Everything about the Bolt Hostel is radical. A ‘reclaimed’ former homeless hostel in Dublin’s city centre, 38 Bolton St has become an emblem of resistance in the face of the worst housing crises Ireland has seen in decades.
Set up by an unlikely alliance of activists, mammies, and anarchists, this new approach to emergency housing has placed those backing the project on a collision course with the city council.
Holding banners proclaiming ‘Housing for need, not greed’, the Irish Housing Network, which has revamped the derelict building, has sent a clear message to Dublin City Council.
The group is highly critical of the lack of emergency accommodation in the city and decided to take matters into its own hands by seizing a ‘void’ council building, one it plans on reopening as a hostel for homeless families.
From my first visit three weeks ago, walls have been painted, lino set on grubby floors, toilets and bathrooms scrubbed, kitchen appliances fitted, and the group has even hung artwork on the bedroom walls.
In just three weeks a building declared ‘not fit for purpose’ by the council is starting to look a lot more impressive than my overpriced rental accommodation just streets away.
One man at the helm of the project is Séamus Farrell, a young housing activist who was influenced by housing movements in Spain.
Aged 23, Séamus is part of a generation whose adult life has been defined by austerity. For people like Séamus, growing up with emigration and relentless cuts has highlighted the need for direct action against uncertain government promises.
“We’re reclaiming buildings and opening them up to the communities. This hasn’t happened since the 1970s. We’ve gone to the council, we’ve gone to the department, and now we’re taking the natural step forward and doing it ourselves. This property has been vacant since 2012. There was a leak here when we moved in which would have destroyed the whole building. What we’re doing is making improvements and bringing this building back into action,” he said.
Séamus is part of a motley crew of activists, locals, and squatters that have joined forces to reclaim the vacant hostel for up to three families who have found themselves down on their luck. The need for housing in the capital has created a strange grouping of black-clad anarchists handing out information flyers beside mothers in bright t-shirts with their children. The group’s popularity within the Bolton St community and throughout Dublin is undeniable, with tradespeople offering services free of charge and the network’s Facebook page bombarded with messages of support and offers to help.
On my first visit I met ‘Jack’, a young unemployed plumber working for free in the building. He laughed at the council’s ‘not fit for purpose’ tag and compared the building to some of the places he’s rented throughout the city over the years, I was inclined to agree. My rented house has rising damp yet for €500 a room it’s considered a steal in north Dublin.
Jack the plumber didn’t want to be named as he was unemployed and worried his social welfare payment could be stopped for carrying out any work, even on a volunteer basis. The irony, he sadly mused, was that helping out at the hostel had restored his confidence which had been crippled by months of having “nothing to do”.
There’s a real sense of urgency about the Bolt project, with almost 5,000 people homeless and more than 90,000 on housing waiting lists. Rising rents, an under-regulated rental sector, and landlords selling properties have all been cited as reasons people find themselves on the streets. I can’t help but question a council that would shut down a building which has (unofficially) been vetted by a member of the fire department, when most of us live in rented buildings with no smoke detectors.
Mike Allen, director of advocacy for Focus Ireland, says the increase in homeless families is reaching “saturation point” as families are being driven out of the private rental sector. “At the beginning of 2011 we had an average of eight families a month becoming homeless. Now we have almost 70 families becoming homeless a month, 10 have been homeless before, and 60 are accessing homeless services for the first time,” he said.
“There are traditionally two main causes of homelessness: Social issues and economic problems. In the past we dealt with people made homeless because of various social reasons but now the majority of cases we see are based on economic problems,” he said.
Right now, families who feel they could be made homeless must wait until it happens, then they can present themselves to Dublin City Council, which — due to a lack of emergency accommodation — is offering them sleeping bags in lieu of beds. This has mobilised activists and communities who have staged sit-ins to try and force the council to provide suitable emergency accommodation. At one such sit-in, I watched as the council turned away a heavily pregnant young woman with a small child while older women tore over to them, offering to house them for the night. That night, activists — themselves often on fixed incomes —teamed up to pay for a hotel for the young woman.
Yvonne Byrne, 35, from the North Bay Housing Crisis Community — a member of the Irish Housing Network — said that by forcing people to sleep rough, the council is removing children from their parents, simply because they are poor.
“We had a family recently who went to DCC for help and were offered sleeping bags, while at the same time told if they slept on the streets their child would be taken away from them. We occupied DCC and we got them a permanent place to stay. We’re just trying to make sure people have a clean, safe place to sleep with their family. This current policy is breaking up families and that goes against our constitution. That’s why we’re taking back this building: If they won’t help we’ll do it ourselves,” she said.
The council have met the activists to discuss options but Farrell is not convinced they will protect any families that move in from eviction. He said despite the Network’s willingness to work with local authority representatives, no deal has been struck and the road ahead is likely to be paved with injunctions and expensive court battles. Still, they are hoping to have three families in place within three weeks.
“We met the council but we’re still on unsure footing. They could send the cops around and evict us at any time. It’s unsettling to think they’d end a project like this and forcibly evict homeless families” he said.
Bolt House may be a radical thorn in the council’s side but activists behind the project claim it is a logical community-based response to Ireland’s housing crisis. Farrell says this could herald a new community-led approach to homelessness.
“We’re not possessive about this building. Ideally we want to hand it over to the local community and let them run it. We have a lot of faith in the community. We’d like to train community members and get them to build up the skill set to run it. That’s our goal,” he said.
A spokesman for Dublin City Council said ‘upgrading works need to take place and plans for this are being considered”
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