Housing is a right, and Ireland must recognise this in law

If access to housing was enshrined in the Constitution, then homelessness would be a failure of the State, not of the individual, write Niamh Randall and Colette Kelleher

HOMELESS people are excluded from society. They are overlooked, forgotten, and neglected, denied basic human rights and constitutional protections.

Imagine not having a kitchen in which to cook your dinner, not being able to apply for a job because you do not have an address, or having no private space of your own.

Under international human rights obligations, housing should not be a commodity, but a human right. Homelessness is a violation of this right.

Under international law, to be adequately housed means security of tenure — not having to worry about eviction or having your home taken away with very little notice.

It means having the right to live in peace and dignity, with access to services, schools, and employment.

Rough sleeping is a visible manifestation of homelessness, but is not its only form. Homelessness is often hidden. It includes people in shelters and emergency accommodation, people surfing from one couch to another, people living in inadequate housing, or people at risk of homelessness because of insecure tenancies or the threat of eviction.

There are 7,699 men, women, and children living in emergency accommodation. Many people who live in hotels, hostels, and B&Bs are stuck there for months, sometimes years.

They wander the streets during the day, until they can return to their accommodation and hope for a bed for the night. They have nowhere to bring friends to share food and conversation, nowhere for children to play with school friends, nowhere to call home. The trauma is untold.

A child who is homeless is more likely to become homeless as an adult.

Discrimination is both a cause and a consequence of homelessness. Those who face discrimination because of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, family status, mental or physical ill-health, or sexual orientation are more likely to become homeless and, once homeless, to experience further discrimination.

People become homeless for a range of complex and overlapping reasons. Primary causes are poverty, inequality, and lack of affordable housing, often coupled with systems failures and individual circumstances.

Many of the people the Simon Communities work with have been disadvantaged and isolated from a young age; the State has failed them repeatedly.

Sadly, the end of homelessness has moved out of sight. Our housing sector is in crisis; all elements show signs of being broken. The private market has failed. Social housing construction has been halted for decades. Mortgage debt and rents have spiralled. These are having devastating consequences for hundreds of thousands of people in this State.

On July 5, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights found that Spain violated the right to housing for a family with children evicted from rented accommodation. The committee said that, “through our decision, we reaffirm that all people, including those who live in rented accommodation, have the right to housing. States have a duty to ensure that their evictions do not render them homeless.”

If the right to housing was to be enshrined in our constitution, then homelessness would be recognised as the failure of the State to implement this right. This would change the way we, as a society, think about people who are homeless. There would be a shift from blaming people for their homelessness to highlighting the State’s failure to fulfil its obligations to protect this right.

In Scotland, there is a legal right to housing. A qualitative comparison of Scotland and Ireland, by Beth Watts of the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, shows this right to housing resulted in people being moved more quickly into permanent accommodation. It also gave people who are homeless an expectation of being housed.

The report concludes that Scotland’s legal rights appear to “promote self-reliance rather more than the highly discretionary Irish model”.

A right to housing would not mean that everyone would instantly receive a key to his or her own home. Instead, it would provide a ‘floor’ in respect of access to adequate housing.

It would oblige the State to protect and fulfil that right. For example, where the gap between housing assistance payments and market rents are so great that most people cannot afford to rent a home, the right to housing would allow this to be constitutionally challenged.

Across Europe, the right to housing is recognised in the constitutions of Belgium, Finland, Greece, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden and in the legislation of Austria, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and Britain. Across the world, the right to housing is included in 81 constitutions.

Here in Ireland, we must rewrite the rules and change our approach to housing. At the core of that shift, acting as an anchor, we must enshrine in Bunreacht na hÉireann a constitutional right to housing.

Niamh Randall is head of policy and communications with Simon Community. Senator Colette Kelleher, Simon and Mercy Law Resource Centre, will jointly host ‘A Right to Housing’ seminar in Trinity College Dublin today .

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