Over-reliance on private sector a mistake – Phil panel on homelessness

newsThe Phil, in association with the Bram Stoker Club, yesterday hosted their first panel discussion of the year, on the topic of tackling homelessness. The panel comprised of three guest speakers: Conor Hickey, the first lay director of Crosscare, the largest homelessness charity in Dublin; Louisa Santoro, both CEO of Stepping Stone, a charity provides a unique community-based housing support service to the homeless, and the manager of the Access Housing Unit for Threshold Dublin; and Maeve Regan, the managing solicitor of the Mercy Law Resource Centre in Dublin, a centre that provides free legal advice and representation to people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

The discussion began with each speaker giving a brief overview of the problems that exist. Regan spoke about the effect that getting rid of bedsits had on the provision of accommodation at an affordable level, and the fact that the vast majority of landlords will not accept rent supplements, leading to a crisis in demand for emergency accommodation. She cited the example of a refugee who was refused emergency shelter by Dun Laoghaire and Rathdown County Council on the grounds that he had not been a resident in the area for the required 12 months. She also highlighted the role of emergency housing as the middle ground between homelessness and housing. Louisa Santoro expanded on this, criticising the lack of transparency in rules such as these.

Conor Hickey then emphasised the importance of viewing homeless people as people primarily, and the fact that they are homeless as secondary to this. He also mentioned Jonathan Corrie, whose death close close to the Dáil caused a surge in media coverage of the issue of homelessness, stressing the fact that the problem had existed far before it fell under the glare of the media. He criticised the government reaction to the issue, saying that the system is stagnant with too much emphasis on emergency beds and not enough emphasis on the provision of sufficient housing.

The question was then put to the speakers whether they thought that there was a problem with social attitudes towards homeless people. Hickey once again stressed the fact that homeless people are just like you and I, and the problems of institutionalisation that exists with emergency shelter. He also raised the issue of how the sector, although run by people with good intentions, is partly to blame for the propagation of stereotypical images of homeless people. He emphasised the importance of gearing policy towards housing and helping them through the system.

Regan discussed the broadness of the right to housing, and the legal perspective that she took on the issue as currently no legal obligation exists to provide housing. Louisa Santoro explained the need for provocative images such as the ones mentioned by Hickey in order to convince people to donate to homelessness charities. She also discussed the fact that homeless people are treated differently by services they access.

The question was then posed as to what challenges are faced in transition in both short and long term. Santoro explained how the hostel environment can impact people in a negative way and how volunteers are relied on to give people local knowledge about the areas that they move into. Hickey referenced Trinity professor Eoin O’Sullivan in saying that over 50 different homeless services exist and each believes that what they’re doing is great and what the others are doing isn’t. He maintained that the most important thing was that the 250 people that they provided shelter for were receiving the best possible service.

The speakers then addressed the topic of migrants and refugees. Hickey said that Irish people’s aversion to diversity made it much harder for migrants. Regan called for a policy change, criticising the fact that judicial discretion is relied upon to heavily. Broaching the subject of issues such as substance abuse and mental health, Hickey emphasised the importance of dealing with the issue of homelessness first, then the other issues, saying that the two weren’t necessarily mutually inclusive. Santoro emphasised the fact that homelessness is not a linear progression, but is full of ups and downs.

In response to the question of rent control, Regan explained that this was an economic question rather than a legal one but that it could be legally done. Santoro countered by saying that the vast majority of the rental market only had one rental property which would lead to opposition to this idea. Hickey however supported the idea.