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In the early afternoon on Tuesday 5 May, around 50 people gathered outside the General Post Office on O’Connell Street.
Activists at several of the city’s homelessness organisations, they’d been contacted over the previous week by several desperate families.
With them that day were a couple with a young daughter; a single mother with three children, a pregnant woman with a one-year-old girl, and the relative of a homeless man who just the night before had tried to kill himself.
Marching down O’Connell Street with banners and loudspeakers, they crossed the bridge to the south side, swung right along the quays, and headed for Dublin City Council’s head offices.
They were determined not to move until the city’s head of housing, Dick Brady, had spoken to families, said Aisling Hedderman of North Dublin Bay Housing Crisis Community, a group that provides support and information to homeless people and those in precarious housing situations.
As the number of homeless people continues to rise, several organisations have vowed to turn to more direct forms of protest, like sit-ins, to make sure that people who have lost their homes get roofs over their heads quickly.
The problem of homelessness is so severe “that these sorts of actions are beginning to emerge as a response,” says Mike Allen, advocacy director at Focus Ireland, who weren’t involved in the 5 May protest but were aware of it.
Despite signs of economic growth and the recent drop in unemployment down to single digits, the number falling into homelessness is increasing, according to recent figures from the Department of the Environment. Since June last year, the number of homeless families has almost doubled.
In the week of 19-25 January, there were 1,960 homeless people in Dublin. From 20-26 April, there were 2,107. The same period saw a 36 percent increase in the number of families in emergency accommodation in commercial hotels.
The figures show that 63 families presented as homeless in the city in April, up from 47 in January.
Three factors are behind the rise, says Allen.
First, we’re still seeing the impact of the recession and any economic upturn won’t have a knock-on effect on homelessness for another few years, he says.
Second, there is the current housing crisis of rising house prices, unaffordable rents and increasing homelessness.
And third is the stagnant rent supplement. Most people becoming homeless were on rent supplement in the private sector, Allen says. Rent supplement hasn’t gone up for two years; rents have shot up 20 percent.
“So it’s not surprising they’re getting squeezed out and being put in that extremely vulnerable position by government policy of not increasing rent supplement,” he says.
This is what happened to the couple with the young daughter who were among those protesting at Dublin City Council’s Wood Quay offices that Tuesday in May.
When the landlord needed his flat back, they had to move out. Unable to afford rent elsewhere, the father had given up his job so they could qualify for emergency accommodation.
One of the groups involved in the protest, An Spreach, a left-wing organisation that advocates “direct action and civil disobedience” as a means of highlighting and tackling the current housing crisis, said that the families who’d been refused emergency accommodation were offered sleeping bags instead.
That afternoon, the phalanx of men, women and children climbed the steps of the offices, funnelled through the revolving doors and occupied the airy lobby.
Volunteers from groups like Housing Action Now, Help the Hidden Homeless and North Dublin Bay Housing Crisis Community waited as the homeless families asked the housing-welfare desk what was up with their cases.
All four cases were referred back to the local authority’s Central Placement Services, according to Hedderman, where they’d first been refused. So the sit-in began.
Protesters walked from the housing-welfare section up the stairs to the top balcony that looks down on the large botanical foyer of the civic offices. Banners with “Housing is a Right Not A Privilege!” were held aloft. A man on a loudspeaker declared that they weren’t going to move until their demands were met.
Hedderman said that the mother with three children had been sofa-surfing for two years, and had spent some nights in a hostel but had faced bullying and abuse, and been beaten up.
The homeless man with mental health issues had been sleeping in the backs of vans or on the streets, because he’d also been bullied in hostels, she said.
According to the man’s sister, he’d been in HSE care for 22 years, but had been released in March, when it found he was well enough to return to society, with a phone number to call Central Placement Services.
The pregnant woman and her little girl had been found sleeping rough the week before.
At three o’ clock, the protesters got a meeting with housing head Dick Brady and Cathal Morgan, director of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive. Hedderman said that they wouldn’t talk to the families concerned directly. (Neither Brady nor Morgan could be reached to ask about this.)
They talked for three hours. Hedderman says city council told her that money wasn’t the issue; it was a lack of vacancies at the commercial hotels used for emergency accommodation.
According to Hedderman, the council cannot predict the number of people who will present themselves as homeless on any given day, so it doesn’t know exactly how many hotel rooms will be needed. Trying to book rooms at the last minute in over-booked hotels is the problem.
The protesters asked: if they were able to find temporary accommodation would Dublin City Council pay?
Brady said it would. The groups got to work, rang around hotels, and found rooms for the three families.
Later, Dublin City Council moved them to longer-term accommodation, says Hedderman. “All have ended up in long-term secured accommodation or have been promised long-term secured accommodation.”
Dublin City Council didn’t go into details about what happened that day.
“Senior management in Dublin City Council worked to respond to the needs of individuals that presented during the recent protest in Dublin City Council,” said a spokesperson in an email.
But the local authority encourages people who are at risk of homelessness to contact the Central Placement Service at Parkgate Hall, or the Tenancy Protection Service, she said.
Homeless assessment and placement services in the four Dublin local authorities are “under enormous strain” at the moment, the spokesperson continued.
Hedderman says they plan to protest again: “There will be future actions.”