For Weeks, One Woman Struggled to Be Recognised as Homeless

Like many, Audrey Murphy’s situation wasn’t straightforward. She had been married, but split from her husband.

After a time still living together in the home they both owned – because neither could afford to move out – he started to date a friend of hers who moved in too, she says.

She had to leave then.

She and her new partner Edward Wood sublet a room in Ashtown for a while, but then were evicted on 14 December. They’d been paying the rent in cash, and had no paperwork to prove their tenancy, she says.

“The first week was a complete nightmare,” says Murphy, sat in The Clock on Thomas Street on a recent Thursday afternoon, where around the room, mostly older men were having a few pints and watching horse-racing on TV.

Murphy called the major homeless charities – Focus Ireland, Peter McVerry Trust, Crosscare – trying to work out what she was supposed to do, where she was supposed to go, she says.

She called Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE), and told them the ins and outs of her case, she says. “But when I said I owned a house, they said unfortunately we can’t help you, because you’re a homeowner.”

Going back to live in her old house just wasn’t an option, though, says Murphy. “Because my ex-husband was there with his girlfriend.”

She says she had no idea what to do next – and everybody seemed to say that there was nothing they could do, that they couldn’t help her.

There’s a whole constellation of services to support the thousands of homeless people living in Dublin these days.

But when you find yourself homeless, no one hands you a guide on how to navigate all of the layers of baffling bureaucracy and jargon to get help.

That’s if your local council decides you qualify for help at all. Under the law, councils have lots of discretion over how they assess whether somebody is homeless, and what kind of accommodation they provide.

Being Refused

“It is our experience that the current legal framework is not sufficiently robust and does not place a sufficiently strong obligation on a local authority to provide homeless accommodation,” says Rebecca Keatinge, a solicitor with Mercy Law Resource Centre.

Mercy Law gave legal advice to 720 people and families in 2018, she says.

They’re particularly worried about how vulnerable ethnic-minority families are treated – 77 percent of their clients are from those backgrounds, including from the Roma and Travelling communities.

They “face particular barriers to accessing homeless accommodation”, says Keatinge.

“We have worked with several families with very young children who are placed on night-by-night emergency homeless accommodation when they present as homeless,” she says.

“We have also worked with families who have been refused emergency accommodation or who have been obliged to source their own accommodation without success,” says Keatinge. “Such families have had to sleep in parks or in Garda stations.”

It’s hard to say how many people get turned away from homeless services because they aren’t considered eligible or homeless, even when they say they are – perhaps because their paperwork isn’t in order, or there’s a box they can’t tick.

Last November, DRHE said in a response to queries from Workers’ Party Councillor Éilis Ryan that it doesn’t have figures for how many people are turned away from homeless services.

That’s because nobody is, the response said. Instead they “are offered advice, assessment and access to emergency accommodation if required”.

Twelve local authorities around the country, though, did respond to a request under the Freedom of Information Act last year, with figures covering two and a half years that give a snapshot of the different reasons people in those council areas had been told they don’t qualify as homeless, or weren’t placed in emergency accommodation.

Councils collect data differently, with some counting “presentations” rather than people, for example. Sometimes, a person may return and later be registered as homeless, for example. So the picture is hazy.

Waterford City and County Council figures say that 1,373 people were “not placed” after presenting to Waterford homeless services, between the start of 2016 and mid-2018. It’s unclear if some of those are the same person, counted multiple times.

Those included 53 who were assessed as “making themselves homeless”, 119 who were “referred to another local authority”, and 470 simply categorised as “assessed as not homeless”.

Limerick City and County Council figures said 89 people were “not placed” between the start of 2016 and mid-2018 “due to being classified as not homeless”.

The Limerick Homeless Action Team surveyed 38 of those cases, and said that 18 had been given eviction notices but weren’t due to leave their homes yet, five lived with family or were name on tenancies and could stay there, three didn’t have any written notice of termination of their tenancies, and three were homeowners, among other factors.

Galway County Council said its 2016 figure of 19 people, which was higher than in other years, was “possibly due to sofa surfers not all being acknowledged as homeless”.

The reasons for not being accepted on the “homeless list” were varied, the response said. From owning a property, to having left a council tenancy, to being referred on to another local authority.

Getting the Runaround

When they first left their Ashtown home, Murphy and Wood slept on a fold-out couch at Murphy’s friends’ place.

It was a two-bed apartment. There had already been six people living there. Murphy and Wood made eight.

Murphy’s friend and her partner, and her 19-year-old son and his partner, had the bedrooms. Murphy and Wood slept in the living room, with her friend’s 15-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.

It was a council property, but they didn’t have permission to be there, says Murphy. So her friend said they could stay a few nights, but no longer. They feared ending up on the streets.

Wood had been registered on the homeless Pathway Accommodation and Support System (PASS) system – which people usually need to be on to access emergency accommodation.

But homeless services wouldn’t accept that Murphy was homeless too, because she was a homeowner, he says, frustrated.

Services – both council and charity – kept batting them over, one to another, says Wood. “You go to Citizens’ Advice, they tell you to ring this number, you ring the number, they tell you they can’t help you.”

Finding an Ally

When Hannah Browne Gotte, a researcher at Cardiff University in Wales, looked at the impact of bureaucracy on experiences of homeless services, whether or not people had a keyworker made a massive difference, she says.

Keyworkers were often the missing ingredient in whether people felt empowered or powerless.

Some people she talked to didn’t have keyworkers to explain the paperwork and steps in the system. “They felt quite dehumanised,” says Browne Gotte.

Another big issue that came up was uncertainty people felt around how long it would take them to move on to the next step.

“We found time was a big thing,” she says. “If they were left waiting, not knowing what was happening” that really made people feel disempowered.

Gerry Carney, who works with the charity Inner City Helping Homeless, says that his charity has made a list of what people have to do if they find themselves in different situations. “All day, people are just knocking, phoning, where do I go? What do I do?”

Sometimes, people don’t even know the first step – that they have to register with their local council. “What happens sometimes is people drift into town looking for help. And they have to go back,” says Carney.

It creates a lot of friction when people go to Parkgate Street in Dublin’s city centre, and are actually supposed to have registered elsewhere, with Fingal County Council, say, or South Dublin County Council. “Because these people are looking for a bed tonight, you know?” says Carney.

Carney and his team also explain where they might get a cup of tea or a hot meal – because councils don’t often tell people, he says.

“There’s nobody there to say, ‘Have you eaten today?’ No. ‘Well, go down to Brother Kevin’s and get your dinner,’” he says. “There’s no follow-on, no wraparound services.”

Finding a keyworker saved Murphy, too. “I was at the end of my tether when I sent the email to Merchants Quay,” she said, that Thursday afternoon, at the table in The Clock.

“I’m on the verge of suicide,” she wrote, in the email, “we don’t know where to go, we don’t know what to do.”

Says Murphy: “I couldn’t even get into Merchants Quay. I couldn’t get a mat on the floor because I wasn’t classed as homeless.”

When the mental-health worker in Merchants Quay, the homeless drop-in centre in the south inner-city, called her up to stop by, it all came out. “I just had a breakdown, I couldn’t stop crying,” she says.

Finally, though, they had an advocate. A keyworker in Merchants Quay got in touch with somebody at DRHE – and somehow convinced them to add Murphy onto the PASS system on 4 January.

She and Wood could at least now access the “night café” at Merchants’ Quay together – no beds, just mats on the floor. But still.

The keyworker in Merchants Quay is “absolutely brilliant”, says Murphy.

Each night, they called the freephone – although it wasn’t always smooth, as they had to do it separately. “There is more beds for men than women, so sometimes he gets in and I don’t,” she says.

“He could be six in the queue but I could be 26 and by the time they get to me there are no beds left,” says Murphy.

“She got to number one last night and then there were no beds left,” said Wood, that Thursday at The Clock.

A spokesperson for the DRHE said: “If on initial assessment the couple presents and are assessed jointly as a couple, they will be placed as a couple.”

Paperwork, Paperwork, Paperwork

Two weeks after they started to sleep on mats in Merchants’ Quay – and after they’d been homeless about a month – staff there worked out the next step, says Murphy.

Murphy could go to Mercy Law Resource Centre on Cork Street and swear an affidavit that she was no longer living at her old home address, was applying for a legal separation from her ex-husband and was signing the house over to him – which she was in the process of doing, she said.

She could give that to Fingal County Council – the council area she had last lived in – so she could get on the social-housing list and get a more stable placement, and access to the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) scheme to subside her rent if she could find somewhere new.

In other words, so they didn’t weren’t stuck calling the freephone each day, forever.

It was the first time she’d heard that, she says. “If we had been told that information back in December when I’d asked for help, we probably wouldn’t have been in that situation,” she says.

She got an appointment with the Mercy Law Resource Centre for the affidavit, and trooped over to a solicitor for them to sign it on 26 January, she says. “You have to pay a solicitor to stamp it.”

The weeks were dragging on.

Wood and Murphy were short of cash, they said. They had shelled out for birth certificates, bus fares, luggage storage, having to eat out.

The paperwork is overwhelming, says Wood. “It would be easier to get a gun licence.”

Finding Information

Wood says he and Murphy got most of their information about services from other homeless people.

Some homeless people told them about day centres for food. Later, others told them that Murphy could have gotten on the PASS system by going to Store Street Garda Station. It’s unclear how accurate that is.

A spokesperson from DRHE said “The Gardai have no access to the PASS system.”

Some local authorities do provide checklists of documents that people who want to register as homeless may need, says Keatinge at Mercy Law Resource Centre.

But there are no statutory procedures for assessing those who say they are homeless. How the councils administer rules and which documents they ask for can vary, she says.

Also, “checklists risk deterring individuals and families from presenting and can create barriers to accessing emergency accommodation”, she says.

Each case should be assessed on its own facts and circumstances, and fair procedures, she says. “There should also be a requirement on the local authorities to take into account the best interest of the child.”

There’s still the wider issue, too, about how much discretion Section 2 of the Housing Act 1988 gives to councils.

Mercy Law Resource Centre has taken, and lost, three High Court cases for families who were refused emergency accommodation by local authorities in the past – by Wicklow, Galway and Cork county councils.

In one case, the council had argued they could stay with extended family or friends. The woman was living in a tent at the time, though.

“The provisions give broad discretion to the local authority in the homeless assessment and in the manner in which the accommodation is provided,” says Keatinge.

The discretionary provisions of the Housing Act 1988 act should be changed so local authorities are obliged to provide suitable emergency accommodation to a homeless individual or family, she said. “This is one aspect that would improve the system.”

More than 70 Emails

Once Murphy got her affidavit, she was allowed to join Wood’s social-housing application and they could get their HAP application sorted, she says. “With constant emails.”

They got help with that from Malachy Quinn, a Sinn Féin councillor in Fingal County Council, she says. She counted more than 70 emails between Quinn, her keyworker, and council officials. “He pushed with the supervisor over there, to get it sorted out.”

“There needs to be a one-stop shop for all paperwork,” says Murphy – one service that can provide advice, do all paperwork and resolve problems, she says.

Someone with mental-health problems or learning difficulties may not be able to complete all the tasks they have been set, she says.

“It’s like being on a merry-go-round,” says Wood.

A spokesperson for the DRHE says that people who present as homeless to their local councils go through comprehensive assessments.

For that, they need photo IDs, birth certificates, and PPS numbers for all members of the household. They also need proof of income, a P60 and payslip, or a social-welfare payment receipt, she said.

Part of that assessment is also a social-housing application if they aren’t already on the list, they said.

“Each application is dealt with promptly and processed when all necessary criteria is met and information received,” said the spokesperson for the DRHE.

The council assesses the person on four main criteria: income, legal right to reside in the country, previous housing supports, and whether they have any alternative accommodation available to them, she said.

While people wait to see whether they’re eligible, they should still be able to access one-night-only beds through the freephone, she said.

But Murphy says she was excluded from even that emergency humanitarian aid – that when she rang the freephone, she was at first refused any type of accommodation because she owned a home with her partner.

Unsettled and Anxious

Once they had HAP to help them, Murphy and Wood found a new apartment in Balbriggan. But Murphy says she feels constantly drained, anxious.

“I’m in that apartment a week, and I can’t settle,” she says. “I fought so much and have kind of gone downwards, rather than happy and settled. I feel the opposite.”

She says: “I feel like I’m going to get a knock on the door and told to be gone.”

She wishes she had been told there was a way out sooner, that they hadn’t had to struggle so hard to work out what the hoops were, even before jumping through them all.

“I’m not the only person whose marriage broke down for whatever reason,” she says. “There are other people out there, and that’s why they’re on the streets. Because they have no information.”

“Nobody will help them,” says Murphy. “And they just go into a downward cycle. They’re lost.”

She found people who could help. But if she hadn’t? “I don’t know where I’d be now, to be honest with you,” she says.

Authors:

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

Lois Kapila: Lois Kapila is Dublin Inquirer's managing editor and general-assignment reporter. Want to share a comment or a tip with her? Send an email to her at info@dublininquirer.com.

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