessness. He said the problem was a lack of capacity in the building sector to construct houses.

The Government continued attempting to get a handle on the problem throughout the year with limited success. Funding for family hubs and rapid-build housing, along with concessions to developers to persuade them to build more houses, have failed to reduce the headline homeless figure.

In September the new minister for Housing, Eoghan Murphy, hosted a Housing Summit and invited the 31 local authorities to attend.

Two hundred additional emergency beds were promised afterwards, along with a suite of other measures, such as the establishment of a “homeless interagency group” which would deliver homeless services “in a coherent and joined-up way between the relevant departments and agencies”.

A further €10 million in funding for more family hubs was also ring-fenced.

Towards the end of the year politicians and civil servants made several comments which were widely viewed as crass or hurtful to homeless campaigners.

Bad behaviour cannot be solved by the efforts of ad hoc unauthorised groups

Eileen Gleeson, director of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, said long-term homelessness resulting from years of "bad behaviour" cannot be solved by the efforts of "ad hoc" unauthorised groups.

Her comments were called offensive and insulting by homeless charities and led to calls for her resignation. She later conceded she “could have probably used better language”.

Last month Mr Varadkar said homelessness in Ireland was not high by international standards while Minister of State for Housing Damien English told the Dáil that a "negative narrative" on homelessness in the media was hurting Ireland's reputation.

This was followed by the Chair of the Housing Agency, Conor Skehan, saying "homelessness is a dreadful thing, but it is normal."

Signs of hope

As the end of the year approaches there are some small signs of hope. The number of families exiting homeless services is now greater that those accessing them, according to the latest figures.

But looking forward to 2018, the four Dublin local authorities are braced for an increase in homelessness, with spending in the area forecast to be over €140 million.

Mr Murphy has announced some 5,900 new units of social housing would be provided next year by local authorities and approved housing bodies, either through building or acquisition. However, it has been pointed out that this is an increase of just 31 houses on previous targets set for 2018.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times