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The director of advocacy at Focus Ireland, a homeless charity that supports families, says that there is effectively a waiting list in Dublin at the moment for emergency homeless accommodation.
Those on it are often families with children forced to sofa-surf, bounced between friends and relatives, because they cannot get a spot in a homeless hostel or hub, says Mike Allen, the director of advocacy at the charity.
“It’s totally unsatisfactory for the children. There are a lot of families in that grey area,” he said last week.
Meanwhile, nationwide, the number of people seeking legal help from the Mercy Law Resource Centre because they have been refused homeless accommodation has recently risen, says a solicitor for the law centre.
“We are definitely seeing people who are struggling to access emergency accommodation,” says Paul Dornan, a solicitor, on the phone on Friday.
They have had 20 cases so far this year and seven of those were in Dublin, he says.
Threshold, a housing advice charity, is also dealing with a backlog of tenants who are supposed to have left their homes but have stayed on past their eviction dates.
Threshold is working with 302 households who are overholding, said Ann-Marie O’Reilly, the national advocacy manager.
The government’s decision last week not to extend a ban on evictions for those living in the rental sector was quickly followed by a flurry of coverage of people who will now have to leave their homes in the coming months.
Those forced to turn to homeless services because they have to leave their homes, yet are unable to find a new private rental, are set to also face a battle in accessing emergency accommodation.
Homeless cases are complex, says Allen, and the issue of defining who is homeless isn’t black and white.
A family may have friends or relatives who they can stay with for a few nights, but that doesn’t mean that they can live there for long, he says.
At the same time, the councils in the Dublin region have very few spaces available in emergency accommodation. “They have to push back really strongly and the family then has to maximise their case to get in,” he says.
Lots of families are trying to get emergency accommodation, he says. “There essentially is waiting lists for emergency accommodation.”
Sofa surfing used to be associated with single homeless people, not families with children, says Allen. But it’s become more common for families recently, he says, as they have been refused emergency accommodation.
Public representatives often don’t understand the amount of pent-up demand for homeless accommodation, he says. “If we got 1,000 homes for people in emergency accommodation, the emergency accommodation would immediately fill up again.”
The numbers of people who are homeless wouldn’t fall initially because of the queue of families waiting for places in emergency accommodation, he says.
A spokesperson for the Dublin Region Homeless Executive said that it doesn’t have a waiting list for emergency accommodation.
“The DRHE does not currently operate waiting lists for access to emergency accommodation,” he says.
“Families are assessed by the relevant local authority as soon as possible if they are at risk of or are experiencing homelessness and supports provided based on the assessment,” they said.
Families Sleeping Rough
When there is a shortage of emergency accommodation, council staff make a call on whether a family is at risk of sleeping rough, says Allen.
There is always a possibility they could be wrong, he says. “There is a risk involved.”
Just before the ban on no-fault evictions was introduced in October 2022 there were a number of times that Focus Ireland staff were concerned that a family really had nowhere else to go that night, he says.
In those instances, when all other options have been exhausted, Focus Ireland staff advise the family to go to a Garda station, says Allen. “The only state institution that is open at night.”
Some families don’t do that and they might sleep in their car instead if they have one, he says.
Those cases largely dried up once the eviction ban came in, says Allen. “We’re not really seeing this in significant numbers.”
But last week, there were a couple of families that Focus Ireland staff were worried about like this, he says. “They were particularly complex situations.”
Because of the complexity of the cases, he isn’t sure whether that is a sign of things to come, he says. But “we are certainly very concerned about that”.
Refused Emergency Accommodation
Dornan, the solicitor, says his organisation is seeing people battling to access emergency accommodation.
Towards the end of 2021 and into 2022, the Mercy Law Resource Centre, which provides free legal advocacy for people experiencing homelessness, noted a significant increase in cases of people refused emergency accommodation.
Nationwide, the numbers coming to them for that reason increased by 180 percent from 2022 to 2021, says a press release issued late last year.
Dornan says the solicitors advocating for people experiencing homelessness in all 31 council areas in the country have recently noticed changes.
“There is a big increase this year in the numbers of people accessing our service in relation to being refused or having difficulty in accessing emergency accommodation,” he says.
“What we are hearing is that people are being turned away at the desk without a homeless assessment taking place,” he says. “They are definitely being encouraged to go elsewhere before they get the assessment.”
Some councils are asking families for extra paperwork that wasn’t required before, he says.
Then, even once the council has assessed them to be homeless, they are still being encouraged to go and stay with friends or relatives, says Dornan.
A family that is sofa surfing is legally homeless, says Dornan. It’s not reasonable to expect them to move around each night or to stay in someone else’s rented home without the permission of the landlord.
The 1988 Housing Act defines somebody as homeless if in a council’s opinion, the household has no other accommodation that they can reasonably be expected to use.
Says Dornan: “Where the accommodation is overcrowded or if they are not legally allowed to be there [in someone else’s tenancy] it would be difficult for the council to say that they are not homeless.”
If a host family’s landlord hasn’t said another family can also move in, they could all face eviction as landlords can legally evict for overcrowding, he says.
The Mercy Law Resource Centre has issued judicial review proceedings against councils in cases where people have been refused emergency accommodation or where the accommodation offered was “grossly inadequate”, he says.
Families who are being refused emergency accommodation and genuinely have nowhere else to stay should contact the Mercy Law Resource Centre, says Dornan.
“If somebody is being told that you can stay with your cousin, in their HAP-rented flat, you would probably be able to push back against that and say, no they are homeless because they have no legal entitlement to be there,” he says.
Landlords served more than 1,800 eviction notices to renters in Dublin in the third quarter of last year, according to the most recent data from the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB). Nationwide, the figure was 4,741 notices.
Alongside served notices that haven’t yet hit the termination date, there is a backlog of pending evictions of people who have overstayed in their private-rented tenancies too, says O’Reilly of Threshold.
Threshold is currently working with more than 300 tenant households who are overholding, she says.
“People feel like they don’t have any option,” says O’Reilly and most tenants are hoping that they will find another rental property soon.
“It’s not something we advise people to do, there could be various repercussions for them down the line,” she says.
The RTB adjudication process takes around five months at the moment, says O’Reilly. If the notice is valid the RTB could find against the tenant for overholding and award damages to the landlord, she says.
After that, the tenant’s name is published on a searchable database on the RTB website, visible to future potential landlords and estate agents, which could make it difficult to get a private-rental home in the future.