Homelessness: Stigma, Services and Starting the Conversation

Brianna Walsh examines the stigma around homelessness and accessing homeless services.

With the onslaught of Covid-19, the distance between those who are homeless and those who aren’t appears sharper than ever before. The homelessness crisis has reached unprecedented heights, with the number of homeless families increasing by 232% since July 2014 according to Focus Ireland. Notably, these figures do not include those squatting, ‘sofa surfing’, women and children in domestic violence refuges, nor, crucially, those sleeping-rough. Numerous publications have cited misconceptions and stigma around homelessness as pivotal in producing barriers to accessing services. Facing this ever-growing divide, those who work in homeless services choose to cross this imaginary line every day. Discerning shame second-hand, their experience indicates the true extent to which stigma affects homelessness in Ireland. Ceolan McMullin, the auditor of UCD St Vincent De Paul, noted the strong impact of stigma in certain areas, an element of homelessness encountered on the society’s regular Street Outreach programme.

“When training new volunteers, [we emphasise that] the food and supplies that you hand out come secondary to the talk. You have to come to their level and ensure you are not ‘othering’ them.”

He stressed that in their work, it is important to establish a relationship of equals, rather than superiority or condescension. “Many people may not have spoken to anyone for the entire day. People are walking past them. They may be embarrassed to take advantage of homeless services because of the stigma… If we break down what homelessness is, it is people. People experiencing homelessness [are] like you and I.”

However, he admitted that the issue is increasingly multi-faceted, and stigma is just one of the numerous obstacles faced, from inadequate education to language barriers for non-nationals. While some may not want to admit to being homeless, others may not even be aware of the services that are available, a deficit UCD SVP tries to counteract when directing those affected towards further assistance.

In conversation with another person who worked in homeless services for two and a half years, she indicated the deeper dimensions to stigma from her perspective; “Homelessness itself is not the sole cause [of stigma]… it is a result of intertwining issues that are already stigmatised… intergenerational poverty, low-income jobs, mental health and addiction…there are layers to homelessness and to the stigma around homelessness.”

Homelessness itself is not the sole cause [of stigma]… it is a result of intertwining issues that are already stigmatised… intergenerational poverty, low-income jobs, mental health and addiction…there are layers to homelessness and to the stigma around homelessness

She reinforced the idea that social disgrace alone is not the primary hurdle for the homeless to cross. Instead, shame seems to be a symptom of a wider lack of understanding around homelessness and the structural roots underlying the issue.

“The main barrier is mental health and the lack of knowledge around that. I was working with young people who are very unwell… they will refuse support and there’s no rationalising why…they may miss meetings with the welfare office because of their condition and if you don’t attend, there’s no way in…”

Mental health services are just one of the array of social structures that are not built around the “complexities of how someone ends up in these situations.” The most pressing illustration is that of the Housing Assistance Provision (HAP) and Rent Allowance Schemes, a social housing substitution she describes as a “crutch used by the government.”

“It’s not feasible nor sustainable. There’s no reason why social housing has to be stigmatised – my Mam grew up in one in the 60s/70s!” Rather than shame, it’s the same pattern of the “State never taking accountability for its people. The government are not doing their job. It shouldn’t be up to charities and homeless services to house people… We could do better as a society. In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be [homeless charities]!”

Concern was raised around a possible surge in homelessness following the pandemic, where landlords could potentially remove people from emergency accommodation when others return to Dublin’s working sector. This is a stark reality and sums up the true instability of the current climate.

The unfortunate fact is; many people are homeless. While neither had all the answers, the central point proved that they should not be expected to. Both sources did stress that Ireland must start having this conversation. Be it battling misconception around mental health, questioning the responsibility of the State or simply comprehending the real diversity of this problem. “Education is key – I never knew how multi-layered it is until I started working with it!”