Last winter, Louisa Santoro, CEO of the Mendicity Institution said that some people who were homeless in the city were being refused beds in homeless hostels because they weren’t able to prove a “local connection”.
Eileen Gleeson, then head of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE), said the council wasn’t refusing anyone emergency accommodation.
But a taped phone call between Santoro and a staff member at the DRHE indicated that strict eligibility criteria were in place based on local links.
“What we do, and all the local authorities are supposed to do it by, where he got his payments,” the DRHE staff member told Santoro about a man she was trying to help place in emergency accommodation.
In early December 2020, the Minister for Housing, Fianna Fáil TD Darragh O’Brien, wrote to the chief executives of councils around the country, asking them to suspend the local connection rule.
“This winter I want to ensure that no homeless person in need is without shelter,” O’Brien wrote. “A local connection should not be a barrier to this emergency response.”
“Each local authority has a statutory responsibility with respect to the provision of emergency accommodation for households that find themselves homeless in their functional area,” he wrote.
But as another winter approaches, Santoro says that she is again being confronted with cases of the local connection rule creating barriers for people who are homeless and trying to get emergency accommodation.
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said it provides emergency accommodation to prevent rough sleeping and then staff carry out an in-depth assessment.
Those they deem to be from other areas “are advised and assisted by both our outreach services and our frontline teams to engage with the Local Authority region from which they find themselves homeless”, said the spokesperson.
If somebody has an application for social housing in another area, they might be better off to go back to that part of the country, said the spokesperson, or they could lose their place on the housing list there.
In some cases, councils might tell people to go back to another area for their own good but they might also be trying to keep a handle on their spending on homeless services.
A Barrier to Entry
Last week in the Dáil, in answer to a question about the local connection rule, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that “The minister has been very consistent that it is not a barrier to someone getting access to homeless accommodation.”
Santoro, the CEO of the Mendicity Institution, a homeless day centre, says though that homeless people are ending up on the streets again because of the local connection rule.
For the last two months or so, people have come to her service and said they phoned the council’s emergency phone line and were refused a bed because they were deemed as being from another area, she says.
“People are being refused left and right,” said Santoro by phone on 3 November.
She has been working with a European man, aged around 60, who has been homeless for a long time and sleeping outside, she says.
He doesn’t have a local connection in any county, she says. “He has been homeless all over Europe for 25 years.”
He had a bad infection in his leg and spent a month in the Mater Hospital, says Santoro, and when he was discharged the hospital staff booked him into a hostel.
However, at least twice, the council ended his booking, she says. “They keep cancelling his bed. He sleeps on the street.”
The man doesn’t understand why he keeps being asked to leave the hostels, she says.
Santoro says that council staff told her that the man needs to get a PPS number. But applicants for a PPS number need to say why they need it and access to homeless services isn’t a valid reason, she says.
Santoro recounts another case. That of a young man who grew up in Kildare, lived in Sligo for a while and a few other places too, she says, before going to college in Dublin.
When he tried to get emergency accommodation, council staff told him that he didn’t have a local connection to Dublin, says Santoro.
She told them that he went to college here, says Santoro. The staff member asked her where he went to primary school, she says. “I was nearly laughing on the phone.”
Santoro says she doesn’t think the man’s primary education is relevant to his current homelessness, she says.
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said: “All new presentations to homeless services complete a comprehensive homeless assessment with the relevant local authority to determine their need for emergency accommodation.”
That looks at their accommodation history, the reason they became homeless, whether they are eligible for social housing and if they have support needs, they said.
Local authorities “can and do exercise discretion in ensuring that the most vulnerable on our streets do not end up sleeping without shelter due to a lack of a local connection to the area”, said a spokesperson for the Department of Housing.
The Dublin Simon outreach team, which works with those sleeping rough, has not experienced issues with the local connection rule, said a spokesperson for Dublin Simon Community.
“Our Assertive Outreach team have not been experiencing an increase in barriers, blocks or challenges for clients who are rough sleeping,” they said.
“The relaxation of the local connection rule in January of this year has facilitated the team in supporting individuals to access emergency accommodation in Dublin,” they said.
A Barrier to Moving On
One of the main routes out of homelessness is through a rent subsidy scheme called the Homeless Housing Assistance Payment or Homeless HAP. It covers a deposit and most of the rent for people who have been homeless.
But, says Santoro: “A homeless person is not automatically eligible for Homeless HAP.”
To be eligible they have to get on the housing list and that comes back to the same problem, she says: the local connection.
“The local connection rule is used to prevent people from progressing from emergency accommodation to housing,” Social Democrats TD Cian O’Callaghan said in the Dáil last week.
Mike Allen, director of advocacy with Focus Ireland, says staff have heard from some homeless people recently that they were refused accommodation because they didn’t have a local connection.
But when staff phoned up they were able to book beds, he says.
If someone has family connections and links in an area they might have a better chance of moving on from homelessness if they go back there, says Allen.
On the other hand, many people had good reasons to leave, he says, such as being under a threat, domestic violence or the stigma attached to being homeless.
Bureaucracy shouldn’t be a barrier to someone getting emergency accommodation, he says.
“You don’t want to leave someone lying on the street while you sort it out,” says Allen. “But you do need to sort it out.”
People need access to the housing list to exit homelessness, he says.
The solution to that problem is a “social housing passport”, he says. The Programme for Government included a commitment to “introduce a social housing passport to allow households to move from one local authority list to another”.
A Department of Housing spokesperson didn’t directly answer a question about whether the government will introduce a new system to allow movement between the housing lists.
Santoro says that many of her clients aren’t on any council social housing list. They don’t always have strong connections in the places they are being advised to return to, she says.
It could be that they started a social-welfare claim or that they first stayed in emergency accommodation there, she says.
The Department of Housing didn’t respond to previous queries about what happens to someone if no council accepts responsibility for them.
Councils fund 10 percent of the costs of homeless services from their own budgets, said a spokesperson for Dublin City Council. (The rest comes from the Department of Housing.)
That amounts to €14.7 million annually for Dublin City Council, said the spokesperson.
“It is very important that all local authorities develop sufficient capacity in their homeless services to meet the demand in their area as homeless services should be delivered locally to support the person to remain in their own community,” they said, with the emphasis on “all”.
Allen, the head of advocacy for Focus Ireland, says a system should be set up whereby one local authority could pay another for emergency accommodation.
“If these are the issues it should be much easier for local authorities to sit down and agree a transfer of costs than it is to push back on the individual who is in crisis,” he says.
Nuala Killeen, a Social Democrats councillor on Kildare County Council, says that no matter how bad things are in Dublin, the response to homelessness is worse outside the capital.
Kildare County Council regularly turns families away, she says. “Not a day goes by that I don’t have families facing homelessness and I have to fight to get them any kind of accommodation.”
“I’ve got a fella sleeping up on the canal for four years, they have been out twice to verify that he is there, but they still haven’t offered him anything,” she says.
A spokesperson for Kildare County Council said it provides “a wide variety of solutions and accommodations for homeless people and people presenting homeless in the County”.
In recent months, its homeless team has been strengthened with more resources for prevention and support, they said, listing the hostels available in the county. Fourteen people are being supported through Housing First too, they said.
“Where suitable accommodation isn’t available for people who have been assessed as being Homeless in Kildare, accommodation is provide in the form of B and Bs and Hotels,” they said.
“However every effort is made to provide alternatives as this form of accommodation may not be suitable for families experiencing homelessness,” said the spokesperson.
[UPDATE: This article was updated at 12.34pm on 25 November to include comments from a Kildare County Council spokesperson.]