Eoin Ó Broin: What happened to Micheline Walsh will happen to others

The perception that only young people rent or are at risk of homelessness is wrong. In a wealthy society, that is a scandal

The decision by 78-year-old Micheline Walsh to speak publicly about her imminent threat of homelessness was a brave one.

First in The Irish Times last Saturday, then on other media during the week, she laid out in honest and heartbreaking terms the reality of having nowhere to go. Her difficult story is compounded by the impact of possible homelessness on her husband, who continues to suffer the serious after-effects of a stroke.

By laying bare her experience since receiving an eviction notice last June, Micheline has not only highlighted her own trauma, she has spoken for all those older people living in insecure private rental accommodation at risk of homelessness – or, worse still, in emergency hostels.

In March of this year there were 175 men and women over the age of 65 in Department of Housing-funded emergency accommodation. Although a small percentage of the overall official homeless population, this number is rising.


Since Darragh O’Brien became Minister for Housing in 2020, there has been a 43 per cent increase in homelessness among those aged over 65. The number of older people living in the private rental sector and waiting for social housing has also been increasing.

The latest Summary of Social Housing Needs, published by the Housing Agency this year, shows that in 2022 there were 6,901 households headed by a person over the age of 60 on Local Authority social housing waiting lists. This is an increase of 12 per cent on the previous year. Most of these people are living in the private rental sector. However, there are many more older people living in rented accommodation who are not eligible for social housing supports.

The perception that renting is something that only young people do does not match the reality.

Many earn too much to be eligible for social housing but they don’t earn enough - or are in the wrong type of employment - to buy a home

The most recent Census data tells us that 20 per cent of people aged 55 rent privately. For people aged 65 the figure is 14 per cent, and it is 10 per cent for people aged 85 and over. Some readers will find these figures surprising. For those who work directly with renters it simply confirms that a growing number of people over the age of 55 live long term in rented homes. Many earn too much to be eligible for social housing but they don’t earn enough – or are in the wrong type of employment – to buy a home.

Others lost their family home due to divorce or relationship breakdown or had their homes repossessed post-crash after falling into mortgage arrears.

Given the general insecurity of tenure in the private rental sector, compounded by the exit of a portion of single property landlords since 2017, the rise in homelessness among older people is not surprising.

Advocacy organisations for both older people and renters, such as Threshold, Alone and Age Action, have been warning about this issue for many years.

For 10 months Micheline Walsh has been scrambling to find alternative accommodation. Her experience highlights the folly of the Government’s decision to end the ban on no-fault evictions and its failure to have adequate emergency measures in place for those losing their rental homes.

Beyond her individual case, the bigger question is what must be done to reduce and end the scandal of homelessness among older people and to ensure those at risk are supported into secure and appropriate homes?

Firstly, Government must temporarily reintroduce the ban on evictions. This will provide the much-needed breathing space to put in place emergency measures to prevent further rises in homelessness and accelerate the exit of people, including the over 65s, from emergency accommodation.

The Department of Housing, in partnership with the Office of Public Works, should immediately commission the delivery of 1,000 high-quality modular homes. Emergency planning and procurement powers should be used to deliver these at pace in appropriate infill sites in existing communities. Essentially, these would be small clusters of homes built in unused corners and plots on existing housing estates.

The allocation of these homes should focus on older people in emergency accommodation and at risk of homelessness, along with other households with appropriate priority needs.

Some of these high-quality modular homes could also be used to facilitate local rightsizing of older people within the community, freeing up larger family homes – which would in turn be allocated to people in emergency accommodation.

Government must also speed up the tenant-in-situ programme, whereby Local Authorities and Approved Housing Bodies purchase private rental homes, transferring them into social and cost rental sectors.

The process is still too slow as staffing in our Local Authorities remains a challenge. This is putting landlords off the scheme, with the result that they are opting to sell into the private market.

More must be done to promote these schemes. Micheline Walsh was only informed on the tenant-in-situ scheme 10 months after her eviction notice was served and six weeks after date she was to be out.

Government must also ensure that cost rental tenant-in-situ delivers genuinely affordable rents. Most new cost rental homes have rents from €1,350 to €1,550. This is simply too high.

Beyond these emergency measures, Government must realise that the current social and affordable housing targets – already too low – are not being met, and that the needs of older people are not being catered for.

We need at least 20,000 new public homes a year to meet social and affordable housing demand. The size, type and location of these homes must be based on actual need. This includes the need for age-appropriate homes for those on the social housing waiting lists, those in need of cost rental and for those rightsizing from larger public and private homes.

There should be a minimum threshold of decency below which our society refuses to go. In a country as wealthy as ours it should simply be unacceptable for older people to be homeless. This is not a question of resources or capacity. It is a political choice. And based on the evidence to date, the Government has made the wrong call, leaving thousands of older people in insecure and inappropriate homes, and hundreds more homeless.

Eoin Ó Broin is a Sinn Féin TD for Dublin Mid-West and spokesman on housing