Anxiety and worry visited all of us this year. Loss and trauma were unwelcome visitors for far too many of us. But we saw courage and fortitude too – in spades. The very best of ourselves shining through from all walks of life.
The courage and fortitude of frontline workers in particular proved to be the brightest beacon of light. And so much has gone unnoticed. We have been privileged at the Simon Communities to see the resilience and unbreaking spirits of those who have been experiencing homelessness – the men and women living a crisis within a crisis.
We couldn’t be prouder of our frontline staff and volunteers. Their work supporting men, women and children to leave homelessness behind never stopped. As that work continues, Joe Finnerty of University College Cork has started researching the impact of those crucial collaborations in the early days of the coronavirus crisis.
We have much to learn from them in how we, as a nation, tackle homelessness in the years to come. His initial findings, which he will present today at our annual Simon Week conference, are encouraging. They suggest that these unprecedented collaborations among all agencies tackling homelessness were able to cut through red tape and be more focused on the needs of people experiencing homelessness. The result was to treat homelessness as the crisis that it is.
While the evidence of the very positive impact of these collaborations is clear, there’s also evidence that the impact of the increased isolation and stresses because of the Covid-19 restrictions could not be mitigated for all. The absence of a home remains a crisis. There’s more than a glimmer of hope.
The number of people homeless fell by 14% to 8,699 people in four months to June. Homelessness prevention policies such as the moratoria on rent increases and evictions worked. They helped stem the flow of people into homelessness. Frontline services and local authorities, at the height of the pandemic, continued the work to find homes for people stuck in emergency accommodation and to support families and individuals to secure homes to move on, and away from congregated settings.
But as these measures are lifted, the number of people being pushed into homelessness is on the rise again. The lessons we must learn from the early pandemic period are clear; homes are the solution to homelessness, and effective prevention measures can turn the tide on ever increasing numbers of people entering homelessness.
Prevention is the pathway to ending homelessness in Ireland, to ending the trauma and destruction for far too many people for far too long. During Simon Week 2020 – our annual advocacy campaign, the Simon Communities of Ireland are urging the Government to bring a new focus to the prevention of homelessness. To stop homelessness before it starts, the government must develop a comprehensive homelessness prevention strategy, and ring-fence funding in budget 2021 for prevention measures.
With Rebuilding Ireland expiring, a new, homelessness prevention-specific strategy must be developed that engages agencies across the public sector, including in education, health and social care. All public service providers, such as in schools or GPs, should be able to identify who is at risk of homelessness to allow for early intervention. When a family presents to a local authority in crisis and at risk of homelessness, it is often too late. A designated funding line for such outreach and homelessness prevention is needed under Section 10 of the Housing Act.
Homes are the solution to homelessness. A key homelessness prevention measure is having an adequate public housing stock to meet the needs of people effectively locked out of the private housing system. The Government must increase protection for renters, to ensure that no tenant can be evicted into homelessness.
The fall in homelessness numbers during the moratoria on evictions and rent increases is clear evidence of the need for stronger regulation of the private rental market as a key homelessness prevention measure. No individual or family should be evicted into homelessness. Tenancy law must be reformed so that a tenancy cannot be terminated where emergency accommodation is the only option available to that tenant. In effect, this means evictions must be unlawful where they will lead to homelessness. We’re not advocating that the balance of responsibilities falls solely on the landlord. Enhanced homelessness prevention measures, such as housing support officers and outreach teams in local authorities will have to be in place to assist individuals and families whose tenancy is being terminated so as to avoid them being pushed into homelessness.
Ending the homelessness crisis in Ireland is not some far off utopia. Together we will stop homelessness before it starts.