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OPINION: Homelessness a problem not just in cities

Sunday, 23rd June, 2019 5:00pm
OPINION: Homelessness a problem not just in cities

HOMELESSNESS in West Cork has been described by Novas – the only housing and homeless charity directly supporting those experiencing homelessness in the region – as ‘a hidden issue’ as many of those affected are not counted in the official statistics. These may be couch surfing, victims of domestic violence or in hospital.

During the first five months of 2019, Novas has yet again set records in the numbers of people supported who were experiencing homelessness in West Cork, reflecting the situation nationally. Obviously the bigger numbers of homeless people are clustered in the big cities, and they tend to hog all the headlines in media coverage of this national scandal that we, as a nation, should be ashamed of, however it is here on our doorstep too in West Cork and because it is spread over such a wide area – from Bandon to the Beara and Mizen peninsulas – it does not manifest itself as dramatically as, say, the images of people sleeping in doorways on the streets of Dublin and Cork.

And yet, it is a grim reality for the 115 individuals and families that Novas has supported so far this year, from January to May, a 17.3% increase on the same period last year. The top three numbers of referrals came from Clonakilty, Bandon and Bantry areas.

A fifth of its clients so far in 2019 have been in the age bracket of 18 to 25 and there have been 96 children among the families that have been supported. Of major concern is that more than half of the people supported by the Novas service in West Cork expressed concerns relating to their mental health as a result of their housing or homelessness situation.

‘The trauma of homelessness can be an significant addition to the struggles and difficulties that people experience,’ according to Patrick Healy of Novas. ‘There is a risk of people being placed in a vulnerable situation that deprives them of a place of peace, comfort, and sanctuary.’ 

Many of the people experiencing homelessness in West Cork are relying on the availability of hotels and guesthouses as emergency accommodation, but with the tourist season about to get busier for the summer months, their options are going to become more limited and this will only add to the stress of people already traumatised by their housing situation, and especially the children.

The adverse childhood experiences that can arise from this experience have untold consequences for families and children, according to the Novas report for January to May. What has been expressed by families, young people and children to this service is the deep sense of shame that is associated with being homeless in a rural area.

The section of the report, headlined ‘Impacts of family homelessness in West Cork,’ makes for uncomfortable and indeed distressing reading: ‘What has been evident for the families supported by the Novas West Cork service is the isolating impact that the trauma of homelessness has had on every aspect of a family’s life.

‘Families, children and young people have been, in some cases, staying over one year in emergency accommodation. Often, this accommodation is precarious with many families having no option but to frequently move between various B&Bs.’ This emphasises the fact that rural homelessness presents unique difficulties, challenges and significant risks to families experiencing homelessness in West Cork.

Since 2014 there have been significant annual increases in the number of people accessing the Novas service – a rise of more than 539%. From January to May, a total of 52.2% of its clients had been evicted from the private rental market (due to landlords selling, moving in to their own property, undergoing renovations, inability to pay rent) and a further 22.6% as a result of a relationship breakdown; 62% of clients supported were women, some of whom had been victims of domestic violence.

In its latest report, Novas warns that its service is presently at capacity in managing crisis interventions and that it is highly concerning that, due to this increase in clients in crisis, this has impacted the key role of this service in providing preventative and therapeutic supports (tenancy sustainment) to those with varying complex needs who are at risk of homelessness in the community. Because it has had to adapt and extend its services to more people than ever, more staff will be needed to cope with the situation.

The saddest part of all is that there seems to be no end in sight to the homelessness problem at both national and local levels.