IRONICALLY, with the Christmas narrative about the birth of Jesus taking place in a stable at Bethlehem as a consequence of there having been no room at the inn, this year will see thousands of Irish families who have become homeless living in ‘temporary’ hotel accommodation. It is estimated that 1,200 families and 2,500 children are living in hotel rooms in cramped conditions.
This will make for logistical difficulties for Santa Claus when making his deliveries on Christmas eve, but even he won’t be able to provide the present all of them would like best – a family home of their own. Across the country, there are families living in hotel rooms, where they cannot cook proper meals for themselves and the lack of any semblance of privacy is not a healthy atmosphere in which to bring up children.
They certainly will not be looking forward to Christmas and, while many may get a few days’ respite staying with relatives or friends over the festive season, it will be back to the grim reality of the room at the inn come the new year and the uncertainty that will come with it, given the slow progress in the provision of social housing. The years of not providing enough such housing has caused a backlog that is going to take quite a bit of time to clear, which is not good news for those living in hotel rooms at the moment.
Cork hasn’t seen the same shocking increase as Dublin in the number of families becoming homeless, but Focus Ireland reports that there has been a steady rise in the numbers and also of those who are at serious risk of losing their home. In the Cork and Kerry region, the number of children who are homeless has gone up by almost 500% in two years – from 23 in October 2014 to 97 in October of this year.
Edel House, the only emergency accommodation for women and children in Cork city, has been at maximum capacity for some time, so most of the children and their families are staying in private hotels or B&Bs in Cork city. A telling comment from Ger Spillane of Focus Ireland was that he had never seen the figures for homelessness in Cork so high.
Homelessness is not just confined to the cities; rural areas such as West Cork are not immune from the problem. Last week’s Novas West Cork Homeless Report in respect of the period from July to October 2016 showed a 50% increase in the number of families and individuals experiencing homelessness compared with the same period in 2015.
As local Fianna Fáil TD, Margaret Murphy O’Mahony, pointed out in response to the report, ‘the threat of homelessness is as real in West Cork as it is in the cities,’ adding that increasing rents, even in rural areas, are putting pressure on families and causing some mental health issues also. The slow pace of public housing provision by Cork County Council means that people at risk of homelessness have nowhere to turn, she added, calling on Housing Minister Simon Coveney not to forget rural areas when addressing the problem.
Minister Coveney has, to his credit, taken up the challenge of tackling the homelessness problem and is staking his political reputation on it, but the task is enormous and even getting agreement to last week’s measures to cap rent increases in certain areas of the private market was difficult and, again, just another stopgap measure while waiting and, to a great extent, hoping for housing supply to increase to meet demand.
The fragile minority government he is part of is beholden to Fianna Fáil for its support every step of the way and there is still a long way ahead, mainly because the last Fine Gael-led government let the social housing programme lapse and the new administration is suffering the political fall-out from this failure.
The government decision to stop using hotel rooms as emergency accommodation for homeless families with effect from the middle of next year – except in special circumstances – is a laudable step towards addressing a so-called temporary solution that was never fit for purpose and it is hoped that the 1,200 families trapped in this situation now will be given proper social housing to restore their dignity and offer their children a community to be part of and some optimism for the future.