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Death on the streets

What will it take for the Irish government to treat the homeless crisis as an emergency?

The headlines announcing house construction plans by minister Eoghan Murphy are not the answer. They give the semblance that something is happening when people are dying for want of shelter.

The range of responses to the housing crisis extends far beyond emergency accommodation for people living in the most extreme vulnerable conditions, i.e. the rough sleepers who are already dying and will continue to die in significant numbers.

The tragedy is that the emergency accommodation that could provide shelter for the rough sleepers is already filled with people who cannot afford to pay rent even if they could find a place available.

That is because there are not enough homes available to rent or buy. The homes are there, and to spare, but they are not being rented out or put up for sale.

Simple economics dictates that this pushes the price of accommodation upwards, putting pressure on everybody except the landlords.

Meanwhile we have the absurd situation where 17% of people living in emergency accommodation are actually working. People earning an income have not been part of Ireland’s homeless population in modern times.

That is senseless, a tragic farce that is resulting in deaths of people who would not otherwise be at risk. But what is worse is that the government could solve the crisis in a few weeks, with modest spending that they would get back by the spring.

We are losing time. Within weeks we could be into sub-zero temperatures causing the death toll among rough sleepers to reach grim heights. Each of these men and women who already died had names, faces, families, friends, loved ones. They must not be allowed become cold statistics. They could be my son. My daughter.

The government can and must act urgently. Doing the following could bring this crisis to a sudden and effective end, allowing time for orderly development of well planned, properly constructed communities to cater for the needs of our growing population.

  1. Take a rough inventory of the dwellings in every part of the country that are currently empty, classifying them by the amount of time they have been empty, their state of repair, and their status regarding ownership.
  2. Taking dwellings that have been empty for six months or longer, and that are fit for habitation with the least spending, place an order on their owners requiring them to put them up for rent.
  3. If the owners do not have the capacity to rent them, or do not want the trouble of doing so, place the dwellings in the care of local auctioneers or estate management companies who are willing to manage the properties responsibly, bring them up to and maintain them at acceptable standards, rent them out, collect the rent, and make the payments less expenses to the owners.
  4. If the owners cannot be identified, or the ownership is disputed, place an order on the owners in absentia, and have them rented as above, and hold the rent less expenses in trust, to be given to the owner when ownership is established.

This would cause a lot of fuss among some property owners. But we live in desperate times, and unprecedented measures are needed.

And, it is not only the homeless who will benefit. The country will. The multi-million Euro emergency accommodation bills paid by the government will be replaced by the much cheaper cost of rent supplement, for those who need it.

Vital public services such as hospitals will find it easier to attract staff to move back to Ireland, where less of their salaries will go on the lower rental rates.

Economic development will be supported as companies will be confident about being able to attract more staff to live and work here.

Wage claims by civil and public servants will ease because the cost of living in rented accommodation will be lower.

People will find it easier to save for a deposit to buy their own homes.

 

The legislation would be simple to get passed through the legislature, and you would have the backing of most of Ireland.

What about it, Taoiseach, Minister?

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“Open The Door Today”   Proposed Housing / Homeless Policy #OscailAnDorasInniu

“Open The Door Today”   Proposed Housing / Homeless Policy

#OscailAnDorasInniu

 

Introduction

The government response to the housing and homeless crisis is gathering pace. However it will come too slowly for many, especially for the families who are sending children to school, and for the people who, despite living in emergency accommodation, are still managing to hold down jobs.

We are also, as a country, suffering significant economic cost. The decision not to allow Dublin to host the office of the European Banking Regulator was almost certainly influenced by our housing shortage.

Of greater concern to us all, many people who are new to homelessness are suffering the traumatic effects of the privations they are experiencing. These include people whose lives and careers would ordinarily steer them well clear of any such risks. There is a strong likelihood that some of these people will never recover their personal and social stability, and instead will be dependent long term on the state for their survival as they struggle to live with any dignity after this ordeal.

While the medium and long term construction plans get underway, there is an interim solution: legislate to allow the imposition of compulsory letting orders on dwellings. There is much to recommend this policy:

  • It is likely to save lives.
  • It will sharply reduce the state’s spending on emergency accommodation.
  • After an initial modest outlay, compulsory letting orders will earn long term revenue for the state through additional tax paid on rental income.
  • It is constitutionally safe, since it actually bolsters the rights of property owners by adding value to their assets through generation of rental income at market rates.
  • It is sustainable.
  • It is quick.
  • It is simple to effect.
  • It would be politically very popular.
  • From a political party’s point of view, it is a dream policy and a success waiting to happen. In the world of real politik, it is a win on every front because every party gains.

On the downside, it has apparently not been tried before by any European government. That means that it carries risks because there are no examples of unintended consequences that can be learned from. Then again, no other European country has ever had the coincidental circumstances of tens of thousands of empty, completed dwellings while thousands of people are homeless.

Recognising who the homeless are

In decreasing order of urgency, the following categories of homeless are suggested.

  1. The rough sleepers. Based on December 2017 estimates by the Simon Community, it is likely that there are between 300 and 600 on any given night. There is a lot of movement in and out of this group. While new people continue to become homeless overnight, state and voluntary support services are working hard to find emergency shelter for them. In this group can be included people sleeping in tents, doorways, abandoned buildings, cars, and any other temporary space people find themselves to protect them from the elements. A very small number of this group are long term homeless, living with addictions or enduring mental health challenges, and are well known to the homeless service providers. The majority are people who, until recently, lived conventional lives in relatively dignified circumstances. These are the most vulnerable and need to be protected as a matter of extreme urgency.
  2. People who are sofa surfing. This is an invisible cohort of people who stay temporarily with friends, work colleagues and extended family members. Because of the precarious and short term nature of their accommodation they are highly at risk of becoming rough sleepers. There are no official figures showing the extent of this, and from a methodological point of view, they would be difficult to count. However, a self-registration system would be simple to establish, to gain some measure of the phenomenon. Anecdotal evidence suggests that sofa surfers number in the thousands. It places strains on hosts and surfers alike, as it leads frequently to over-crowded living space, and the temporary nature of the arrangement requires surfers to move on frequently, to avoid losing the support of the friends and extended family who give them a temporary place to stay. If the this policy proposal were implemented, it would eliminate the need for large scale sofa surfing, as more rental properties would go on the market quite quickly, and with the greater supply, rental prices would fall to more affordable values.
  3. People living in emergency accommodation. The August figures were over 5,000 adults and over 3,000 children, which included over 1,400 families. Even though these are safe compared with rough sleeping, and do not carry the pressures of sofa surfing, no matter how good the physical fabric of hotels, family hubs, or hostels, these temporary solutions will never be home to the residents staying there. Feelings of personal security, privacy, your own defensible space, are essential to wellbeing and hope for the future. Also, they are ruinously expensive at a time when the state is desperately short of money. It could be argued that this cohort alone justifies this policy proposal. Even if many of these families and individuals had to get HAP support, this would be a lot more affordable to the state at a time of critically short state finances. It is reasonable to assume that moving people on from emergency accommodation to conventional low cost housing would create more than sufficient space to accommodate all rough sleepers. Implementing a policy of compulsory letting orders would make this possible within weeks.
  4. People living in cramped, over-crowded and dangerous private rented accommodation. No matter what regulations are established to stop unscrupulous landlords, the victims are not likely to come forward when they know that the alternatives are even less sustainable. The best way of raising standards is by harnessing market forces, increasing the supply of high quality accommodation so that landlords are forced to improve their standards if they are to compete for market share. It is self-evident that the proposal below would have the desired impact.

Other effects of housing shortage

These numbers do not include adult children and even entire families who have moved into a former family home with ageing parents. While it is to be assumed that in many cases this is harmonious, it is not difficult to anticipate difficulties and family conflicts in others.

Neither do these categories include working people who are struggling to pay very high rents, and the difficulties faced by professionals who want to move to Ireland to work in our growing economy. This problem has grown so acute that one high profile multi-national company has announced plans to buy homes for its employees. It should come as no surprise if others decide to do the same. This is no solution however. The requirement to buy homes for employees will almost certainly act as a disincentive to companies wishing to expand here, which means lost opportunities for the Irish economy. Also, the purchase of homes will reduce further the amount of housing stock available for the rest of the population, as people move to Ireland to take up the new employment opportunities.

A related and important issue is the difficulty experienced by the HSE in employing nurses to fill thousands of vacant posts across the health system. Despite aggressive advertising aimed at attracting Irish nurses back home from other countries, there is a very poor response, with many citing the difficulty finding a place to live, and the high percentage of their salaries that would be lost to high rents. The proposal below would solve the first of these issues within weeks, and the second over months as landlords will no longer be able to charge such high rents as supply increases.

The Proposal

There are not enough homes available to rent or buy. The homes are there, and to spare, but they are not being rented out or put up for sale.

Simple economics dictates that this pushes the price of accommodation upwards, putting pressure on everybody except the landlords.

Meanwhile we have the absurd situation where 17% of people living in emergency accommodation are actually working. People earning an income have not been part of Ireland’s homeless population in modern times.

The government could solve the crisis in a few weeks, with modest spending that they would get back in growing tax receipts on rental income.

The proposal below will bring the worst of the crisis under control, allowing time for orderly development of well planned, properly constructed communities to cater for the needs of our growing population, and returning migrant workers who should be allowed to contribute to the recovery and growth of our economy.

Step one

Take an inventory of the dwellings in every part of the country that are currently empty, classifying them by the amount of time they have been empty, their state of repair, and their status regarding ownership.

Step two

Taking dwellings that have been empty for six months or longer, and that are fit for habitation with the least spending, place an order on their owners requiring them to make them habitable and put them up for rent.

If the owners do not have the capacity to rent them, or do not want the trouble of doing so, place the dwellings in the care of local auctioneers or estate management companies who are willing to manage the properties responsibly, bring them up to and maintain them at acceptable standards, rent them out, collect the rent, and make the payments less costs and their own fees to the owners. If necessary, there can be a repayable grant system for making the homes habitable.

If the owners cannot be identified, or the ownership is disputed, place an order on the owners in absentia, and have them rented as above, and hold the rent (less costs and fees) in trust, to be given to the owner when ownership is established.

 

Constitutional position

The Attorney General earlier this year opined that it was constitutionally safe to legislate to allow compulsory purchase orders to address the accommodation crisis. He based that opinion on Article  43 2 2° which gives the State the power to pass a law that reconciles the right to private property with the needs of the common good.

However, the scale of investment required to meet the accommodation needs of the most vulnerable cohorts, and the additional time required to make properties habitable, makes this option unattractive if not unworkable. Two further risks are present: the possibility that a constitutional challenge will halt the entire programme of property purchase; and the fact that a fortune in expensive borrowed capital would be tied up in property that it does not want to own when the crisis is over.

It is less constitutionally perilous to commandeer the use of private property for the purposes of letting. This is because the owner benefits from the transaction while the state trespasses less completely on his or her constitutional right to own property. For this reason, the option of legislating for compulsory letting orders is a more attractive one

Impact

Even with the lesser threat of a compulsory letting order, this measure would cause a lot of fuss among some property owners. But we live in desperate times, and unprecedented measures are needed.

And, it is not only the homeless who will benefit. The country will:

  • The multi-million Euro emergency accommodation bills paid by the government will be replaced by the much cheaper cost of rent supplement, for those who need it.
  • Vital public services such as hospitals will find it easier to attract staff to move back to Ireland, where less of their salaries will go on the lower rental rates.
  • Economic development will be supported as companies will be confident about being able to attract more staff to live and work here.
  • Wage claims by civil and public servants will ease because the cost of living in rented accommodation will be lower.
  • People will find it easier to save for a deposit to buy their own homes.
  • The legislation should be simple to get passed through the legislature, as it would have strong public backing.
  • The large cohort of additional people who are able to pay their own rent will add significantly to state revenue as landlords’ income is taxed at the marginal rate.

Marie O’Connor

It is December 1st 2017. A freezing day in Ireland. With so many terrible news stories about homelessness it is easy to assume we will remember them, or that they will be easy to find later when social historians are searching for relevant contemporary material.

Much of what people are experiencing will never be recorded. Here is one story that should not be forgotten because it captures so much about what is gone wrong in our society.

The writer is Marie O’Connor, a homeless mother of two children, who, heroically in my opinion, is advocating for herself and the 8,000+ others caught in this tragic farce. She published them in a string of tweets. Here is what she wrote.

 

I met a very distraught gentleman this week. He arrived in Ireland less than two years ago, from war torn Syria, with his wife & five children now aged 7, 16, 18, 19 & 20. When they first arrived here they rented a one bed studio, all 7 of them. They knew they’d have to find somewhere more suitable but just wanted to ensure their children had a roof over their heads. They discovered finding this would be far more difficult than they had thought, he tried to explain. His fixed term contract in the studio came to an end. He had not found any alternative accommodation after desperately searching and to his disbelief, found himself homeless with his family in Ireland. He explained he had went to the council for help & was desperately trying to secure a HAP property. He and his family are currently in a B&B and have now been homeless more than 6 months. He recently had viewed a HAP property a few miles outside the city & was very optimistic, well, until he got there. I sincerely wish I was joking but when he arrived at what turned out to be a teeny 3 bed bungalow, he discovered they’d be sharing the house with a dog & a cat that’ll come & go. More unbelievably there was a chicken, yes, a chicken freely roaming. Indoors!?!  to which the landlord gave no explanation!?! Disappointed, he returned to the b&b. He couldn’t believe how difficult it was to access something as basic as accommodation in this country. He made an appointment to speak with a newspaper to see if maybe he could find someone that could help. He also made an appointment with the council & expressed the stress & despair he & his family were experiencing. He told them about his media appointment & how hopefully he’d find someone that could help. He was told, in no uncertain terms he was to cancel his media appointment. He was told if he kept that appointment then there would be a big X placed on his housing file & no one would ever help him then. He was grateful this official told him this & cancelled it. Shortly after he received another call to view a HAP property near the city centre. When he got there it was extremely cold & damp. He could not believe the amount of mould & asked me if we realise in Ireland how terrible this is for our health. Besides its poor condition, it was again very small for a family of seven. Another no go. Days passed & he received a call demanding to know why he did not choose to take the property. He explained about the mould & the damp, cold, cramped conditions. Unbelievably, he was told that when he arrived a studio was enough for the 7 of them & so shouldn’t be so picky now. He was told he had now refused 2 properties so would have to accept it or face being put off the housing list & possibly lose his emergency accommodation. Hence why he was distraught.

This is #OurIreland .

#Corrupt #Ireland

#Deepstate #Ireland

#HomelessIreland

 

Source: posted on Twitter

URL https://twitter.com/EireGem/status/936379449108520960

at 11:40 PM – 30 Nov 2017 by Marie O’Connor @EireGem

 

Homeless, we have a problem.

I have just had a loud argument – some would say a shouting match – with a well-educated white professional middle aged woman who lives in a leafy suburb of Cork. She has been my friend for nearly thirty years and we share a lot of interests. I know her to be compassionate, honourable, and genuinely interested in the welfare of others.

The argument was about the inadequacy of government plans to resolve the housing and homeless crisis, and the shameful comments by Leo Varadkar and others who take every opportunity to deflect criticism away from themselves by saying that homeless people are somehow responsible for their own misery.

The point at which our voices rose was when she asked if I would like a homeless person to be housed beside me. It stung me to realise in an instant that my friend, this beautiful intelligent person, has fallen for the propaganda that every homeless person has high support needs, due to psychiatric illness, addictions or some other adversity.

She genuinely, sincerely holds this view. My guess is that much of middle Ireland, including many of our public representatives, are informed by a similar illusion. Do they not read the government’s own figures, which recently reported that an astounding 17% of the homeless manage to hold down a job?

Most people who are in emergency accommodation should not be there. Most are ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary moment in Irish history when tens of thousands of completed dwellings lie empty, while thousands of adults and their children have nowhere to live.

Were it not for the heroic work of voluntary associations, many of these ordinary men, women and children would be dying in the severe cold. Seven homeless people have died since the autumn, and the hundreds more who will be sleeping rough tonight are at the very edge of survival.

The situation is serious  but the solution is straightforward, affordable, and most importantly, it can be implemented in time to prevent more deaths. Legislation to allow compulsory letting orders about which I already blogged would, if enacted, put enough accommodation into the rental market to meet the majority of the housing need within weeks, leaving the emergency services and volunteer associations to concentrate on the most vulnerable.

I have sent a more detailed version of the compulsory letting proposal to the Taoiseach Mr. Varadkar, to the Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy, and to my local TD Minister Simon Coveney. That was seven weeks ago, and I have not had as much as an acknowledgement.

A future tribunal may well interrogate an elderly Leo Varadkar about the deaths and suffering that he and his cabinet could easily, cheaply and efficiently have prevented in 2017. If that happens, will he point the finger at Conor Skehan for pulling the wool over his eyes? Or will he stand up and deliver spin, still paid for by us?

Worst of all, could he defend his government’s inaction on the basis of Fine Gael ideology? He could argue that his party does not pursue social democratic policies, despite the fact that the vast majority of Irish people believe in them, because we are basically a decent people. It is horrible even to contemplate that this is his primary motivation. He would be right up there with Sir Charles Trevelyan, whose belief in the free hand of the market ensured that food would be exported from Ireland in great quantities during The Famine.

Meanwhile, middle Ireland does not understand who the homeless are. Those predominantly comfortable people are blinded by a cleverly portrayed falsehood that has been created by expensive PR firms that they themselves have had to pay for out of a public purse that can scarcely afford such extravagance.

That falsehood is that the homeless are the so-called poor who will always be with us, and that if they lived near us they would somehow pose a risk to the value of our homes. Middle Ireland cannot see that the homeless could be their sons, their daughters, ordinary people who become homeless under circumstances that are completely beyond their control. Such as when a landlord decides to evict them on flimsy grounds in order to replace them with more profitable tenants.

So, the homeless have a problem. Not just that they have no home, but that Irish voters are gulled into believing that all the homeless are the same, a permanent sub-caste who are all are chronically in poverty, all are behaving badly, all are alcoholics, all have psychiatric illnesses.

The horrible subtext of that message is that the homeless are not deserving of our help, and we are not comfortable about you living beside us.

Well newsflash, Mr. Varadkar. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Irish people are decent. We are affronted by every death, every homeless child, every homeless family, every homeless man or woman. Even the most comfortable of us are haunted by the images of people shivering in doorways.  We are not going to forgive or forget a Fine Gael government that sat on its hands while our sons and daughters died.

In the name of whatever economic or political or social doctrine that you follow, open your eyes and take action because no matter what cause you are honouring, none can justify this suffering.

The Genius of Paddy Doherty

The death of Paddy Doherty reminded me of an inspiring lecture he gave at a community development seminar in NUI Maynooth in the mid 1990s. It was my privilege to be part of that audience, and to pass on to others involved in community activism some of his strategic and analytical wisdom.

Paddy was a Derry man. His community development vision was informed by social analysis that rose above the sectarian political setting in which he grew up. He saw that the social and economic upheaval caused by the decline of traditional Ulster industries resulted in further social exclusion of lower income families in both the Catholic and Protestant communities. When the troubles added to this conflict, his agenda became the re-construction of bombed-out sites in Derry, a project which  drew support from all sides of the community and became the Inner City Trust. This vibrant organisation provided employment with active support across all divisions.

His anecdotes were colourful and entertaining. Each carried its own lesson. He spoke about a bank loan of four million pounds. Paddy became irritated by the bank’s insistence that they make regular payments when he had made it clear that they would pay off the debt as funds came in. When the bank became more aggressive he threatened to take the loan away from them and give it to a competitor!

My favourite was a story with a lesson. As a child he would watch horse-drawn carts delivering goods, and grew fascinated by the sight of crows apparently eating the horse droppings. Eventually he noticed that they were only swallowing the corn and spitting out the manure. He advised us all to take care to recognise what was of value but to say no to the horse shit.