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Why we need to learn lessons about homelessness from crisis in Republic

By Kerry Anthony

Published 05/12/2015

Terrible tragedy: Jonathan Corrie’s death outside Leinster House in Dublin sparked an outcry
Terrible tragedy: Jonathan Corrie’s death outside Leinster House in Dublin sparked an outcry

One year ago, on December 1, 2014, homeless man Jonathan Corrie died outside Leinster House in Dublin (home to the Republic's parliament), sparking a public outcry on homelessness and spurring the Irish Government's 20-point action plan to tackle emergency and short-term homelessness.

At the time of Corrie's death, there were 168 people officially sleeping rough in Dublin, 40 families becoming homeless each month and 726 homeless children.

In spite of the implementation of the action plan, which included the addition of 271 cold-weather emergency beds in Dublin, homelessness in the Republic is more pronounced than ever.

A year on, unofficial counts show rough-sleeping figures remain worryingly high. Between 70 and 80 families become homeless each month in Dublin and there are 1,425 homeless children - almost double the levels when homelessness was deemed a crisis and an emergency summit convened to address it in December 2014.

Most of those 'cold-weather' beds remain open on a nightly basis, with an additional 100 being opened this month. In the Republic, homelessness has become a humanitarian crisis.

This is the direct result of economic downturn compounded by government policy, which saw a retrenchment of social housing provision at a time of escalating need, inaction to prevent rising rents as gaps between rents and incomes rose and rose, and the implementation of austerity measures without sufficient safety nets, placing more and more vulnerable families, and single people, at risk of homelessness.

Depaul - as well as providing the highest standard of support for people experiencing homelessness in Northern Ireland - has, as a cross-border organisation, become regretfully and intimately acquainted with the realities of the crisis in the Dublin.

As Homelessness Awareness Week continues, let us look to the crisis in the Republic as a cautionary example.

Recently there has been much discussion of the apparent increasing visibility of homelessness in Belfast and Depaul welcomes that the subject of preventing rough-sleeping is part of regular discourse.

However, based on our experience of dealing with street homelessness in the Republic, I would contend that the 'homeless crisis' in Northern Ireland is not on the streets, but rather the ongoing crisis of homelessness hidden behind the closed doors of hostels and other forms of temporary accommodation.

This year in Northern Ireland, thousands of people will wake up on Christmas morning in a house that is not their home. While this might not be the streets, it remains devastating.

In Northern Ireland, we have a homelessness strategy that focuses on prevention and housing options for people who find themselves homeless.

There are several organisations commissioned by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to provide well managed 24/7 services and outreach in the city centre. There is strong partnership and a genuine commitment to end the need to sleep rough and long-term homelessness.

I believe by recommitting to the delivery of well-planned and collaborative services, we will be able to realise this aim.

One year on from the emergency summit in Dublin and as we look into a period of budget cuts and welfare changes in Northern Ireland, we should cast our eyes across the border and ask ourselves what we can learn and how can we prevent a crisis in Northern Ireland.

In reflecting on the last few years in Dublin, I believe there are five main lessons from the Republic:

Lesson 1: Short-term measures in the absence of long-term solutions will only ever be a Band-Aid solution.

There are still many "night shelter" beds in Dublin, offering a roof over a person's head for 12 hours a night, but not providing adequate support to help them move out of homelessness.

We need to ensure there is sufficient capacity in Belfast and Northern Ireland, so that no one needs to sleep rough, but this should be done in a planned way ensuring sufficient capacity and importantly, support every day of the year, not just in the cold weather period or at Christmas.

Lesson 2: Investing in long-term housing solutions and preventative measures is the most effective way to combat homelessness. Failing to invest could have disastrous consequences.

Lesson 3: Implementing austerity without adequate safety nets for vulnerable people could lead to unintended consequences including rising homelessness - resulting in higher costs to the Exchequer in the long-term, for example through the use of costly emergency accommodation.

Lesson 4: As the Dublin example has shown, applying remedial solutions to the problem after it has escalated to crisis-levels is the epitome of 'penny-wise and pound-foolish' policy-making.

Internationally accepted best practice shows that it is more cost-effective to manage a problem before it becomes a crisis.

Lesson 5: Professional support to individuals is key to help move through and out of homelessness; simply meeting basic needs will not address the underlying causes.

This relies on the collaboration of mental and physical health services, social services, the criminal justice system and housing bodies.

Only by working together can we really provide a service that truly supports some of our society's most vulnerable people.

Let us act now to prevent our current situation from becoming a crisis.

Kerry Anthony MBE is CEO of Depaul

Belfast Telegraph

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