Photographs of the inside of a homeless hostel at 7–9 Ellis Quay on the northside of the Liffey show a bedroom with a row of beds – and no windows.
Emergency accommodation without windows is a concern, says Deirdre Ní Fhloinn, a barrister with expertise in building regulations.
“Not only as it limits escape and rescue options if there was a fire but also because it must be next to impossible to ventilate those rooms sufficiently to dispel Covid aerosols if one of the residents is a carrier,” she said.
A spokesperson for the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) says Dublin City Council’s building-control section has certified the use of the hostel at Ellis Quay.
“There are windows in a large number of the bedrooms in Ellis Quay,” says the spokesperson by email last Wednesday. “A small number of rooms have no windows but there is a mechanical air vent system in situ.”
The Ellis Quay hostel does have a fire-safety certificate that was issued in 2017, according to Dublin Fire Brigade records.
But those records also show that elsewhere across the city there are at least six privately operated hostels that don’t have valid fire-safety certificates.
Two of those have none, and four of the buildings haven’t been assessed for their current use as homeless hostels.
A spokesperson for DRHE didn’t respond to queries sent on Friday asking how many homeless hostels in total have no fire certificates and whether it is dangerous to accommodate people in bedrooms without windows.
“A Disaster Zone”
The building at 7–9 Ellis Quay, once a cinema, was converted in 2016 to a homeless hostel run by Peter McVerry Trust.
“We closed it because it was a disaster zone,” said Fr Peter McVerry, by phone last week.
The hostel was overcrowded and many of the bedrooms don’t have windows, he said. “It was awful. We were very uncomfortable with it.”
Dublin City Council reopened Ellis Quay. This time, though, they contracted a private company to run it.
A spokesperson says the hostel underwent essential maintenance and is now being used as part of its cold weather strategy until April 2021.
“It’s use will then be reviewed with the possibility of an NGO returning to the facility once again,” she says.
“It is not good for people’s mental and physical health to be sleeping in rooms with no daylight,” says Orla Hegarty, a UCD professor of architecture.
Legislation on overcrowding was introduced in 1966, she says, and while it is not clear if those are being breached, it’s definitely not a good idea to have people sharing given Covid-19.
That’s a major concern in a pandemic, she says. “If one person is infected they are likely to infect everyone else in the room.”
There is plenty of other accommodation available in the city at the moment, she says.
No Fire Certs
“This is going on since 2017,” says independent Councillor Anthony Flynn. “Remember Lynam’s?”
Back then, Flynn, who is also CEO of Inner City Helping Homeless, discovered that the DRHE was putting families in a building with no fire certificate and no electricity in the bedrooms.
He is concerned to learn that something similar is still happening, he says. “The very minimum that should be done is to ensure there is a fire cert.”
In addition to the six privately run hostels that don’t have valid fire certs, there may be an issue with a seventh.
Dublin Fire Brigade is bringing enforcement proceedings against at least two privately run hostels, at 9 and 13 North Frederick Street.
Last November, Green Party Councillor Janet Horner asked council officials if the hostels on North Frederick Street had fire certs.
The director of the DRHE issued a response on 8 December relating to just one of at least three hostels on that street, saying the operators of 9 North Frederick Street had applied for a regularisation certificate.
But Dublin Fire Brigade records show that application came later, on 16 December 2020.
Another hostel, Watergate, at 11–14 Usher’s Quay, used to be a direct provision centre. The fire cert for it was issued when the building was apartments in 1996.
If a building changed its use to become a hostel before 1991 then it doesn’t require a new fire cert, says Hegarty, the UCD architecture professor. Otherwise, it is a change of use, and it does, although there are exceptions for private houses and agricultural buildings.
Meanwhile, three hostels have no fire cert, according to Dublin Fire Brigade. Those include 32 North Circular Road, 47–48 Amiens Street near Connolly Station, and Mary’s Abbey (which may be exempt, if it was converted before 1991).
“It is horrifying to learn that there are no fire safety certs for these buildings,” says Horner, the Green Party councillor.
Says Louisa Santoro, CEO of the Mendicity Institution: “There are empty hotel rooms and holiday lets so is there any need to take risks when it comes to safety?”
She says she is worried, as her clients in the charity’s day centre are the ones sleeping in these private hostels, she says.
“Fire safety is where regulation meets cop-on and if the DRHE have confirmed that upstairs bedrooms have no windows, neither are evident,” says Santoro.
There are multiple regulatory frameworks available, she says. But “it’s very unclear what standards are to be met, as none seem to apply”.
Horner says she has been repeatedly reassured by council management that hostels meet all the necessary standards. “It is shocking to see the lack of even the most basic safety standards in some facilities.”
“We need to move away from warehousing vulnerable people to supporting them and providing the care they need to move past homelessness,” she says.
Ní Fhloinn, the barrister, said “it’s quite clear that emergency or homeless accommodation needs a statutory framework with appropriate inspection and monitoring functions assigned to a regulatory body”.
The owner of a premises has legal obligations to residents including the common law of negligence and the Occupiers’ Liability Act, she says.
Under the Occupiers’ Liability Act, the occupier owes a “common duty of care” to ensure that a visitor to the premises does not suffer injury or damage by reason of any danger, she says.
The Fire Services Act 1981 was introduced after the Stardust disaster, she says.
That means the person in control of a premises has a duty to take all reasonable measures to guard against the outbreak of fire on their premises and to ensure the safety of people if there is a fire too.
“The absence of fire certs in a number of buildings highlights the absence of even a very basic inspection regime that we could have confidence in,” says Social Democrats TD Cian O’Callaghan.
“How is it possible for Dublin City Council – which is the relevant fire authority – to source accommodation without fire certs?” he says.