Evening Echo Opinion: Frozen out of the housing market – so fix it

Conventional political wisdom says there are no votes in fixing homelessness. Maybe that explains our spiralling housing crisis.

homelessIn 2011, 34 people slept rough for one night or more in Cork City. Last year, that figure was 284. As of the end of October this year, there are 311 people sleeping rough on the streets of Ireland’s second city.

By any measure, that’s a damning indictment of the Government which came to power in 2011. That said, horrible as it is, people sleeping rough is only the tip of a far greater problem.

Last week I visited the Cork Simon Community soup kitchen for a chat with the staff and to see first-hand the services they provide. A hot meal is given to anyone who needs it, in a warm, secure environment and most evenings up to fifty people call in. Almost half of them are in private rented accommodation. It’s no exaggeration to say that people who cannot afford to feed themselves are potentially only one rent payment away from homelessness.

The weeks around the recent Budget saw a lengthy stand-off between the Departments of Finance and Environment on the twin issues of rent certainty and rent allowance. The conflict centred on the seemingly unstoppable force of Labour’s Environment Minister Alan Kelly meeting the apparently immovable object of Fine Gael’s Finance Minister Michael Noonan.

Kelly was pushing for rent certainty and an increase in rent allowance. Noonan was reportedly having none of it, saying that rent certainty would interfere with the market and that landlords would just up rents to swallow up any increase in rent allowance.

The front line of homelessness

Now, if you wanted to find out about any issue, you’d talk to the experts, wouldn’t you? If you wanted to find out about – say – homelessness, you’d go to the people on the front line of helping the homeless on a daily, nightly, hourly basis.

People like Sister Stan of Focus Ireland, Brother Kevin of the Capuchin Day Centre and Father Peter McVerry. People like the Simon Community.

The people who know most about homelessness all speak with one voice on an immediate way to help prevent more yet people falling between the cracks: increase rent allowance and guarantee rent certainty. Rent allowance hasn’t increased in two-and-a-half years and in that time rents are up by up to 30%. Landlords would be prevented from increasing rents to absorb any rent allowance increase if tenants had rent certainty.

The Kelly/Noonan stand-off eventually resolved itself in the decision that rent supplement would not be increased but rents would be frozen for two years.

Speaking personally as someone living in private rented accommodation, the news of an impending rent freeze resulted in my getting a panicky call from my landlord suggesting that I might like to have a chat – as a matter of some urgency – about a 20% rent increase. Anecdotal evidence on Twitter suggests I’m far from alone.

The rent freeze was signed into law by President Higgins on the 4th of December. It certainly grants breathing room to those currently in private rented accommodation but without an increase in rent allowance it does nothing to help those currently stuck in emergency accommodation and those frozen out of a skyrocketing rental market.

As of September, there are 200 people in emergency accommodation in Cork. Those are the people who have fallen between the cracks, out of private rented accommodation but – to be simplistic – who are not yet sleeping on the streets.

Homelessness is a huge problem, one with myriad causes and one which – for Government – has no immediately obvious easy solution. We had a “Super-Junior” minister (Jan O’Sullivan) with responsibility for connecting the different departments involved in tackling homelessness – for instance, Social Protection, Environment and Health – but that position was reshuffled out of existence last year.

Talking with Simon staff as people eat their dinners in an environment of dignity and respect, I’m left with the impression that Jan O’Sullivan’s old position needs to be reinstated as a matter of urgency. I’m offered several suggestions as to how we might begin to get to work at fixing homelessness but they all seem to depend on political goodwill.

For instance, as of September, there are 424 social houses currently boarded up in Cork City and 268 more in the county.

Supply is an obvious problem in our housing crisis and it seems obvious that we need to look at new builds in social housing and – perhaps – incentivising landlords to rent to people living currently in homelessness. We also need to look at the type of accommodation on offer. Most of the accommodation currently available in Cork is two and three bedroom, but the majority of homeless people are single.

As in all politics, joined-up thinking is vital. As is goodwill. Again, it seems a “Minister for Homelessness” would be a godsend for some of the most vulnerable people in our Republic.

Alan Kelly and Michael Noonan’s “war of words”

Speaking of politics, surely given their bitter fight over the issue of rent and the fact that the day-to-day lives of real and very desperate people depended upon their decisions, tensions must still run high between Alan Kelly and Michael Noonan?

Miriam O’Callaghan certainly seemed to think so, on RTÉ’s Prime Time as the alleged hostilities raged.

“What will happen next in the war of words between the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly?” she asked. According to the Irish TimesMiriam Lord, Noonan and Kelly were actually having a pint together in the Dáil members’ bar and watching the telly as O’Callaghan spoke.

It was Noonan’s round.

“Give us two more pints there, Peadar,” the Finance Minister allegedly said, “and turn off that auld shite while you’re at it.”

Conventional political wisdom says there are no votes in fixing homelessness. Maybe conventional political wisdom is right, but you’ll have a lot of people looking for your vote in the New Year.

If you want to fix homelessness, tell them your vote depends on it.

♦ Cork Simon can be contacted on corksimon.ie or 021 4278728

(Published in the Evening Echo, 17th December 2015)

Donal O’Keeffe

Cork Simon and Homelessness

Last week, I wrote a piece on homelessness ahead of the Cork Simon Ball. I was attempting to drum up some publicity for a picture I had donated for auction and I’m delighted to report that the piece was bought for €950. Many thanks to Colin Hanley of Medialab Limited, Galway, who made the generous purchase. Much gratitude too to Philip Nolan and to all who helped him raise €649 on Twitter. In total, that’s €1,599 which will do a lot to help some very vulnerable people. Well done, everyone!

In the course of putting that piece together, I had a few conversations with Sophie Johnston of Cork Simon. I had asked a number of questions about homelessness, among them “Has Cork Simon seen an increase in demand for its services since the economic downturn?”, “What are the reasons for homelessness? and “How do homeless people pass the time?

I found Sophie’s replies most informative and, with her permission, I reproduce them below. 

Increase in demand for services

Cork Simon has seen a steady increase in demand in recent years. In 2013 over 1,000 different people used our services. The number of people using our services increased by 16% in 2013 and the number of people sleeping rough also continued to increase during 2013, despite the addition of extra beds at Cork Simon.

(Towards the end of 2012, in response to a significant increase in the number of people sleeping rough, we added four extra beds at our Emergency Shelter bringing the total number of beds at the Shelter to 48. This time last year we also opened a five bed extension to one of our high support houses, bringing the total number of high support beds at Cork Simon to 52).

In total we have 127 beds (between our Emergency Shelter, our five high support houses and our supported independent-living flats) and these beds are all full every night of the year. At the moment about 7 people are sleeping rough on the streets of Cork nightly.

Soup Run

In addition to the increase in the number of people using our services and the number of people sleeping rough, about half the people availing of our Soup Run are in private rented accommodation.  They are most likely using all available funds to pay their rent and don’t have money left for food – they’re quite likely on the edge of homelessness and possibly one pay cheque, one social welfare payment, or one emergency away from homelessness.

We meet approximately 30 people a night at the Soup Run. The Soup Run is often people’s first point of contact with Cork Simon. From here, staff and volunteers are able to link people in with the most appropriate services.

Reasons for Homelessness

Last year we published a report on pathways to homelessness, called How Did I Get Here?  The report found that there is rarely one reason for why someone becomes homeless. In almost all cases, many different factors contribute to someone becoming homeless. These factors usually build up over a prolonged period of time – often beginning in childhood – until finally someone finds themselves overwhelmed by the multiplicity of difficulties in their lives. A combination of early school leaving, educational disadvantage, time spent in care, long-term unemployment, substance misuse, relationship breakdown, mental distress and poor physical health are all common factors that contribute to people’s pathways to homelessness.

How do people who are homeless pass the time?

Isolation, boredom, loneliness and the erosion of confidence and self-esteem are serious issues for people who are homeless and can lead to the deterioration of mental health and a dependence on alcohol and drugs as a means of escapism. We run a number of programmes in an effort to address these issues. One of these is our activities programme. The activities team, in collaboration with residents, organise events and activities from bingo nights to music lessons to ladies afternoons to cookery classes to nature walks. The idea is to provide people with a meaningful use of their time, to encourage them to socialise and build relationships once again and to support them to gently re-build their confidence.

The activities programme is often a stepping stone towards our Employment and Training Programme which works with people on an individual basis, identifying any gaps in their education and training and encouraging and supporting them on a pathway to training and employment. The Employment and Training team run courses based on the needs of residents ranging from basic literacy, numeracy and IT classes to FETAC accredited courses in areas such as woodwork, horticulture and culinary operations.

The Employment and Training team have also been successful in building relationships with businesses and developing work-experience placements and ultimately supporting people in progressing to employment. Many people who are homeless left school before the age of 14 and have difficulties with literacy and numeracy. Many also have few qualifications and limited work experience so there is a real practical need for the Employment and Training Programme, as well as it also offering people a meaningful use of their time and a way to re-build confidence and build relationships among peers and within the wider community.

Alongside skilled staff, we are lucky at Cork Simon to have a strong volunteer community. Many volunteers will spend a few hours each week with residents running activities, or doing something as simple as having a chat and a cup of tea with a resident or going for a walk. Little things like this help to give structure and routine, and help people to feel a part of their wider community again.

Here’s a link to Brian O’Connell’s report that he did just before Christmas and which covers the activity programme’s music session at the Emergency Shelter – http://www.rte.ie/radio/utils/radioplayer/rteradioweb.html#!rii=9%3A10228700%3A15036%3A06%2D12%2D2013%3A – skip to 43:20 to hear the report.

Many thanks to Sophie Johnston and to all at Cork Simon.

Donal O’Keeffe

Homelessness: There but for

“When I was living in New York and didn’t have a penny to my name, I would walk around the streets and occasionally I would see an alcove or something. And I’d think, that’ll be good, that’ll be a good spot for me when I’m homeless.”

– Larry David.

Last Christmas, on a cold evening of misting rain, I was walking down Carey’s Lane when I saw a pale, thin young man sitting on the pavement opposite the Pavilion, beside him a paper cup with a few pence in it. I stopped and gave him €2. I felt embarrassed. I’m not well-off, but €2 is still little enough to me that I always feel guilty it’s not more. Then I feel it’s awful that anyone is reduced to begging for €2 from the likes of me, so I just want to drop the coin and move off as fast as I can without adding to their humiliation. “Happy Christmas, man,” he said, “I hope it’s a good one for you and your family.”

That small kindness stopped me dead. I stuttered a bit and then I thanked him and I asked him was he alright. “Ah sure look,” he said, laughing, “It could be worse.” I couldn’t help it. I started laughing too and that made him laugh more.

I’d say he was 24 or 25. I asked him would he eat a sandwich or something and he said he’d love a Big Mac. He declined my offer to bring him around the corner to McDonald’s. When I returned with his grub, we chatted for a bit about this and that. I didn’t want to intrude too much, and we spoke in generalities. The state of the country. I asked if he found people to be generous. Most were, he felt, but times were very tight.

“God help us,” he said, “I feel sorry for people with mortgages. Sure they haven’t a washer.” And we started laughing again and I shook his hand and I wished him a happy Christmas. As I left, he repeated his blessing of my family and he started coughing, a horrible hacking cough that followed me home. I’ve kept an eye out for him but I haven’t seen him since.

It’s nearly April now but the nights are still very cold. Most nights, seven people are sleeping rough on the streets of Cork. I wouldn’t like to be one of them. Cork’s Simon Community has a total of 127 beds and every one of them is full 365 days a year. Over 1000 people used their services in 2013, a year-on-year increase of 16%. Cork Simon’s Soup Run feeds an average of thirty people a night. Almost half of those people are in private, rented accommodation. It is no exaggeration to say that people who cannot afford to feed themselves are potentially only one rent payment away from homelessness.

Cork Penny Dinners, which was founded as a soup kitchen during the Famine, reports that two years ago they were serving around 150 meals a week. Now they are serving well over 1000 meals per week.

Cork Simon’s ‘How Did I Get Here?‘ report found there is rarely one reason why someone becomes homeless. In most cases, many different factors contribute (often beginning in childhood) until finally the person is overwhelmed by the multiplicity of difficulties in their lives. Educational disadvantage, time in care, long-term unemployment, substance misuse, relationship breakdown, mental distress and poor physical health are common factors contributing to homelessness.

Homeless people suffer from boredom, isolation and the erosion of self-esteem. Mental health suffers and dependence on alcohol or drugs can become a means of escapism. A dedicated team of highly skilled staff at Cork Simon works 24/7 to address these issues. Cork Simon provides people with a meaningful use of their time, to encourage them to socialise and build relationships once again. They gently help people to re-build their own confidence.

For a few hours each week, volunteers help out by chatting over a cup of tea or going for a walk. Little things help to give people structure and routine, and help them feel part of their wider community again.

If you’d like to help out, in however small a way, please call Caitriona at Cork Penny Dinners on 085 1201742. Cork Simon needs volunteers too, so please call 021 4278728. Maybe Larry David is right. Maybe when we walk down the street, we should all be on the lookout for doorways and alcoves. Maybe it would do no harm at all if, every so often, we imagined “that’ll be a good spot for me when I’m homeless”.

– Donal O’Keeffe

P.S. In writing this, I was greatly helped by Sophie Johnston of Cork Simon. I’ve reproduced her contributions here.

signed vinbLast month, my caricature of Vincent Browne, signed by the man  himself, sold for €950 at the Cork Simon Ball. Philip Nolan also raised €649 on-line, so in total we raised €1,599. Not a bad day’s work on the Tweet Machine.