A Proposed Bill Would Oblige Councils to Do More to Prevent Homelessness

Last January, Georgina Brooks feared her family would become homeless.

Brooks was living in a rented three-bedroom house in Neilstown with her two sons, and her mother and father —who both have health issues— and her brother who has learning difficulties.

They’d been there for ten years, she says. “That was our home.”

She felt frightened when she learnt their home was being repossessed. “It was horrible, I was crying, I was literally only after having a baby.”

They got nine months’ notice, but couldn’t find anywhere in their price range, which was based on a rent subsidy of up to €1,280, she says. Three-beds were going for €1,750 to €2,000.

“I was emailing seven or eight places every day during lockdown,” she says.

Mostly, she didn’t hear back and when she did get viewings the landlords weren’t keen, she says. “It got to the point where I was begging landlords.”

Eventually, she contacted her local Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin, who she says helped persuade South Dublin County Council to offer the family access to a crucial higher subsidy that protected them from homelessness.

At the end of July – eight weeks before her eviction date – the family were approved for the Homeless Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) and found a new home.

Normally in Dublin, Homeless HAP payment is granted to families at risk of homelessness at 28 days before their eviction dates, according to Ann-Marie O’Reilly, a policy officer with Threshold.

That’s not long enough, Brooks says.

It’s cases such as these that prompted Sinn Féin’s housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin to bring a bill on 3 November to the Dáil that would see early intervention for families at risk of homelessness.

In most cases we know the date that a vulnerable household is set to become homeless, says Ó Broin. The bill if enacted, would require local authorities to put a plan in place for those at risk of homelessness 60 days in advance.

The Bill

“We have all these people who we know are at high risk of becoming homeless,” says Ó Broin. “We know when they are getting out of detox, getting out of care, or getting out of their notice to quit.”

The way the system works at the moment, families who are obviously vulnerable have to be on the verge of becoming homeless before they can get any support, he says.

“The real issue is that you are left on your own. It doesn’t matter if you are very vulnerable,” says Ó Broin. “If you have literacy issues, or if you are a Traveller and therefore it is unlikely that you will find somewhere, or if you are a large family.”

The Homeless Prevention Bill 2020 would require local authorities to put in place a care plan, 60 days before a person is at risk of becoming homeless.

That means that local authorities could use the resources they have for homeless people, just earlier, he says.

Currently, when a family is homeless, the council’s Place Finder Service works with them to help them find a rental property with the Homeless HAP payment.

“That should also be used for people, proactively,” says Ó Broin.

The Dublin Region Homeless Executive already runs a homelessness prevention service in conjunction with Dublin Simon Community, called the Dublin Simon Tenancy Support Service.

Threshold also runs a Tenancy Protection Service, says O’Reilly. In 2019 they prevented 8,351 households nationally from losing their homes in the private-rented sector, she says.

“Prevention is cheaper than emergency homeless accommodation, avoids unnecessary human misery and is the morally appropriate response to homelessness,” she says.

Transitional accommodation for people coming from care and detox facilities, should also be made available, says Ó Broin.

Homeless prevention plans would cost money but the savings made against the cost of people becoming homeless would be greater, says Ó Broin.

There are concerns that increased access to the higher rate of rent subsidy could drive up rents, says Mike Allen of Focus Ireland. So it is important to time the interventions correctly.

Says Ó Broin: “We need a ban on rent increases in parallel with an increase in supports.”

The Homeless Prevention Bill 2020 passed the second stage of the Dáil last week and will go to the committee stage for discussion and amendments in 2021.

Ó Broin says he wants to encourage any necessary amendments. “What I would urge the Minister to do is to work constructively with the opposition and bring forward his amendments as soon as possible, so that we can get this bill enacted.”

The government did not oppose the bill, he says. If they were to support it, it could become law in 2021.

The Department of Housing didn’t respond to queries sent Monday, about the efficacy of early intervention or whether increased access to Homeless HAP could inflate the rental market.

What Usually Happens

In October, Finn Irwin said that he feared he would become homeless after receiving a notice to quit from his rented home in Cabra.

Irwin, who suffers from mental health issues, had been on Dublin City Council’s housing list for 17 years but had never had an offer of a permanent home, he said.

“It lashed rain all night last night,” he said, in October. “I was just thinking, the poor homeless, that could be me soon.”

Irwin reported the same difficulties as Brooks. He tried to look for a new rental property but the €660 rent subsidy he was entitled to under the HAP scheme wasn’t nearly enough to rent a flat in Dublin, he said.

Irwin said that council staff told him that they no longer approve Homeless HAP in advance until the person actually enters emergency accommodation.

A council spokesperson denied this. The council offers support 28 days in advance, they said.

Focus Ireland hears regular reports from families who say that council staff told them to come back once they are actually homeless, says Allen of Focus Ireland.

Last year, advocates for homeless young people said that too many young people are still being discharged from state care into homelessness.

No agency tracks how many. But it seems that the supports in place to prevent that happening don’t always work.

Neil Forsyth of the Irish Aftercare Network said that since the state knows the date when the young person will leave the care system, they’re becoming homeless should be easily preventable.

“We know who they are, it should be a simple thing,” Forsyth said, in November 2019. “They simply don’t leave until they have somewhere to go.”

Could It Really Work?

The government will spend €218 million nationally on homeless services this year, says Ó Broin. Around 90 percent of spending on homelessness goes on emergency responses, he says, while just five percent goes on homeless prevention.

“We need to shift the emphasis to prevention,” he says. “That is better for the individuals and families but it is also cheaper in the long run.”

In Wales, similar legislation reduced the flow of families into homelessness and has now been copied in England and Canada, says Allen.

The legislation if passed here would be “absolutely transformational”, he says.

Of course, there will still be a shortage of affordable homes but the experience in England and Wales indicates this type of legislation would reduce homelessness, says Ó Broin.

Independent Councillor Cieran Perry says that early intervention could work. If the council assigned a caseworker and puts in the support it should be possible to stop that family from becoming homeless.

“This is absolutely what should be happening,” says Perry. “It is obvious.”

Perry says the reason that the council doesn’t intervene earlier is because it is struggling to cope with the high demand for homeless services. If it increased support, there would be increased take-up, he says.

Usually, when a family first becomes homeless they go and stay with relatives because they don’t know what else to do, says Perry.

That leads to severe overcrowding and often breaks down. Still, in the short term at least it is “one less person to worry about” from the council’s perspective, he says.

Facing homelessness is complex, particularly for those who are vulnerable, says Allen of Focus Ireland. “Having someone to guide you through the nightmare of how the system works is a good idea.”

The homelessness prevention legislation introduced at first in Wales, didn’t solve homelessness but it significantly slowed the flow of people into homeless services, he says.

The bill, if enacted, would “create a legal responsibility that the local authority has to help somebody who comes in”, says Allen. “That is a complete transformation from the way it works at the moment.”

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Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

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