By Carly Bailey.
There isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t hear mention of some facet of the ongoing housing crisis. Stories are regularly reported regarding the numbers of vacant housing lying empty and families left sleeping in Garda stations or in their cars. We hear about students sleeping four or more to a room, of young couples who are renting, unable to afford to save a deposit to buy their own home.
Every week when I am out knocking on doors across Dublin South West, I regularly see the level of overcrowding that now exists, with two or three generations living together. They are sharing rooms, sofas and floors to ensure that their adult children and grandchildren are spared the horrors of emergency accommodation. Families are at breaking point.
I have also visited many people forced to live in B&Bs and hotels. The conditions are often horrendous. Children are not having their basic needs met. Many are now being referred for psychology, occupational therapy and speech and language support, as the restrictive environment is affecting their ability to reach child development milestones.
Adults’ needs are also not met. Cooped up with no cooking or laundry facilities, often sleeping two or three to a bed, with no play area for the children, it is heartbreaking but inevitable to see fully functional adults become filled with shame and frustration. Many will go on to develop mental health issues. This can lead to addiction, abuse and violence, relationship breakdown and in tragic cases, suicide.
Family hubs are a step up but there aren’t enough places for every family who need one and often families are stuck there for months and in many cases, years. Institutionalising people is never going to be the right response to this issue, our history teaches us this well.
The damage inflicted by homelessness cannot be overstated. A home means so much more than a roof over your head, and I should know. My family became homeless in 2013 when we lost our home to a vulture fund. We found rented accommodation and lived there for the next five years. We tried hard to get back on our feet by going back to college. However, with the severe shortage of rental properties and the inevitable increase in rents, we found ourselves homeless for the second time last year.
It impacted on our mental health, our relationship. It affected our children and their education. While we did find somewhere to rent eventually, it has left yet another indelible scar. It is a crisis that it is hard to recover from, especially knowing that it could happen all over again in the morning.
‘Housing first’ policy needs long-term investment
We also have what is often described as ‘traditional’ homelessness. Many people who fall into this category may experience mental health issues or addiction problems – often arising from past trauma or abuse. They may have a disability, have grown up in care or have gone through a relationship breakdown. The best approach to tackle this kind of homelessness is permanent supportive housing, otherwise known as a ‘housing first’ policy.
This policy provides both long-term housing and wrap-around services and interventions to help support people. Such policy requires substantial funding and resources. Countries such as Finland have managed to significantly reduce their homeless population as a result of implementing a housing first policy. While this policy featured in the Rebuilding Ireland 2017 plan, the target lacked ambitions. The target was to house 300 people. They only managed to house a third of that target, largely due to the lack of availability of one-bedroom properties.
Policies like this require much more long-term and joined-up thinking, something that is largely missing from the policy making arena in this country. The current response is still largely tied to the staircase model, which starts with one-night placements before moving on to six-month stays and then longer-term options. Many people fall through the cracks with this system. Others prefer what they would describe as the safety of the streets. There is still so much work to be done to help support those who find themselves homeless.
Social housing should create communities
We also have the issue of affordable housing and the ongoing conversation around social housing and whether it should be extended to include people across income brackets. Many policy options have been made available to the government, ranging from public housing models, cooperative housing to various cost-rental models. While some of these have been utilised in one-off housing developments, this has been an ad hoc response. There is a real lack of ambition and failure to implement these ideas into national housing policy. We need a much wider spread of housing options to begin to address the growing numbers of people struggling with housing costs.
Planning is also vitally important to ensure that developments create communities and not just housing units. We require sustainable communities, with a fair mix of public, affordable and private green homes to suit families, older people and individuals. For communities to thrive, they need shops, community amenities and spaces, educational campuses, decent cycling infrastructure, green spaces, children’s and teenagers’ facilities as well as decent public transport links. Again, this requires innovative and creative thinking and an ability to think beyond traditional housing policy.
It is very clear that the government has little appetite to build social and public housing. Its ideological position lies in the belief that it is the responsibility of the market rather than the state to house people. But the reality is that the market is only interested in housing people who can afford to pay market rates. The market has no interest in providing homes for people on low and middle incomes. The Government has no interest in interfering with market rates.
Housing costs have become unaffordable for growing numbers of people and families across Ireland, particularly in large towns and cities. Governments solution to date is to provide housing assistance payments to help tenants cover the high rents. They have chosen to invest in lining the pockets of landlords rather than provide public housing.
It is well understood that there is no silver bullet quick fix to this. Ultimately, the solution to this housing crisis is more housing. Indeed, Government use this mantra almost daily.
However, there is no denying that this crisis was entirely foreseeable and that they have been saying this for far too many years. Their excuse has very definitely worn thin at this point. There are any number of things that could be done immediately to ease the crisis including a rent freeze. They could immediately adequately resource local authorities to properly investigate ownership of vacant homes and provide more support to help vulnerable and marginalised people find accommodation.
Left must work together to find solutions
This crisis needs innovative thinking, creativity and a willingness to work for the common good before we will ever see an end to housing inequality. The market holds no feeling of obligation, empathy or conscience. It is profit-driven and designed only to deliver returns to shareholders. Parties of the left, including the Social Democrats, believe it is a function of the state to provide homes for those who need them. Unfortunately, the parties in power, both directly and indirectly, seem satisfied with the status quo.
The left must work together to provide policy solutions, to support legislation and to engage and activate citizens on this issue. It is vitally important that voters understand that this crisis is the fault of policy rather than of people. Government will continue to spin a narrative that infers blame and responsibility onto ordinary people. We must continue to counter the idea that the issue is the fault of ‘strategic defaulters’, uncooperative borrowers and ‘welfare cheats’. We must continue to challenge the dangerous notion that homelessness is normal.
This is not about ownership of an issue. No one party will solve this alone. We all want the same thing, which is for all people and all families, irrespective of income level, to have a stable and secure roof over their head, to feel a sense of purpose, dignity and respect. To have a place that they can call home. We must come together if we truly want to make that a reality.
Carly Bailey is the Vice Chair of the Social Democrats and the party’s general election candidate for Dublin South West. Follow her on Twitter @CarlyBee25.