For Young People, It’s Even Harder to Escape Homelessness

After three years of homelessness, Ciara Hill recently found a little studio apartment to rent in Rathmines. She was delighted, she says.

Hill, aged 24, got lucky, she says. A friend recommended her to the landlord.

“It all happened so quick, I’m still in shock myself,” she said on the phone on Friday 23 April.

But she’s not celebrating yet. Instead, she has been panicking about how to come up with the upfront money she needs.

Most of Hill’s rent will be covered by the rental subsidy known as Homeless HAP, but she still has to pay €60 on top of that herself to the landlord each month.

And he wants €180 up front, she says, which she doesn’t have. “How can I get in if I can’t put gas in the metre and I can’t pay the chap the rent?”

Hill has been living on a reduced social welfare payment of €112, rather than the usual €203, because she is under 25.

That two-tier system leaves young people like her trapped in homelessness, she says. “People under 25, they are thrown into the deep end and told to swim.”

A Department of Social Protection spokesperson says the reduced payment encourages young people to take up courses and work.

There are exceptions for those living independently and claiming rent subsidies, they said.

Young people who are homeless struggle to get somewhere to rent, for many reasons, including financial constraints, says Yukaene Rivera, a project worker with the homeless charity Focus Ireland.

Young people in emergency accommodation are living independently of family and the Department of Social Protection should recognise that, he says.

“Part of the assessment process is the council acknowledging that they are separate from the family,” he says.

As of late March 2021, there were 459 people aged 18–24 in emergency accommodation in Dublin, according to figures from the Department of Housing.

From Hostel to Home

Hill spent around a year on the streets when she first became homeless, she says.

Staff at the Merchants Quay drop-in centre helped to get her into a hostel run by the Peter McVerry Trust.

She likes the staff and her keyworker is helpful, she says, but the conditions in some hostels are really bad.

One had no windows in the bedrooms, she says. “Ellis Quay (…) It is like a prison in a Third World country.”

A spokesperson for the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) says: “We do have a Hostel at Ellis Quay and it is in the main used for short stay situations and residents are moved on to alternative facilities.”

Hill was transferred to another hostel within the Peter McVerry Trust, but she says she was sharing a room with three other women, some of whom were using drugs.

“You have girls sitting above you smoking crack cocaine,” she says. “You are sleeping with one eye open.”

There should be strictly drug-free hostels for young people, she says and they should do drug testing if necessary.

Some young people who have rarely been in the city centre before they became homeless are shocked to then find themselves in adult hostels where drug use is prevalent, says Rivera, the project worker with Focus Ireland.

“It’s not really a great system for young adults,” he said, and it would be better if under-25s were only placed in hostels specifically for young people.

Rivera used to work in homeless services in New York, where there were more specific services for young people, including a hostel designated for LGBTQ+ people and a young person’s hostel with zero tolerance for drugs.

In Dublin, some homeless services aim to be drug-free, but it can be difficult for staff to police that, he says.

While all hostels discourage drug taking, a DRHE spokesperson said, “it is very difficult to totally prevent it”.

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing didn’t directly answer questions about the need for designated drug-free beds in Dublin.

Because Hill was on the lower rate of social welfare, staff in the hostel advised her to wait until she was 25 to move out, she says.

But she searched for a place to rent anyway, she says. She couldn’t get a night’s sleep, she says, and her clothes were stolen. “I’d never seen a needle before in my life.”

Hill’s social welfare payment should increase once she moves into her own rented accommodation, it seems.

There were changes around rates that came into effect in 2020, said a spokesperson for the Department of Social Protection.

Really Stuck

Single people often struggle to move on from homelessness because rent subsidy rates for them are far removed from the reality of city rents, says Rivera, the project worker. “Singles are really stuck.”

Those who are aged under 25, meanwhile, are even worse off than older single people, for several reasons, says Rivera.

Landlords might make assumptions about young people having parties or might require references from previous tenancies, which most young people don’t have, he says.

And, young people can get trapped in homelessness because they’re on the lower social welfare payment rate, he says.

“If a landlord knows you are on social welfare but you are getting the low rate, they might not want to go with you,” he says.

If they get into a HAP property, they can apply to get an increase in their social welfare, but will often need some money up front, he says.

Often a good chunk of a young person’s money goes on their service charges in the homeless hostel too, he says.

Hill says that she was paying a reduced rate of €27 per week to the Peter McVerry Trust due to being on the lower payment.

But service charges in hostels can be as high as €50 per week, says Rivera.

That leaves young people with very little money left from their social welfare payments. “Most people suffer quite a bit when they are on that rate and in homeless accommodation,” says Rivera.

New Strategy

The lower rate of €112.70 for jobseekers 18–24 is meant to “incentivise them to engage in education or training to improve their chances of obtaining full time sustainable employment”, a spokesperson for the Department of Social Protection said.

Those in education or training can get a higher rate and so can those who are renting independently of their parents and availing of rent subsidies including HAP, they said.

The spokesperson didn’t directly respond to a question as to why those people living in homeless services are not classed as living independently.

“I’ve done everything I’ve been told to do,” said Hill on the phone on Tuesday 27 April. She had been running around that day between different agencies gathering documents.

She was trying to sell her phone to get the money for the landlord, which he expected the following day, she said. “I feel like I’m being set up to fail.”

She went to Intreo, but they told her she needed to bring in a copy of her lease, which she didn’t yet have.

Then, she spoke to staff at Peter McVerry Trust. They agreed to help her with the money, she says.

On Friday 30 April, Hill said she paid the landlord €60 out of her social welfare and that the Peter McVerry Trust is going to cover the rest.

A person can make an application for exceptional needs “to help meet essential, once-off expenditure which a person could not reasonably be expected to meet out of their weekly income”, the spokesperson for the Department of Social Protection said.

The spokesperson for the Department of Housing says the programme for government includes a commitment to develop a National Youth Homelessness Strategy.

That will be drawn up this year, in cooperation with the Minister for Youth and Children, they said.

The Minister for Housing has a homelessness task force that includes the DRHE, NGOs and the housing advice charity Threshold, which will be consulted in the development of the strategy, they said.

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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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