Walk into South Dublin County Council, tell them you’re homeless and need help, and they might ask you for an affidavit to prove it.
“I think it’s scandalous,” says Patrick Nelis, of Dublin West Housing Action. “It’s embarrassing enough to have to go into the council, without having to go to a solicitor too.”
A spokesperson for South Dublin County Council said that when someone becomes homeless because their relationships with their parents or other family members have broken down, “we do seek statements to this effect from both parties”.
Getting an affidavit sorted can require the cooperation of the same family member the homeless person has fallen out with – or worse.
“There could be a multitude of reasons,” says Sinead Kerin, the acting managing solicitor at the Mercy Law Resource Centre, which has helped clients with affidavits. “You might be estranged. There could be domestic violence.”
These affidavits are not a requirement in the other three councils in Dublin: Fingal County Council, Dublin City Council, and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council.
Sinn Féin Councillor Mark Ward said he first heard four or five months ago that constituents who were homeless because they could no longer live in their family homes – and were not already in the system – were being asked for affidavits.
Overcrowded homes are a growing problem, Ward said. “There can be a lot of tension and breakdowns in those sorts of relationships.”
Labour Councillor Mick Duff says that, as a peace commissioner, he sometimes writes up a statutory declaration for a person in this situation and asks all parties to sign it.
“I’d argue about the cost imposed on a person who’s already going through a particular type of trauma, of becoming homeless. This adds to the burden they’ve to carry,” Duff said.
Kerin, of the Mercy Law Resource Centre, says staff there have had to help clients get statements from family or friends for some time.
She has contacted extended family and friends to beg them to write a letter to say that their cousin, friend, or relative can’t stay with them. “That’s common,” she says.
Kerin says the centre has worked with many families who have been evicted, gone to stay with family for a couple of months, ended up fighting with the in-laws and had to leave, she says. “And there’s no one else to put you up. It’s very simple.”
“It’s only so long you’ll put up with five extra people in your home before you fall out with them,” she says. “You ask anybody after Christmas how they got on with their family, and they’re all thinking, ‘Thank God it’s over.'”
Not every relative the centre approaches for a statement agrees, Kerin says. “Some of them don’t. Because why would they? They don’t have to. It’s just the council making it difficult.”
People should have access to these services easily, Kerin says. “So, if you show you have no funds, you have no funds – that’s it,” she says.
“It’s a really desperate position to be in, to go in to somebody to say, a family, to actually say you are homeless is a dreadful thing because you are completely disempowered. Who in their right mind would do that, unless you are desperate?” she says.
Ward says he wants to know the logic behind the requirement. “In reality, it’s making things more difficult for people to present as homeless, and I’m just thinking they’re putting this extra requirement in place to maybe keep down the homeless list as well,” he said.
South Dublin County Council needs to make sure people who register as homeless have nowhere they can stay, a spokesperson said.
People who present as homeless, who aren’t already on the council’s housing list, have to be assessed, they said. That means providing documents to show they are homeless and can’t provide housing from their own means, they said.
If people say they can’t go back home, then “we offer emergency accommodate until they can be fully assessed”, the spokesperson said.
Carly Bailey, the vice-chair of the Social Democrats and a candidate for Dublin South West, says it’s traumatic enough for families who sit in the waiting area of the council’s housing section, when they go to register as homeless.
It’s a small room which can be packed with families and children. There are signs up warning people not to be aggressive, but those who are sitting there are “just sad and unhappy and miserable people”, she says.
Conversations will be in private sometimes, but other times they are audible to those who are waiting. “It is incredibly undignified to have to sit there,” said Bailey, who had to present as homeless recently after she and her family were evicted.
Because of the work she does, Bailey knew where to go and was able to negotiate the system. She had her eviction notice verified by the housing charity Threshold.
But “if you didn’t know what to do, it is a minefield”, she says. “They need so much more support. You’re treated as if you’re pulling a fast one.”
Bailey says people underestimate the disruption that comes from becoming homeless. There’s the hours of work chasing down somewhere new to live of course, but there’s much more too.
For example, she and her family had to move to live with family elsewhere in the country, which meant taking the children out of school for weeks, and deferring four of her exams for the degree she’s been working towards for five years.
Bailey said she has noticed that different local authorities seem to run their homeless services intake in different ways. “There’s a huge amount of ad-hocness around this,” she says.
No Right to Shelter
Some of the ad-hocness might be because unlike the reams and reams of legislation that exists around social housing, there is little to do with homelessness and homeless services.
There’s a few paragraphs in Section 2 of the Housing Act 1988. “It’s two or three paragraphs and that’s it,” says Kerin, from the Mercy Law Resource Centre. “There’s nothing else to it.”
And those few paragraphs are qualified with the words “in the opinion of the authority”, she says. So “there is no legal right to shelter in Ireland at all. It’s in the opinion of the council if you are homeless or not.”
So councils have different approaches.
Pat Dunne, an Independents 4 Change Councillor in the Dublin City Council area, said he was surprised when an affidavit crossed his desk a few days back for a homeless mother and daughter in the South Dublin County Council area.
Family illness meant they could no longer live with the elderly relatives they’d been sharing a home with, after they were evicted from their rental home, Dunne says. The letter had been signed by their grandmother and stamped by a solicitor, he said.
Dublin City Council, instead of asking for affidavits or sworn statements, tries to mediate in cases where there has been a breakdown in family relationships, Dunne says.
He says he thinks this is a better approach – and that asking for affidavits is a further barrier to accessing homeless services. “It’s adding a layer of bureaucracy at a time when people are desperate,” he says.
Ward, the Sinn Féin councillor on South Dublin County Council, says he’d like to think these rules around affidavits in cases of family breakdown aren’t “set in stone”, that council staff would judge each case individually and that an affidavit from one party would be enough proof.
“Especially if there’s even a hint of any domestic violence,” he says.
(South Dublin County Council hadn’t yet replied by the time this was published to a query sent Monday around what it does in these cases.)
Mercy Law Resource Centre has taken, and lost, three High Court cases for families who were refused emergency accommodation by local authorities in the past, says Kerin. (The cases were against Wicklow, Galway and Cork County Councils.)
In one case, it was “because the council think they could stay with extended family or friends,” she says. The woman was living in a tent at the time, instead, though.
The courts said it deferred to the council as it has the expertise in this, and under legislation, had to determine if the decision was rational, Kerin said. Judges have to go off what law exists in an area – and in this case, it’s not much.
There is talk of the right to housing but there’s a gap in rights even more basic than that, she says. “The right to shelter is basic, it’s just shelter, it’s exactly what it says on the tin,” says Kerin. “We don’t even have a right to shelter. It’s shocking.”