The face of homelessness in Ireland has changed. Whereas in the past the factors contributing to homelessness were largely individual or personal issues that varied from case to case, for example addiction or domestic violence, a new epidemic of homelessness has emerged from a more structural cause: the housing shortage. The amount of social housing available has dropped drastically in Ireland since the 1980s, when the Government encouraged county councils to sell off the properties. This privatisation of social housing was not matched with the building of new units, leaving the country with a huge lack of affordable housing. As a result, low income earners are finding it harder and harder to secure accommodation in the private sector, where rental prices are soaring.
Dublin is now second only to Luxembourg in terms of expense. In addition to this, the building of private housing has halved in the last decade, driving up the costs for those looking to buy property. Faced with no affordable options, entire families are being forced into homelessness, with numbers reaching crisis levels. In August 2018 alone, 113 families became newly homeless. A significant number have ended up staying in hotel rooms, sometimes for months on end. Caroline Fahey, who works with homeless charity St. Vincent De Paul, explains that the situation is less than ideal, especially for families with young children, from ‘very practical things, like not having a kitchen to table to eat around’ to children not being able to learn how to walk ‘because they don’t have the space’. She also emphasises the long term effects this living arrangement will have on children who have to study for exams and do homework in such cramped conditions: ‘If they don’t achieve their full academic potential…It will have an impact on them for the rest of their lives.”
“The ‘Raise the Roof’ rally held on 3rd October 2018, brought together workers unions, students unions, and political parties to protest against high rent prices in an event that attracted around 10,000 people to the streets of the capital.”
Two events, occurring within a week of each other, highlight how important tackling this crisis has become to the public. The “Raise the Roof” rally held on 3rd October 2018, brought together workers’ unions, students’ unions, and political parties to protest against high rent prices in an event that attracted around 10,000 people to the streets of the capital. Fahey feels that there is a place for these kind of movements, as they help raise crucial awareness and “hopefully spurring people on to think about solutions”. It was hoped that these solutions might present themselves in the second event: The Budget for 2019, which was released shortly after on 10th October.
Like the two budgets before it, it has been dubbed a ‘housing budget’, due to its emphasis on tackling the crisis. In the Budget, the Government allocated a total sum of €2.3 billion to housing. Minister for Housing, Planning, and Local Government Eoghan Murphy TD noted in his budgetary speech that the Government has already made strides in eradicating homelessness with the 20,000 new houses built last year, also noting that affordable homes are being constructed at an improved rate. He is confident that “next year will about driving even greater delivery [of houses] now that the machinery is in place and delivering. This will be possible not only because the money is available but because we have the tools and systems in place to spend that money and because as a government we continue to prioritise housing”.
According to the Budget “a critical focus of 2019 activity is on prevention and delivery of services for homelessness”, which will include expanding the Family Hubs being used as emergency accommodation. However Focus Ireland says that although the €2.3 billion housing budget allocation is extremely welcome “the reality is, it is not enough”. The group criticises the ‘fire-fighting’ approach to the crisis as opposed to tackling the situation in a practical and meaningful manner, as emphasised by “the fact that the numbers of men, women and children experiencing homelessness has rocketed” in the past months. CEO of the group, Pat Dennigen, addressed the issue, saying “in our pre-budget submission we called for urgent action in the form of a €400 million investment in social housing in 2019, which would have delivered 2,000 homes. This budget falls significantly short.” He was also “disappointed that [Focus Ireland’s] call for the introduction of a vacant home tax to help bring units back into the active housing supply was not heard… A vacant home tax (which has been brought in in countries such as Canada) would’ve been incentive for landlords to put properties on the market for lower prices.”
The Government’s main housing scheme, Rebuilding Ireland, was launched in 2015 and is comprised of five pillars: addressing homelessness by focusing on taking immediate action to help rough sleepers and those in emergency accommodation such as hotels; accelerating social housing by delivering 50,000 houses under various social housing programmes; building an average of 25,000 homes every year in the period to 2021; improving the functioning of the rental sector; and utilising existing vacant homes.
“She thinks a total change in policy is needed, not only to assist the lowest income workers, but also a more middle-class group that ‘may not be able to afford staying in the private sector their whole lives.’”
Fahey still feels that the Government isn’t doing enough, “there’s been a lot of research to be done on what needs to be done, but we don’t see Government changing their direction…Rebuilding Ireland, which is our housing strategy, they’re saying it’s working, but there’s been no decrease in the numbers becoming homeless.” She thinks a total change in policy is needed, not only to assist the lowest income workers, but also a more middle-class group that “may not be able to afford staying in the private sector their whole lives.” Above all, she fears that there will be “a whole generation of people who will not be able to afford social housing” and that this will lead to a knock-on effect down the line of homeless pensioners, a scenario she describes as “distressing.”
The scale of the “Raise the Roof” rally, and the media attention it garnered, is more than indicative that the public at large is as equally determined as Dennigen, Fahey, and the respective groups they represent to hold the Government to account. But it remains in the hands of policymakers to enact real change. Meanwhile, across the country families in hotel rooms are waking up to begin a new day.