Homelessness: Where the streets have so much pain

Homelessness is a complex and multi-faceted issue. Roisin Burke speaks to those working on the front line in Cork about what needs to be done to alleviate the crisis.

Addressing mental health, reducing rents, tackling addiction and building more houses are the key issues raised by experts on Cork’s homelessness situation.

Working on the front line of the homeless crisis is a harrowing job. Yet, worse still is the frustration that comes from seeing the solutions to the problems being faced, but having no one that will listen.

Southwest Regional vice president of Saint Vincent De Paul, Brendan Dempsey, listed a number of things that should be done to ease the severity of the crisis currently being faced on the streets of Cork.

Brendan Dempsey,High proportion of very vulernable people living on the streets.

For Mr Dempsey accommodation is a top priority.

“Homes needs to be provided. In particular, there is a terrible shortage of accommodation for single people.

“When the State was building houses, they did not build houses for single people and now we are in a place where it is extremely difficult to get accommodation to suit single people.”

As well as this Mr Dempsey said family accommodation and affordable housing need to be provided.

“The State needs to invest in housing. It needs to have its own housing stock.”

Mr Dempsey said rents are increasing at an alarming rate while wages are remaining static.

“A big part of the problem is housing costs. Current rates of pay don’t allow people to keep up with rental price increases.

Mr Dempsey also said there is a growing shortage of properties as landlords are leaving the property market.

“I know of a number of landlords who have left the market recently following bad experiences with tenants, rent deficits and damage to property. There needs to be better laws to protect landlords so that more people rent out properties.

“I know of a landlord who was caught for a year’s rent. It takes about a year to evict someone nowadays.

“There are a lot of landlords getting out of the game because of the rules. That is another aspect of it.”

Of course, Mr Dempsey said there are underlying issues that can influence and even cause homelessness, such as alcohol, drug and gambling addictions or mental health issues.

“It is estimated that 60% to 70% of people on the street should be in hospital. They need treatment, but the hospitals are not set up to look after them.

“It is a huge problem.”

Mr Dempsey said that there is a high proportion of very vulnerable people living on the streets.

“People being released from prison is another issue. We get calls from the prison telling us they are releasing someone who has nowhere to go. It is very sad.”

Volunteer Catriona Twomey, who has worked with Cork’s Penny Dinners for the past 12 years said addiction centres, mental health centres and residential centres are needed to reduce homelessness in Cork and in Ireland.

Catriona Twomey, Cork Penny Dinners: Long term support is vital.

“The Government needs to provide facilities that can assist people with their problems. Homelessness leads to other issues and other issues lead to homelessness, but regardless which way it happens, there are a lot of people suffering from addictions and mental health issues on the street.”

Ms Twomey said drastic action is needed to save lives. “We need to overhaul the country. The Government needs to provide for these people.”

The Penny Dinners volunteer said she is aware of adults with problems, staying at home because there is nowhere to go.

“I know of people being taken to hospital and then being let go again, given more medication and then sent on their way.

“These families need help. It is the humane thing to do, hospitals can’t cope, their services are stretched. The amount of people waiting to be seen is atrocious.

“Hospitals need extra staff to help save lives.

There should be hospitals with residential centres. We need to shake up the services.”

As well as this, Ms Twomey said there needs to be drug free houses, where people can go and stay for a year or two following rehabilitation.

“28 days won’t fix anyone. They just end up relapsing. 28 days doesn’t cure cancer. Long-term support is vital.”

Ms Twomey was adamant that these things needed to be tackled before any real improvement would be seen with the homelessness crisis.

However, the experienced volunteer also had some other suggestions.

“The Government needs to collaborate better with the charities that are working with the homeless.

“All the organisations need to sit down and discuss who needs what and how can they get it.

“The Government is not joined up enough. They need to be more clued into each other.”

On top of this, Ms Twomey said social housing was a huge necessity. “We are short of housing. We need more resources.

“Councillors need to be more vocal, people need homes, not B&B’s and Hotels. Think of the children and their mental health.

“Children are now aware of the homelessness situation, very shortly it will be on the curriculum.

“If we can’t get it right, how can they? What kind of nation have we at all?”

Paul Sheehan of Cork Simon, pictured here with Felix Edugie.

Cork Simon Campaign and Communications manager Paul Sheehan said if he had a magic wand, that could make anything happen to put a serious dent in the homelessness crisis, he would try to get a grip on the housing market.

“At the moment it is failing people and families are being pushed into homelessness. People can’t access the housing they need for the price they can afford.”

In particular, Mr Sheehan said the private rental market here in Cork is out of control. “A one bedroom apartment here in Cork costs €900 and the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) for a single person is €550 a month, with a 20% increase on a discretionary case by case basis.

“Another aspect is landlords don’t want the hassle of the bureaucracy surrounding HAP payments, for example, if you have two people viewing a home, one is a professional young couple, with a deposit ready and the other, is someone with a HAP form and a trail of paperwork, the landlord is more than likely going to go with the first option.”

Mr Sheehan said another aspect of the problem was the shortage of accommodation. “Supply is down to a trickle.”

Although acknowledging that the Government have made commitments to increase the accommodation supply, Mr Sheehan said it is not being done fast enough.

Speaking about the issues of homeless people who have more complex needs, such as addictions or mental health issues, Mr Sheehan said they “haven’t a hope of getting a home.”

Discussing the idea that these issues need to be tackled first in order to have the person in a better position for housing opportunities, Mr Sheehan said: “A lot of people are dealing with addictions, poor mental health or challenging behaviour as a result of adverse childhood experiences. They could do with more support, but the services have limited impact when the individual is sleeping rough or in emergency accommodation.

“These facilities make a difference when the person is housed. They then have more energy to spend on tackling their problems when they are not worried about where they will sleep that night.

“It is proven as the most effective way to tackle these issues, it is proven to work.”

Mr Sheehan also said there was not enough security in the private rental sector for tenants and made reference to the Leeside Apartments on Bachelor’s Quay where evictions are being made for renovations.

“There is no security in the private rental sector, it needs attention.”

This article first appered in the Evening Echo as part of their ongoing series on homelessness.

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