Homelessness is a matter of national concern, linked to other housing problems such as the dramatic increase in rents.
The building industry, after its dramatic collapse post 2008, is unable to build sufficient houses and flats to meet the real demand.
However, side by side with these developments, there is a large number of vacant houses, particularly in parts of rural Ireland.
These were documented in last year’s national census.
Vacant houses are an economic loss to the owners, but also to the State, and this loss may increase over the years, as they deteriorate and perhaps fall down.
According to the Census, there were 259,562 vacant dwellings in the state last April, representing 12.8% of the total housing stock.
But this figure includes 61,204 holiday homes which were vacant on the night of the Census.
In Munster, the number of vacant dwellings was 83,398, which included 23,197 holiday homes.
The vacancy rate was 14.7%.
A high proportion of the vacant homes in Munster are in Cork and Kerry.
Both counties have particularly large numbers of holiday homes, but they also dwarf other Munster counties in numbers of “normal” vacant homes.
In sharp contrast, the lowest vacancy rates nationally are in Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown (5.9%), Fingal (5.5%), South Dublin (4%), and Kildare (6.3%).
The highest vacancy rates occur in Leitrim (29.5%), Mayo (24.0%), Kerry (24.2%) and Donegal (28.2%).
Almost half the vacant homes in Donegal are holiday homes.
Vacancy rates are much higher in the West and North West of the country.
The counties with the highest proportion of vacant homes generally correspond with those with greatest population loss.
But Kerry, which has not seen a recent reduction in population, has the third highest level of vacant homes, which may be partly attributable to the large number of holiday homes in the county.
Kerry’s vacant homes are concentrated in the Dingle, Iveragh and Beara peninsulas.
When one excludes holiday homes, the proportion of houses vacant in rural areas is about 10%.
However, this level is significantly exceeded in some areas.
In Co Clare, there were 12 electoral areas out of 155, where the vacancy levels exceeded 20%.
The most significant was Kilrush, with 232 vacancies from a total housing stock of 1,480.
Lisdoonvarna had 96 vacancies, from a stock of 389.
In Co Cork, there were 17 electoral districts out of 327, where the vacancy rate exceeded 20%.
Of these, Kinsale was the only district with a significant town.
In Kinsale, 262 houses out of a stock of 1,306 were vacant on census night.
This is surprising, given its closeness to Cork City, and to Cork Airport.
The highest vacancy level (29%) was in Kilcaskan, which is an electoral district in the Beara peninsula, situated west of Glengarriff.
Other districts which exceeded 20% were scattered across the county, and included Killaconnenagh, in the Castletownbere area of West Cork.
The vacancy level also exceeded 20% in Boherboy (near the Kerry border, in the Kanturk rural district), Inchigeelagh in the Macroom rural district, and the Knocknagree electoral district.
In Kerry, 19 electoral districts out of 166 had vacancy rates (excluding holiday homes) over 20%.
The most important was Caherciveen (Caher electoral district) with 352 vacant dwellings out of a stock of 1,301 — a vacancy rate of 27%. (Caherciveen also featured in my earlier article on population decline, showing a decline in population of 9% in the last five years).
There is little sign in the housing census of a local payoff in prosperity in the Healy-Rae political era, because the Kilgarvan electoral district has the highest vacancy rate in Kerry and the second highest in Munster, at over 32% (132 vacant houses from a stock of 418).
Tarbert and Sneem are other well known village areas with vacancy rates of over 20%.
In Co Limerick, four districts out of 136 had over 20% vacancy. Most significant was Rathkeale, 294 vacancies from a stock of 849 (34.6%).
In Tipperary, six electoral districts had vacancy rates over 20%, out of a total of 258.
The western half of Tipperary town had 216 vacant dwellings, from a stock of 1,054.
In Co Waterford, five out of 92 had over 20% vacancy, including Lismore with 102 vacancies from a stock of 453.
There are areas in west Cork and Kerry where holiday homes account for a very substantial proportion of the total housing stock.
A drive through these areas may give a false indication of local population.
There are ten electoral districts in West Cork and 24 in Kerry, where holiday homes account for more than 30% of the housing stock.
The highest level is in Crookhaven in West Cork, where they account for over two thirds of all the housing.
When account is taken of vacant non-holiday homes, the level of vacancies rise to over 72.4% in Crookhaven.
The next highest level is in Doire Fhionan (in west Cork, between Reenaniree and the Kerry border) at 69%, with Goleen, Ballinskelligs and Caherdaniel all close to having 64% of their total housing stock vacant on the census day (April 24).
The greatest concentration of homeless, 70%, is in Dublin.
But there were 250 homeless in Cork in the last week of November, and a further 35 in Kerry.
This does not include those sleeping rough, which numbered 156 in the Cork and Kerry region, at an earlier date.
Measures to combat homelessness include limiting increases in rents in Dublin and other cities to 4% per annum, and the Government’s target is to build 25,000 houses per annum to address the inadequate house supply.
Most commentators agree that this housing supply target will not be achieved in the short term.
Meanwhile, there are about 200,000 vacant houses (apart from holiday homes) in the State, mostly in rural areas — and 28,000 vacant business premises, many of them in rural towns.
Clearly, there are enough houses in the country to cope with the current housing crisis, and with expected increasing demand for many years.
The problem is that they are in the wrong locations.
In the various projections of the impact of Brexit on our economy, one could envisage further widening of the income and wealth gap between Dublin and the rest of Ireland.
There are widespread fears about the Brexit impact on the food industry, predominantly located in rural areas.
Any positive outcomes from Brexit are likely to involve relocation of banking and insurance firms from London to Dublin.
The government recently appeared to recognise this problem, when Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government Minister Simon Coveney announced a national planning framework with growth in the cities of Cork, Waterford, Limerick and Galway over the next 20 years, to re-balance economic and social growth.
He envisaged three quarters of the projected growth in population by 2040 occurring outside Dublin.
And the IDA have generally been successful in steering industrial development projects into rural areas.
However, more is needed.
If the Government could steer jobs from Dublin to Ballina or Clonakilty or Scariff, they would relieve pressure on the Dublin housing market, and vacant rural houses could be occupied.
“Decentralisation” became a very dirty word in political and public administration circles, but there must be a case for looking at this idea again.
I can identify several initiatives taken at that time (such as the Teagasc decentralisation, of which I was part) which appear to have had only positive outcomes.
Likewise, the large number of vacant business premises in rural towns is now recognised as a problem, and suggestions are made from time to time about changes in planning regulations, which might alleviate it.
It is felt that town centre housing would be particularly attractive to older people, with ready walking access to those shops that are left, and to pubs and churches.
Minister Coveney, has included in the Rebuilding Ireland plan a pledge to “remove existing barriers to the quick conversion and re-use of vacant or under-utilised city and town centre commercial premises for residential purposes and support wider urban regeneration, with new measures to be brought forward by the end of 2016”.
This promise has not yet been fulfilled, and the idea is being considered, along with other changes in planning laws.
The housing “problem” should not be looked at as purely a housing issue.
Vacant housing, a valuable resource, exists predominantly, because of depopulation and lack of balanced economic development.