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

There have been a few headlines recently about some families losing their rental accommodation as rents increase and becoming homeless (see these stories: one, two, three, four; also listen to this radio piece on RTE). It is reported that homelessness is on the rise and a homeless crisis is emerging in Dublin in particular. According to Dr Dáithí Downey, Deputy Director of Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE), paraphrased in Saturday’s Irish Times, the homeless crisis is ‘bloody awful and getting worse’, with Jan O’Sullivan TD, the Minister for Housing, admitting that there is ‘no doubt’ that the issue of homelessness among families is a growing issue.

So what is the situation in Dublin at present? 

According to DRHE, in 2013 a total of 4,613 unique individual adults used homeless services in Dublin (across all funded NGO’s and statutory services – a full report for 2013 is available from DRHE upon request).  The demand has strengthened and changed in character since Autumn 2013 with more families with child dependents experiencing homelessness.  The Simon Community report that in 2012, there was an increase of 24 per cent in those using their services, to over 5,000 individuals and families.

During the week beginning April 28th 2014, the DRHE confirmed there were 184 households with dependent children accommodated in 21 commercial hotels across the Dublin region in lieu of provision of more suitable emergency accommodation for families due to a lack of capacity in usual emergency accommodation.  The majority of these families were welfare dependent private tenants.  The decision to use hotels is seen as a last resort taken in order to prevent any increase in rough sleeping in Dublin, especially among adults with dependent children.

Dublin’s homeless services secured an exit to tenancies and independent living for 793 persons in 2013. This is down by 10 per cent on the previous year’s 879 exits, and a similar downward trend exists for 2014.

So what is causing the rise in homelessness, especially amongst families in Dublin? 

Here’s what I think is happening.

1) From 2012 onwards there has been an increasing shortage of supply of property for purchase and rent in Dublin city due to in-migration and lack of construction.

2) The increasing demand for tenancies has led in turn to a rise in rent due to demand outstripping supply.

3) The rise in rent has been bolstered by new institutional investor owners, and by buy-to-let landlords facing a move from forbearance to foreclosure, seeking a certain yield by squeezing tenants – moving rents up at a rate significantly above inflation (25% to 30% increases in some cases)

4) Families who are income insecure – low wage, uncertain hours, flexible working, dependent on welfare – cannot afford the increase in rent, and rent supplement is not sufficient to cover the gap. They are being priced out of their homes in favour of those who can afford the new rental price.  Such pressure is not aided by tenants often not knowing their full rights or seeking redress through the Private Residential Tenancies Board.

5) These families find it difficult to find alternative private rented accommodation due to rent inflation across the rental sector and landlord preferences for tenants not reliant on rent supplement and discrimination against such tenants. This is also reducing exit routes from homelessness.

6) There are nearly 90,000 households on the social housing waiting list and it is therefore almost impossible to parachute newly homeless families immediately into social housing.  Consequently, those pushed out of the private rental sector end up in emergency homeless accommodation.

7) This process of creating new homeless families is likely to continue as rents rise given the present reliance on private rental sector for new social housing provision.  Moreover, it might be bolstered if repossessions increase as expected from this summer onwards, with former homeowners becoming homeless.

So what is the solution?

DRHE recognise that the use of hotels is both an inadequate and inappropriate way to meet the housing needs of homeless families and can only be considered a short-term respite from being shelter-less and also that it is financial unsustainable. They are projecting a final year cost of over €4.5m for the use of hotels in 2014 if no alternatives are brought forward. So what is required?

First, the state needs to invest in creating new social housing – both refurbishing empty, unoccupied and derelict housing stock in the city and creating new suitable stock in control of the local authorities not private landlords.  The Dublin local authorities have already submitted plans to government for the acquisition and refurbishment of stock for homeless households that will requires a projected capital budget of at least €10.5m to realise.

Second, rent control needs to be introduced that limits unregulated rent increases that are far in excess of inflation.  This needs to be accompanied by an increase in tenant rights that offers them enhanced protections as is common in continental Europe.

Third, there needs to be an additional investment into homeless services to provides the resources that will enable them to more adequately deal with the crisis.  Wishing it will to go away will not work.

Rob Kitchin