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Jeanette Birch has been living in homeless accommodation with her son for a year and a half.
It’s not her first time homeless, either. A few years ago, before he was born, she didn’t have a home either.
Birch says her prospects of getting a home seem to be slipping away. Previously number 110 on the housing list, her position is now over 200.
She accepts that people who are assessed by the council as needing to be rehoused due to illness or disability – and so have what’s known as medical priority – will be housed ahead of her, but that is a different list, she says. So she can’t work out why she is going backwards.
It’s not fair that after spending years homeless she isn’t prioritised in any way for a social home, says Birch.
In 2018, Dublin City Council reversed its policy of prioritising homeless households for social housing amid suggestions that some homeless families weren’t willing to take up private rental homes, and were waiting it out instead for permanent social homes.
Now, though, there are fewer private rental homes available and homeless people are struggling more than ever to find homes through rent subsidy schemes.
With the rental crisis worse than ever, and emergency accommodation facilities bursting at the seams, it’s time to look again at the allocation of social homes again, says Mike Allen, director of advocacy with Focus Ireland.
Thousands of new social homes will be allocated across Ireland in the coming months, says Allen. “They have got to use the social housing that is currently available to get people out of homelessness, otherwise we are banjaxed.”
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said that the policy is under review and the percentage of allocations set aside for homeless households is adjusted as required.
“As exits to HAP tenancies have fallen, more social housing has been made available to households experiencing homelessness,” she says.
The History of Homeless Priority
In 2015, the then Minister for Housing, Labour TD Alan Kelly, issued a directive that the Dublin councils must allocate 50 percent of social housing to households that had been homeless for more than six months, and other vulnerable households.
In 2016, the Dublin City Council Chief Executive, Owen Kegan wrote to Kelly urging him not to extend that directive, saying that some people were making themselves homeless.
Research by Focus Ireland, which tracked the complex trajectories of people into homelessness in 2016 and 2017, found that the majority of homeless families had recently lost a privately rented home, many of those had gone to stay with family first and then they eventually ended up in homeless accommodation.
“There is no evidence that people deliberately made themselves homeless,” says Allen. “That’s simply not true.”
Later in 2018 Dublin City Council stopped prioritising homeless people for social housing in its scheme of lettings, the rules for how it allocates social homes.
The then housing manager, Brendan Kenny said at the time that he hoped it would encourage homeless people to take up private rental options instead of waiting for a permanent social home.
Allen says that some families who had been homeless for a long time were reluctant to accept private rental options. “There was a reluctance on the part of some families who felt that they were near the top of the queue [to get a social home],” he says.
Fast forward to 2023 and according to its current scheme of lettings Dublin City Council does not prioritise homeless people for social housing, he says. Although in reality, the council does allocate a lot of social homes to homeless families, says Allen.
Most families who become homeless manage to find a new home in the first six months, he says. Some don’t though, often because they have additional needs, or are large families, or could be Traveller families, who face discrimination.
Single people can get stuck in homelessness for a very long time, he says. There are very few one-bedroom social homes and those that do come on stream are generally used for the Housing First programme, says Allen.
Single people who are long-term homeless and have complex needs are in with a chance through the Housing First programme, he says, including those with addictions and mental illnesses.
But for other single people who find themselves long-term homeless “the chances of you getting social housing are virtually zero”, he says. They need to try to find private rental options, he says.
Focus Ireland is currently struggling to find housing for young people leaving the care system, he says, because most one-bedroom social homes are allocated to Housing First. “The really severe case squeezes out the merely appalling case.”
Dublin City Council allocates housing to people in three bands, band 1 is for people who need to be rehoused for medical reasons, care leavers and other urgent cases, band 2 is for homeless people or those who are severely overcrowded and band 3 is general needs.
Any increase in allocations to homeless households would reduce the number of allocations to those with general needs, many of whom may be waiting 12 to 15 years for a social home.
The Dublin City Council spokesperson said on Tuesday that when the changes were agreed in 2018, the council committed to give at least 21 percent of social homes to households who were or had been homeless or were at risk of homelessness.
“This was to apply to households who had exited homelessness via Homeless HAP, households in emergency accommodation or those faced with an impending Notice of termination,” he says.
Since exits to HAP have fallen, the council is allocating more homes to those groups, he says. “This issue is under review by the Special Committee on Homelessness who will make a recommendation to the Housing SPC.”
What About HAP?
There is a severe shortage of affordable private rental homes in the city.
Three homeless people who are approved for the rent subsidy and deposit scheme, Homeless HAP, said this week that they would take a rental home anywhere in Ireland but that their approval for the Homeless HAP scheme cannot be transferred to another county outside of Dublin.
If they find a property in another council area they have to apply to that council’s housing list first and then apply for HAP there, they said.
The landlord is unlikely to wait around since a new social housing application can take months.
The Department of Housing didn’t respond in time for publication to queries sent Monday about whether the Homeless HAP scheme should be transferable between counties.
Birch says that despite a terrible experience with a violent illegal eviction in a previous rented home, she would try again. But she can’t find a HAP property she can afford, she says.
In 2019, she moved into a new home in Kildare, she says. She was working full-time and** **the rent was to be paid in cash.
Her hours were cut during Covid-19, she says. She asked the landlord if he would accept the HAP scheme, she says. Up to that point she had thought he was a really nice man, she says and got on really well with him.
But after she asked about HAP, he showed up with a group of others. She was assaulted and illegally evicted, she says. “I’m terrified of HAP, I’m terrified of having another landlord,” she says. “I know that is not the norm, but it’s not fit for purpose.”
Most rental properties in Dublin are more expensive than the Homeless HAP rate, she says, so the tenant has to pay extra rent to the landlord (known as a rent top-up) as well as the council rent.
That’s okay if you are working, says Birch, but she is relying on social welfare and cannot afford to pay the rent top-up.
She is grateful that her emergency accommodation is an apartment, she says and the staff are really nice, but it isn’t a permanent home and you aren’t allowed visitors.
“My son has never known what it is like to have anyone into his house,” she says. “He’s the most sociable, adorable little fella in the world.”
She wants her son to have a normal life, she says. The council should bring back homeless priority, says Birch, but only for people who have been in emergency accommodation for a year or more.
It should include those in severe overcrowding situations too, she says. But in the current homeless crisis, she doesn’t think the council should be allocating many homes to people who are housed.
“If you’re in a HAP property and it’s safe and your landlord has no intention of giving up, I don’t see the problem with it,” she says.
Space in Emergency Accommodation
There is currently no space in emergency homeless accommodation, says Allen.
Councils are under pressure and staff are actively discouraging families from entering homeless services, advising them to stay with friends or relatives, he says.
“Gatekeeping stuff to prevent people coming in because there isn’t any homeless accommodation,” he says. “Nor is there much in the pipeline.”
That is because many budget hotels and B&Bs are full and the council is running out of options to lease new buildings, he says.
At a recent meeting of the council’s housing committee, the housing manager, Coilín O’Reilly, said that the council allocated 2,500 new social homes last year. (That includes homes leased by the council for 25 years.)
Allen says that thousands of homes nationwide were completed towards the end of 2022 and so will be allocated in the coming months.
“There is a big bunch coming along now and that is a resource – and who gets that resource will make a big difference,” he says.
“We think that families who are long-term homeless should get a fair share of the houses that are coming on,” he says. Including those living in severely overcrowded situations, he said.
During Covid-19 , everyone accepted that vulnerable people should be vaccinated first, he says.
Likewise it isn’t necessarily the fairest thing to give the house to the next person on the list. “There are conflicting views of fairness,” he says.