It's Not Charity Hand-Outs that Keep Homeless People Living in Tents

Mary Kelly compares trying to access accommodation from the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive (DRHE) to trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube.

“It’s like a genius thing,” says Kelly, sitting outside her tent where she lives now on the Royal Canal, her bright blue eyes staring straight ahead, curly brown hair tied up to the side.

She has a letter which shows that she has been known to  Housing First, the statutory outreach team, as a rough sleeper for the last two and a half years.

The only accommodation that she and her partner, Christopher Paul Maughan, have been offered in that time was for one or two nights, she says. After which they were homeless again.

“We are trying, literally crawling on all fours, begging to get in out of the cold,” says Kelly, who is on steroids for a chest infection, which she blames on the cold.

Last September, another man living in a tent on the Royal Canal said he would accept any reasonable offer of accommodation, but was not willing to engage with the DRHE’s freephone system, which it uses to allocate emergency beds.

Homeless people are making rational assessments that they are better off living in tents, due to the level of service being offered to them through the DRHE, says homeless campaigner Fr Peter McVerry.

Along the Royal Canal

The people living along the Royal Canal were in the news last week after the head of the DRHE, Eileen Gleeson, suggested that they were choosing not to access homeless services because volunteers were giving them tents and food.

“I would be of the opinion that if there wasn’t a group going down there and feeding them every day they might not stay there much longer,” she said, according to a report in the Irish Times.

But homeless people there say they are living in tents because they cannot get a stable hostel placement from the DRHE.

Many of them are stuck permanently in the one-night-only system of bed-provision, where they have to try to book a different bed each night via a phoneline.

Maughan and Kelly say they desperately want a stable hostel placement but can’t get one.

Despite having lived most of her life in Dublin, the DRHE won’t accept that Kelly is from Dublin, she says, because she is on the Wicklow housing list.

As a result, she can only access night-by-night emergency accommodation through the freephone.

“We are not in the Famine,” says Kelly. “Rich, middle class, lower class, we are all human beings … We have a right to have a roof over our head and a bit of heat.”

“And a toilet,” says Maughan.

Social Democrats Councillor Gary Gannon says he has met with people living in tents on the canal who were not Irish.

They were, therefore, most likely in a similar position to Kelly. Unless they could prove they were habitually resident in Ireland, they would not be eligible for the long-term hostel placements.

Gannon says he put this to the DRHE manager at the meeting when she made the comments about those living in tents.

“I pressed her on the fact that the non-nationals on the canal are not eligible for long-term accommodation, so the canal was a rational decision for them,” he says.

He said that he did not receive a response, apart from a confirmation that he was correct about their lack of eligibility.

The DRHE did not respond to queries about the argument put forward by homeless people that they are trying to engage with supports, but that the system isn’t working.

Or to questions as to how the system could be changed or improved to make it more accessible.

Moved Around

Removed from the care of her parents as a child, Kelly says that she grew up in foster homes in Dublin.

She was discharged from state care into homelessness at the age of 18, she says, and lived in a Crosscare hostel for a couple of years, but has spent most of her adult life homeless in Dublin.

She was in hostel accommodation in Dublin for years and also on the streets and her only rental tenancy was in Dublin, she says.

At one stage, to escape life on the streets, she went to live in her birth parents’ house in Bray. During that time, she made a housing application in the Wicklow area.

Kelly was unable to remain living in her parents’ house due to family breakdown, and had to return to Dublin, she says. She hasn’t been able to organise a transfer to the Dublin housing list since.

“I’m only on the freephone,” she says, shaking her head. This means she will never graduate to the stable six-month-beds that are so sought-after among the homeless population. 

Fr McVerry says he hears stories like Kelly’s all the time. “I think the whole thrust of the emergency services is to get rid of people, any excuse at all to get them off your books,” he says.

The DRHE “are completely overwhelmed and if they can push someone away, and say you’re Wicklow’s responsibility or Mayo’s responsibility, they will do it very quickly”, he said.

According to Citizens Information, people living in a local authority area can be accepted onto the housing list there. In practice, however, this doesn’t happen, says Fr McVerry.

“You cannot leave your local authority area unless you get a letter from the Gardaí to say your life is in danger,” he says.

The Department of Housing did not respond in time for publication to a series of questions, including what the the legal obligations of local authorities are in relation to homeless people, whether there are minimum standards of accommodation, and under what circumstances transfers are permitted.

A Glimmer of Hope

Kelly’s partner, Maughan, is from Ballymun and says he is sure he on the housing list in Dublin City Council. A community-development worker for the Traveller community put him on the list, he says.

Just recently, a worker from the Housing First team, who are trying to help the couple, suggested that they put in a joint claim for housing, says Kelly.

If Maughan is on the list for housing in Dublin, Kelly might be able to get transferred to it as his partner.

“So, there is a glimmer of hope,” she says. She thinks it can be done.

There is a priest that has given them three blessings, she says, they could ask him for a letter. The outreach team knows them and even their doctor knows they are a couple.

She will start to gather up the letters she needs and attempt to tackle the problem that way. Perhaps the Rubik’s Cube can be solved after all.

It is very hard to get the system to recognise you as a couple unless you can show that you have been living together or have a child together, says Father McVerry.

“Part of the reason is they have very few couple’s beds in the emergency system, so they don’t want you to come as a couple,” he says.

The Tyranny of the Freephone

Earlier this year, on the first day in September, Daniel Maguire was standing outside his tent near the start of the Royal Canal on the Drumcondra side. He had been served an eviction notice, valid that day.

He had been camping at that spot for a year and a half, he said. If evicted, he would go and set up camp elsewhere.

Maguire said he would accept an offer of a “decent hostel”, but wasn’t willing to use the freephone service to access emergency beds.

“You just get offered the same few hostels. They are very rough. I’d rather have my own tent,” he says.

Using the freephone service doesn’t offer an advantage compared with sleeping in a tent, said Maguire. It wastes a lot of time, and often you still don’t get a bed.

“You are on the phone to them for an hour at two o’clock waiting for a spot: no beds,” said Maguire.

“Phone to them for an hour then at six o clock: no beds. By ten o clock, you are ringing them on your last 1 percent battery: ‘No beds, come get a sleeping bag’,” he says. “I have a sleeping bag, I’m in a bleeding tent.”

The DRHE did not respond to a query as to why it is acceptable for them to give out sleeping bags, but not for voluntary groups to give out tents.

Self-Care

Kelly and Maughan say they are drug-free, and so they don’t want to go into hostels where, they say, other people will be using heroin.

They have been stable on methadone for ten months now, says Dr Austin O’Carroll, who started them on the programme.

He is surprised at how well they have done in staying off heroin, considering they live on the streets. “They have done brilliantly. They are a lovely couple,” he says.

Years ago, once patients became stable on methadone, their housing situation would tend to improve, he says. But now because of the housing crisis that often doesn’t happen.

“We have a number of people who have done well on methadone now and they are still rough sleeping,” he says.

There are drug-free hostels, says Fr McVerry, but these are the Supported Temporary Accommodation hostels, the sought-after 24-hour beds.

For those who are permanently stuck on one-night-only beds, there are no drug-free options, he says. “If you are drug-free, you will be put in a room with drug users, you could be in a room with a drug dealer,” he says.

There is no maximum length of time that homeless people can be stuck using the freephone and one-night-only system, but there should be, says Fr McVerry.

“You should only have to go through the one-night-only beds for three or four nights. After that you are homeless, and you should be given Supported Temporary Accommodation,” he says.

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Author:

Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a freelance journalist. You can reach her at laoiseneylon@gmail.com.

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