Commentaries


The closure of two emergency homeless services

Today came with the news that two emergency accommodation services for homeless households in Dublin are set to close within the next two weeks. As reported by Kitty Holland, these closures could result in over 140 people returning to rough sleeping on the city’s streets. John’s Lane West is a 42 bed emergency accommodation facility operated by Focus Ireland and the Peter McVerry Trust (PMVT) and Brú Aimsir is a 100 bed emergency accommodation facility operated by Crosscare. Both services are commissioned, funded and coordinated by Dublin City Council (DCC) as the lead local authority on homelessness in Dublin.

Brú Aimsir was opened as part of the Cold Weather Initiative for 2015/16 and has been in operation since November 2015. While the Cold Weather Initiative has been going for a number of years, political pressure was ramped up last year following the death Jonathan Corrie in December 2014.

John’s Lane West has been in operation as part of the Cold Weather Initiative of 2014/15 to provide additional emergency accommodation, though it was originally intended to be a temporary measure.

The 42-bed John’s Lane West facility now needs to close due to planning permission obtained by Focus Ireland to build 32 social housing units on the site running out in December 2016. A planned exit strategy for the users of this facility is being led by the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DHRE), PMVT and Focus Ireland.

The decision to close Brú Aimsir, however, rests with the Chief Executive and Board members of the Digital Hub, who own the premises in which the emergency accommodation is located. The service was due to close in April. But with the homeless crisis showing no signs of abating, DCC were hoping that they could negotiate the retention of the use of the building over a longer period. In spite of appeals made by the DHRE to retain the use of the building, the Digital Hub has chosen not to renew the lease. Moreover, it appears that they have done so without any new use planned.

Brú Aimsir will disappear and be replaced by a vacant space.

bru aimsir

The housing and homelessness crisis

The alarming rise in homelessness over recent years has been well documented. It is particularly acute in Dublin. Data from the DHRE confirmed that 5,480 adults accessed homeless accommodation in 2015. Of these, nearly four out of ten adults were new to homelessness. During the reference week of 21 to 27 March 2016, a total of 2,750 adults were accommodated in homeless services in Dublin (1,510 men and 1,240 women).

As the DRHE and other activist groups have detailed, this has entailed new types of family homelessness. Many of these new homeless are the result of economic evictions from an increasingly expensive private rental market. Given the dearth of market provision and options for alternatives, growing numbers are being accommodated by DCC in commercial hotels in lieu of access to formally commissioned emergency accommodation facilities from non-profit organisations.

For that reference week in March, 598 families (comprising 810 adults and 1,242 children) were residing in commercial hotels in Dublin.  A total of 839 families (comprising 1,132 adults and 1,723 dependent children) were accommodated in in privately owned emergency accommodation.

In total, 4,473 persons (2,750 adults and 1,723 child dependents) were residing in all forms of homeless services in Dublin in March 2016. And of these, over 45 percent were residing in commercial hotels.

This is a hugely expensive form of emergency accommodation provision. From a total expenditure outturn by DCC of over €70M on homeless services in Dublin in 2015 over €16M was spent on commercial hotels alone. This cost can be expected to double to over €30M in 2016. Apart from this cost being unsustainable, commercial hotel use is considered an unsuitable and inappropriate form of provision. It is occurring, according to DCC, in order to prevent any homeless family from having to sleep rough.

 

Brú Aimsir

In late March I paid a visit to Brú Aimsir along with a colleague from Maynooth University.  We wanted to learn about the policy measures being put in place to deal with the escalating crisis of homelessness in the city.  But we were also interested in this particular initiative in as an innovative reuse of one of the city’s many vacant spaces.

In April 2015, Dublin City Council estimated a total of 61 hectares of vacant or derelict space within its boundaries. In the period since the crash a range of policy and bottom-up actions have been rolled out that seek to implement innovative strategies to activate and reuse vacant spaces for new purposes. Prominent examples like Granby Park have been mobilised to promote Dublin as a vibrant and creative city.

Brú Aimsir has been a more low-key intervention than some other examples of the reuse of derelict space – advertising the city’s homelessness crisis doesn’t really fit well with an entrepreneurial agenda.  Yet, in its operation it offers an excellent example of an innovative and socially beneficial use of urban vacant space. Dublin City Council have spent over €1 million on rehabilitating a vacant warehouse into a bright, safe, and comfortable space for 100 of the city’s most vulnerable inhabitants.

We visited Brú Aimsir at about 7pm on a Tuesday, just as the service was about to open. The evening was warm and the atmosphere was relaxed as residents, patiently waiting to enter, chatted in small groups outside.

The emergency accommodation facility is used by single adult individuals rather than families, and caters for those at risk of rough sleeping.  In contrast to new family homelessness, this cohort might be viewed as representative of more ‘traditional’ homeless populations.

Those waiting to enter that evening were diverse in age, nationality and gender. Anonymous men and women with backpacks who might be seen traversing the city throughout the day.  They could be students, office workers, or service staff coming to and from work. They too are the hidden homeless, the casualties of an increasingly vicious housing system hiding in plain sight.  And it is to places like Brú Aimsir that they come in the evening for some respite.

The on-street entrance belies the large space behind.  It comprises a locker area (where residents can deposit personal belongings and valuables) a large, bright open communal space (which is colourfully decorated and pleasantly furnished with seating areas and a counter serving hot food), toilets, showers, and male and female sleeping areas.

The emergency accommodation facility has 60 male beds and 40 female beds. These are split into different sections, with female residents upstairs and male residents in two corridors off the communal space, and comprise of 3-bed or 2-bed rooms.

The staff members on duty told us that residents are encouraged to view it as their own space. They are responsible for keeping the own rooms, common areas, toilets and showers clean and tidy. As food is served throughout the evening, residents have more autonomy as to how they structure their time.  As we sat in the communal area, they came and went at an easy pace, with some going to their rooms to rest for a while, coming back later to eat or talk to other residents and staff.

The service has a policy of booking residents in for a minimum of 7 nights, which also provides an opportunity for more substantive forms of intervention.  In this regard too Brú Aimsir has proved extremely successful, in that higher numbers of residents have moved on to more stable accommodation than in other forms of emergency accommodation.  One of the duty managers, who has worked in homeless services for many years, and by his own account in almost every hostel in the city, told us that this is by far his most positive experience working in homeless services.

The few hours we spent there were quit, calm, and devoid of any sign of tension.  Created out of nothing but a void in the urban fabric, both the space and the model appear to be a success story in a dismal situation.

 

The triumph of the vacant city

Why then is Brú Aimsir being closed down? There seems to be no sensible answer to this.  The Digital Hub does not appear to have a new use planned for the site.  And given the substantial money already invested in converting the space, combined with the success of the venture and the fact that the crisis of homelessness has gotten worse rather than better, would it not be the sensible and ethical policy to keep the service running for as long as it is feasible?

It is true that 100 rough sleepers is a drop in the ocean in the context of the current crisis.  But we must also think of the closure of Brú Aimsir in relation to the loss of all it encompasses in terms of treatment and long-term solutions. It is the loss of this potential, albeit insufficient in itself, to seek more fundamental solutions or forms of redress.

Such decisions are indicative of a wider system, of an overall policy response to homelessness that is at best insufficient and at worst downright callous.

The closure of Brú Aimsir is the triumph of the vacant city.  It is the triumph of a vision of the city that privileges an economic elite over the needs of the people, that keeps urban space out of social use and waits blithely for economic investment while multiple crises stack up.

It is in the accretion of decisions like this that the crisis is compounded.  Every little decision not to act, to do too little, and to privilege some vague economic imperative over the humanitarian crisis is not only kicking the can down the road but also intensifying and exacerbating problems of urban inequality that may even now be already out of control.

The decision of the Board of the Digital Hub suggests how those in power, despite public rhetoric and promises, turn their backs on Dublin’s crisis for no other reason than no longer wanting it to be their problem.

In exchange for turning 100 people out on to the street, and closing a space carefully rehabilitated to meet their very pressing needs, Dublin will get back one more vacant warehouse.  Is this enough in return for all that will be lost?

Cian O’Callaghan

Introduction
Situated in Liberty Hall, the Housing Crisis Conference brought together people of all academic, social and political backgrounds to discuss the ongoing crisis occurring in our own backyard. It was essential that at such a conference it was not just academics and public representatives that had the opportunity to voice their opinion, but that ordinary people would also be heard. Families in emergency accommodation, high rents and insufficient government support are issues that were addressed with suggestions of government intervention and an increase in provision of public housing among the solutions discussed. This report will discuss the Renting & Funding Social Housing workshop outlining the issues and solutions deliberated throughout the session. The workshop was facilitated by Dr. Cian O’ Callaghan, Maynooth University, with guest speakers Dr. Lorcan Sirr, Lecturer in housing DIT, Des Derwin, SIPTU Dublin and Simon Brook, Clúid.

“Where have the houses gone?”
Focus Ireland states that in 2014 the number of additional families entering emergency housing in Dublin was 40 a month, doubling from the previous year. January 2015 saw a further increase, with a total of 400 families in Emergency Accommodation. This figure then increased by 76% to 700 families in August. Des Derwin revealed that 1,257 children are included in these 700 families, leaving them with a very unstable life. Drawing on the discussion, Derwin, posed the question of how we have gone from ghost estates, to families sleeping in parks. “Where have the houses gone?” he asked the room. According to a report  published by UCD and DIT, 170,000 houses were left vacant in 2010 following an excess of building during the Celtic Tiger. Five years on, can we really believe that some of these houses are not still available? The discussion reflected on how leaving the provision of housing to the market led to oversupply during the boom but to a deep crisis of inaccessibility and unaffordability during the recession, particularly as mortgages have dried up, rents continue to increase and the numbers of people left homeless continues to rise. Shelter, or housing, should be seen as a basic human right and this was highlighted on numerous occasions throughout the workshop. (more…)

The purpose of the housing conference in Liberty Hall on Saturday 3rd October was to come together to work Towards a Real Housing Strategy. It was a structured forum for activists, academics and the wider public to engage with each other and bring together their own knowledges of the current housing question so that we can better understand it and discuss what should be done in order to address it.

Activists from Housing Action Now, the North Dublin Bay Housing Crisis Committee, Inner City Helping Homeless, the Peter McVerry Trust, Right2Change, Mandate, Unite and a number of others, spoke and contributed to the discussion. The experiences and understandings of these groups and individuals added the required grounding to a crisis that can sometimes feel abstracted from the human cost of experiencing housing distress. As well as the ‘traditional’ activists, a number of academics from NUI Maynooth provided a framework allowing us to understand the current housing crisis within broader social, economic and political contexts. With these strands of understanding converging, there is the hope that a strategy for tackling the housing crisis can emerge.

A significant part of the conference was to break into workshops so a dialogue about some of the ‘bigger’ issues could flourish. I broke into the workshop about NAMA. The session started with presentations from Mick Byrne (UCD) and Sinéad Kelly (Geography, Maynooth University) on the existing role of NAMA. Following their presentations, the audience became a workshop group with the discussion focused on how we might better understand NAMA and its potential role in reducing housing inequality in Dublin. Many of the questions posed and ideas considered were inherently about how to alter the use of NAMA for social gain and issues which arise from any desire to do so. (more…)

Since the economic crisis, starting in 2008, there has been a massive increase in the need for social housing across the nation. Figures from 2008-2013 indicate that there are now 100,000 households on social housing waiting lists. It is in response to this and additional problems surrounding housing, that the public conference “Towards a Real Housing Strategy” was held, on Saturday 3rd of October in Liberty Hall in Dublin’s City Centre. It was organised by Housing Action Now with support from charities such as Inner City Helping Homeless (ICHH), and academic and research institutes, including the Geography Department and NIRSA from Maynooth University. The conferences main objective was to create a real strategy to combat what can and should be addressed as “The Irish Housing Crisis” through raising awareness about alternative policies.

The conference brought together a varied mix of people with different interests and backgrounds from academics, activists and people who have been personally affected by the housing crisis; united in a desire for change and for action to be taken to tackle the crisis. The morning presentations given by housing experts, agencies and academics helped set the context from which the Housing crisis emerged, identify the primary problem as the lack of government intervention in providing social housing and regulating the rental sector and their failure to acknowledge a housing crisis.

Away from a statistical and objective perspective a testimony from Danielle, a mother of three left homeless since August exposes the real human suffering brought about by this crisis. Danielle described how she was forced to split up her family and allow her children to stay with relatives after she could not avail of temporary accommodation. In addition she felt that she was often not met with compassion. These figures and personal experiences highlight the deepening economic and social inequalities embedded in Irish society. (more…)

The conference “Towards a Real Housing Strategy–Solutions to Ending the Housing Crisis” held in SIPTU Liberty Hall on Saturday, 3 October 2015 opened with a declaration of a housing emergency in Ireland. This declaration came from the likes of Dr. Rory Hearne, a housing expert and previously a Lecturer at Maynooth University, Fr. Peter McVerry of the Peter McVerry Trust, and public representatives from Dublin City Council and Galway City.

Dr. Rory Hearne notes that the most recent government reports released show the severity of the situation: over 100,000 households on the social housing waiting list; 80,000 households on short-term rent support, half of whom aren’t on the social housing lists; 30,000 households on the long-term RAS rent supplement; 50,000 households have received a repossession notice on their mortgage in 2014 and another 100,000 households are in mortgage arrears; and a further uncountable number of households are in poor quality public and private accommodations, possibly tens of thousands. These numbers start to tell the many stories of a deep structure of housing distress in Ireland.

The conference was called by Housing Action Now to create a dialogue, conversation, and ultimately to create strategies and goals for a real housing solution. This agenda created space for conversation in smaller groups for this conference open to the public. The entire afternoon at the conference was devoted to small group conversations to create a list of short and mid-term goals, of strategies for achieving those goals, and to report back to everyone to create a larger call for action.

The outpouring of powerful personal stories shook me, and the tremendously powerful statements by academics and activists well-versed in the issues and possibilities instilled me with a hope, that a right to housing can be brought about by careful planning, good organizing, and deep passion for the issues and for the rights of all people of a place to live, a place to flourish, and a place to call home. (more…)

If increasing numbers of rough sleepers aren’t an indication of a housing crisis, then surely the 5000 families in emergency accommodation, the 100,000 households on the social housing list, and the thousands in mortgage distress are. The truth is that Ireland is in the midst of an unprecedented housing crisis.

On 3rd October Liberty Hall provided a venue for the first housing conference where the housing crisis was the only item on the agenda. Individuals across various fields and backgrounds came together with a common aim: ‘a real housing strategy’. These individuals ranged from housing experts, academics in disciplines such as Geography and Sociology, activists and members of the public whom have had direct experience of community representation.

The Crisis
Rory Hearne, Senior Policy Analyst with TASC, introduced the event by providing the latest housing and homelessness statistics. While these statistics described the housing crisis, one number in particular resonated; ‘half a million households are in serious housing difficulty and at risk of homelessness’. Hearne then revealed how Ireland has been branded as a hotspot for investment in residential property markets for international investment funds, which will lead to a more intensified commodification of housing. Without regulation rents will continue to rise, making renting unaffordable for lower and middle income earners, which could force thousands more into homelessness. With the rising pressure from banks issuing court proceedings on households in mortgage distress Hearne pointed out that ‘if only people were treated better than banks there would be debt write-offs for mortgage holders too’. This statement serves to highlight the tendencies of this and past governments to protect bond holders, banks and developers over the majority of the people of Ireland. Hearne believes that Minister Alan Kelly’s national housing strategy is inadequate and advocates for a new housing policy. This could be realised by building a housing movement. (more…)

CAPPLANSPOTLIGHT

 

The Final Act of the Irish Electoral Cycle
We have entered the Final Act of the drama that is the Irish electoral cycle. The plot so far has involved harsh austerity, deepening neoliberalism, and widespread protest. But in the Final Act – at least in the play as scripted by the coalition government – these plot lines are expected to fade away as a new story arc emerges. Most immediately this will involve a raft of budgetary measures designed to return relatively insignificant amounts of cash to the wallets of various parts of the electorate. But, as the Capital Plan announced last week attests, it will also involve the promise of large-scale and geographically dispersed infrastructural investment.

While in one sense the Capital Plan is a mechanism in support of clientalism – allowing TDs the opportunity to bring the proverbial (and at this stage prodigal) bacon back home to their constituencies – it also serves to usher in the re-emergence of another central myth of Irish political and economic life: the myth of counterbalance.

The myth of counterbalance has been around ever since the Irish State decided to dismantle the walls of protectionism and open the country to the global economy. For various reasons Dublin has long dominated the country economically and demographically. The myth of counterbalance proposes to address this dominance by targeted policies designed to grow the economies of the other major cities.

I call this a myth not because such a feat is unattainable, but rather because, in Ireland, it has consistently proven itself to be. The myth of counterbalance emerges intermittently, the well-worn narrative dusted off to address the same intractable problem for a whole new generation.

Myth and reality
The idea of counterbalancing the growth of Dublin harks back to the Buchannan report on economic regions published in 1969. Buchannan proposed the creation of ‘poles of growth’, which would serve to counteract the unsustainable growth of Dublin. Throughout the 1970s Cork and Limerick were identified by central government as sites for targeted investment. However, while the official policy ostensibly favoured the creation of a counterbalance, in reality the recommendations of the Buchannan report were largely ignored, and later abandoned during the recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In the Fanning report of 1984 on the impact of the recession on Cork, the notion of creating a counterbalance was resurrected. Fanning highlighted the need for targeted investment in infrastructure in the cities outside of Dublin, along with investment in indigenous small enterprises, in order to avoid the fallout from another round of global restructuring. In the report, Fanning advised against focussing only on short-termist policies and forgetting the goals of long-term sustainability. But then the Celtic Tiger came along and counterbalance was abandoned in favour of reducing corporation tax to a minimum and putting in place a series of incentives to attract a new round of foreign investment.

In 2002, the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) once again broached the subject of counterbalance. Although politically weakened by clientalism, the NSS nevertheless put in place a framework to develop a number of ‘Gateways and Hubs’ that would act as regional centres of growth. There was a four-year gap, however, been the NSS and the publication of National Development Plan, which would link public spending to the infrastructural investment proposed in the spatial strategy.

In the interim, cities like Cork and Limerick launched ambitious development strategies that aimed to capitalise on the NSS. Cork Docklands Development Strategy, for example, inaugurated an entrepreneurial approach to development that transformed the city’s governance structures by inviting a host of private sector actors to shape urban policy. While the 2000s saw a new wave of development activity, the wider redevelopment of the docklands still depended on substantial state investment that, although promised, was not forthcoming. When the 2008 crash happened, one of the first programmes to be cut was the Gateway Development Fund for infrastructural investment.

Thus, the Celtic Tiger period of growth again failed to deliver on the promise of counterbalance.

The return of counterbalance
In the recently announced Capital Plan Cork is expected to get investment in key road infrastructure, an upgrade of Ringaskiddy Harbour and other projects including investment in a convention centre at the former Beamish and Crawford factory. The phantasmagoria of these plans was reinforced by a set of lavish visualisations shared by Simon Coveney on his facebook page. The Capital Plan is indicative of the re-emergence of counterbalance and, in the context of the eternal returns of Ireland’s boom and bust trajectories, the suggestion that we have exited the crisis and entered a new period of growth.

Dunkettle Roundabout Plans

Establishing shot from Season Two of True Detective… Sorry, visualisation of the upgrading of the Dunkettle Interchange in Cork.

But like previous iterations of the myth of counterbalance, we can see the contradictions emerge when we look a little closer at its practicalities.

Boundary issues
Over the last year, it had been recognised by Central and Local Government that the boundaries of Cork city did not encompass the functional urban area and that something would need to be done about it. A Local Government Review was set up to explore options. The logical solution would be for the boundaries of the City to be extended to more accurately reflect its functional area. This being Ireland, however, the simplest option practically was not necessarily seen as the simplest option politically, and – as was the case with Limerick previously – the solution proposed was not to extend the City boundary but to merge Cork City and County Councils.

Irish Examiner Cork MErger

Irish Examiner’s coverage of the proposed merger of Cork City and County Councils.

As reported in the Irish Examiner, Consultant Alf Smiddy and Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly argued that the merger would create “what would be by far the largest unit of government within the State”, which they contended would offer Cork the clout to successfully lobby for devolution of powers. The report stressed that the merger would allow Cork “to act as an effective counter-weight at the national level to the current economic predominance of Dublin and the eastern part of the country”. Alan Kelly argued that it would “put Cork in a position that it can compete on a regional basis with the conurbation that is around Dublin”.

Not everyone agreed. Two members of the Local Government Review, Prof Dermot Keogh and Dr Theresa Reidy (both academics at UCC), broke with the consensus and produced a minority report that stated their disagreement “with substantial parts of the draft report, the main finding, and most of the conclusions”. In a piece written for the Irish Examiner, Keogh and Reidy argued that after decades of delayed decisions on a boundary extension, the “amalgamation has been chosen as an easy political option” and that it wouldn’t solve the problems posed by Dublin’s dominance. Cork City Manager Ann Doherty later called the merger review “fundamentally flawed” and City Councillors sought to challenge the legality of Alan Kelly’s plans to proceed with it.

Myth interrupted
Cork’s boundary issues highlight the problems underpinning of the myth of counterbalance in Ireland. While ostensibly it has long been a central component of Ireland’s policy landscape, in reality it has never been pursued in any serious sense. The Irish state has been adept at spinning webs of visions, stories of ‘what will be’ woven with colourful images, maps and descriptions. But when it comes to frontloading investment into the necessary infrastructure, successive governments have balked.

Indeed, it would appear that Ireland’s period of neoliberalisation and entrepreneurialism has exacerbated the prospect of counterbalance. The suggestion that a merger of the local authorities would, by a sleight of hand, suddenly make Cork more attractive to international investment is indicative of a jaundiced approach that seeks to leverage an illusion of transformation to entice external forces to solve Ireland’s problems of uneven development.

What then is the purpose of the myth of counterbalance? It is an ideal that, while not in any realistic sense committed to, is perhaps periodically aspired to by successive governments. But more often, and particularly in the Last Act of the election cycle, it is a vehicle to carry the illusion of vision and the prospect of hope. The myth of counterbalance presents the notion that there is a ‘plan’. It tantalisingly dangles in front of the voting public the prospect that, within the crisis-ridden theatre of Irish politics, a socially and spatially equitable Ireland can be achieved. It is just beyond our reach, it seems to say, just beyond our grasp. Without fundamental change, it forever will be.

Cian O’Callaghan

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