“Homelessness is not a problem of Irish government housing policy; it is a problem of individuals”. In order to discuss this statement both structural and individual causes of homelessness will have to be examined. There are a number of personal issues which contribute to the complex issue of homelessness, and how much these contribute to a individual becoming homeless in Ireland will have to be determined. Both statutory and voluntary agencies involved in the area of service provision for the homeless have different views on the definition of homelessness, and both definitions will need to be explored. Over the years in Ireland the government has attempted to address the homeless issue with various acts and strategies and I feel it would be necessary to review the implementation and impact of such interventions on the homeless problem. Finally the impact of government housing policy on homelessness will have to be examined and discussed.
Homelessness and its causes cannot be easily explained. Both structural and individual issues interact to contribute to this complex problem. Personal problems such as psychiatric illnesses, domestic violence, poverty, unemployment, addiction and disability are just some of the problems that are believed to contribute to an individual’s pathway to homelessness. Leaving state care such as prisons or psychiatric hospitals, without the proper safeguards being put in place can also be a factor in an individual becoming homeless. With regard to the definition of the term homelessness, it wasn’t until the 1988 Housing Act that the first legal definition of homelessness was introduced.
1988 Housing Act
Unlike a number of countries throughout the European Union, presently a right to housing does not exist in Ireland. However, there has been policy and legislation enacted to assist those who cannot afford housing in acquiring their own home. The 1988 Housing Act obligates local authorities to carry out assessments every three years, of those who are in need of housing or who are homeless. In regard to homelessness this Act cleared up earlier confusion as to which statutory body was responsible for the homeless, by leaving responsibility at the door of the local authority. Prior to this, under the 1953 Health Act, the Health Authority was responsible for providing assistance to those who were incapable of providing shelter for themselves. Although this Act does not oblige local authorities to provide accommodation, it does how ever “permit” such authorities to assist the homeless. Also prior to this, under the Vagrancy Act, homeless people were often highly criminalised for such offences as wandering abroad, not being able to give a good account of ones self and not having any visible means of subsistence. The Act changed this by taking such offences off the statute books. Another provision of the Act authorises local authorities to provide assistance to approved voluntary agencies involved in the area of provision of welfare and housing for the homeless. An important part of this act was the first legal definition of homelessness. Under Section Two of the Act a person is classified as homeless if:
there is no accommodation available and which, in the opinion of the authority, he, together with any other person who normally resides with him or who might reasonably be expected to reside with him, can reasonably occupy or remain in occupation of, or
(b) he is living in a hospital, county home, night shelter or other such institution, and
is so living because he has no accommodation of the kind referred to in paragraph (a), and he is, in the opinion of the authority, unable to provide accommodation
from his own resources.
While voluntary agencies welcomed this first legal definition of homelessness there were some criticisms of the Act. Focus Ireland, a leading voluntary organisation in the provision of services to the homeless, believed the Act failed to go far enough. One of their main criticisms of the Act was its failure to legally oblige local authorities to provide housing for the homeless. As well as this, they believed the act was too narrow and did not provide for those at risk of homelessness. Focus Ireland divides homelessness into three broad categories; the visible homeless, the hidden homeless and those at risk of homelessness. The visible homeless are those sleeping rough or those residing in emergency accommodation such as b&b’s or shelters. The hidden homeless are families or individuals involuntarily sharing with friends of family, in insecure, inadequate and often sub-standard accommodation. Finally those at risk of being homeless, these are people who have housing but are likely to become homeless due to economic difficulties such as rent being too high, insecure accommodation or health difficulties (Focus Ireland, 2002).
Reviews of the impact of the1988 Housing Act on homelessness
Follow up reviews of the implementation of 1988 Housing Act painted a bleak picture in regard to its impact on the problem of homelessness. Kelleher’s (1990) review stated that the Act had minimal affect on the problem and that greater co-ordination needed to exist between statuary and voluntary agencies involved in the delivery of services to the homeless. He also pointed to the need for the development of a housing forum, consisting of both statutory and voluntary agencies to tackle the problem. Two years after this, in 1992, Lawless and Dillon carried out a survey on local authorities throughout the country and found that only five authorities had staff specifically trained to cater for the needs of the homeless. This led to authorities providing basic shelter, with very little services being developed to cater for the needs of the homeless (O’Sullivan, 2005). These studies were pointing to the need for co-ordination between services, but it wasn’t until almost eight years later that the government acknowledged that such an approach was required.
The 2000 Homelessness: An Integrated Strategy, was the first real acknowledgement by government that an integrated approach to the problem of homelessness was required to tackle the problem. The report found that a wide variety of services existed for the homeless, but very little co-ordination existed between these services. Another part of the report suggested that the majority of services focused primarily on emergency needs such as shelter and food and as a result homeless people became stuck in such accommodation. The report suggested that the focus needed to be more on moving people out of homelessness and, in conjunction with this, putting preventative measures in place that would prevent homelessness. An important part of the strategy was to clear up earlier confusion as to who had responsibility for meeting the different needs of the homeless. “The strategy clearly states that local authorities are responsible for meeting the accommodation and housing needs of people who are homeless, while health boards are responsible for meeting their health and care needs” (www.homelessagency.ie). In 2004 the Simon Community, a voluntary organisation involved in delivering services to the homeless reviewed the Integrated Strategy. They believed that through focusing on the complexities of homelessness, the strategy takes away from the fact that the foremost need of someone who is homeless is housing (www.simoncommunity.com).
As part of the overall homeless strategy, in 2002 the government introduced the Homeless Preventative Strategy. The key element in this strategy was to ensure that no one left state care without measures being taken to ensure they had a place to live upon leaving. This included people leaving prisons, hospitals and juvenile centres. While there have been improvements in this area, there is still much to be achieved.
These strategies have had an impact on the homeless problem but the recent freeze in funding for homeless services by the HSE has put the achievements of the last 7 years in jeopardy. A new project ran by the De Paul Trust, which was going to provide 30 new homes to those moving from emergency accommodation, could not go ahead due to lack of funding. A number of other services have also being affected by this lack of funding (The Irish Times, 2008).
The term Housing policy is used to describe policy implemented by government in regard to the housing market. Blackwell (1988, p75) defined housing policy as “any deliberate course of action which is designed to affect housing conditions”. Through policy and legislation, the government intervenes to create a well organized housing market. This can be done through direct interventions such as setting minimum standards for housing conditions as well as directly providing housing (local authority housing) to the public. In addition to this government may provide tax relief and state loans to people purchasing their own homes, as well as providing welfare (rent allowance) to those on low incomes who are renting in the private sector. The state can also act to determine which source of tenure will be predominant within society (Quinn et al, 1999).
The three types of tenure that exist within Ireland are owner occupied, social housing and the private sector. In Ireland today the type of tenure promoted by government is that of owner occupied. This is shown in figures produced by euro stat (??) that 82.3 percent of the Irish population are living in owner occupied housing, compared to an EU average of 63.4 percent. Since the 1970s the Irish government have promoted this type of tenure in a number of ways; through tax relief, the waiving of stamp duty on the purchasing of new homes, etc. In addition, the government has also made it possible for low income households who are renting local authority housing to purchase their houses at a lower than normal prices, shared ownership, affordable housing. Although the promotion of this type of tenure appears ideal in theory it has the undesired effect of excluding those who can not afford such housing (www.cori.ie).
Obliged by the 1988 Housing Act in 1991, local authorities carried out a count on those in need of housing and the figure recorded was 23,242 with —- of these being homeless. Two years later a further count reported an increase of over 5000 and the figure stood at 28,624 with homeless people making up???. Both these counts took into consideration those who were on the waiting list and those who were not. Voluntary agencies working with the homeless challenged the validity of these counts and were highly critical of methods used to conduct the count. In response to these criticisms, government commissioned the Economic and Social Research Institute to investigate the criticisms of the count, and it was concluded that an undercount had taking place. One of the main concerns of this report was that local authorities lacked the skills and knowledge required to respond effectively to issues that often accompanied homelessness, such as addiction or mental health problems. It recommended greater co-ordination between voluntary agencies and the health board and highlighted the need for clarification concerning policy in relation to the housing of one-person households by local authorities. Due to the shortage of social housing being provided and the continuing growth in numbers of households on the waiting list, there was very little provision for the housing of one- person households (O’Sullivan, 2005).
Lack of social housing
One of the effects of government promoting the tenure of home ownership is the lack of resources being allocated to the tenure of social housing. In 1996 there were 27,427 households on the local authority housing waiting list and by 2002 this had grown to 48,400. The 2005 count saw a slight decrease at 43, 684. At this rate it would take until 2033 to eliminate the current waiting list and this is providing there are no new entrants to the waiting list (www.cori.ie). Naturally families are given priority when it comes to the order of selecting those on the waiting list for local authority housing. Its interesting to note that () % of the homeless are individual households and this very fact means that they are inevitably not a priority for local authority housing. In an article written by McVerry & Carrol (2007) they believed one of the main obstacles to addressing the homeless issue was the failure by government in the provision of long term accommodation. An interesting fact in this article was expenditure on homeless services in Dublin, the budget which stands at 54 million a year is the equivalent of spending a‚¬74 a day per homeless person, with the price of a mortgage for 1st time buyers standing at a‚¬46,22 (assuming an average house price of a‚¬270,000). They felt the key instrument in addressing homelessness was firstly providing suitable long term accommodation and then provide a service which would support the individual or family in maintaining such accommodation. This approach, they believed would greatly diminish the need for the web of services that currently exist to address the homeless issue (www.cfj.ie).
In conclusion, it can be seen that there are a vast amount of circumstances that contribute to an individual or families becoming homeless. Stating that homelessness is a problem of individuals seems to be too simplistic a view and fails to allow for the failure of Irish government to provide housing for one of the most vulnerable groups in society. Although the government has increased funding in tackling the problem of homelessness, the question has to be asked, has this funding being used wisely? It seems as if the cart has been put before the horse as far as addressing the issue of homelessness is concerned. If there’s to be any substantial progress made in addressing the homeless issue, providing housing has to be the primary objective. After addressing this very basic need, services need to be developed to assist people in maintaining such accomodation.
The Irish times, February, 28, 2008