Children and parents could be split up if precarious existence in squatted property comes to an end, says Michael Clifford
SOMEBODY has to be in the house at all times. The family can’t go out together, to the shops, to Mass, to a sporting fixture or a school event, even for a walk.
If they were to leave and lock up behind themselves, they could well return to find the locks changed, their lives as they knew them gone.
“Every morning we wake up the day is full of fear,” Michael says. “We don’t know when we’re going to get that knock on the door. We have no rights. They can come along and change the lock and we’re out on the street.”
Michael is married to Vanessa and they have six children, ranging in age from five months to nine years. They are currently living in a house in an estate in Wilton, on the southside of Cork city. They have been there for nearly two years.
In different circumstances, they would be in getting stuck in to building a life for their young family within the walls of their home. As it is though, this is not their home.
They are squatting on the property and have been since soon after they moved in. Their lives are suspended, awaiting the knock on the door that could split up the family, take the children from their friends and school. They are waiting to be thrown out on the street.
“We’ve been here this long and they haven’t come,” Michael says. “But we keep feeling that the time is getting closer when they’re going to move against us.”
If and when they are removed from their temporary home, their lives face the kind of upheaval that is feature of life for the homeless. Most likely they would be dispatched to hostels, with Michael and the eldest child, a boy, sent to a men’s hostel, while Vanessa, their two daughters and three younger sons sent to family facility. Life as they know it would come to an end.
“The fear of the family being split up is the worst of it,” Vanessa says. “I can’t think what that would be like.”
The house is owned by a bank which repossessed it from its former owner two years ago, around the time that Michael and Vanessa moved in. The couple have met the former landlord. He called one day to have forms signed. He had no problem with their decision to squat.
The couple doesn’t know how exactly the bank is taking the situation. There has been no contact. On one level that allows them to carry on as they have. On another, it inevitably increases tension on a daily basis. With each passing day, the likelihood of a knock on the door increases.
The kids have sown roots. The older children are attending the local school and getting on grand. The oldest has dyslexia. His parents are happy with the help he is getting in school to deal with the condition. Like all else, that could end in an instant.
If they ever have to leave, the ties with schools would most likely be broken unless some way could be found to travel back to the area from wherever they might end up.
Squatting is the unreported face of the housing crisis at the moment. The extent to which homes are being squatted in is unknown, but anecdotally there are estimated to be up to half a dozen in the estate where Michael and Vanessa are living.
Most, if not all, of these properties are owned by banks. There is a reluctance on the part of financial institutions to have families thrown out on the street, irrespective of the legal situation. In light of all that has befallen the country in the last eight years, that sort of thing could have the potential to inflame passions, and make for some horrendous public relations backlash.
For the squatters, there is another problem. If the local authority becomes aware of their situation, they are removed from the housing list. If they engage with the local authority, they will be told they have to vacate the property. That means moving to temporary accommodation and for a large family that most likely means living in hostels, certainly in the short term.
Michael and Vanessa arrived in this house when it was occupied by Michael’s sister, who was renting from the former landlord. Before that the couple, and their expanding brood, rented accommodation in Cobh.
Like thousands of others, they were finding that the rent supplement of which they were in receipt was simply not enough. The gap between the support they received and the cost of the rent was increasing. At first it was an extra €50 a week, then €70, finally rising to €100.
Living on welfare, the situation had become untenable. They moved back to the city, from where both of them hail, and moved in with Michael’s sister to the house they now occupy. The sister soon found accommodation that better suited her, and within months the bank had repossessed the house from its previous owner, who had been letting it out.
The couple has been on the waiting list for a local authority home for eight years.
“We haven’t even had an offer in that time,” Michael says.
He is unemployed, but would dearly love to work.
“We’re happy here, even if it’s not going to last,” he says. “The only thing that would make it better would be if I could get a job. Then I’d be contributing, paying my taxes like the next man.”
The myriad problems associated with the housing and homelessness scandal compound the kind of dilemma in which Michael and Vanessa find themselves.
Chris O’Leary, a Sinn Féin councillor who has been attempting to assist the couple, says there are around 50 four-bedroom homes owned by the city council in which occupants want to downsize.
“The problem is there is nowhere for them to go,” says Mr O’Leary. “The biggest demand for housing is among single and separated people. Those in the bigger houses would probably be empty nesters who want to move to a smaller unit. But we don’t have smaller units.”
In Cork City alone, the numbers on the housing list at the last count in November amounted to 4,661 eligible applications, with another 1,431 transfer applications.
Each application represents a single household, so the actual numbers looking for a place to live could be as high as 20,000, not too far south of one tenth of the city’s population.
One of the big problems is the transfer of houses when occupants want to move on, particularly when children have left home.
“Long ago if a person died or moved on, we would have bene able to have somebody in the next day. Now, there has to be refurbishment, and then the tender for that has to be put out and you end up with huge delays. There are moves to improve on that, but it is still a serious issue. There is nothing worse than empty houses with thousands wanting a home,” says Mr O’Leary.
For Michael and Vanessa, the uncertainty continues, their lives suspended in the midst of a crisis that many believe is not receiving urgent attention. Michael and Vanessa are making the most of Christmas for their kids. After that, the future is entirely uncertain.
“If we had a home it would be a very positive future. I will get a job, the future will be bright if only we could have a home,” says Michael.
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