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20 May 2020

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Rough sleepers must not be put back on the street after COVID lockdown

The COVID-19 crisis has effected all of us. It has had tragic consequences with thousands of families left grieving loved ones. In responding to the crisis we have been forced to do things very differently. From the mundane weekly shopping to responding to the huge challenge of homelessness.

We have witnessed communities coming together and responding to local needs in a way that has not been seen in generations. GAA clubs, community activists, Gardaí and council staff all working together to deliver food parcels, prescriptions and other essentials for those who otherwise would have gone without. 

Another positive has been the level of cooperation between agencies working together to ensure rough sleepers were off the streets and in places where they could safely isolate or stay until the current crisis had passed.

Of course there were obstacles. An overzealous interpretation of the rules led to families having no emergency accommodation. Others getting a nightmarish run around between local authorities and government departments. This was unacceptable and should not be allowed happen again.  

The voluntary sector, local government and HSE moved swiftly to ensure rough sleepers had somewhere to sleep in dignity during the lock down. Whole floors of hotels were booked, apartments rented, extra beds provided. The dormitory style hostel no longer good enough because of social distancing. The homeless Free Phone, quite rightly, becoming redundant. These two cornerstones of homeless services were suddenly redundant. Never to return again. I hope.

The Homeless Free Phone for many had become a humiliating obstacle to getting a bed for the night. With no guarantee of a bed at the end of a long day dialling and redialling the number. It was frustrating and distressing. 

A majority of rough sleepers are no longer sleeping on the streets but in the safer environment of more permanent accommodation because of COVID.

Homeless COVID 19

That is where the challenge now lies. We cannot allow rough sleepers to simply slip back on to the streets now that the lockdown is slowly lifted. Business as usual cannot be business as usual for rough sleepers.

It cannot become acceptable once more for homeless people to be left seeking shelter in doorways now that the shutters are up and shops are open to the public.

Homeless agencies have shown what can be achieved when they break down barriers and work together. Now we must ensure that the new norm remains in place.

Minster for Housing, Eoghan Murphy TD, must come out and publicly state that no one will have to go back to rough sleeping. His comments need to be backed up with resources and a commitment to working with agencies to make his declaration a reality in towns and cities across the State.

Many rough sleepers suffer from addiction and mental health issues. Accessing services when sleeping on the street is difficult if not near impossible. Having a secure safe long-term bed and accommodation makes it easier for the person and the services they are accessing. Trying to keep appointments, stabilise on medication, focusing on recovery are hugely difficult when you do not know where you will be sleeping that night. As someone who works in addiction I can testify to this. 

Of course, the long-term solution is to build council and affordable homes that meet the needs of all those on our housing lists and those struggling to pay the rent in the private sector. This will require a radical change in central Government. But I am not holding my breath quite yet. 

Eoghan Murphy COVID-19

• Minster for Housing, Eoghan Murphy

Right now we have the opportunity to seriously change the quality of life of hundreds of our fellow citizens. We need to seize this opportunity and make the housing first model a permanent reality, which would see rough sleepers getting long-term accommodation so other supports can be provided to tackle some of the longer term causes and effects of homelessness.

Currently local authorities are engaged with the Department of Housing, negotiating a financial package to compensate council’s for the massive loss to income because of the decline in commercial rates and parking charges. 

The final package must be agreed ahead of council’s Budget 2021 negotiations. Otherwise we will have economic chaos. Central to these talks must be funding to keep rough sleepers in safe long-term accommodation. 

The current homeless crisis is a result of consecutive Government’s failure to address the housing crisis. Year on year cuts to housing budgets left councils penniless and unable to build homes.

This crisis could deepen if the economy goes back in to recession as a result of the Corona pandemic. Resulting in even more people presenting homeless to council offices across the country.

A post-COVID laissez faire approach would be disastrous. Those currently in safe supportive environments will be back on the streets. The three-month stay on evictions and rent increases will be over. This certainly will lead to an increase in homelessness. The three-month stay must be extended and rent control a priority for any incoming Government.

Minster for Housing, Eoghan Murphy TD, must come out and publicly state that no one will have to go back to rough sleeping. His comments need to be backed up with resources and a commitment to working with agencies to make his declaration a reality in towns and cities across the State.   

We have a unique opportunity to make rough sleeping a thing of the past. If we squander this opportunity it will be a terrible betrayal of our homeless community, who will be facing an even darker, colder future.

Daithí Doolan is a Sinn Féin councillor representing the Ballyfermot Ward on Dublin City Council

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