The plight of hidden homeless laid bare

It’s impossible to count the number of people who are seeing out the housing crisis by relying on the goodwill of friends and family. Sleeping on sofas and mattresses on the floor, these are Cork’s hidden homeless, writes Ellie O’Byrne.
The plight of hidden homeless laid bare

FAMILY UNDER STRAIN: One mother Ellie spoke to is living in a four-bedroom, one-bathroom house with 11 members of her family, and her husband is battling lung cancer. Picture posed by model

IT’S a mounting problem and we have no idea how many people it’s affecting...

As prices in the private rental market skyrocket, and the numbers on waiting lists for city and county social housing go up, ever greater numbers of people are finding themselves without housing.

This cohort of people are often relying on the catch-nets provided by friends and family, squeezed into a box room or sleeping on the sofa as they search for new accommodation.

Hidden homelessness can be defined as all of those who are not rough sleeping or housed in emergency accommodation, but who still don’t have a secure place to live.

Various Irish NGOs, charities and service providers have been warning that the problem of hidden homelessness is on the rise, but is not quantifiable because official Government figures don’t reflect how many are affected.

Cork housing activist Christina Chambers, founder of the group Helping Cork’s Homeless, says it’s an “absolutely huge issue” in Cork city and county.

“The number of families contacting me about this is frightening,” she says. “And it’s very hard to measure because these are people sleeping on sofas or moving back home to parents. You have whole families sharing a room.”

The causes of the problem are well-documented — a perfect storm of pressure on both social housing and the private rental sector.

While there were almost 4,700 applicants on Cork City Council’s social housing waiting list in July, the lack of availability of affordable housing in the private rental market has meant that there’s literally no option for many but to rely on family support.

The recently released rental sector report revealed that Cork rents are now at an all-time high, having increased by 12.8% in one year, despite the fact that Rental Pressure Zones introduced in 2016 were supposed to cap increases at 4% per year.

Niamh Randall, a spokesperson for Simon Communities, has said this is a clear sign that the Rental Pressure Zones are not being properly monitored and enforced, and said that section 34 evictions (so-called ‘renovictions’) were providing a loophole for landlords, adding to the problem still further.

The hidden homeless were, she said, “living with daily uncertainty, some not knowing where they will sleep tonight, next week or next month.”

Here are three stories of hidden homelessness from Cork City and County. In each case, the names have been changed to protect their identity.

Mary: “My husband needs peace and quiet to get better.”

Mary’s four-bedroom, one-bathroom home near Mallow now houses eleven people, including her husband who is battling lung cancer.

She fears that the stress of their crowded living conditions is hodling back his recovery, but says her adult children can’t find accommodation.

Mary’s daughter and three children occupy one bedroom; her son, who suffers from health problems, has another; another adult son and his partner are in the third spare bedroom; while another son and his little boy now occupy the living room of the privately owned house.

Mary’s daughter has been on the Cork County housing list for nine years. She moved back in with Mary six years ago, after the death of her partner in a road traffic accident. She has been offered a house in the past but her middle child is autistic and she says she needs him to be able to access the school he currently attends, where he has access to services including a speech therapist.”

Mary’s son and her partner were renting privately until two years ago, when they were given notice by their landlord. They are on Cork City Council’s housing list, but have been told they’re not a priority because they are childless.

“My husband was diagnosed with lung cancer in May,” Mary says. “He’s on strong chemotherapy and because of his immune system, we’ve to clean the toilet every time he needs to use it, and then everyone else in the house will be queuing up to use the toilet.

“My son’s little fella has even started going down the end of the garden when he can’t wait.

“The stress of living like this is unbelievable. My husband needs peace and quiet to get better but we’re in on top of each other here.

“I’ve sent in letters to City Hall, I’ve sent in doctor’s letters about my husband and they know we’re overcrowded.

“We’ve been fighting years and no-one is listening.”

Teresa: “Will I have to pretend to have a husband?”

When Teresa’s landlord gave her notice that he was selling his house in September, 2016, she didn’t know that it was the beginning of a frightening and stressful year for her and her two sons.

A single mother and an alternative therapist in Cork city, she was eligible for rent allowance and had been renting in Garretstown for four years. Subsequently, the landlord hasn’t put the house on the market, Teresa says.

She and her boys started staying with her mother after their move, just weeks before Christmas 2016.

“We thought it would be a short period of time,” she says. “We put all our stuff in a friend’s shed.

“Because my mother lives in Clonakilty, we were staying on couches and in spare rooms during the week because the kids were in school and we were house-hunting.”

“I was clocking up 1,200km a week on the car and all my money was going on that.

“We were leaving for school at six in the morning and then waiting around after school for evening appointments to see places: my younger son got so tired he used to bring a pillow with him so he could sleep in the car.”

In the second six months of 2017, Teresa had contacted 40 properties and was often turned down without a viewing.

She says it’s not her imagination that her status as a self-employed single mother was a factor.

“I was told, ‘Oh, they’re looking for a couple’. I was told directly that landlords didn’t want children, I was told by one estate agent that what I do isn’t a real job.”

“I ended up saying, ‘Jesus, will I have to pretend I have a husband?!”

To be eligible for a priority council house, Teresa was told she had to declare herself homeless at the Homeless Persons Unit in Drinan Street.

To do so, she was told, she would have to sign a form saying she would permit the intervention of child protection services and was then informed that because her elder son was over 12, he could be offered separate emergency accommodation with male adults if a space couldn’t be found for the family of three together.

“So then I wasn’t listed as homeless: they told me I was ‘involuntarily sharing’.”

Teresa says she broke down and cried when she finally found a house that she could afford, more than a year after her house-hunt began. She says the experience was traumatic and has had a lasting impact on her and her sons.

“My eldest son started secondary school while all this was going on and he came home one day and said, ‘Mom, they’re saying I’m homeless in school’.

“If I were into drugs or if I was a drinker, I can really see how people fall by the wayside, because there were plenty of times that it was so stressful that I felt I just couldn’t cope.”

Mike: “I’m not in the actual gutter yet.”

Mike, a single man in his thirties, was sharing a house in Cork city with several friends until their landlord gave them notice six months ago.

He immediately began to look for a new place, but says there’s a complete absence of affordable accommodation anywhere within reach of the city.

A freelance web designer and musician, Mike is eligible for HAP, but he says landlords won’t accept it, or that properties are still unaffordable even with HAP.

“If you’re on HAP you’re supposed to be able to rent somewhere, but that’s just in theory,” he says. “In reality, you actually just can’t.”

A friend of Mike’s, who lives an hour away in a remote area in North Cork, inaccessible by public transport, offered him a spare room three months ago.

He has a small mattress in the rural house but his possessions are spread between several locations.

“I have bits and pieces all over,” he says. “I’m really grateful to my friend but if something changes here I don’t know what I’ll do. I’m not in the actual gutter yet though.”

As Mike doesn’t drive, he’s completely isolated in the rural location and has to rely on occasions where his friend can give him a lift into the city to be able to house-hunt.

He was doing a third-level course of studies at the time he became homeless, but wasn’t able to attend the course any more after he took up his friend’s offer.

“When I go into town I end up having to sleep on friend’s couches for a couple of nights at a time,” he says. “I don’t think that people who this isn’t happening to have any idea what it’s like.

“I basically can’t so anything about my situation or make any plans for the future. There’s a total lack of housing and there just isn’t any help. It’s pretty bad and quite depressing.

“You hear that this is happening to people with children too, and I really don’t know how they can manage at all.”

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