Hidden rural homelessness

Posted on: 10th April, 2017

Category: Features

Contributor: Mary O'Brien

Although more visible in urban areas, homelessness is a very real issue affecting individuals and families in rural Ireland today. The first quarter of 2017 continues to see a rise rural homelessness in the West Cork region with figures up 55 per cent compared with the same period in 2016.

The number of families accessing the Novas West Cork service in 2017 has doubled since the same period last year. Forty-nine referrals were made to the Novas West Cork service during the first quarter of 2017. From these referrals, 31 individuals and families were provided with support including 47 children. This is a 342 per cent increase from the same period in 2015.

Novas is a voluntary organisation and Approved Housing Body working with families and single adults who are disadvantaged and socially excluded, primarily those who are homeless or at risk of being homeless.

As coordinator of West Cork Tenancy Support and Sustainment, Patrick Healy provides support services to individuals and families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness in the West Cork region, covering an area from Bandon to the Mizen and Beara Peninsulas. Although Patrick’s caseload has more than tripled when compared to the same period two years ago, the service still remains a lone working initiative.

“This increase in people accessing this service is reflective of the escalation of the homeless and housing crisis nationally,” Patrick tells Mary O’Brien. It’s a very challenging time for individuals and families.

“People are experiencing homelessness at a younger age in the West Cork region and this presents potential risks of individuals and families falling into a cycle of long term homelessness.

Individuals and families from a traveller background continue to face barriers in accessing housing.

“The largest issue facing people experiencing rural homelessness in West Cork is the lack of supply in the private-rented market and the lack of affordable housing for those in receipt of HAP or rent supplement,” he explains.

The Clonakilty area remains the single-biggest area in terms of referrals to Novas, followed by the Skibbereen area, which also saw significant increases this year.

Novas uses the ‘Housing First’ model, a common sense approach, proven in Finland to reduce homelessness. It offers permanent, affordable housing as quickly as possible for individuals and families experiencing homelessness, rather than several levels of temporary and transitional accommodation; and then provides the supportive services and connections to the community-based supports people need to keep their housing and avoid returning to homelessness.

However, you cannot offer homeless people homes if they do not exist. With demand for housing continuing to outstrip supply in West Cork, Novas is exploring acquiring properties in the West Cork region, particularly in areas with highest referrals and need for social housing.

While the predominant goal is to prevent rural homelessness, the service also aims to engage clients in community resources to support overall health, wellness, and recovery. Mental health, including dual diagnosis, is the single-biggest presenting need experienced by Novas clients. Novas works in conjunction with the Mental Health services to provide social support and tenancy sustainment, particularly for those with chronic mental health issues.

“It’s essential that there’s an effective collaborative approach to homelessness between all the community resource services out there,” says Patrick. “Addressing homelessness and the complex issues that affect homelessness goes beyond simply four walls and roof.”

If you would like any further information on this service, please contact the Tenancy Support and Sustainment Worker, Patrick Healy on 086 8279996 or patrick.healy@novas.ie.

Catherine’s Story

Catherine is a single mother with two children with cerebral palsy. The family recently faced homelessness until they accessed the Novas service in West Cork.

Catherine moved to live with her aunt in West Cork from the UK in 2012 to escape domestic violence. When her aunt was forced to sell their house due to a family illness, Catherine moved into the private rental market in West Cork. After a short period of time, it became apparent that there were serious damp problems with the house she was renting. On Christmas morning 2016, the family awoke to a “waterfall running down the wall of the sitting room”. The situation didn’t improve even though the landlord made some attempt at repairs. “There was black mould and mushrooms growing on the interior walls and my children’s clothes were wet from the damp in their wardrobes,” says Catherine.

Although the family was allocated a council house by the local housing authority, the property wasn’t ready to move into and, unable to find alternative rental accommodation, Catherine was forced to extend her tenancy. “We stayed there for as long as we could but it came to a point when I couldn’t let my children live in those conditions any longer. It was affecting our health,” she says.

At that point, Children and Family Services got involved. “I didn’t know what to do. I was faced with a Child Protection Order and with being homeless.”

Eventually, Catherine was pointed in the direction of Novas. “I sat there crying my eyes out to Patrick and a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. He offered to help me and my children.”

Patrick was able to source private rental accommodation for Catherine and her family.

“If it wasn’t for Patrick and Novas, my children and I could have ended up sleeping in my car and they would have been taken off me. I want to thank him from the bottom of my heart.”

On March 21, Catherine picked up the keys of her council house.

Mark’s Story

Mark and his family were given 56 days notice by their landlord in Bandon in January. The family of six, with four children ranging in age from four to 16, was unable to find rental accommodation, although they extended their search to other towns in West Cork and Cork City. “We had nowhere to go,” says Mark. “No landlord would take us, we kept coming up against lines like ‘there’s too many of you’, ‘no kids’, ‘no rent allowance’, ‘no HAP’. We were getting more and more stressed.” With three of the children attending local schools and one in an exam year, Mark says the family was very upset at the thought of moving. Mark contacted Patrick Healy, coordinator of Novas West Cork Tenancy Support and Sustainment, who supported the family in sourcing local authority housing and community resources.

On March 11, Mark and his family were made homeless. After a visit to their community welfare officer, the family was housed in emergency accommodation in a local hotel.

Within a few weeks the family was offered a council house in Clonakilty.

“It made me feel very angry,” says Mark. “We had three or four house viewings some weeks and the minute we mentioned rent allowance the answer was always no. Our references were good and up-to-date and yet we still couldn’t find accommodation.

“We were lucky…I know there are people out there who are homeless for years.”

Research highlights serious problem associated with social housing in Ireland

Mr. Simon Coveney, TD, Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, has launched ‘Changing Perceptions; Stigma and Social Housing in Ireland’.

This research, which was commissioned by Clúid Housing, assesses the scale and impact of stigma on social housing in Ireland, and outlines a range of responses. Clúid’s Head of Policy, Simon Brooke said, “There is no doubt that stigma is a feature of Irish social housing today. Some people have preconceived negative views about social housing tenants, who are depicted as work shy, exploiting the benefits system, living rent free, and likely to engage in anti-social behaviour.

“At Clúid we sometimes encounter this in the form of community opposition or nimbyism from people who have heard about plans for social housing in their area. However our experience indicates that initial resistance from local residents largely dissipates once the new development is completed and occupied.

“It is very important to emphasise that stigma is far from universal. Tenants in many social housing estates do not feel stigmatised; they identify strongly with their neighbourhood and feel a strong sense of pride in their community. That being said, it is clear that where people feel stigmatised through living in social housing, the effects of this can be acute and have a significant impact on their lives.

“This research throws a unique light on the operation of stigma in Irish social housing and helps us to give us a much better understanding of this phenomenon. Through this, we can develop effective strategies for tackling stigma.


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