Being homeless in 21st century Ireland

Hosted by VDP, an evening of learning about those who experience homelessness in Ireland and how homelessness is being discussed

Yesterday evening, in the Maxwell theatre, the Trinity Vincent De Paul (VDP) society hosted a panel discussion: Being Homeless in 21st Century Ireland. The VDP Social Justice committee has been focused on understanding the homelessness crisis afflicting Ireland as well as working on projects to help raise awareness about the homelessness crisis. One such initiative was this panel discussion.

There were two speakers, as Dr. Clíodhna Ní Cheallaigh was unable to make it due to illness. One of the two speakers was Dr. Paula Mayock, an assistant professor in youth research at Trinity, and author of “Living in Limbo,” a piece which looks at “homeless young people’s paths to housing.” The second was Dr. Katríona O’Sullivan, a formerly homeless and Trinity Access Programme graduate, and lecturer of psychology. Moderating the discussion was Tricia Keilthy, the national head of Social Justice at St Vincent De Paul Ireland.

The discussion began with Dr. Mayock. She spoke about youth homelessness and her work in tracking young people over time. Mayock said that from the beginning of tracking a youth who is homeless until a few years later, only seven out of the forty young people ended up in housing.

Mayock addressed the stigmas and misconceptions surrounding young people experiencing homelessness. Mentioning that part of the reason that the general public is less aware of the high homelessness rates is that not everyone who is homeless is out on the streets begging. Homelessness varies from those sleeping rough to those in hostels; emergency accommodation; couch hopping; to those living in completely unsafe, unclean, and inadequate housing. She said that even for those experiencing homelessness they themselves might not recognize their situation as homelessness because the common understanding is that of people sleeping rough and begging for money outside shops.

Dr. O’Sullivan spoke next about her experiences of homelessness. She laid out her background, coming from a home with a lot of chaos, “a lot of love too”, but one of chaos. When she became pregnant at fifteen she was told to leave home. O’Sullivan detailed her time spent squatting in a flat, living in and out of hostels, and seeking services. She described herself during that period as someone whose “light [inside] had gone out”, and it was not until she was about twenty-one that the “light” or the hope came back. When talking about interactions with people, or the often lack of interaction, she said that what is often needed most when speaking to those who are homeless is compassion, respect, and that “humanity is the best thing you can give.”

Following the two women’s speeches was a question and answer session. When asked what might be helping or hindering homelessness, O’Sullivan said that, regarding policies, “the voice of the homeless isn’t always considered.” Mayock followed up by explaining that “speedy access to stability is important” but that there are other measures which need to be taken. Mayock stressed the importance of “housing first” rather than the long practiced “notion that we have to ‘cure’ people” before putting them in a home. Whereas simply putting people in homes – regardless of if they are or are not suffering from addiction – led to higher retention rates of those in the homes.

O’Sullivan spoke to the tendency to “hold up success stories,” noting her own, “I’m an anomaly,” and to the shaming of those who are not able to get out of the cycle of homelessness. She stressed that no one ever chooses homelessness, “even if they think they’re choosing” it, it is not a choice. It’s usually something that happens over time, in layers, as she put it; there is often some sort of history which leads up to it.

When asked about how to prevent homelessness, Mayock pointed out that there are actually already structures in place, which have been shown to work well, for preventing youth homelessness but are only in place for those under 18 years of age. She said that the real issue is family homelessness (often a single mother with two to three children). Both Mayock and O’Sullivan stressed that rent caps, lower rental rates, and holding landlords accountable for extortionate rates and mistreatment of tenants would help a lot because it is often an inability to pay rent which can lead to a family or person losing their home.

The evening concluded with a warm round of applause from the audience and chatter about the interesting topics broached and rifling through the “Living in Limbo” packets Mayock handed out.