How Homeless Services Say They've Managed to Keep Cases of Covid-19 Low in Hostels

“I think I was sent down here by the blessing of God,” says Robert Redmond about his new hostel accommodation.

He is staying in a hotel in Donabate. It’s operated by the HSE as a cocooning facility for older homeless people or those with health problems.

He says he is delighted that he has his own room and feels supported by the staff there too. “It is fantastic,” he says. “They would do anything for you.”

Before this, Redmond was staying in Santry Lodge in Ballymun. There, he shared a room with three or four other people each night, he says.

“It’s a big sigh of relief. I’m after getting more sleep. I feel more relaxed and more stable, safer,” he says. “There is more encouragement and more help.”

Redmond needed a hand to sort out a few things, like finding out where he is on the Dublin City Council housing list. “You’d be afraid to ask because you didn’t read and write,” he says, “you would be embarrassed.”

But in recent years, none of the hostels he stayed in had support workers, he says.

Around 450 homeless people who previously shared bedrooms now have their own rooms as part of measures rolled out by the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) and the HSE to stop the spread of Covid-19.

So far there have been 33 cases of Covid-19 in homeless services and no deaths, says Dr Austin O’Carroll, the HSE clinical lead for homeless services in Dublin.

Covid-19 Response

Most homeless hostels for single people in Dublin accommodate people in shared rooms or dorms.

This is not necessarily the norm in other cities. In Glasgow for example, the vast majority of single homeless people have their own rooms.

Shared bedrooms make social distancing and self-isolation impossible. Many homeless people have health problems so experts feared there would be multiple deaths from Covid-19 in homeless hostels, says Dr O’Carroll.

“In fact, we have had zero deaths,” he says. “That is because we have had a phenomenal response. The HSE, the DRHE and the voluntary agencies working very closely together.”

“It’s been dramatic, the outcome,” he says.

Working together and through discussions with counterpart organisations in London, they developed a model for managing Covid-19 in shared-living settings, he says.

This involves cocooning for all vulnerable residents and isolation for anyone showing symptoms as well as rapid testing, he says.

“We have a very clear system of identifying people who are symptomatic and getting them tested very quickly,” he says. Those who are awaiting their test results must be isolated while they wait, he says.

If a resident shows symptoms they are tested within a few hours, says Dr O’Carroll. “Initially we found difficulty getting tests back but then we found different labs.”

The other prong was to identify those people within the homeless population who are “physically vulnerable”, he says. Such as older people or those with underlying medical conditions, who were then offered “cocooning” in their own rooms.

Overcrowding has been reduced across the homeless system too, says Dr O’Carroll. Some people in private hostels had been sharing bedrooms with as many as eight people, he says. That’s now down to a maximum of four, he says.

Says a DRHE spokesperson: “Every effort has been made to reduce the risk of Covid-19 infection within homelessness.”

Some Concerns

Despite the success of the approach in containing the spread of Covid-19, some councillors have raised concerns about the management of some of the new facilities.

Independent Councillor Mannix Flynn named several hotels in Temple Bar which he says are providing homeless services. There is “total chaos” outside them, he says.

There has been no liaison with the local community in Temple Bar about opening so many additional homeless services, he says.

Dr O’Carroll says he has not received any complaints about chaotic behaviour outside any new homeless facilities.

Independent Councillor Anthony Flynn, who is also the CEO of Inner City Helping Homeless, says he is concerned that some residents are not getting the support they need since some new facilities are being operated by private companies rather than charities.

That can be an issue as the staff don’t always have the skills and training to support vulnerable people, he says.

He has queried whether all of these facilities meet basic standards, such as having code of conduct for staff and a complaints process for clients.

Redmond has been homeless on and off since 2006. But in recent years he has been placed in the Phoenix Lodge, Ardeevin House and Santry Lodge, he says. “There were no key workers in any of them.”

Each of those are privately operated and are not run by charities.

Because he has difficulty with reading and writing, he needed support. “It was embarrassing and when you went to go for help they kind of looked down at you,” he says.

He stopped trying to access supports and instead relied on information gleaned through the grapevine. “You had to go on hearsay,” he says.

Redmond says he has been sober for the last five months, having only relapsed after the death of his father. Now he has even kicked smoking. “I’m trying to change my life,” he says.

He’s happy and settled in the HSE-run facility, he says. But he and others there are starting to worry about what will happen when the Covid-19 crisis ends, he says.

“A lot of people are getting frightened and nervous because they are after getting more stable and more positive by being here,” he says.

What Next?

Improved standards within homeless accommodation must be maintained after the emergency period ends too, says Dr O’Carroll.

“We have asked that the people who are cocooning will be left there for a year and we have been more or less told that we will get that,” he says.

There is widespread agreement “that things can’t go back to the way they were”, he says.

The DRHE spokesperson says the organisation is trying to take advantage of the changes in the housing market.

“Given the significant adjustment in the Dublin property [market] over the last number of weeks, this has given the DRHE a welcome opportunity to source additional and better emergency accommodation facilities,” they said.

Dublin City Council is pursuing longer-term accommodation through acquisitions, leasing and Homeless HAP, she says.

She says that if the council can secure more homes, “then we can be in a position to offer permanent or long-term housing to more families and singles currently in emergency accommodation”.

Redmond has been on the housing list for 12 years but he isn’t certain if he will ever be housed. He wants to get his own home before he dies, he says.

Two of his brothers died when they were homeless, he says. One in a hostel. The other on the streets.

“If I wanted to pass, where would I pass? I’d like to pass in a peaceful place and that would be my own home,” he says.

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Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

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