THE report by Focus Ireland on homelessness is a welcome extension to prevailing knowledge about one of the most acute social dilemmas of our times. In order to combat any crisis, including homelessness, it is essential to understand the extent, nature and cause of it. While the Focus Ireland report concentrates on Dublin where homelessness is most prevalent, it is likely to have relevance for the whole country.
The study shows that for the majority of families who find themselves homeless, the root cause of their homelessness is having to leave private rented accommodation. It also notes that lone parents, migrants and members of the Travelling community face a disproportionate risk of family homelessness.
The report shows that, contrary to popular prejudice, homelessness is not confined to individuals with addiction, mental or other social problems. Neither are the majority of homeless people feckless and troublesome. Nor is there any truth in the notion that large numbers of people are refusing accommodation.
In fact, the charity’s data shows a majority of families experiencing homelessness had stable housing histories with lengthy and successful tenancies in the rental sector. It also shows that a majority of families are actively attempting to exit homelessness.
The most worrying aspect of the report is how it reveals the attitude of many landlords who continue to refuse accommodation to those wishing to avail of the housing assistance payment, a social housing support for those with a long-term housing need that is administered by local authorities who pay landlords directly.
Equality legislation specifies a number of grounds under which landlords cannot discriminate against potential tenants. These include the “housing assistance” ground. What this report clearly shows is that far too many landlords are simply ignoring this obligation and that this is contributing further to homelessness.
The Residential Tenancies Act, which came into force partially last week, will give the Residential Tenancies Board more teeth to deal with feckless landlords but it is not an overall solution.
Similarly, rent pressure zones and caps on rent increases are failing to address the main issue which is that rents are way beyond the reach of those on modest incomes and have already surpassed Celtic Tiger levels.
The Focus Ireland report is useful in defining and identifying the causes of homelessness but what is needed urgently is the desire to solve what is becoming an existential crisis.
For that, a holistic approach is needed. In the long-term it is clear that more social housing needs to be built but in the short to medium-term there must be a better solution than providing emergency accommodation.
The millions of euro spent on hotel and B&B accommodation could be put to better use by increasing further the rent supplement and, perhaps, provide tax relief for tenants to give them more disposable income.