Groups join forces in housing initiative

One of the several dictionary definitions on offer for “home” caught my eye the other day. It suggested that a home was “the place where something is invented, founded or developed”.

I’d recently been in receipt of a newsletter from Cork Simon, who have been believing in people and their right to a safe place they can call home for 40 years now, and so the issue of homelessness was on my mind.

Especially since the weather has been giving us an end of January pounding. To become homeless is, to my mind, one of the most destructive things that can happen to a person. For without a home, a secure base from which to “invent and develop”, it is well nigh impossible to run a life.

And homelessness can affect many people and for many different reasons. Any form of government assistance designed to help a person through a difficult patch requires an address.

Keeping clean becomes labour intensive and at times impossible, and can result in a loss of self-esteem and an unwillingness to seek out help.

And sleep, without which it soon becomes impossible to function in anything but a haze, can be a hit and miss affair if a person is unable to find a place in an emergency shelter.

Under bridges, shop doorways, bus stations, anywhere that can keep the weather off a person’s back, often have to suffice, But these options can sometimes prove to be unsafe and shop doorways are no defence against lashing rain, gale force winds, snow and ice.

Now the Cork Simon Community, in partnership with St Vincent de Paul, (SVP), Focus Ireland and Threshold, have put together a radical new initiative to ensure that no-one will be left out in the cold.

These organisations are aware that during the first seven months of 2012 a total of 157 people were recorded as sleeping rough on at least one night compared to 38 people in 2011.

These figures represent a four-fold increase. And occupancy at Cork’s main emergency shelters has also risen significantly during the year, meaning that both Cork Simon and SVP have, in a time of declining budgets, had to increase their capacity in order to meet the demand.

These organisations have come up with a radical initiative, which has seen them already lease 21 private rented flats directly from landlords and made them available to people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

Landlords are guaranteed monthly rent and property maintenance. And tenants will have all the support they need to ensure that they are able to maintain their tenancies and are able to focus on the challenging business of piecing their lives back together again.

Finding affordable — and suitable — housing can be a huge obstacle for someone who is ready to move out of homelessness. This new development will see housing being made available speedily and at a cost people can afford.

Ger Spillane of Focus Ireland says: “We’re guaranteeing landlords a monthly rent, ongoing maintenance of their properties and an assurance that their property will be returned in its original state at the end of the lease. We’ll support every tenant for as long as is necessary.

“We’ve always wanted to move people out of emergency accommodation as quickly as possible, but the housing to do it simply wasn’t there. This new initiative will change all that.”

I spoke to Cork Simon’s CEO Dermot Kavanagh about the inroads that the partnership has already been made and their plans for the future.

*This new housing initiative seems to have made a rapid impact on the numbers of rough sleepers in Cork, Dermot.

>>“Yes, we’re happy to say that it has. And the overwhelmingly generous support of the people of Cork is helping to make this happen. Combined with the other charities involved, the pooling of resources and the cooperation of Cork County Council, it will mean that no-one will have to sleep rough in Cork over the coming months.”

*How have you organised such a successful project at a time when budget cuts are affecting everyone so badly?

>>“It’s true that constant cuts in Government funding have undermined our ability to respond effectively to the growing numbers of people becoming homeless. And we are aware there are more people who are on the edge of becoming homeless. So it is quite likely the numbers will rise. Our emergency shelter is designed to accommodate 44 but, like the other organisations we’ve added extra beds. At the moment, we’re accommodating 50 people.”

*So it’s pooling your resources that have got this initiative off the ground?

>>“Yes. We’ve come together to share the load. We could have taken the position that if we were full then there was nothing we could do about it. Or we could have set up Winter Shelters. But they are expensive and far from ideal. And more importantly, they are not addressing the long- term problem. So we decided to try something a bit more innovative.”

*What sort of response have you had from the landlords you have approached?

>>“Definitely favourable. The model we are using is unusual in that we, the charitable groups involved, are their tenants. And we are negotiating an 18- to 30-year lease. We are sub-letting to the tenant. Initially, there were some prospective landlords who were nervous. But once we had explained to them that our tenants had full support to help make their move successful, they were reassured. And since Christmas, we’ve had several landlords calling us.”

*Do you hope to extend this plan to the rest of the country?

>>“Yes, we are. From the initial response we’ve had we’re confident this is a good model, a plan that could work all over. And it’s also more cost-effective than many other strategies that don’t have such successful outcomes. I’m originally from Cork. I worked for Merchant’s Quay in Dublin before I took up this position a year and a half ago. And I’m impressed with the fact that Cork has come closer than anywhere else to eliminating rough sleeping and homelessness. The solution to homelessness is access to appropriate housing; with support, this plan is that solution in operation.”

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