How Ireland could solve its homelessness crisis

A city in Canada has become to first area to end homelessness. How can Ireland learn from their success?

How Ireland could solve its homelessness crisis

Photo: RollingNews.ie

Without a stable home, it is next to impossible to solve many of the social problems that lead to homelessness.

This is the message a Canadian group called ‘Housing First’ is trying to spread. Their goal is to provide immediate access to permanent housing for homeless people. 

The concept may seem surprisingly simple but it is has worked for the city of Medicine Hat in Alberta, Canada, which has recently become the first city to have successfully eliminated homelessness.

It makes you think - could this solution work in Ireland too? 

Well, There are over 5,000 people in Ireland today that are classified as ‘officially homeless’, living in emergency homeless accommodation.

This figure is increasing every year and last year it increased by of 48%. Over 1’000 of these are children with their families.

This is the highest level of family homelessness since records began. According to Focus Ireland family homelessness is largely due to “constriction in the private rental market" which both causes homelessness in the majority of cases and makes it very difficult for families to find a way out.

It is evident from continued research carried out by Focus Ireland that the majority of families currently living in emergency accommodation have "no previous experience of homelessness" and do not have "psycho-social problems" which are typically associated with homelessness, they simply need a place to live.

Current solutions

Many of the current solutions offered to fix the homelessness crisis require people to make steps towards solving other issues first like alcoholism, mental health problems or drug addiction before they get accommodation.

However, Ted Clugston, the Mayor of Medicine Hat, said that the Housing First concept works because it provides stability first in order for people to work towards improving other areas of their live.

“You have to have a home first. It’s very hard to solve your personal problems when you’re living on a park bench”

This solution could certainly work in Ireland but first there needs to be an in increase in housing stock to tackle the housing crisis.

Kerry Anthony of homeless charity Depaul said:

“It is absolutely critical that we increase the housing stock in Dublin by supplying the recommended 50,000 additional housing units over the next five years.”

Increasing Rent Supplement

This week the Government announced a 25% increase in rent supplement. Although this was welcomed by groups who have been pushing for a rise  for a number of years, the general reaction is that the rise needs to be in line with current market rates and that this increase falls short of that.

In order for rent supplement to be of benefit to homeless families, who simply cannot afford to stay in their homes, it needs to be higher than the current 25% offered.

Focus Ireland’s Director of Advocacy, Mike Allen, said that this is a positive step but it is not going to solve the problem.

“It is important to highlight that this is just one short-term measure to help tackle the crisis and is not the full solution. Increasing rent supplement has to be part of an overall package to address the crisis.”

Photo: RollingNews.ie

Early Intervention

Many people who become homeless today are young, early school leavers. The social welfare rate can often be too low to to provide them with a proper home and they can find it difficult to get a job without qualifications.

Leaving school very early can often be a sign that a person is in trouble. In these cases there needs to be early and quick intervention to help prevent homelessness.

Social Housing

According to figures released by Freedom of Information legislation there are over 2,751 housing units in local authority ownership which as currently vacant. And yet, there are currently over 44,000 on the waiting list for homes.

Fianna Fail housing spokesman, Barry Cowen, said the amount of vacant units was unacceptable.

"It's utterly senseless to have so many properties lying vacant while spending such enormous funds firefighting the crisis through the provision of emergency homeless accommodation."

These figures clearly show that the time and money currently invested in emergency accommodation could be better spent on then refurbishment of vacant social homes.

“This money could have been much more productively used to provide long term homes for these families by refurbishing the vacant units already in the ownership of local authorities," he said.

Investment in Mental Health and Addiction Services

The best way to solve the homelessness crisis is to prevent people from becoming homeless. In order for this to happen there needs to be a significant increase in investment in Mental Health and Addiction Services.

Issues with mental health and addiction can be a huge reason why people become homeless. 

In this way, the Canadian 'Housing First' concept would work wonders as it would give those who suffer from a mental illness or a struggling with addiction some stability and allow them to deal with these problems.

The Simon Community stressed that in order for homelessness caused by mental health and addiction issues to be prevented, these services need to be improved and expanded.

"Existing specialist services must be maintained and they must be developed in areas where they are required."

"Alcohol and drug services must be expanded including harm reduction, access to substitution treatment, detoxification, rehabilitation and aftercare all around the country."

Photo: RollingNews.ie

There are a number of ways in which the homelessness crisis in Ireland could be solved, but all involve a change in the public mindset about how much we 'give' to those in need and a long term commitment to prevent it in the first place.

The Canadian project worked largely due to the fact that people in the city were relatively accepting of the 'Housing First' initiative. 

Ted Clugston, the Mayor of Medicine Hat did not think that the project would be so successful.

"I didn't believe that it could be done... that you could solve a housing problem and when you do solve it. Everybody is interested in this and it proves that it can be done."

Other countries have taken note of the projects success. Finland and France have both begun implementing similar measures. The Obama administration even listed the method as a best practice for ending homelessness.

So, when will Ireland follow suit?