Last Wednesday night, the temperature in Dublin dropped to 9 degrees Celsius. Still, there were people sleeping in doorways, laneways, and parks across the city centre.
Volunteers with Inner City Helping Homeless met 156 rough sleepers on the city streets that night, according to CEO Anthony Flynn.
Yes, some of them just don’t want to go into hostels, Flynn said, but most would take beds if they were available. Problem is, there aren’t enough, and often all ICHH volunteers can do is hand out sleeping bags.
Hopefully, that situation will improve a bit soon, with the annual push to open more beds to let homeless people get off the streets for the coldest months of the year, when night-time temperatures slide towards zero.
But it’s tough to find places to put these additional hostels, because of objections from local residents, businesses, and councillors, who think they should be located in someone else’s backyard.
What’s the Plan?
At last Thursday’s meeting of Dublin City Council’s housing committee, the head of the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive (DRHE), Eileen Gleeson, gave a brief update on plans for this year’s “winter initiative”.
The annual end-of-year push to open extra beds for homeless people as the weather turns colder is “in planning”, Gleeson said.
“We are going to be adding additional beds. They are beds that will be permanently in the system,” she said, aside from large dormitories at Wolfe Tone Quay, which will close after the winter weather passes.
The DRHE expects to announce details sometime this week on where those new beds will be.
It hasn’t been easy to find places to put new hostels, says independent Councillor Christy Burke, who volunteers helping homeless people.
“There are times when the [council] manager might identify a place and before he even opens [the new hostel], he could be getting calls in to say they [local residents or businesses] will legally object,” says Burke.
Council officials fear wasting money on sites that will be legally challenged and may never open, Burke says. So they often move on to look for another location.
Several recent attempts to open emergency hostels have faced opposition from local residents, or local councillors, or local businesses.
When the council started to gear up to open the Longfield’s Hotel on Fitzwilliam Street as an emergency hostel, there were 62 objections sent in to planners.
Such a hostel would be “a destination of last resort for all manner of persons seeking a bed for the night”, said a letter submitted by a group of locals, which included solicitors.
Some argued that the concentration of homeless people and drug users “will drive residents and businesses from the area resulting in once occupied premises being left vacant and susceptible to neglect and vandalism”.
Other objections focused on the impact the hostel would have on the Georgian heritage of the area and on local children’s ability to play in the park.
Just one of the 63 comments was totally supportive of the project. It was from Enda Fanning, an architect and volunteer with Simon Community.
“Reading the objections lodged would give the impression that an armageddon was about to hit the Dublin 2 area,” he wrote.
A local resident took the council to court in 2015 over the development, but the plan is back on track now. In June this year, in response to a query from Green Party Councillor Claire Byrne, the council chief executive said he expected the hostel to open in the last quarter of this year.
In other parts of the city, though, the council has abandoned plans to open hostels, including in The Staircase building on Aungier Street.
Independent Councillor Mannix Flynn said that plans were “illegal” as the building shouldn’t ever have been changed from a guest house to a hostel without planning permission.
The Dublin Civic Trust also objected to the plans to convert The Staircase to a homeless hostel, saying that it would contravene the planning permission and compromise its historic fabric.
“People haven’t got a problem with hostels,” says Flynn, but they need to be set up legally, through the planning-permission process, he says.
There are two other homeless hostels on the street already, he says.
Flynn rejects the idea that objections mean that people are left on the streets, arguing that homeless services need to be better organised. “The whole thing is ad-hoc, it’s appalling and then you get this emotional blackmailing [if you object],” he says.
On Francis Street, some residents objected when the disused Carman’s Hall community centre was converted into a homeless hostel – and they won a recent court case on the grounds that the use contravenes the council’s local area plan.
Sinn Féin Councillor Críona Ní Dhálaigh supported the residents’ campaign to have the building turned back into a community centre. “There is no doubt that there is an over-concentration of homeless facilities in the south-west inner-city area,” she says.
Locals are waiting on a judge’s order, which is expected on 6 November, to find out what will happen next, says Ní Dhálaigh.
They will not insist that the homeless people are moved on straight away though, she says. “What you don’t want is 60 people out on the streets and nobody wants that.”
The residents took the case on a point of principle, Ní Dhálaigh says. “We need to mark people’s cards or otherwise it will just keep coming to the one area all the time.”
The council won’t attempt to open hostels in more affluent areas, because they wouldn’t get away with it, she says. “Can you imagine them opening up a homeless hostel in Donnybrook,” says Ní Dhálaigh.
Councillor Burke says one solution to this type of stand-off is making sure that homeless services are spread throughout the Dublin region – not just concentrated in the inner city.
“Why don’t the CEOs of the other three local authorities put together an emergency winter initiative plan in their own areas?” says Burke.
According to a list of facilities from 2016, there are several emergency-accommodation hostels in Tallaght, but most are otherwise clustered in the inner city.
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing says that plans for the winter are being “advanced in Dublin and other major urban areas, with an additional 197 emergency beds to be delivered in early December”.
“The DRHE are best placed to advise on progress,” he said. The DRHE did not respond before publication to queries about the exact number of emergency beds and why they are not yet open.