As the nation remains convulsed with the fallout from Covid-19, it is important that we retain a perspective with regard to what is and what is not important. The current restrictions go beyond inconvenience but they pale by comparison to tragedies that are happening around us that are influenced by, though not directly caused by, the coronavirus. Among them are the growing levels of homeless people who are literally dying on the streets.
Two homeless people died in Dublin over the bank holiday weekend. A man in his 40s was found by security staff in the early hours of Friday morning outside the CHQ, an industrial retail complex. The body of the second person, a homeless woman aged 31, was discovered inside a tent which had been pitched at Lynch’s Lane, Ronanstown, in Clondalkin. What is particularly chilling is that gardaí estimate that she may have been dead for more than a week.
The two deaths bring to more than 50 the number of homeless people who have died so far this year, compared to a total of 37 for the whole of last year. Despite advice from Dr Tony Holohan, the chief medical officer, for homeless people to seek shelter, there are indications that many are afraid of doing so because of their fear of contracting the coronavirus in cramped and overcrowded conditions.
Charities such as Focus Ireland are doing their best to help the homeless but there is only so much they can do with limited resources. Campaigner Sr Stanislaus Kennedy makes a compelling argument for the Government to retain rent freezes and a ban on evictions beyond the scope of Covid-19 measures.
The figures speak for themselves, showing that the level of homelessness has dropped significantly in recent months. According to the Department of Housing, the number of people homeless and living in emergency accommodation fell for five consecutive months from March to July. When the rent freezes and eviction ban halted in August, the level of homelessness began to rise again. A general ban on evictions is now in place under Level 5 restrictions.
Overall, there have been fewer people rendered homeless during this health crisis. Latest figures show, excluding those sleeping on the streets, there are 8,702 adults and children living in emergency accommodation such as hotels or family hubs. This time last year the figure stood at 10,338 — a drop of more than 1,600.
Also helping to reduce the level of homelessness was an increase in the supply of affordable rental accommodation as well as the determined effort by government agencies to work in co-operation with the voluntary sector.
Instead of looking at the Covid-19 pandemic solely as a problem to be solved in isolation from other issues, it could offer us, as a nation, an opportunity to change many things for the better. Since the middle of March we have learned to do things differently, to take greater personal responsibility, and to endure harsh restrictions on our daily lives for the common good. However, we could go so much further if we use Covid-19 as a catalyst for change.
Tackling homelessness would be a good place to start.