AS CONCERNS GROW about the potential for a ‘second wave’ of homelessness in the coming months, staff on the front line across the country say that they’re already concerned about the impact of ending mortgage breaks and eviction bans.
Local councils have been widely praised by NGOs and homelessness services for the rapid response to the crisis, amid fears that an outbreak among homeless people could have caused a significant amount of deaths.
With two deaths recorded to date and many vulnerable people re-housed in hotels and apartments, many say that the swift coordination between local authorities, the HSE and NGOs offers hopes for a route out of Ireland’s homelessness crisis.
But beyond Dublin, staff say that now is no time for complacency. With moratoriums on rent and payment breaks on mortgages set to end shortly, they’re worried about seeing the first ripples of a new wave of homelessness.
“As was the case with the virus itself, we saw what was coming down the track and we put in place measures to mitigate what was coming down the track,” Kerry Brennan, who works in housing support services with Cork Simon, tells TheJournal.ie. They succeeded in keeping Covid-19 largely at bay, with no positive cases recorded in the Cork Simon shelter.
“We need to take the same approach to the danger coming down to the track,” she says.
Those dangers are two-fold. For those who are homeless and have been staying in a hotel bed for the duration of the pandemic, it remains to be seen if that arrangement will be tenable into the future.
But there is also a significant risk to those who are in private, rented homes – and may be on the brink of being evicted.
Temporary measures, such as rent freezes, were welcomed. But Brennan says they aren’t enough: “There’s really a concern about the potential to see a sharp increase.”
“We have learned that people returning to small, congregated settings is not an option in the future,” Brennan says.
But there is also hope that the pandemic, despite all the dangers it brings, could help transform the sector.
“If the ongoing homelessness crisis can be approached with the same sense of urgency,” says Brennan, “I think there is real potential there to see an end to rough sleeping and long-term homelessness”.
“2020 could be the turning point.”
Andrea Fitzgerald is one of Galway Simon’s service managers and is based in Ballinasloe. Before the pandemic, the town’s resource centre was a drop-in centre for people rough sleeping or facing homelessness.
But the pandemic changed that. “We couldn’t physically keep the drop-in centre open,” she said. Instead, staff had several jobs to do at once. Firstly, they re-orientated the centre by allowing people to attend – to collect food or shower – only by appointment. They also increased their outreach, trying to reach and support people across the east of the county.
“We pretty early on would have noticed there would have been an increase coming to us in terms of donations of food and people struggling financially,” Fitzgerald says.
“When the schools shut, it was a massive strain on families that were on the brink of the poverty line.”
By far the biggest job was assessing the needs of every person Galway Simon supports. In a house of three-people, staff needed to work out if any needed to cocoon or shield – and to re-house them if so.
In the first two weeks of the crisis, around 15 people were moved – a huge job in such a short space of time. Months later, the service has recorded no positive cases.
Now, Fitzgerald says the next steps are on her mind. Unlike in Dublin, where the city council was able to source apartments from landlords for at least the duration of the crisis, Galway saw very little new beds become available in the private sector.
Despite some hopes, Fitzgerald says that Galway hasn’t seen many properties go back on the market.
Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you
“I’m not slating people, but there was always the thing in the back of the mind that students will have to return in some capacity,” she says of landlords. Apartments and beds “just didn’t come on stream as much as we hoped”.
Like others, she praises the response of Galway City Council and Galway County Council. But she stresses that the answer isn’t in more emergency accommodation – instead, people need houses, homes and long-term routes out of homelessness.
“When you create additional emergency bed capacity, you’re feeding a monster that is already overstretched as it is,” she says.
Fitzgerald stresses that now is not the time to take success for granted. “It’s not time to give ourselves a bat on the back. The same issues will exist post-Covid-19 as were there before Covid-19,” she says.
“There is a real need for a multi-agency approach. Let’s not have it that we need a second wave for these people to become priority.”