Housing activist Erica Fleming and her nine-year-old daughter Emily were overwhelmed with offers of help after appearing on the RTÉ documentary “My Homeless Family” back in January.
“In the days that followed numerous people – I can’t even tell you how many – contacted me directly, saying ‘I’m a tiler,’ ‘I’m a plasterer,’ ‘I’m a carpenter,’” she says.
People offered to help any way they could and tradesmen, in particular, felt they could lend a hand in doing up one of the many boarded-up council homes around the city.
Fleming approached Dublin City Council with the idea, but was told that for liability reasons it couldn’t happen. But she guessed the council couldn’t make an allowance just for her.
So she set about asking for an exception to be made for lots of homeless families.
With the help of Uplift.ie, she put together an online form so that people could pledge their services to help renovate all Dublin City Council’s “voids”, empty council homes.
By bringing a larger number of homes into the equation, she thought the council might take the offer more seriously.
People have pledged to paint, clean, plumb, tile, garden and donate furniture, among other things.
“People are anxious to help,” says Fleming.
Off the top of her head, she names three vacant houses in her local area of Dublin 5 that she feels would be suitable for her and her daughter after a bit of work.
It seems like a desperate measure, but Fleming says she’s spurred on by the belief that there is no hope that she and her daughter will be housed anytime soon if things continue as they are.
She looked at how many people in her area of Dublin Bay North were housed last year and how many people are on waiting on the housing list there. She reckons she’ll be decades on the list if progress remains the same.
“It would take me something like 235 years to be housed,” she says.
A Bump in the Road
The petition was presented to council management last Monday with 834 Dublin residents signed up to help the council turn vacant buildings into comfortable accommodation for homeless families. It has since reached over 1,200.
Senior management was bombarded with emails from Uplift and although they haven’t engaged with Fleming, yesterday they met with Lord Mayor Críona Ní Dhálaigh and the chair of the council’s housing strategic policy committee, Daithí Doolan, of Sinn Féin.
“It’s the quickest solution in terms of practicalities . . . but I don’t think that they will [accept the offer],” said Fleming before yesterday’s meeting took place.
Dublin City Council didn’t respond to our queries before publication, but it appears she was right.
At the meeting, the two councillors, chief executive Owen Keegan and housing executive Dick Brady examined figures from January. They compared the number of vacant council homes in each area, with the number of people on the housing list in each area.
But this exercise didn’t inspire much hope, according to Doolan. Voids make up less than 1 percent of the council’s housing stock, he says. There are 159 voids, according to January figures from Dublin City Council.
And for these homes, will the council be accepting generous Dubliners’ assistance? It’s not likely.
“There’s a few bumps in the road that would need to be ironed out,” says Doolan. “There’s already a programme of work to turn those empty houses around and funding is available.”
And at any time, there have to be a couple of council homes empty, he says. There has to be time for inspection and work to be carried out.
Generally, it takes 12 weeks for a property to change hands, with six weeks of manual work and six weeks of administration.
Habitat for Humanity Ireland undertakes similar projects. Last December the charity helped accommodate a young couple with a two-bedroom house in Dublin 7.
It was previously a derelict council house until volunteers renovated it. The charity has done up twelve voids in Dublin to date, completing one or two each year.
The work is done by corporate volunteers or by the site supervisor, and is completely funded by the charity’s fundraising and donations.
Doolan suggests that the pledges might be more appropriately matched with a charity like this.
“Rather than let all those commitments just gather dust. I might try get them linked up with Habitat for Humanity,” he says.
According to Habitat for Humanity Ireland communications manager Anna Smith, more than a hundred people have applied for housing from the charity.
But they’ve just finished renovating a property on James’s Walk and are waiting for another house to do up.
“We would definitely be open to working with them in future . . . If we have another property,” says Smith. “It just shows that people want to work to make communities stronger and better places to live.”
Although a thousand people might be a bit much for the small set-up to handle. There’s usually up to five volunteers on a site on any given day.
Smith says that other housing organisations would likely be glad of some extra hands.
“This is only one part of the solution, a small part but an important part,” says Doolan. “We need that big building programme.”
[UPDATE: This article was updated on Wednesday 13 April at 11.35 am to include the exact number of voids in the Dublin City Council area.]