Homelessness in Dublin has been officially recognized as a crisis, but what’s being done to curb it?
People tend to slow their pace when walking by the Brown Thomas store on Dublin’s Grafton Street, the shopping centre of the city. Some stare through the windows at the mannequins dressed in the latest trend. Others may watch those luckier than them exit the store — the woman tucking her new Cartier bracelet into her Louis Vuitton purse, her two young boys decked out in Ralph Lauren. Few notice the man a few metres across the street, dressed in all black, sitting on a knapsack, a few cents in the coffee cup he’s holding. Maybe the sight has become all too familiar, there are hundreds of people like this begging on Dublin’s streets.
Today it’s Rowan who goes unnoticed. In his hand, a cardboard sign reads: “HOMELESS PLEASE HELP: I don’t drink or do drugs, just down on my luck and need help to pay for a hostel. Thank you.” He holds it in the air, hoping to make a connection with someone for a bit of money. “I had a job, apartment, even a dog a few years ago. But I was never good at saving money,” he chuckles. “Ever since high school I had really been living pay check to pay check.” So when his job at the Alkermes pharmaceutical factory in Athlone got cut in April 2013, he couldn’t pay his rent and had to move in with his uncle in Dublin. After a tumultuous few months on his uncle’s couch, unable to find work, Rowan was kicked out. With nowhere to go, he slept his first night on the street in January at 25 years old, and hasn’t left it.
Rowan’s story is all too common in Dublin today — people who do not fit the traditional homeless profile find their seemingly stable employment cut and are unable to make rent payments. The number of individuals using homeless services in Dublin last year was 4,613 (roughly one per cent of the population) and of those, 1,958 were newly homeless. This percentage of the population is more than both San Francisco and London, two cities that are perceived as having a large homeless presence. Approximately 62 per cent of homeless people in Ireland live in Dublin. Most of these people are Dubliners, with some migrants coming from eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.
City councilors and homeless service providers have labeled these numbers a “crisis”, with one charity reporting seven new people access homeless services in Dublin everyday. But nobody has been able to implement a long-term strategy to help curb the issue. Outreach groups such as the Dublin Simon Community are burdened with finding emergency accommodation and support for those sleeping rough on Dublin’s streets, which was a record high minimum of 139 during the 2013 official count — a 60 per cent increase from the year before. “The need for accommodation and assistance for those with no where to go, and whose existence has become harsh and dangerous, is the highest we have ever seen,” says Aoife Mulhall, media coordinator for the group, which has been working with Dublin’s homeless since 1969.
But this just scratches the surface. According to Irish Times housing correspondent Olivia Kelly, the number of rough sleepers only accounts for approximately 10 per cent of Dublin’s homeless population. Although there’s little data on the issue, “hidden homelessness” is believed to be rising exponentially. These are people living in hotels, hostels or on friends’ couches, much like Rowan did at his uncle’s during his first few months of unemployment. “This can go on for years,” says Kelly. “But these people have no security, they can’t plan their lives, they don’t even have a proper place to put their clothes. Whether they’re living in a hotel or on a couch, it’s unsustainable.” She further explains that when you’re only able to count those who are accessing homeless services, the actual number of Dublin’s homeless population is a “guesstimate”.
The Dublin City Council also faces extreme challenges. With a consistently shrinking revenue budget and a rising amount of rent debts owed from citizens who can’t afford to even pay a fraction of their rent — estimated now at €20 million — the council has been forced to focus on incremental schemes to help eliminate names off the housing waiting list bit by bit. The latest of these is a cooperative €15 million fund between the national government and local authorities around the country to renovate 952 vacant social houses across Ireland, more than half of which are in Dublin. It’s an ambitious project, but one that barely puts a dent in the national housing waiting list with 90,000 names.
Homelessness in Dublin remained stagnant for the better part of a decade, but increased dramatically when the 2008 financial crisis rocked the country, due to rising unemployment and a lack of social housing. During Ireland’s period of economic growth in the 1990s and early 2000s, the state decided to enlist private developers to construct social housing on government-owned plots of land. If the developer built a certain number of houses for social use, they could build privately on the rest of the land for profit. A now defunct McNamara & Co. was one of the leading companies that partnered with the city council. They were contracted to refurbish three areas of Dublin — St. Michael’s Estate, O’Devaney Gardens and Dominick St. — totaling 566 social houses and 1502 private ones. They demolished most of the old social housing, temporarily moving out tenants with plans to put them in more modern estates.
When the housing market collapsed, McNamara & Co. was one of the first companies to admit being in grave financial danger. They couldn’t financially justify building any houses on the land, and in September 2008, the company and Dublin City Council parted ways, leaving hundreds of people without housing. This was the case with most of the regeneration projects, with only one out of 12 areas designated for projects was ever completed (Fatima Mansions: 150 new social units). Those left without housing then went straight to the top of the already long housing wait lists, putting more strain on the government and community homeless services.
But as concerned citizens and government officials cry out about the homeless crisis, little is known about how grave the situation is and what can be done to help. A problem for most European nations today is a lack of data being collected about homelessness. A recent European Union report outlining methodologies for collecting data on homelessness states: “Homelessness and housing deprivation exist in all European countries and yet there are few official statistics on homelessness, and those that do exist are rarely comparable between different countries. The lack of clear data on the extent of homelessness makes an understanding of its nature, causes and the effective action needed to tackle it all the more difficult.” The basic problem is that there is almost no way right now to figure out how many people are homeless in one city, never mind a whole country. All governments have done is count people living on the street and those accessing homeless services, leaving huge gaps in the final number, as many people sleeping on couches or in hostels go unreported.
There are also very few studies on the factors contributing to homelessness today. Historically mental illness, drug use and abusive home lives have all been pointed to as three main issues. But as people like Rowan continue to wind up on the street, there is a need to explore the barriers of exiting homelessness. Paula Mayock is one of Ireland’s leading researchers on the issue and is changing the way homelessness is studied in Ireland. An Assistant Professor and Senior Researcher at Trinity College Dublin, she created a qualitative study following homeless young people like Rowan for six years — the first of its kind in Ireland. She interviewed people in their teens and twenties three times over six years: in 2004, 2006 and 2010. By the end, about half of those studied had exited homelessness.
What was really significant was that not much changed from the first follow-up in 2006 to the second in 2010. This is a huge finding for public policy and intervention strategies according to Mayock because it shows that people need to find an exit strategy from homelessness quickly, or else they risk entering a circuit of street life: begging, hostels and often crime and incarceration. Rowan, being a young, single man is at greatest risk for entering this circuit. He’s already spent one night in jail for being drunk in public (which he claims only happened that one time).
Mayock also found that family support played a huge role in enabling people to find stable accommodation. Many young people leave home because of fraught relationships, just like Rowan. Even after leaving the family home, the majority of people studied maintained contact with family members, helping create a support network and exit lanes. “This shows that outreach workers are needed to focus on rebuilding broken families relationships,” explains Mayock. “There’s not enough of this, because it’s a very difficult, incremental process, but I would see it as central to success.”
“I haven’t spoken to [my uncle] in five months,” says Rowan, who is starting to fit Mayock’s profile of someone who will struggle with chronic homelessness.
Mayock is hoping to see these findings shape a policy similar to the American Housing First program, where homeless people are put directly into stable housing, rather than the staircase method in Ireland that makes them go through transitional housing. The Housing First method is being hailed as a success in the United States, but it will be a struggle to implement in Ireland where there’s no governing direction, social housing is severely limited and the waiting lists just keep growing.
“I’m just living here day by day,” says Rowan, who’s sitting in the same spot with the same sign as I walk down Grafton Street a few days later. “A steady life like my old one seems so far away.”