Brian Jones says he still remembers the time he accidentally used the wrong pinch of salt.
It was his third morning staying in a homeless hostel on Manor Street in Stoneybatter, about four years back, he says. He says he had confused the staff and communal cupboards in the kitchen.
When a staff member told him, Jones immediately apologised, he says. But the worker still said he would have to record the “incident” in the black “incident book”.
“I was shocked,” said Jones, on the telephone last Friday. “It was just human error.”
It was the start of a long year, he says. His depression and anxiety worsened because of what he felt was bullying behaviour by two staff members in the hostel run by a private company and funded by Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE).
That was years back, but some continue to raise concerns about the hostels run by private operators, rather than by NGOs.
“The levels of staff training are not in line with those that are implemented by NGOs, and in many cases these facilities are not employing qualified, trained case workers to deal with the complex issues required on site,” says Anthony Flynn, an independent Dublin city councillor, who is also CEO of Inner City Helping Homeless.
At least seven hostels for single people in Dublin are run by private companies rather than homeless charities – exact figures are unclear. DRHE didn’t respond before publication to queries sent yesterday about whether there’s been an increase.
A Six-Page Complaint
At the end of his year in Manor Street, Jones wrote a six-page complaint to Dublin City Council.
His concerns were only about two of the employees in Manor Street – there were others there who were really good, he said. (Another person who stayed there at the time said they had a similar experience.)
Those two workers regularly shouted at residents and threatened them with “cancellation” for minor infringements of the rules, such as coming home late or misplacing a key, his complaint said.
The kitchen doubling up as a staff room seems to have been part of the problem. While residents were chopping food, one of the workers would blast up the volume on the TV, said Jones. “Both employees antagonise you while you are cooking,” he said.
Jones also alleged that the staff members were personally profiting from selling washing powder and toilet paper to residents. These items were supposed to be provided for free.
Jones said in the complaint that he regularly overheard the two staff members discussing other residents, saying they thought certain people should be evicted.
“When they have told me, and others, that we would be cancelled they do so in a very aggressive manner as if they enjoy it,” he wrote. “These are not the kind of characters to be working in this place.”
Staff in homeless services should be trained to offer support to homeless people in a wide range of ways, from advice about housing, to welfare rights, according to the National Quality Standards Framework published by the DRHE in April this year.
According to the DRHE website, these standards should be in place in all statutory, private and voluntary homeless services.
DRHE didn’t directly address a query as to whether private companies provide the level of care outlined in the standards.
A spokesperson said the agency is “committed to ensuring that the highest standards in homeless service provision are offered to individuals and families who experience homelessness and in collaboration with its service providers is continuing to adapt and improve the services available to its clients”.
Jones said he asked twice to move from the hostel but that didn’t happen. It was back in 2015, but he hasn’t forgotten.
“I have witnessed some horrible things in my life,” he said, in his complaint at the time to Dublin City Council. “But staying there for one year was probably the hardest thing I had to do in my life while battling major depressive disorder.”
A spokesperson for the DRHE said last Friday that Jones’ complaint about Manor Street “was investigated and the allegations were found to be incorrect”.
But when a worker in the office of Sinn Féin TD Mary Lou McDonald helped Jones pursue his complaint back in 2016, the council shared an email the hostel managers had sent in response.
The managers said in their email that after hearing about Jones’s complaints, they had met with the two staff members in Manor Street. “The matters raised in the complaint were discussed with them at length,” the email said.
“We have reiterated that when guests are staying in Manor St. it is their home and that staff are there to ensure the well-being of all guests,” it said.
They were changing the layout of the kitchen, so it would no longer be the staff room too, they said.
They made changes to their lateness policy, increased the opening hours of the kitchen and reiterated that washing powder and other such items were not to be sold.
“Since we have not seen the complaint we cannot be sure that all the issues have been addressed. If we haven’t addressed any issue, please let us know what we have missed,” they wrote.
Staff in hostels can be quick to threaten people with eviction, says Jones. “You could end up sleeping on the streets just because someone else is in a bad mood,” he says.
After Manor Street, Jones was placed in another privately operated hostel, where he says the staff were working up to 70 hours a week.
He preferred it because it was studio flats, but he believes that the long working hours caused mood swings among staff, and there too one staff member “threatened to kick people out and kicked them out on a whim”, says Jones.
Feeling under constant threat of losing your bed can lead to extreme anxiety and even suicidal thoughts, he says. He thinks some staff don’t realise the impact that these threats can have on mental health.
DRHE issues guidelines for private emergency-accommodation providers. They say service providers shouldn’t threaten people with eviction and that evictions should only occur in serious circumstances, like if the service user poses a risk to the safety of other people. But it still happens.
Josh Daly and his partner Jade O’Connor said in January that they and their children were booted out of privately run emergency accommodation for families on O’Connell Street – a so-called “family hub” – at short notice, without due process.
In June, Christina McAnaspie said she and her children had been evicted from a hotel on the Swords Road, where the DRHE had placed them.
In both cases, the families said they felt they’d been unfairly kicked out, over minor issues.
Jones would like to see an independent body adjudicate as to whether the issues cited for an eviction are reasonable.
Regardless of who runs a hostel – whether a company or an NGO – the vast majority of complaints Fr McVerry hears from homeless people arise from issues caused by having to share rooms, he says.
Jones is still living in private council-funded hostels. He likes the one he is in now because it is clean and well-run, he says – and he has his own room.
Flynn, the CEO of Inner City Helping Homeless, says he fears that standards of care are slipping.
“An independent oversight body to implement appropriate standards in care is what is required to tackle the downward spiral in service provision,” he said.