L ast December, then Minister for Housing Simon Coveney tripled the targets for the country’s Housing First programme, which works to get long-term rough sleepers into stable permanent homes.
Instead of 100 homes, there would be 300 homes provided by the end of 2017 for those who had been homeless the longest and had complex needs, the minister said.
A year on, and so far, the Housing First team in Dublin has helped 176 people to get off the street and into homes, says Francis Doherty, communications officer at the Peter McVerry Trust.
The shortfall, say those working in the area, is mainly down to challenges in finding homes in a super-tight market, and navigating the way in which services are set up by local authorities.
A Shortage of Homes
The Housing First logic is that the best way to help homeless people is to give them houses. Previously, homeless services operated on the premise that long-term rough sleepers were not “housing ready”.
Housing First was pioneered in New York in the early 1990s, at a time when there was “an increasing number of people with severe mental illness on the streets,” says Sam Tsemberis, one of the founders of Housing First, who visited Dublin in October to launch a new partnership with the Peter McVerry Trust.
The model at the time dictated that these people should undergo treatment first, before being housed. But many of the homeless people didn’t want treatment – or at least not the kind that was being offered.
So they became the long-term homeless, he says. This was the cohort they wanted to help but they didn’t know how.
So “we relinquished our arrogance and took a very humble position, of believing that those most affected were probably the experts of their own experience”, says Tsemberis.
“And we began to talk to people about what they thought would be the way to get out of this dilemma they were in.”
Those they spoke to explained that their housing need was their main problem and priority. “They were willing to work with us to get back into housing on their terms,” he says.
They set up an NGO and started to practice the model now known as Housing First, getting homeless people apartments, and then doing home visits and offering them support in their new home.
Back in Dublin
The model was piloted in Ireland in 2011, with a fully-fledged version rolled out in Dublin from 2014. But there have been obstacles.
“There is just not enough housing,” says Laura Bradley, a Housing First project worker who has worked in homeless outreach in Dublin for 11 years.
In New York, the model relied on housing in the private-rented sector, but here, the team relies mostly on social housing. Most private landlords aren’t interested in long-term rough sleepers as tenants.
It is extremely difficult to get private landlords to accept tenants with a history of long-term rough sleeping, says Adrian Quinn, project leader with the Housing First Intake Team.
Single people on the government’s Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) schemes, whether homeless or not, do not usually get enough of a rental subsidy to secure a tenancy, he said.
The rates are a bit better for couples, he says. They’ve set up some private-rental tenancies for them.
But HAP tenancies don’t provide security of tenure and the person can be evicted easily in the first six months. So the Housing First team are relying on local authorities to provide them with homes.
Relying on social housing, though, has its challenges too.
Many long-term homeless people are not on the social housing list, and “social housing policy can be inflexible and exclusionary at times when you are working with very vulnerable and isolated people”, says Quinn.
Says Bradley: “There is a huge amount of paperwork. We have to get birth certificates, IDs, there is a tax form we have to fill out and a massive housing application.”
It can take far too long to get all that done, especially if you are supporting someone with complex needs, she said.
Some local authorities are more on board than others, says Quinn. And some still may not fully understand the model.
Workers in the local authorities are helpful and show flexibility when they can, he says, but everyone is constrained by the rules of the system.
“The Housing First model traditionally would be that you have immediate access to housing without any conditions,” says Bradley.
As a team they don’t put any conditions on the offer of housing, but to access social housing the homeless person has to jump through a lot of hoops, she says.
This can be difficult when you are working with long-term rough sleepers with complex needs, who may not have working phones, she says. It could take years to get all the paperwork complete.
The Housing First model also says people should have a choice over where they want to live, but due to the housing crisis this level of choice is something they can rarely offer.
“Ideally we should be armed with bunches of keys in our back pockets,” says Brian Wildes, another Housing First project worker. Ideally, the programme would have access to a big stock of housing all across the city with security of tenure.
Many of the rough sleepers he works with don’t want to go into hostels for a variety of reasons, but most would like a home, he says.
Against the Rules
Part of the problem is that while the Housing First team aim to help the people who have been, “homeless the longest, on the street”, these are often not the same cohort who are longest on the council’s list, says Quinn.
“Not administratively homeless, not the longest registered with the local authority, but actually homeless,” he says.
Many of those on the streets are not registered, or may not be considered eligible for social housing with the local authorities, he says.
Perhaps “they have never registered and there is just no paper trail”, says Quinn. “They could be from another country originally, they could be from a Traveller family and not have a birth cert.”
There are other possibilities too. “Maybe they couch-surfed for ten years in one local authority and then slept rough in another local authority and both local authorities say, ‘They are not ours,’” he says.
The Housing First approach is starting to break down some of the barriers to access for those people who are excluded from services, by demonstrating to the local authorities that they can “bend the rules”, he says.
When it comes to the question of whether or not somebody has been living long enough in the city to be on the list here, it’s a bit unclear what the rules actually are.
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing says that it is up to local authorities to decide how to provide homeless services, but that, in general, people can make a housing claim in the area they live in.
“The general rule is that a household will apply to the authority where the household is currently resident,” said a spokesperson. “A household will also be entitled to apply to the authority for an area with which the household has a local connection.”
It is not so much the homeless issue that is complicated as the systems we have for responding to it, says Quinn. “We have built a really complicated system around homelessness and housing, our whole legislation and social housing system is complicated.”
Leaving people homeless is not a cost-effective way to run the state, says Wildes. They accumulate serious physical and mental-health problems, and it costs more in the long run compared to just housing them, he says.
“We need to get rid of that whole nonsense around whether you are eligible for housing. It is just a right,” says Quinn.
In September this year, new Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy promised to appoint a specialist manager for Housing First in Dublin, and to extend the programme for the first time to urban centres outside of Dublin.
That is probably because Housing First here in Dublin has, so far, a 90 percent success rate for participants maintaining their tenancies, according to Quinn.
The other approach, known as the staircase model, whereby homeless people were supported to become “housing ready”, has a 40–50 percent success rate here, he says.
The initial budget for the Housing First programme was €2.9 million for three years, starting from October 2014, he says.
That was revised last December to €4.5 million when the target was increased to 300 households, and the time period was extended by another 6 months.
That works out at around €1.28 million per year, about 1 percent of the €120 million in the planned budget for homeless services in 2017.
“The Housing First budget in Ireland is less than 1 percent of the overall homeless budget. That is tiny,” says Doherty of the Peter McVerry Trust. “It is talked about a lot as being a key part of the solution, but it is drastically underfunded.”
Such is the extent of the Housing Crisis that sometimes homeless people often don’t believe the Housing First outreach workers, when they tell them they can get them a house, says Bradley. “People often are just like, ‘How ridiculous is that? That is not going to happen.’”
For those who the programme does help, it can bring security and a stable home. Steve, who asked us not to use his last name, to maintain his privacy, was homeless for 30 years since the age of 12, he says.
When he was younger, he slept in doorways and was in and out of hostels. In later years, he lived mostly in tents, he says.
Steve looks in his 40s. He wears a grey cap, blue jeans and black boots. On the floor at his feet his small black dog, Bob, jumps around playfully.
He never managed to keep a tenancy for long, six months at the most, he says. He gave up his previous tenancies due to mental health problems and feeling isolated, he says. “I would deliberately choose it, [I would realise] I can’t stare at these four walls anymore.”
Now he has been living in his own home for two years, and last summer he got Bob.
One of the findings of the early New York Housing First team was that if they provided those with complex needs with supports in the community, those people did well and kept their tenancies, said Tsemberis.
Under the Housing First model, that means each support worker should have a maximum of 10 clients, he said.
Here the figures are a little different. The Housing First team in Dublin is made up of support workers, outreach workers, a mental-health nurse, a general-health nurse, a property manager, an addictions worker and a counsellor, says Quinn.
Each support worker can have up to 12 clients each, said Quinn. But he said that the people they house would have supports aside from that main support worker – they might also meet with the addictions worker or mental-health worker, for example.
Steve says the support he received from the Housing First team is definitely the reason he is still in the tenancy.
He feels people are on hand and says that he relies on the support and “being able to speak to people who knew it was a difficult transition to make”, he said.
He knows that counselling is available if he needs it. He thinks a really important aspect of the Housing First model is that it doesn’t require you to change your lifestyle first, in order to get a house.
Steve used to be a daily drinker and no longer drinks, but he says that giving up alcohol should not be a requirement for people to get somewhere to live.
The outreach team goes out on the streets searching for homeless people, who may never come into contact with other homeless services, Quinn says. “Some of our biggest successes were people that no one knew about.”