Threshold Calls for Overhaul of How Government Deals with Homelessness
9 November 2011
Government spending on homelessness must prioritise sustainable housing solutions over emergency accommodation and street services. That's according to Threshold, the national housing charity, which today (09.11.11) launched its annual report for 2010.
Speaking at the launch, Aideen Hayden, Chairperson of Threshold, said: "Traditionally, the policy focus has been on reacting to homelessness, rather than solving or preventing it. The State invests hugely in supporting emergency hostel accommodation and street services, for example, but if more homelessness was prevented, there would be less need for these services. So Threshold is strongly advocating giving prevention a higher priority than it gets at present.
"It would represent much better value for money to prioritise homelessness-prevention measures, rather than focusing primarily on supports for people who are homeless. Adopting this approach would minimise the risk of homelessness for families throughout Ireland, and would ensure that the Exchequer funding available to tackle this problem is used in the most cost-efficient way."
The approximate cost of keeping a person in emergency homeless accommodation for one year is €29,000, whereas the cost of accommodating them in the private rented sector - with support - is approximately €11,000. The experience of Threshold is that the majority of homeless people that come through its services could have been housed at a much earlier stage - or could have been prevented from entering into homelessness in the first place - if they had received more appropriate advice when they initially presented to the authorities with a housing problem.
"For the vast majority of people who end up homeless, the situation could have been prevented," said Aideen Hayden. "A common misperception is that only those with severe addiction issues or mental health problems end up on the streets. But the reality is that people end up homeless for all sorts of reasons, including relationship breakdown and changes in employment or household circumstances. And the recession is having a significant impact on the numbers affected by the latter two scenarios.
"In these cases, the people affected are capable of living independently at the time they approach homeless services. But, paradoxically, the system requires them to experience homelessness and to live in hostel accommodation before they can receive help in getting housed. Even those recovering from addition could, in many cases, have been spared a lengthy stay in homeless services had an earlier intervention been made."
According to Threshold, housing advice must be made more widely available to all those at risk of becoming homeless, including: young people leaving State care; adult offenders leaving prisons; adults leaving acute and psychiatric hospitals; tenants threatened with eviction; families affected by relationship difficulties or separation; and people living in sub-standard accommodation.
"The 'housing first' approach adopted in the Programme for Government is a step in the right direction," said Aideen Hayden. "It prioritises housing solutions over emergency services, which is in keeping with our belief that housing - with supports - is the key to resolving homelessness, and that finding such housing should take days or weeks, rather than years.
"Currently anyone who engages with homeless services is automatically referred to emergency accommodation as the solution to their housing need. Mainstream housing is simply not presented as an option, and advice is seldom offered to people on how they might actually salvage their housing situation before entering into emergency accommodation. Our view and experience is that receiving housing advice at the earliest opportunity can divert people from homeless services.
"Emergency hostel accommodation is designed for short-term stays. However, under the current system, people can end up living in hostels for years, all the while accessing costly support services. This simply does not work. Moving people from emergency accommodation into private rented accommodation would lead to significant savings and a far better quality of life for those concerned.
"Threshold's work has consistently demonstrated that rented accommodation can be used to move people permanently out of homelessness and at a fraction of the cost of providing emergency homeless accommodation. There are hundreds of people living in homeless hostels and shelters right now who could be helped to get back on their feet by sourcing quality, affordable rented accommodation."
According to Threshold, good-quality housing advice services can prevent homelessness. This is backed up by the organisation's own research: a survey conducted by Threshold last year showed 83 per cent of clients who assessed themselves as being at risk of homelessness when they first contacted the organisation were not homeless between one and three months later. Of those who were homeless (17 per cent), the vast majority were staying with friends or family, which is at the less severe end of the homelessness spectrum.
"This shows that Threshold can play a major role in preventing homelessness, which greatly reduces both the human costs and the financial costs associated with this issue," said Aideen Hayden. "No-one who comes to Threshold will end up sleeping on the streets. We have always led the way in preventing homelessness, and we have pioneered the use of the private rented sector as an accessible route to helping homeless people back into housing. The numbers at risk of homelessness who contact our services are rising. The recession is having a significant impact on the lives of poorer families, and many are buckling under the pressure. Our housing advice work is critical in preventing these families from ending up on the streets."
Threshold's annual report shows the organisation dealt with 19,500 queries from people all over Ireland during 2010. The highest number of queries (3,224) related to deposit retention. Threshold observed that more people are now living for longer periods in rented accommodation. However the organisation warned that - for rented accommodation to become a truly sustainable housing solution - a range of outstanding problems, particularly at the lower end of the market, need to be addressed.
Common complaints dealt with by Threshold last year included:
- Accommodation standards / repairs: 1,971.
- Tenancy termination: 861.
- Tenants given invalid notice: 671.
- Housing options: 611.
- Landlord / agency breach: 604.
- Illegal eviction (actual / threat): 543.
"One of the striking trends of 2010 was that the number of queries in relation to standards and repairs more than doubled - from 947 in 2009 to 1,971 last year," said Aideen Hayden. "This can mainly be attributed to the snowfalls and severe weather experienced across the country at the beginning and end of the year. The majority of queries involved broken or ineffective heating, burst pipes and difficulties in getting repairs addressed on time.
"One thing we are noticing more and more is landlords refusing to carry out repairs because of the costs involved - some are in negative equity themselves, and are struggling with debts, and their properties fall into disrepair as a result. There is also a significant underlying problem with substandard properties in the private rented sector. For example, many of the cases we dealt with last year involved heating systems that were old and hopelessly inadequate, and some properties lacked basic protection from the cold weather.
"Enforcement of minimum standards for private rented accommodation also remains a concern. Despite the introduction of more robust regulations and the provision of dedicated funding for inspection, most local authorities still do not have a comprehensive programme for inspecting properties," added Ms. Hayden.
Threshold used the opportunity of today's report launch to call on landlords to access existing government incentives to upgrade accommodation, particularly at the lower end of the market. "Grants - available to households through Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland for attic insulation, building upgrades and solar heating - can be taken up by landlords too. It is often the heating of accommodation which causes distress to clients and, as we experience colder winters, it's important that landlords recognise the needs of their tenants," said Ms. Hayden.
Threshold pointed out that the lower end of the rented housing market has simply not experienced the levels of rent reductions that have applied to the wider rented sector. This, it said, was due to greater competition for single accommodation units where rent supplement payment is acceptable by the landlord. In light of this, Threshold warned against significant reductions in Rent Supplement in the forthcoming budget.
Threshold's annual report is available to download at: www.threshold.ie.
Threshold was founded in 1978 and is a not-for-profit organisation whose aim is to secure a right to housing, particularly for households experiencing the problems of poverty and exclusion. Its main concentration of work is within the rented sector. The organisation operates a national office, based in Dublin, and three regional offices. It provides advice and representation to almost 20,000 people each year. Further information is available at www.threshold.ie.