Early Tuesday afternoon, two big signs were propped up against the outside wall of the Traveller housing site at Labre Park.
A couple of banners – colourful text on white sheets – hung from the tops of the railings, facing outwards towards the rare cars, cyclists and pedestrians who slipped past, up Kylemore Road in Ballyfermot.
Families in Labre Park are calling for the council to open up some of the blocked-up bays there to put in spare caravans and sanitary units, says Shay L’Estrange of the Ballyfermot Travellers Action Project.
That way, they’d be ready for people to move into, if they need to self-isolate – in other words, if they show symptoms of Covid-19 and need to keep well away from others for a while.
The priority is to be ready if an outbreak of Covid-19 happens, L’Estrange says. “That we’re not then running around to get trailers, open up spaces, move people in. Because that could take a lot of time in itself.”
Dublin City Council’s policy right now – according to responses to press queries and meeting minutes – is that it would put in mobile homes where there is space but, given overcrowding on Traveller sites, the alternative is to move people who need to self-isolate off-site to isolation units run by the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE), which runs homeless services.
Any talk of homeless services terrifies some people, L’Estrange says. “Am I going to be going into a hostel? Am I going to be going into a hotel? Am I going to go into this congregated setting?” they wonder, he says.
Labour Councillor Alison Gilliland, who chairs the council’s housing committee, says the council sees helping people self-isolate off-site, if there’s no space on-site, as the best option right now.
It can be hard for people to self-isolate properly on some Traveller sites, where they may share sanitation facilities, or live in closely packed homes, she says.
“There’s a higher risk of contamination than there is for people living in, I suppose, housing estates or apartment blocks,” she says.
At Labre Park
Towards one end of one of the streets in Labre Park, yards and bays are blocked off with giant concrete boulders – ahead of a planned regeneration of what is one of the oldest Traveller sites in the country.
There’s room there, some say, for extra mobile homes right now. “The amount of space down there, it’s ridiculous,” says Tommy Berry, who lives in one of the homes on the site.
He’s worried about whether everybody is taking the threat of Covid-19 seriously enough, that it may whip through fast if there is an outbreak – and thinks those old bays should be opened up and used again, too, he says.
At the end of March, L’Estrange surveyed conditions in homes across Labre Park in Ballyfermot to get a detailed picture of what was needed so people there could comply with government guidelines on social distancing or self-isolation.
In six of the homes, more than one family lives in cramped conditions, says his final report – which he sent on to the council on 27 March. Seven families, meanwhile, have no access to independent water sanitation or electricity.
That’s still the case, says L’Estrange. Before the pandemic, people would have knocked on neighbours’ doors to ask to use their showers or toilets perhaps – or nipped down the road to McDonald’s, or showered at the gym.
Also, “in most homes and in all yards where families live there is no space or facilities to self-isolate”, his report says.
He asked the council for, among other measures, more mobile homes on some of the blocked-up bays, and extra services to “ensure every family have adequate supply of fresh clean water and sanitation”.
Sophie Nicoullaud, a Green Party councillor, says adding extra mobile homes at Labre Park would be good not only for those needing to self-isolate with symptoms, but also for those who are vulnerable to cocoon in.
“They can make their way there, and remain there,” she says.
L’Estrange of the Ballyfermot Travellers Action Project hasn’t had a formal response from Dublin City Council to the report with the measures he has asked for and sent along on 27 March, he says.
On 7 April, a council spokesperson said that it was “continually assessing” Traveller sites to look at their needs and respond appropriately. “There has been no requests for additional accommodation units to date.”
They didn’t respond to queries as to how that tallies with L’Estrange’s report, asking for more mobile homes at Labre Park in Ballyfermot.
Money and Measures
A Department of Housing circular on 18 March said that extra measures might be needed on some authorised and unauthorised Traveller sites to keep those who are “particularly vulnerable” safe.
Funding was in place for extra toilets and running water, the circular said. But also for mobile accommodation or space to lessen overcrowding.
Extra units for “either mobiles on site or houses elsewhere” that allow for self-isolation and quarantine might be needed to, it said.
“Every effort should be made to find prompt and practical solutions on existing sites,” the circular says – but where that’s not possible, it might be necessary to move residents to temporary alternative accommodation.
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said on 6 April that it had so far “formally approved almost €600,000 for such measures with a number of applications in the pipeline” – a figure expected “to grow substantially”.
It’s unclear how much of that national pot of funding Dublin City Council has drawn down from the Department of Housing, and for what measures. Neither body provided those figures.
On 2 April, a council spokesperson sent a list of 22 bullet points explaining what its Traveller Accommodation Unit has been doing to prevent the spread of Covid-19 on Traveller sites, and to keep people who were diagnosed or vulnerable safe.
The list includes a helpline, signage about social distancing, renovating and reletting vacant Traveller accommodation, and prioritising Travellers for standard social housing.
Extra toilet facilities were rolled out for some families with overcrowding or medical needs, it says. (Twelve so far, a later response said.)
It also says the council was providing supports for getting more mobile homes and getting standby accommodation units for isolation and social distancing. Both, “where appropriate”, it says.
On 6 April, a spokesperson for Dublin City Council didn’t directly respond to a query as to how many of these supports for mobile-home acquisitions had been deployed. It was “where appropriate”, the response again said.
On 7 April, they said: “None have been deployed thus far.”
Gilliland, the Labour councillor, said that the Dublin City Council’s first focus across the city was on sanitation and portaloos. “So each family would have their own sanitation unit and portaloo to cut down on cross-contamination and all of that.”
“On isolation, it was agreed that where possible, we would put extra caravans in where people could isolate,” she says.
But, she says, “that’s not physically possible on all sites as there’s not the space there”. (She doesn’t know Labre Park too well, so isn’t sure of the situation there, she said.)
Minutes from the council’s most recent Local Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee, held at the end of March over Zoom, suggest that council officials currently say it’s not possible on any sites.
“It would not be appropriate to provide extra units on site given that all sites suffer from overcrowding,” said an official’s reply to committee members, according to meeting minutes. “This would only exacerbate the problem.”
The HSE had advised that moving people with Covid-19 into other accommodation on overcrowded sites “would be unwise and should not be considered”, said a council official in a later response to L’Estrange after the meeting.
Nicoullaud, the Green Party councillor, said this misses the point. “The council talks about overcrowding on sites, but what we’re talking about is overcrowding in houses and caravans,” she says.
Other agencies are fighting on the frontline to treat people, Nicoullaud says. “While we’re not taking any measures to add caravans while there is funding for it.”
A HSE spokesperson didn’t directly say whether they had said this would be unwise or not. But they did say that “every option to self-isolate in line with public health guidelines should be considered including temporary relocation to empty caravans and mobile homes”.
So far, three families have been moved to temporary accommodation so far through DRHE, and two offers have been refused, said Pat Teehan, who heads up the council’s Traveller Accommodation Unit, in an email to a councillor on 9 April.
Says L’Estrange of the Ballyfermot Travellers Action Project: “I’m puzzled by the fact that they would even consider homeless accommodation for people.”
It’s unclear what exactly that homeless accommodation is: hotel rooms, or family hubs, or individual apartments. Dublin City Council hasn’t responded yet to queries about that sent on 9 April.
(A briefing to councillors on 6 April said that in the two previous weeks, DRHE had sourced 160 self-contained apartments, 197 hotel bedrooms, and 300 adult single-occupancy beds.)
Gilliland, the Labour councillor, says she thinks when people hear “homeless services”, they think they’ll be put in emergency accommodation – like homeless hostels.
“When it’s actually our homeless services executive that are sourcing and managing the isolation units for the most vulnerable that would be our homeless population, and people in Traveller accommodation would come under that vulnerable section as well,” she says.
Like others though, Jacinta Brack, head of communications with the Irish Traveller Movement, says that they aren’t backing that policy at the moment.
“The bottom line would be we haven’t stood over the idea that an alternative to self-isolation would be the provision of homeless accommodation,” she says. “We haven’t seen what that looks like.” They don’t know whether it’s suitable for bigger families, for example.
The Irish Traveller Movement would advocate for councils to have sought every possible Traveller-specific provision before they would turn to homeless accommodation, says Brack.
So, firstly, councils should try to put in a caravan or mobile home – which is happening in some parts of the country but not others yet, she says.
If a council says there isn’t space for that on a site, it could look at nearby land or fields where they may be able to do it, she says – as is being done with a case in Donegal at the moment.
“There are alternatives and what we think is that councils should be looking at the alternatives,” she says. “We’re not necessarily accepting that the alternative is homeless accommodation.”
Fear of Homeless Services
Since some people are afraid of being put into homeless accommodation, they might not “declare if they do get any symptoms because of the fear of having to go into this homeless situation”, says L’Estrange.
Berry, who lives in Labre Park, says he has been homeless in the past with his partner and four children in a hotel – with the cramped conditions and constant discrimination to stress about.
It’s not a situation he would ever want to return to, he says. “I’ll never do it again. I’d rather go back to the streets to be honest.”
Across in the north of the city off Belcamp Lane, Ann Joyce – who has lived on an unofficial site on council land there for five years – says what the three families there really need is electricity.
They’ve been asking for electricity, which they’re willing to pay for, since before the pandemic too, she says. But with the lock-down, it’s become more urgent.
“The government is telling us to stay indoors and we can’t do that, it’s impossible,” she says. “We have to go shopping every day.”
They have to go out each day to get petrol for the generator, and milk and meat as they can’t run a fridge so food spoils if they don’t buy it fresh, she says. “You’d get food poisoning.”
An official at Dublin City Council suggested they move into hotel rooms but they don’t want to, she says. “We’re not homeless, we have a roof over our heads. Other people could be doing with that more than us.”
A hotel would also feel riskier, she says. “We’re safer where we are.”
All Other Options
At a national level, officials are switched on to measures needed on Traveller sites but there are disparities in responses across councils, says Brack, of the Irish Traveller Movement. “It’s always going to be down to the implementation at a local level.”
Good communication between local authorities and groups on the ground is important to that, she says.
“We’re saying they should be meeting twice weekly by Zoom, or another way, with the local Traveller organisations, to make this much easier to deliver,” says Brack. “Some are doing that well and some are not doing that at all.”
Nicoullaud, the Green Party councillor, says she has been pushing for more meetings of Dublin City Council’s Local Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee, but feels she’s treated like a bad guy when she begs for that.
“How can we work if we don’t know what’s going on?” she said. “We’re not getting any information.”
Labour’s Gilliland says the council is trying to balance listening to local Traveller groups and people on Traveller sites, and then making the final call – which it, ultimately, will be responsible for.
At the moment, taking a family who might need to self-isolate and putting them in an independent apartment is the route they have decided is best, she says. “From our perspective, it’s the safest way to manage it.”
“Obviously, tensions will arise when there’s a disagreement between what the council sees as the best approach and perhaps what the families on the site see as their needs,” she says.
At Labre Park, L’Estrange says he is still waiting for a formal response from the council to his assessment of what those living there need.
[UPDATE: This article was updated at 17.51 on 15 April 2020 to make Dublin City Council’s policy on mobile homes and self-isolation clearer.]