{Expose} Who Benefits From The Homeless Crisis?

In #rabble3, Print Edition by Stone E Broke1 Comment

Photo: Paul Reynolds

Following on from the focus on landlords in the last issue Stone E. Broke considers how owners of private emergency accommodation benefit from Dublin City Council’s “Pathway to Home” model.

rabble readers who happen to have been near the bottom of Capel Street lately might have noticed a queue of people filing through an arched gate into a grey building. It is probably not common knowledge but since the beginning of 2011 this is the centrepiece of Dublin’s response to homelessness. This building, 160 Capel Street, houses the Dublin Central Placement Service. According to the latest action plan on homelessness, ‘Pathway to Home’, it ‘provides information and advice and an initial contact assessment to place [homeless people] into temporary accommodation’. Despite the best efforts of the staff of the Dublin City Council’s Homeless Services, the opening of the Placement Service has been little short of a disaster.

A back of the envelope calculation at the development stage suggested that between 40 and 60 individuals and families would seek placement at the service on any given day. However, since opening in mid January 2011 the number of people seeking placement has never been below 100.

The morning slot, between 10am and 12pm, is reserved for women and families while the afternoon slot is dedicated to single men. Most days an average of 100 to 120 men are processed between 2 and 4pm via three hatches. This means that every man seeking accommodation is given roughly 3 minutes to be assessed, given advice, and offered the most appropriate accommodation.

This time frame clearly makes any meaningful intervention impossible. People coming through the Central Placement Service are simply channelled into the revolving door of homeless services rather than being supported in breaking the cycle of homelessness and finding appropriate long-term accommodation. More generally, the implementation of the new ‘Pathway to Home’ model has brought a considerable reconfiguration of Dublin’s homeless services over the past year. The Homeless Persons Unit, previously responsible for registering people as homeless, sourcing initial accommodation and helping them access social welfare payments, has been hung out to dry.

Despite protestation, several weeks of industrial action and the non-cooperation of the Unit’s HSE employed community welfare officers, all of its functions except that of the payments have been moved to the Central Placement Service.

This move has fragmented the Council’s homeless services. The once very successful resettlement team has been broken up and most of its eight highly trained Resettlement Officers are now the very people who serve the homeless from behind the hatches of 160 Capel Street. There their skills in crisis intervention, one-to-one support in developing independent living skills and sourcing sustainable accommodation are entirely misplaced.

The staff working in the this service are also under pressure to send people who lost their homes in areas outside of Dublin City back to these areas to seek accommodation. However, most of the surrounding counties do not have appropriate services to house and support homeless people. While the Central Placement Service deals with the entire Dublin region they will not process people from outside the city directly. Instead these people are sent back to their local authority offices in Tallaght, Blanchardstown or Dún Laoghaire where the housing officer will telephone the Central Placement Service in Capel Street to accommodate them in the city centre.

As reported in the last issue of rabble, homeless man Aladar Turtak died of exposure while sleeping on the back of Dominic Street flats last December, just weeks after the Dublin night bus service had ceased to exist. This service too fell victim to the restructuring under ‘Pathway to Home’.

The night bus provided overnight transport for people sleeping rough, bringing them to emergency accommodation around the city and distributing sleeping bags if no beds were available or if a person wished to stay on the street. In September 2011 the service was disbanded.

It would not be wise to speculate that the closure of the night bus service caused Mr. Turtak’s death, which came just a week after the death of another man sleeping on Britain Quay. However, it is a sad irony that these men died while sleeping rough just a few weeks after the service was stopped.

I will spare rabble readers the details of the many more changes to homeless services brought about by the reconfiguration. The key question is why these changes were made and if the significant disruptions they have caused have been (or will be) worth it.

The landscape of Dublin’s homeless services has long been very disparate with over ten different charities providing often broadly similar services, but all of them with different rules for accepting referrals and how long people can stay.

Consequently, an approach that makes services more coherent, work together and complement each other in the provision of homeless accommodation and support seems entirely sensible.

This is in part the job that the Homeless Agency – the organisation driving the national approach to homelessness in Ireland since 2001 – has been trying to do with varied results. The agency’s ambitious action plan 2007 – 2010, ‘A Key to the Door’, states as its key goal the elimination of both rough sleeping and long-term homelessness by the end of 2010.

It is 2012 now and the number of rough sleepers and homeless people in general has actually increased significantly. Ironically, while homelessness was not eliminated by 2010, the Homeless Agency was. It was dissolved and subsumed into the newly established Dublin Regional Homeless Executive.

The objective of the latest plan, Pathway to Home, is to reduce the length of time people avail of homeless services and move them back into ‘mainstream’ housing as soon as possible, under the Support to Live Independently (SLI) programme. However, the reality of this approach has meant spending ever greater amounts of taxpayers money on subsidising private landlords for often substandard accommodation, while funding to homeless charities has been cut.

This is perhaps the most shameful legacy of our current approach to homelessness. Millions of Euro of public money are being paid to private landlords for so called B&B accommodation. While the name B&B may evoke romantic notions of pretty guesthouses run by houseproud landladies, in reality they represent large houses broken up into small rooms or bedsits of poor standard; modern day tenements.

In contrast to accommodation provided by homeless organisations these units are not designed for the purpose and do not come with the supports of dedicated homeless accommodation, especially in terms of trained and qualified staff. Moreover, charities do not make a profit from their services and thus do not benefit from cutting corners, whereas the landlords in questions certainly do.

Consequently, the cost to the taxpayer of accommodating homeless people in such privately owned units is actually higher than accommodation in voluntary sector operated hostels. But like the millions of Euro the Irish government has been paying in rent to owners of prefabs for classrooms instead of providing proper school buildings, we keep funding private landlords for unsuitable accommodation, despite the much poorer outcomes in terms of helping people find and sustain more permanent accommodation.

In short, the essence of Dublin’s approach to homelessness has been to privatise it and pump public money from the homeless budget into the pockets of unscrupulous landlords while starving the voluntary services that have been working on alleviating the problem for decades.

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