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

Peoples Housing Forum Part 2

30 January 2016: Teacher’s Club, Parnell Square. 9.30am-2pm

Following on from the first People’s Housing Forum, which took place on 28 November 2015, the second People’s Housing Forum will take place on 30 January 2016 in the Teacher’s Club, Parnell Square. This series of events is organised by Housing Action Now and the Irish Housing Network and seeks to build a collaborative and bottom-up approach to tackling the pressing housing emergency. The People’s Housing Forum also build on the discussions during the Towards a Real Housing Strategy event held on 1 Octover 2015, a synopsis of which can be read here. In the first People’s Housing Forum, those involved firstly worked towards identifying the current problems relating to different components of the housing system, and secondly towards identifying a set of concise People’s Housing Demands. A summary of the demands identified by the groups are as follows:

Homelessness

1. Modulars are not a solution. Open vacant Council properties (voids) and transfer suitable NAMA properties.
2. Create 24hr community and resource centres for homeless families and individuals. These centres would have 3 functions: a place to be warm and have access to food and cooking facilities; a place to use resources such as computers, charge phones, and have general access to facilities; a place to make contact with frontline physical and mental health services
3. It was felt in this workshop that provision for homelessness was left solely in hand of private enterprise and charities when it is a public crisis. Our last demand was an end to government’s reliance on private services for the relief of public need.

Private Rental Demands

1. Rent controls and rent freezes tied to inflation and income
2. Strengthen Tenants Rights: Lift barriers to access and end discrimination. Strengthen tenants rights regarding probation,conditions of dwelling, evictions. Enforce these rights.
3. Create infrastructure for tenants to exercise power. Independent organisation for support, information, and representation and change PRTB structure to a tenants focused organisation.
4. Break from the markets and stop subsidising landlords and private ownership. Build and keep public and social housing affordable and in ownership of public authorities.

Migrants and Direct Provision Demands

1. End Direct Provision. End all institutionalised refugee provision.
2. Let those in Direct Provision, refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants work, access education, and live in Irish society. Tackle profiteering and standard of care. End forced transfers.
3. Create support infrastructure for those leaving direct provision and refugee centres. Grant full state rights including education, housing, social and community supports and health services. A place where everyone can access necessary information about their rights.
4. Take a firm anti racism position and tackle scape goating of migrant peoples.

Mortgages and Evictions Demands

1. No economic evictions. Bring in meaningful and long lasting rent controls and security of tenure
2. Create a community land trust and use it to write off debt. This would be overseen independently and not by banks.
3. Create support for those facing courts.
4. Change constitution to emphasise and enforce public good and right to housing over protection of private property.
5. Use creative and artistic ways to educate people on their rights relating to housing and change culture.

Social Housing Demands

1. Good quality secure housing as a human right. Supply the housing that is needed (which meets actual housing stock need) through Public Housing Agencies. Take housing stock provision out of the hands of councils.
2. Challenge government and private sector propaganda. Clarify and promote the ideology of housing rights groups.
3. Promote and implement practical measures to raise funding and delivery of housing. i.e. allocating USC to public housing building.

Traveller Accommodation Demands

1. Recognise Traveller Ethnicity
2. Set up Independent Traveller Accommodation Agency to deliver and ensure equality and rights in standards of accommodation and facilities. This body would also maintain halting sites and guarantee standard of facilities.
3. Fire safety analysis carried out on all sites.

The event on Saturday 30 January will seek to build upon these demands and develop strategies to end the housing crisis. Anyone interested in the issue of housing, please come along and join the discussion. Details are below.

The housing crisis has become an out-of-control housing emergency.

From rent hikes to evictions to homelessness, the very idea of the home is under fierce attack.
The People’s Housing Forum believes that communities, activists and all interested groups should work together to challenge this crisis and organise for the guaranteed right to housing for everyone.

Join us at the People’s Housing Forum on January 30th at the Teacher’s Club on Parnell Square to discuss strategies for organising for the right to housing. This will take the form of power structure analysis workshops, where we will collectively look at the people actually making the decisions around housing, and who actually has the power. Then we will discuss how we can organise and come together to challenge that power, and end this crisis. PSA’s are an extremely useful tool for mapping out campaigns, and we will be looking at the issues and power brokers in Social Housing; Private Rental Accomodation; Homelessness; Mortgages & Evictions; Traveller Accommodation; Migrants & Direct Provision.

The previous People’s Housing Forum was held on November 28th , and the goal was to agree upon a common set up demands across those different dimensions of the housing sector. For more information, and to see those demands, visit peopleshousingforum.wordpress.com or email us at housingactionireland@gmail.com.

Registration will begin at 09:30 and we will finish at approximately 14:00.

The People’s Housing Forum is hosted by Housing Action Now and the Irish Housing Network, in association with the Geography Department of Maynooth University.

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…)

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