State must look at homelessness from human rights approach

State must look at homelessness from human rights approach

Ensuring that we never experience a homelessness crisis such as the current one is a key priority for the Simon Communities, writes Niamh Randall.

It is hard to look back on 2017 as another year when the housing and homelessness crisis continued to worsen. 

The New Year will ring in with more than 5,000 adults and 3,000 children living in emergency accommodation, with many thousands more trapped in housing insecurity and hidden in doorways and squats across our towns and cities. 

With the sheer scale of the crisis, it is important to remember that these numbers reflect real people and families trying to get on with their lives in very difficult circumstances.

Today, the Simon Communities are reporting the number of people we worked with last year increased to 11,005 people, an increase of a third in just one year. 

While we have seen some move on to tenancies in the capital, in the absence of social and affordable housing or an accessible private rental sector, the majority have nowhere to go. 

Every person has their own story, but what is common to all is that homelessness and housing insecurity is traumatic, stressful, and filled with uncertainty. The Government can and must do better in 2018. 

The Simon Communities will support this in any way we can.

Soon after being appointed in June, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy announced a review of Rebuilding Ireland. 

The Simon Communities made a submission to this review, suggesting improvements to deliver secure social and affordable housing across all tenure types within sustainable communities nationwide; to prevent more people from becoming homeless; and to address the complex or multiple needs that can be a cause or consequence of homelessness.

The Government has acknowledged that the current market cannot deliver the required housing mix, therefore there must be a move away from private sector reliance and the commodification of housing. 

We need the State, in conjunction with Local Authorities and Approved Housing Bodies, to build housing at the scale required, while preventing more people from becoming homeless. Those trapped in emergency accommodation need affordable homes with support where needed (housing first).

Increased housing supply will not impact affordability in short to medium term, therefore it is essential to act on the options that can deliver homes quickly. 

Just under 190,000 homes lie empty in Ireland, more than enough to house people living in emergency accommodation. 

Almost 11% of total housing stock is vacant in Ireland, almost twice the level expected in a functioning housing market. 

The potential to deliver much-needed housing supply quickly is significant. The Government were due to publish the Empty Homes Strategy before summer; however, at the time of writing, that strategy remains unpublished.

Ensuring that we never experience a crisis such as this again is a key priority for the Simon Communities. The State must start looking at the housing and homeless crisis from a human rights-based approach. 

To this end, in July, the Simon Communities, in conjunction with Mercy Law Resource Centre and senator Colette Kelleher, held a seminar in Trinity College, A Right to Housing.

People who are homeless are denied basic human rights and constitutional protection. Rights are intersectional meaning that the denial of one right often results in the denial of others. 

Housing is a fundamental right that facilitates the enjoyment of so many other rights including health, education, employment, privacy and family life. 

Under international human rights obligations, housing is considered a human right, not a commodity. To be adequately housed means having security of tenure — not having to worry about eviction or having your home taken away with very little notice.

It means having the right to live somewhere in peace and dignity with access to appropriate services, schools, and employment. Homelessness therefore is a clear violation of this right. 

Were Ireland to enshrine the right to housing in the Constitution, this would provide a clear floor of protection in respect of access to basic adequate housing for all and the State would be obliged to ensure an adequate supply of social and affordable housing, with support as needed. 

The recent Right to Housing Bill was referred to Committee for review and we ask the Government to ensure that this is prioritised in 2018 given its significance.

People in Ireland care deeply about the injustice and indignity of homelessness and housing instability, and the long-lasting impact on the lives of individuals, families and children.

Throughout ex-Hurricane Ophelia in October, as the Simon Communities and other organisations worked together to keep people safe, members of the public asked numerous questions about how the Government planned to ensure the safety of those who had no shelter. 

The awful irony of advising people to stay home, when we have the greatest homelessness crisis of modern times, was not lost on people.

The huge public concern about these issues is clear to us every day in our work in the Simon Communities. People want action. 

The Simon Communities have committed to adding additional emergency accommodation this year and acted quickly and proactively to recent weather conditions ensuring those who are vulnerable have shelter and safety.

This is in addition to supporting more than 2,800 people in housing and providing prevention, early intervention and advice services to 4,500 people 2016. 

We hope that the Government hears what thousands of people standing with us are saying. 

It is not fair or sustainable to keep offering people short-term solutions with little attention paid to their longer-term needs. Without shelter, safety and security it is almost impossible to function, to participate in society and to get involved in your community. 

The Simon Communities will continue to let people know they have not been forgotten and left behind. That this is not acceptable for any man, woman or child in Ireland in 2018.

Niamh Randall is the national spokeswoman for the Simon Communities.

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