Back in September Green Party Councillor Patrick Costello, who is also a social worker, heard something about homeless people that just didn’t sound right to him.
Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy said in a statement that “data available to the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive (DRHE) suggests that approximately 33% of family households presenting as homeless and 42% of rough sleepers have no entitlement to avail of housing supports”.
Costello was puzzled. Suddenly a third of homeless families in the Dublin region don’t have a housing entitlement? That meant they couldn’t get social housing or rent subsidies such as the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP). He had never heard that suggested before, and he was fairly certain it was wrong, he said.
He wrote to the manager of the DRHE to query the figures, a third of all homeless families in Dublin would be approximately 400 families: “This seems like a lot of people,” he said. “Can you break down this number for me – what is the total number, where are these people coming from, why are they not eligible?”
While Costello was trying to get to the bottom of the figures, the story spread in the media, and mutated into the line that hundreds of homeless families were in Ireland “illegally”. Newstalk presenter Pat Kenny queried whether they should be deported.
But that view appears to be based on misunderstandings of what the figures mean, and how homelessness law and housing law work, including the incorrect assumption that people who are not Irish citizens do not have entitlements to housing supports here.
Migrant and homelessness advocates have called on Murphy to correct the record. They cautioned that promoting the idea that all people who are not Irish citizens have no legal rights to housing supports could lead to discrimination against non-Irish citizens.
Costello queried the data with the DRHE, as it was said to be the source of the figures.
According to the first report, 33 percent of families who presented as homeless in 2017 were not Irish citizens. In April 2018, 42 percent of rough sleepers who answered questions about their nationality said that they were not from Ireland.
But those figures don’t tell us anything about how many homeless families were not entitled to housing supports, or whether they were in Ireland legally. Some people who are not Irish would still be entitled to housing supports, and some people who are here legally would not be entitled to housing supports.
The eligibility criteria for people from different backgrounds varies depending on different factors such as what passport they hold, how long they’ve been in Ireland, whether they’re employed or not, whether they’re in a relationship with an Irish citizen and so on.
On Friday 5 October, Minister Murphy said on Newstalk’s Pat Kenny Show that the “rights to housing aren’t known” for about a third of homeless families. He said he would work with the Department of Justice to address this.
Murphy said that people were “trapped in homelessness” and that he couldn’t move people on from homelessness “into the housing system or into sustainable homes if they don’t have rights for that”.
Kenny asked Murphy whether the people had “a right to be here at all?” Murphy said: “That is something that we are working with the Department of Justice to address.”
Murphy didn’t say that these people who are homeless were “illegal”. But on 8 October, Kenny said that according to the minister there are hundreds of homeless people who are here “illegally”.
“The minister told us on Friday that there are people in hotels, who are in the country illegally and yet we are putting them up,” he said.
“According to the minister there are hundreds of people in this situation, in hotels here, being paid for by the state,” said Kenny. “If they should not be here, then they should be processed and either allowed in permanently, or else deported.”
Costello says he was shocked at how the story kept jumping – from the false assumption that everyone who was not Irish had no right to housing supports, and suddenly onto unfounded claims that all of those families were “illegal”.
The DRHE was unable to provide Costello with details as to how many families in emergency accommodation are not eligible for housing supports.
Officials there said that those without a housing claim are “provided with accommodation, if available, on a one-night-only basis on humanitarian grounds”.
Costello asked Wayne Stanley, a research and policy officer in Focus Ireland, if he could shed any light on how many such families there are in Dublin.
Stanley checked the administrative data that Focus Ireland can access. On the day he looked, there were 25 non-Irish families accommodated on a one-night-only basis, he said. Not all of these families would necessarily not have a claim to housing supports.
That is approximately 2 percent of the homeless families in the Dublin region and some of those would be in the process of completing the paperwork to make a housing claim, said Stanley. That’s a long way off a third.
Rebecca Keatinge, a solicitor with the Mercy Law Resource Centre which offers free legal advice to people who are homeless, says she is aware of a small number of very vulnerable families who aren’t eligible for housing supports such as social housing.
But she said it is wrong to assume that those born outside of Ireland who are not on the housing list have no permission to reside in the state. “That is not the case in our experience,” Keatinge said.
There is no data available for how many of the 42 percent of people sleeping rough who said they weren’t Irish citizens, don’t have an entitlement to housing supports.
Those without a housing entitlement are likely to be overrepresented among those who sleep rough, because of the way in which homeless services are provided.
People who are homeless and have successfully demonstrated their eligibility for social housing supports in the Dublin region are prioritised for hostel beds if they are single.
Those who don’t have a claim to social housing, or haven’t proven it yet – including Irish citizens – have to ring up each day to get assigned a bed if one is available. Those without an approved housing claim are more likely therefore to be sleeping on the streets.
Correcting the Record
In October, Focus Ireland wrote to Minister Eoghan Murphy to ask him to withdraw the claim that 33 percent of homeless families have no eligibility for housing supports.
Stanley says it is important to clarify the facts. The inaccurate conflation of non-Irish people with those who don’t have a housing claim “could lead to the perception that all migrant-headed families are homeless because they are illegally in the state”, he said.
The negative stigma could make life even more difficult for homeless families, said Stanley.
The Department of Housing didn’t produce data to back up Murphy’s statement. A spokesperson said that Owen Keegan, the head of Dublin City Council, had cited the statistics in official correspondence in September.
Minister Murphy only raised the issue of non-Irish homeless families to try and help them, said the spokesperson for the Department of Housing. “The minister is very clear, his concern is about helping those families, that subset of non-Irish families, that do not have long-term housing rights.”
The department is working to quantify people’s rights so that they can access appropriate supports and find a real and sustainable way out of homelessness, she said.
Dublin City Council hasn’t responded to three emails asking for clarification around what Keegan said, and if he did say that 33 percent of homeless families have no eligibility for housing supports, if he would withdraw those comments.
Discrimination in public services, including with public-housing supports, is a major issue based on information he gets from staff working in advocacy services, said Shane O’Curry, the director of the European Network for Anti-Racism (ENAR).
According to their most recent report, In the second quarter of 2017, a third of the discrimination cases reported to ENAR, which compiles data on racist incidents, alleged discrimination by public-sector staff, he said.
“When authorities grossly exaggerate the numbers of ineligible applicants and conflate non-Irish nationals with people who do not meet eligibility criteria, this has a poisoning effect on public discourse about migrants and minorities,” said O’Curry.
When such misinformation comes from such senior officials as the minister and the chief executive of Dublin City Council, it amounts to institutional racism, in his view.
Lucy Michael, a lecturer in sociology at Ulster University who is also involved in ENAR, said she wonders if people involved in disseminating misinformation about minorities might be in breach of the Public Sector Equality and Human Rights Duty.
The duty means that public bodies in Ireland have a legal obligation to promote equality, prevent discrimination and protect the human rights of their employees, customers, service users and everyone affected by their policies and plans.
The Department of Housing didn’t comment on any of the concerns raised by ENAR and the Mercy Law Centre.
“Again, I wish to reiterate that the minister’s statement was in no way misleading,” said a spokesperson. The data came from the chief executive of Dublin City Council, he said. “We have nothing further to add beyond this.”
In May this year the Irish Independent reported that the Department of Housing planned to remove more homeless households from the official homeless tally, including those that are headed by persons who are not EU citizens.