In Over Our Heads: A Recent History of Ireland’s Response to Homelessness

Quercus Active Citizenship Scholar, Homelessness Activist and Founder of the Duffily Bag, Emily Duffy, gives Motley a run-down on Ireland’s problematic treatment-first approach to homelessness and how this is cause for concern as the pandemic looms on. 

As of August 2020, a report by Focus Ireland stated that there are 8,702 homeless adults and children, excluding those sleeping rough, in the Republic of Ireland. This is an increase from 2,808 in 2013. 

Ireland’s History with Homelessness

Traditionally, Ireland has taken a treatment-first approach to homelessness. This means that they offer treatment first and foremost to those who are homeless. However, in the book Ending Homelessness?, the authors share strong evidence that a housing-led model, which focuses on housing and support, can be more effective in the long run. In countries like Finland where housing is given to all those who are homeless without conditions or requirements, they were able to decrease the levels of homelessness. Using this approach, countries are able to make homelessness rare, short-lived, and non-recurrent. 

In 2008, and later in 2013, the Irish Government published strategic plans for solving or decreasing homelessness in Ireland. In the 2008 strategy, though not stated explicitly, its approach was clearly housing-led. This document was highly ambitious and aimed to end homelessness by 2013. In 2012 the first Housing First demonstration project was established in Dublin. 

It was clear that the goals for the 2008 strategy had failed and the document was revised. The revised strategy was published in 2013 titled Homeless Policy Statement. This document aimed to end long-term homelessness by 2016. However, it was during this period that the number of homeless adults and children entering homelessness was increasing. In 2016, Rebuilding Ireland, an action plan for housing and homelessness, was published. Unlike the strategic plans of 2008 and 2013, this action plan does not contain a commitment to ending homelessness.

Despite the emphasis of the government’s strategies on the Housing-First approach, which is evidently proven to decrease homelessness, homelessness in Ireland has increased significantly. This was largely due to the 2008 recession and the collapse of the housing market. In recent years, the increase of homelessness in Ireland can be attributed to housing with the shortage of properties to rent, increases of rent prices, and landlords taking properties off the rental market to sell. It’s very difficult to implement a housing-first approach to ending homelessness when there are no houses available to rent. Paradoxically, there are many unoccupied homes in Ireland, in what are known as ghost estates, which could be renovated for this program but yet are still being left to squalor. With the government’s underutilisation of these houses coupled with the insufficient development of new houses it is clear housing is one of the major failings of the Irish Government when it comes to homelessness.

COVID-19 and Homelessness

One thing to note from the August 2020 homeless figures is that there has been a decrease of approximately 1,600 since this time last year. That’s 1,600 people who have been alleviated or postponed from homelessness. 

How did this happen? At the start of the pandemic in Ireland, the Government implemented a rent freeze and a ban on evictions. These short-term measures helped to reduce the number of people who were becoming homeless. The emphasis here is on short-term. These measures were stopped in August and as a result, there has been a re-emergence of people presenting to homeless charities in Ireland due to eviction notices. This trend is worrying especially given the resurgence in COVID-19 cases and winter just around the corner. These factors together will generate an increased amount of pressure on those affected by homelessness. A €3.3 billion investment from the government in housing and homelessness services was made in Budget 2021, and while this sum sounds impressive, it is far less ambitious in reality than you’d think.

The government needs to commit to the proven success stories of housing-first initiatives in Scandinavia both for the sake of individuals affected but also to help end the stigmatisation of homlessness in Irish society.