THIS is the time of year when successive governments’ record on homelessness tends to be exposed as the seemingly never-ending failure that it is. The government’s not-very-convincing claims that things have improved in terms of tackling the crisis we have on our hands don’t seem to tally with the figures for homelessness and it is indeed difficult to detect much of a tangible difference being made.
Homelessness figures have been hovering just under the 10,000 mark for the past few years and that, it would seem, is only the tip of the iceberg, as the government keeps reclassifying the figures in a way that looks designed to mask the full extent of the problem. In fact, there has been a call from Anthony Flynn of Inner City Helping Homeless (ICHH) for a change in how the figures are compiled and he has written to the Taoiseach and opposition leaders urging them to have the Central Statistics Office take over the compilation of homelessness figures from the Department of Housing immediately, as he feels the figures the latter produces at present ‘are not worth the paper they are written on.’
That is quite a damning indictment of Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy and came in the wake of last week’s publication of figures which stated that 9,724 people were officially homeless in October – an increase of 26 – with the most scandalous and worrying aspect being that 3,725 of those living in emergency accommodation were children. Minister Murphy's Department faced criticism earlier this year after it removed more than 1,600 people from the figures as part of a recategorisation.
Amidst disagreement between the department, local authorities and housing charities on how to define homelessness for statistical purposes, ICHH claims that, compared with Minister Murphy’s first year in the job, there has been a year-on-year increase of 17% in the number of homeless families and children, as well as a 13% increase in the number of homeless adults over that same 12-month period.
The Minister points to small gains in certain areas, such as the number of families accessing emergency accommodation in Dublin dropping in October for the third consecutive month to 1,709 – which he described as ‘important progress for these families.’ While he concedes that there are still too many families and children experiencing this crisis, he claims ‘it’s certainly a positive to see that the number of families in emergency accommodation reduced by 44 in October, including 104 dependants.’
The children’s charity Bernardo’s has called for a six-month cap to be put on the use of B&Bs and hotels as emergency accommodation for children. Two years ago, the previous Housing Minister, Simon Coveney promised to stop using hotel rooms as emergency accommodation for homeless families with effect from the middle of last year – except in special circumstances – but this failed to happen.
At that time, there were 1,200 families, including 2,500 children, living in hotel rooms. This has to take its toll on families, mentally and physically, especially on children, whose self-esteem is shattered by their circumstances, which are not pleasant at this or any other time of year. Despite many being moved on to family hubs – which are somewhat better – and some lucky enough to get social housing, the problem persists.
The government whose main party, Fine Gael, let the social house-building programme lapse during its first term in power from 2011 to 2016, will pay a heavy price politically for this failure. Even in darker, more needy times in the first 50 years of the Irish Free State and then the Republic, construction of social housing continued because there always was – and always will be – a need for it.
Ironically now, during the current upturn in our economic fortunes, we cannot seem to get our act together on social housing construction to anywhere near the extent that is needed. It smacks of a significant disconnect between those in power and those in need of housing.
People Before Profit have been organising protest marches recently to highlight the housing and homelessness issues, and it is appropriate to keep them out in the open until the powers-that-be demonstrate by way of tangible actions and outcomes that they are getting to grips with the crises. However, politicians of all hues have a duty to the electorate to collaborate constructively and to not use the current situation for cheap political point-scoring.
People affected by homelessness need to be made feel that their plight is not entirely hopeless and that they aren’t just being fed empty promises.