Sr. Stan - Irish Independent Opinion Piece

(21 Oct 2014)

Irish Independent Opinion Piece - 21st October 2014

There is much talk about the end of austerity and that the economy is improving. Yet since Budget Day, up to 10 families have become homeless in Dublin alone. This is happening every day. Families lose their homes because they can't afford to pay rent or their mortgages.

In Focus Ireland, we welcomed news in the Budget of a €2.2bn social housing investment over the next three years. This is the investment and long-term planning that has been needed. It must be built upon to make up for decades of social housing failure and neglect. However, it will take at least 18 months until this delivers the first homes for people. In the meantime, there is huge suffering for families.

Some accuse charities of "talking up" a housing and homeless crisis to raise money. Is it not a crisis that nearly 400 families have become homeless in Dublin alone this year? That some families have been split up in Cork because there's no suitable emergency for them? That families have had to sleep in their cars?

As you read this, families are squeezed into hotel rooms - five or six people in one room, nowhere to cook or for children to play. One mother said that when her youngest daughter wakes in the middle of the night, she has to wake the others and they all go to the next floor to the shared bathroom. She can't leave them alone in bed as they may not be safe.

Focus Ireland is the organisation that works to support families who are homeless in Dublin. We do this on behalf of Dublin City Council. We also work with families around the country, including Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Sligo.

Despite all the good work by Focus Ireland and other organisations the situation is continuing to deteriorate as there is a critical shortage of affordable accommodation.

We supported over 10,000 people last year who were homeless or at risk of losing their home.

These numbers are a shocking indictment of the impact of the economic crisis that we have faced. I hear terrible stories from people with young children, who come into Focus Ireland looking for someone to listen and tell them that they matter, to help them to find and keep a home.

Every day I encounter families with small children who are harassed, broken, their self-esteem trampled on, the parents distraught and children traumatised. I have never seen anything like it in my 30 years working with people who are homeless. The best we can offer them is a hotel room.

This was intended as a stop-gap but has become a way of life for some families confined to living in one room for up to nine months or more. Now, even this inadequate accommodation is in short supply.

The Taoiseach accepted homelessness is at a crisis point. But we have not yet seen a crisis response. State-subsidised rents are too low to be attractive to landlords. People in financial distress have made huge sacrifices to top-up their rent supplement but this is not sustainable. When they run into arrears, they lose their homes.

Let us be crystal clear on this: The Government has the power to prevent more people becoming homeless. They must raise rent supplement to match market rents.

They failed to do that in the Budget and more families have already become homeless.

The Government also needs to regulate rents to provide better protection for tenants to secure people in their homes. This is done in countries like Denmark, which has a high level of people renting long-term.

If our Government tells people who can't afford a home (and no social housing is available) that they must go to the private rented market, it must ensure it is possible to obtain a secure and long-term home. It cannot stand over a system that leaves many at the lower end of the market at the mercy of rising rents with no security.

There also needs to be a clear and effective short-term strategy to tackle the crisis in family homelessness and lack of access to affordable housing for single people. The Government must show real leadership on this issue and not just continue to play the political game of saying the right things in the media but not following up with the specific actions required.

It must offer hope to families living in fear in every town, nationwide, of the next bill, the next letter from the bank or the next knock on the door.

Sr Stanislaus Kennedy is Life President and founder of Focus Ireland.

Irish Independent

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