When Papy Kasongo and his family got refugee statuses in May 2019, they knew it was time to find a home.
“We needed to move out of the direct provision centre,” said Kasongo recently, sitting behind the wheel of his red car outside Balbriggan train station as the rain beat down on its roof.
They printed the application form for social housing to get on to Fingal County Council’s waiting list and to help with approval for the rent subsidy Housing Assistance Payment (HAP).
But back then, they still struggled with English, says Kasongo. They couldn’t wrap their heads around the forms.
Kasongo and his wife Nadine grew up speaking French in the Republic of the Congo. “It is very frustrating if you don’t know English.”
The form was long with many personal questions, like the asylum questionnaire they had to fill out when they first got here, says Kasongo.
Luckily, volunteers from the Society of St Vincent de Paul would drop into their direct provision centre to help residents fill out these forms. “I don’t know if you can get that if you’re not in direct provision,” he said.
With their help, Kasongo applied at the council’s office in Blanchardstown.
They sent the form back after 12 weeks. “Just because my wife didn’t sign one [page],” he says, shaking his index finger.
Kasongo was annoyed that nobody checked when he had submitted it, he says. “The form is too big, I tell you. You can easily miss one page.”
That immigrants can find it baffling to navigate the forms needed to apply for housing was flagged as an issue in Fingal County Council’s 2019–2024 Migrant Integration and Social Cohesion Strategy.
Beyond immigrants, others can also struggle to navigate council paperwork. Like people who can’t read or write, or those with mental health challenges, says Aoife Kelly-Desmond, managing solicitor at Mercy Law Resource Centre, a non-profit offering free legal counsel to people experiencing homelessness and housing difficulties.
The integration strategy suggests ways to make the process smoother, and there have been changes since Kasongo and his wife filled out the forms.
A spokesperson for Fingal County Council said the application form has been reviewed at a national level. “With input from authorities including staff from FCC [Fingal County Council].”
Despite an upgrade in 2021, the current form isn’t too different from its 2019 edition. But there are tweaks here and there.
The new form has an item about data protection rights that wasn’t there before.
The section asking about an applicant’s criminal history has been moved further down.
The old form had sheets needing to be filled out by employers, too, which made it longer.
Kasongo, the man in Balbriggan, says that not having direct provision as an option on the form had made it more difficult. As had council staff members’ lack of understanding of the implications of living within that system.
When Fingal County Council sent back his application over the missing signature, St Vincent de Paul volunteers told him to apply to Dublin City Council instead.
There, staff told him he had no local connections and refused to take the application, he says.
He went back, though, this time with a St Vincent de Paul volunteer. The volunteer told council workers that Kasongo and his family didn’t have meaningful ties to any location.
“She explained to them that these people are in direct provision. They can move all the time,” he said.
A spokesperson for Fingal County Council said that since drawing up its 2019–2024 integration strategy, it has run mandatory training for its housing staff.
“Which includes training on Public Sector Duty, Equality & Diversity, Dignity at work,” they said.
Its housing department has also worked with other offices within the council to draw up a framework to bring in professional interpretation services, the spokesperson said.
The council’s current integration strategy recommends capitalising on language skills already among staff and beefing up language diversity further.
Language barriers and the complex process can make for awkward interactions between staff – especially housing staff and those in charge of community funding – and immigrants, it says.
“Staff also described how challenging they find communicating difficult decisions,” it says. They said it’s hard to describe the reason behind those decisions, says the document.
“For some this means ‘repeatedly going back, trying different ways to get the message across,’” it says.
The training it has since offered aims to ensure that staff deal with all customers fairly and without discrimination, said the spokesperson. “We strive to provide the best customer care service possible and treat everyone equally.”
They have also made tenant induction videos, said the spokesperson. The videos on its YouTube channel cover stuff like how to apply for HAP online and general information about the rent subsidy for both tenants and landlords. They’re all in English, though.
The council will publish recent progress on implementing its integration strategy in an annual report due in December, said its spokesperson.
Kelly-Desmond, the managing solicitor at Mercy Law Resource Centre, says they have dealt with marginalised applicants who didn’t get basic support from local authorities. “Despite the local authority being fully aware of their vulnerabilities.”
That meant sustained periods of homelessness for them with no way out, said Kelly-Desmond.
Local authorities should ensure that vulnerable people have someone to rely on when trying to navigate the process on their own, she says.
Their research into the experiences of people with mental-health problems, she said, shows how helpful it is when an applicant meets a supportive housing officer in their local council.
Kasongo, the man in Balbriggan, said he wouldn’t have been able to conquer the process if volunteers at St Vincent de Paul hadn’t walked him through it.
“If you have people who have experience to help you, you understand, and then you do it,” he said.
Kasongo, his wife and their four kids are living in a three-bedroom house rented with support from HAP now. “But with social housing there’s a backlog,” he said.