Deborah Somorin mentors young care leavers, but when they ask how to get a stable place to live when they leave care, she doesn’t have any answers, she says. “Services are all over the place.”
Many care leavers become homeless, Somorin says. For those with children, who want to go to university, the obstacles can appear insurmountable.
Which is why Somorin set up a new housing charity in 2018, Empower the Family, to provide affordable housing for students leaving the care system.
Last month at a meeting of Dublin City Council’s North West Area Committee, Somorin presented a vision that her organisation has for one plot of council land in Ballymun, to turn it into 30 homes for care leavers who are students.
If this pilot were to work out, she wants to roll out more, or hand over the template of the model to others, she says. To “support them to achieve what they are able to achieve”, she says.
In 2018, Somorin appeared on the Late Late Show to talk about her experiences growing up in care, how she had become homeless at age 13 and pregnant at 14.
At the time, she had an old friend staying in her house, she says. They had lived together in a care home at age 16.
“She said something that really shook me,” says Somorin. “She said, ‘This is the first time I’ve felt safe since we lived together.’”
That, together with the experience as a mentor, motivated her to start up an organisation to provide housing for young care leavers.
Somorin is now a chartered accountant, a foster mum, and a mentor for young people in care.
Her teachers knew she was bright but they had low expectations for her education and career, she says, because she was a young mother coming from the care system.
“I want there to be an option where we don’t have to dampen people’s expectations,” she says.
Childcare and housing are the two main obstacles faced by care leavers who are also mums, she says.
The plans for the Ballymun development include an affordable community creche. “You have your accommodation sorted, you are dropping your child to creche and you are going off to college,” says Somorin.
That would allow care leavers to excel in the way that other students can, she says.
If a care leaver has the support to study for qualifications that lead to a professional career, they will be able to pay for their own home eventually, she says.
Empower the Family is an approved housing body (AHB) and any homes it builds would be funded in the same way as other social housing: the Housing Agency would put up 30 percent, and the charity would borrow the rest.
Tenants would pay the same rent as social housing tenants too. But Empower the Family’s housing would differ in one key way. It wouldn’t be a permanent home, says Somorin.
Somorin says she believes there is a cohort of care leavers who can become homeowners with the right support. “We are supporting people where they are at.”
Residents won’t have to move out straight away once they graduate, she says. The project is funded as social housing so the family can stay there as long as they need to, she says.
Some people might want to do postgraduate study. Others might need to stay while they do internships or if their entry-level jobs are low-paid, she says.
The government is rolling out several affordable housing schemes, so the new graduates could buy their own homes eventually,** **says Somorin.
“Absolutely nobody will be moving out of our accommodation into homelessness,” says Somorin, emphasising the first two words.
Empower the Family will provide a mentoring programme and access to counselling supports too, she says. “One of our main KPIs is an 80 percent graduation rate.”
What Is the Plan?
On 16 February, Somorin pitched her idea to councillors for the North West Area.
It’s councillors who have to decide whether to transfer the plot of public land in Ballymun to Empower the Family.
Empower the Family has a skilled team of developers, architects and finance experts all working in a voluntary capacity, says Somorin.
The site that they would like is in an unfinished development in Coultry Park, opposite the Rediscovery Centre.
Designs show a three-storey building with a communal outdoor area, playground, trees and seating, as well as creche facilities and a community amenity space.
The plans have 10 studio apartments for students who are care leavers and don’t have children, says Somorin.
They also include 20 two-bedroom apartments for students with children, which each have a study area and a playroom, says Somorin.
For these bigger apartments, preference would be given to care leavers but they could be allocated to other disadvantaged students too, she says.
“One in four single parents in Ireland live in consistent poverty,” said Somorin, in the presentation to councillors.
People who come from care are more likely to end up homeless, she said. “If we don’t do this there is no other option.”
In the United Kingdom and the United States, some universities offer affordable housing for young parents, but there is no equivalent scheme in Ireland, says Somorin.
She wants to pilot the approach in Ballymun. “The vision for Empower the Family is to have a location in every place where there is a university,” she says.
Access services in universities and institutes of technology are in touch with students from disadvantaged backgrounds, she says, so Empower the Family could take referrals from them.
The accommodation is for disadvantaged third-level students who are highly motivated to succeed, she says.
At the meeting, most councillors welcomed the plans. “It’s inspirational,” said Sinn Féin Councillor Anthony Connaghan.
“There are people in care in our area who this would really suit,” said Social Democrats Councillor Mary Callaghan.
But “we need to make sure that we respect our list”, she said. By that, she means that the council has to make sure that whoever gets a social home is next in line on its housing list.
Care leavers get some level of priority for social housing so are likely to be high on the council’s list – but may not necessarily be top for a particular home.
“I think it’s great,” said independent Councillor Noeleen Reilly.
But since it is the first social housing to be built in Ballymun in eight years, other people on the housing list may feel that is unfair, she said.
“If someone is next on the list and they are not in education then they are going to get bypassed for this property,” said Reilly.
Care leavers are “particularly vulnerable”, said Callaghan at the meeting, which is why she supports the scheme.
The ethos of the scheme is “creating a bridge out of social housing all together”, she said, and if there were many more similar schemes there would be no problem.
Somorin said the scheme is different to homes people get through the housing list because it isn’t permanent social housing, as all the students would move on eventually.
“If they wish to stay in the area, particularly if they have grown up in the area, we will do everything we can to support them,” she said.