“Unseen, depressed, alone, shame, dirty,” is how people experiencing homelessness said they felt, in a recent survey.
Will Cummings, founder of the BABS Empowerment Service, who carried out the survey together with volunteers from Inner City Helping Homeless, says he was surprised at how keen people were to participate.
The word went around that this was an opportunity to have your voice heard, he says. “They wanted to exercise their right to freedom of speech.”
“After the second and third week you were getting out of the van with the clipboard and people were like, ‘Can I talk to you?’” says Cummings.
BABS, a listening service for people with mental health issues, and Inner City Helping Homeless are collaborating with the NUI Galway International Human Rights Law Clinic, which is working on a booklet to inform people experiencing homelessness about their legal rights.
There is a “serious lack of transparency and clarity around rights”, says Adam Spollen, a master’s student at NUI Galway, who is working on the project.
The booklet will be easy to read and free of jargon and will “empower people with the knowledge that the experiences they are suffering are wrong, and there is a foothold for them to get justice”, he says.
More than half of the 100 people surveyed were sleeping rough (56 percent) and most respondents said that they did not know their position on the housing list (57 percent).
Ninety-eight percent said that they did not have a formal plan in place to exit homelessness.
Eighty-three percent said they had experienced physical violence while homeless. One person said they had just been assaulted: “Just this morning I got punched in the nose.”
Forty percent said they had been sexually assaulted.
People lost their homes for a variety of reasons, including addiction, domestic violence, family breakdown (including falling out with family after coming out) and losing privately rented accommodation, they said.
Eighty-four percent of people surveyed said that they would not feel comfortable making a complaint about a homeless service, and 34 percent said they feared they would lose their bed if they did so.
Some said that they had lost a bed in a hostel previously because they had made a complaint. “You are warned you will lose your bed for making trouble,” said one respondent.
“I would be bullied by management,” said another.
Not being able to cook, wash or access toilets were among the main problems with being homeless, some said.
When asked about solutions, almost half the respondents said that the solution was the Simon Community.
Cummings says that is likely a reference to the charity’s Dublin Outreach team, which can make referrals to Housing First, which provides housing for those who are long-term homeless.
Respondents also called on the government to build houses.
They highlighted the need for services for LGBTQ+ people, and for a hostel specifically for LGBTQ+ people to be established in the city.
“Know Your Rights”
“Reading the survey results, and seeing the quotes of what people have gone through, is just absolutely horrific,” says Spollen, the master’s student.
And Cummings says it is clear that many of those who are experiencing homelessness do not fully understand their rights.
The authors of the “Know Your Rights” booklet are master’s students Andrew Bollard, Katie Phelan, Melissa Granahan and Adam Spollen, supervised by lecturer in human rights law Maeve O’Rourke and barrister Cillian Bracken.
The booklet is designed to respond to the issues raised in the survey, many of which aren’t typical housing issues, says Spollen.
A lot of the respondents didn’t know that they had a right to find out what information is being recorded about them. So the booklet will address data-protection issues, says Spollen.
People have a right to live a life free from any form of discrimination and they have a right to privacy too. “We are just trying to impart legal information, be it national, domestic or based on case law,” says Spollen.
The best way to inform people about their rights would be through hosting workshops, says Cummings.
“What we are hoping is that the Dublin Region Homeless Executive will set up a pilot scheme for us to deliver this in a workshop,” he says.
Then they can discuss the importance of engagement and help to build confidence among those who are afraid to engage with services, he says.
People who are experiencing homelessness are trying to survive and sometimes homelessness is complex, says Cummings.
“We need to look at breaking down the complexities,” he says. “We can only do that by listening to people.”
Homeless services should also be changing their approach and responding to what people using the services are saying, he says.
For example, many of the respondents were baffled by the lack of drug-free beds.
Some said that they had completed an addiction-rehabilitation programme, but when they got out they were placed in a room with other people who were using drugs.
“We need to hit reset and show them that we are there to listen,” says Cummings.
Spollen said they will launch the booklet in the coming weeks.