ATTENTION has shifted over the past six months from the housing crisis to the pandemic.
This was an inevitability, however, the battle against the housing crisis didn’t dissipate whilst the weight of our collective focus moved from beds in emergency accommodation to beds in hospitals.
In fact, the crowded conditions that often burden the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) running our nation’s emergency supports, put both staff and service providers at a greater risk of developing Covid-19 than the general population.
So how did these NGOs adapt and respond after the Covid-19 outbreak?
The Director of Cork Simon, Dermot Kavanagh, remains positive during this crisis. He portrays a sense that the major challenges presented by the Covid-19 emergency also present an opportunity.
“One of the benefits in the context of Covid-19 is that the City Council and the HSE have made extra beds available in the system and this has reduced the number of people in the shelter on any given day,” he said.
However, he noted that the emergency policy instruments that helped protect renters at the height of the pandemic were now being rolled back on after the passing of the Residential Tenancies Bill 2020, which he described as a “major worry” for Cork Simon going forward. The introduction of this bill replaced the blanket ban on evictions and rent increases, which Cork Simon argues is likely to lead to a surge in the number of people requiring emergency accommodation.
Cork Simon has been massively impacted by the pandemic, with the very fabric of its basic services being altered as a result of the necessity for social distancing, and increased hygiene protocols.
Cork Simon offers a suite of services including its emergency shelter, outreach team, soup run, day support service, and high-support housing; 456 people made use of Cork Simon’s emergency accommodation in 2019, a 7% increase compared to 2018.
On a practical level, Covid-19 has meant a reduced level of footfall at their premises on Anderson’s Quay, with the soup run being operated as a takeaway service. This has altered the social aspect of the facility as the risks were just too high to have people come in and sit down.
There was also the confounding challenge presented by a number of staff contracting Covid-19 and the resultant contact-tracing and extensive testing that led to a major deceleration of the services. This crisis within a crisis has placed in the spotlight the societal and structural issues and inequalities that have led to the housing crisis in the first place.
One such issue is having a constitution that guarantees a right to property ownership, but not a right to adequate housing, a point that is emphasised by Dermot Kavanagh.
“There is learning for the Government to take on as a result of this crisis and that’s that measures like rent freezes and other such policies prevent homelessness. The most effective way to do this is to remove any constitutional barrier to these policies,” he said.
Cork Simon are also in favour of a significant ramping up of the ‘Housing First’ model, which ensures people with complex needs are given the wraparound supports needed to produce a successful exit from the homeless services.
Signposting the statistics in favour of this policy approach, Dermot pointed out that the housing first initiative has “an 85%-90% housing retention rate”.
The constitutional argument is one that is echoed by Sinn Féin’s housing spokesman, Eoin Ó Broin. In a private members’ bill on this issue last year, he made a simple argument to the Dáil for a constitutional right to “adequate, appropriate, secure, safe and, crucially, affordable housing”.
Ó Broin also pointed to the efficacy of the Housing First model and argued in favour of its further roll-out.
“Housing First is the right policy. The problem has been that successive Governments have failed to provide the housing aspect of the policy, and in the absence of long-term accommodation, the policy simply cannot work.”
Fianna Fáil Cork City Cllr Fergal Dennehy echoed these sentiments and called for party politics to be removed from what is fundamentally a national issue of importance to all our citizens. He argued that there also needed to be further protections implemented for security of tenure.
Beyond the politics of the housing crisis, however, we must remember the suffering taking place in the background. We often speak about the numbers of people homeless, but what about the people behind those numbers?
Ann Marie, a resident of one of Cork Simon’s High Support Housing services, which provides around the clock support to those with complex needs ,shared her story — which is indicative of so many who fall through the cracks. Childhood abuse and subsequent addiction and mental health issues ultimately leading to homelessness. Domestic violence and alcoholism were regular sights in her household as a child, she says. Ultimately, her story is one of courage and hope, having been supported by Cork Simon.
“I can go to bed in the evening and wake up with a clear head in the morning and plan a positive day ahead. That’s all I ever wanted in my life. The staff are lovely people and they give me so much help,” she said.
Ann Marie also spoke of her sobriety, and how that has helped to put her life on an upward trajectory.
“My story is one of courage, hope and acceptance. I had all the material things before, but they never made me happy. Today I am happy.”
It is these stories that maintain the faith of people like Dermot Kavanagh, working on the frontline in the difficult days.
“Sometimes people ask me if it’s hopeless. We work with well over a thousand people per year and we see an awful lot of success stories. Seeing people overcome their challenges with our help keeps us all motivated,” he said.
Stories like Ann Marie’s are made possible by the generosity of ordinary people.
You can donate to Cork Simon at https://www.corksimon.ie/donate/.
Tomorrow: Cork Foyer, located in Blackpool, who support young people at risk of homelessness