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Aleksandrs Gutorovics walks out the door of the Mendicity Institution, a homeless drop-in centre, with a big smile on his face.
He met the Dublin Simon Community outreach team this morning, he says, and they booked him into a hostel on North Frederick Street.
He is relieved, he says. It means he will no longer have to battle for a bed each day by calling the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) freephone service.
Last week, he had a terrible time with the freephone, he says, waiting ages to get through and book only to be told when he schlepped over to the hostel that there was no spot for him.
That happened repeatedly. In the end, he gave up and went back to his tent. “When you are homeless you are fragile anyway,” says Gutorovics, a tall man with grey hair, wearing jeans and a sweater.
Louisa Santoro, CEO of the Mendicity Institution, says that recently the homelessness situation is as bad as she has ever seen it. “It’s a disaster.”
With growing numbers of homeless people, emergency accommodation is strained and struggling.
In February 2021, there were 5,889 people staying in emergency accommodation in the Dublin region. By August 2022, that had increased to 7,732 people.
Emergency accommodation in the Dublin region “is operating to full or close to full capacity most nights”, a DRHE spokesperson said on 5 October. The DRHE plans to tender for new emergency accommodation facilities soon, he said.
Round and Round in Circles
Around 15 men were sitting inside the Mendicity Institution on Monday.
A man in a black hat reads a book, and another man is on his phone, which is plugged into a wall socket. Others eat breakfast and chat.
“I’m still a ghost,” says Gutorovics, laughing and referring to the time in winter 2020 when he was unable to access accommodation and the council kept no record of his multiple interactions with the outreach team.
Last week though he wasn’t laughing, he says.
Those needing emergency accommodation in the city ring the freephone service to get a bed for the night.
On three different nights last week, Gutorovics called the freephone, waiting on hold for an hour or so each time, he said.
Each time, DRHE staff eventually said he was booked into the hostel on Ellis Quay, he says. But on two of the nights that he went down to the hostel, hostel staff said they didn’t have his booking.
He called the freephone back to double-check he was booked, he says, then went again to the hostel only to be told again there was no booking.
By Friday, Gutorovics gave up calling the freephone and just went back to his tent, despite the cold weather. “The last time, I got very angry,” he says.
Aniz Duran, a project worker at the Mendicity Institution, says that last Wednesday she booked beds for Gutorovics and another man in Ellis Quay hostel through the DRHE freephone. The other man got into the hostel and Gutorovics did not, she says.
DRHE has not yet responded to queries about this sent on Tuesday.
Duran says that one day she had seven people in the day centre who needed beds. She was on hold on the freephone for almost three hours before her call was answered – and she got cut off twice. Screenshots show the call was disconnected after an hour, twice.
She started ringing at 11.05am. When the call was answered at 1.53 pm the staff member told her that she couldn’t book more than one person into a hostel at one time, she says. “He said I had to individually call for all those people.”
Some of the people she was calling for don’t have phones, Duran says. Santoro says Mendicity staff usually only call the freephone for people who don’t have a phone or can’t speak English.
Recently the delays in getting through are making that impossible, Santoro says. She was on hold for almost four hours one day, she says.
Having to call the freephone every day adds to stress for people who are struggling with multiple issues, including homelessness, Santoro says. That is exacerbated by the delays in getting through.
“If someone does have a phone and they are out on the footpath, without the ability to charge the phone, they can’t be on hold for four hours,” she says.
She thinks that there are too many people calling the freephone every day at the moment, she says, and most of them should be on longer bookings.
The DRHE has not yet responded to queries sent Thursday about why it took so long to get through to the freephone last week.
The Local Connection
In October, November and early December 2020 Gutorovics was one of a number of people left sleeping outside because they were assessed as not being from Dublin.
Local authorities operate a local connection rule, which means that people should be accommodated in the counties where they come from or where they have the most connections.
But lots of people, including Gutorovics, don’t really come from a specific county. Some aren’t Irish and others who are Irish might have moved around a lot, including some Travellers, and people who grew up in care.
Since the squeeze has come on beds in the Dublin region, people are more likely to be knocked back from accessing emergency accommodation because they don’t have a local connection, says Santoro.
On 30 September, she says council staff told her that a man who was working in Dublin should return to Cork because that is where his local connection was.
She argued for a while, and then the council staff said that there weren’t any beds available in Dublin anyway, she says.
Eventually, that man was accommodated though, says Santoro.
A Dublin City Council spokesperson says that, in general, a person who becomes homeless should apply to the local authority where they became homeless.
“What is critical is that local authorities and homeless services have regard to the applicant’s long-term housing need as well as the emergency need,” he says. “Failure to do so can result in poor outcomes in the longer term,”
In December 2020, the Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien, a Fianna Fáil TD, wrote to all the council chief executives “asking local authorities to ensure that the local connection is not operating as a barrier in the provision of emergency accommodation”, says a spokesperson for the Department of Housing.
Local authorities are “generally … providing accommodation on a nightly basis and offering support to people to return to their county of origin”, he says.
The local connection rule doesn’t make sense to most people who find themselves homeless, says Santoro. “If you came from Romania and you’re working on a building site, and you just left your job in a meat packing plant in another county, you don’t know what local connection means.”
She thinks councils should liaise with each other to decide who is taking responsibility for an individual. She cannot advise someone to return to another county when there is no offer of accommodation there either, she says.
Crisis Point for Families
There has been an increase in the number of eviction notices issued this year and that has led to a surge in family homelessness, says Mike Allen, director of advocacy with Focus Ireland.
There have been a number of times recently when there was no emergency accommodation available in Dublin for families, he says.
“It comes in waves,” Allen says. There was a shortage of accommodation a few weeks ago and again last week there was no emergency accommodation available for families in the South Dublin County Council area, he says.
Allen says that when there is no emergency accommodation available, council staff ask families if they can stay with other relatives temporarily, but not all can.
If a family has nowhere else to go, Focus Ireland staff advise them that a place of safety would be the local Garda station, he says.
The Garda press office didn’t respond in time for publication to questions about how many families slept in Garda stations in recent weeks and whether that is a suitable emergency response for homeless children.
Allen says that Focus Ireland hopes to meet with a deputy Garda commissioner in the near future to try to plan for these emergencies, he says. As far as he is aware there are no records kept of the number of families sleeping in Garda stations.
“The immediate short-term solution is that there needs to be more emergency accommodation,” he says. “The other short-term solution is a pause on evictions.”
The councils could also allocate more social homes to homeless families, he says. “Greater priority to households who are homeless would help empty out the emergency accommodation.”
The Department of Housing is aware of the pressures being experienced across the country in the current climate, a spokesperson said.
It is “liaising with local authorities to assist them in providing solutions to support those who may find themselves homeless”, they said.