People from minority groups face unlawful discrimination when applying for homeless and housing services in Ireland, says a new report from the Mercy Law Resource Centre.
The report lays out serious problems with how councils handle claims from those without Irish citizenship, and Travellers, that stop them from accessing shelter even when they are entitled to it.
Those include an outdated circular that is misused by councils, the so-called “local-connection” rule, and a bureaucratic process that incorrectly ties the right to access homeless hostels with the right to access social homes.
It’s “damning”, said Green Party TD Joe O’Brien, who is also minister of state for community development and charities, at the launch of the report last week.
The Minister for Housing is “willing to engage on these issues”, said O’Brien.
Neither the Department of Housing nor Dublin Region Homeless Executive responded to queries about issues raised in the report before this article was published.
Under Old Rules
In 2012, the Department of Housing issued a circular to local authorities about the housing entitlements of people in Ireland who aren’t Irish citizens.
That circular is out of date and doesn’t account for all visa types, says the report from the Mercy Law Resource Centre, a legal-advice charity.
At the launch of the report, Colm O’Dwyer SC, a commissioner with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, said the circular has been used to exclude often vulnerable people, and those facing language barriers, from social-housing supports.
“Even though they are in fact lawfully entitled,” he says.
The report has a case study of a mother of two, an EU citizen living in Ireland for 12 years, who came here as a minor.
She was on the housing list through a joint application with her husband, who was working, but they split up due to domestic violence.
When she tried to join the housing list without him, the local council refused her application, for herself and her children, because she didn’t have a long enough employment history.
According to the Mercy Law Resource Centre, the council in question said it was bound by the 2012 circular.
The Mercy Law Resource Centre had to issue legal proceedings to get the family on the housing list, says the report.
The circular is “out of date, it doesn’t include new types of immigration status and it is being used as a blocking tool, rather than a guidance document”, said O’Brien.
A spokesperson for the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission says it is clear the Department of Housing needs to change the circular.
Sometimes local-authority staff refuse housing supports to people without citizenship without allowing them to submit a housing application, says the report.
Said O’Brien at the launch: “In my view this is disgraceful, it’s unlawful and it actually must end as a local authority practice, today.”
The Local Connection
To be eligible for social housing a household has to show, among lots of other things, that it has connections in the county where it is applying. This is known as the “local-connection” rule.
Since Travellers traditionally lived a nomadic lifestyle, that might mean they don’t have an attachment to one county.
Discrimination by public authorities on the basis of “race” or membership of the Traveller community is unlawful under the constitution and under the Equal Status Acts, says the report.
Discrimination can be either direct or indirect, says the report.
Indirect discrimination is when one “racial group” is placed at a disadvantage under a rule that “purports to apply to every racial group in the same way but has a worse effect on a particular racial group”, says the report.
The Department of Housing didn’t respond before this article was published to queries as to how the local-connection rule works for Travellers, if they don’t come from one particular county, or what happens to a family if no council accepts responsibility for housing them.
The local-connection criteria “clearly can be used in a discriminatory manner towards migrants and in my experience it has been”, said O’Brien, the Green Party TD and minister of state.
The Mercy Law Resource Centre report says councils often conflate two separate assessments – the assessment done to see if people are eligible to access homeless services, and the one to see if they can get social-housing supports.
Because they’re lumped together, it can mean people who are homeless are denied basic shelter on the basis of the local-connection rule.
The test for social-housing entitlements and the test for access to emergency accommodation should be totally separate, said O’Brien, but in practice they are “often conflated”.
The law says a council “may” offer shelter to those without a local connection, but in practice councils tend not to do so.
Duties to the Public
Public bodies cannot discriminate, under the public-sector equality duty, said O’Dwyer, of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission.
The commission can invite public bodies to carry out reviews if they are not in line with the public-sector equality and human-rights duty, he says.
But it can’t force them to comply. “This is, as the saying goes, an awful lot of carrot and not a lot of stick,” he says.
The commission asked the four local authorities in Dublin to do equality reviews to look at how they deal with applications for accommodation from people who don’t have Irish citizenship.
“The finding of the equality reviews raise serious questions about the application of the circular,” says O’Dwyer.
The commission has asked the four Dublin councils to put in place action plans to ensure that there was no discrimination on the grounds of “race”, said O’Dwyer. “This work is still ongoing.”
All councils are now carrying out reviews to look at how they treat Travellers when it comes to accessing homeless and housing services, he says.
Whistleblower to Minister
Before Joe O’Brien became a Green Party TD in 2014, he worked as a policy officer in the homeless charity Crosscare.
He wrote a report flagging major flaws in how rates of homelessness were counted in Dublin, and how migrants were treated when they tried to access homeless services.
According to the Irish Examiner in 2016, O’Brien’s report was not published because Crosscare came under pressure from its funding body, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE).
O’Brien leaked the report to the Irish Times and sought protection under whistleblower legislation.
The DRHE said at the time that “the report was considered unreliable”.
At the launch of the Mercy Law Resource Centre report last Thursday, O’Brien said he felt “a little bit frustrated” that the issues continue to exist.
That indicates “an unresponsive system”, he said. “There are double standards when it comes to the state’s provision of housing and homeless supports.”
Those double standards could lead to minority groups becoming over-represented in homeless services over time, he said.
He said he would push from within the government for reform of the homeless system.
Another Green Party TD, Roderic O’Gorman, is Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth.
O’Gorman has assured O’Brien that he will look at issues of housing and homelessness in the next migrant-integration strategy, said O’Brien.
O’Brien will arrange a meeting with the Mercy Law Resource Centre and the Minister for Housing in the coming weeks and go through each of the report’s recommendations one by one, he said.