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Covid-19: A turning point

The Covid-19 pandemic could act as a turning point in the fight against homelessness. Pat Dennigan, CEO with Focus Ireland writes.

As the new Government looks out at our Covid-19-impacted economy and traumatised society, it may be tempting to think that there is at least one area where things are under control. After all, homelessness fell for the last few months and is at a three-year low.

Of course, the recent fall in homelessness is very welcome. Working with others, Focus Ireland supported over 100 households across the country to secure a home in April alone, so it knows what is working. Homelessness is falling because of the rent freeze, the ban on evictions, the release of Airbnb properties into long-term housing and the driven collaboration across government agencies, Local Authorities and voluntary organisations.

But, welcome as they are, rent freezes and eviction-bans only create breathing room. When they go, the underlying problems will re-emerge and we risk being overwhelmed by a new surge of homelessness.

Our problem is that Ireland seems to have forgotten how to build homes that its people can afford to buy or rent. It was disappointing that the Programme for Government went into little detail about how this problem will be overcome. On the positive side, there are strong commitments like the youth homeless strategy, the housing commission and the referendum on a right to housing included in the Programme. These are commitments that Focus Ireland has been proposing for some time. However, there is still a lot of detail for the new Minister for Housing to fill in around the plans for building social housing and tackling family homelessness.

We believe Covid-19 can be a turning point in the fight against homelessness. We hope the new Government will learn from what really worked and use this crisis as an opportunity to rethink our approach to ending homelessness.

Focus Ireland has recently written to all party leaders, including the three parties who now form the new coalition Government, to call for the urgent development of a clear ‘Roadmap for Housing and Homelessness’ as the country emerges from Covid-19. Importantly, the Government urgently needs to make commitments to people who are homeless, and who were accommodated during lockdown, will not be expected to return to the streets or hostels but will be offered homes through an expanded Housing First programme.

A welcome early move would be for all parties to work closely with Focus Ireland, local authorities and all interested parties nationwide to build on the amazing, collaborative work that has been achieved during this public health emergency to keep people safe and also seriously cut the number of people who are homeless.

During the Covid-19 emergency, our staff have continued to provide vital services to support thousands of people who are homeless right across the country, as well as working to help them find a new home. Focus Ireland, and our partners who include local authorities, Dublin Regional Homeless Executive and the HSE, should be very proud and have shown the effectiveness of collaboration. These genuine partnerships that worked so well during the Covid-19 emergency are essential if we are to end homelessness once and for all rather than re-live the last few years.

Homelessness and the housing crisis was one of the top issues for voters in the last election. This message must not be lost in the upheaval of the Covid-19 crisis. The new Government must recognise the scale of this problem and how important it is for people right across our society that we find lasting solutions which build new homes and good communities.

We are at a crucial juncture which will decide how the homelessness crisis goes not only for the rest of this year but for many years to come.

Pat Dennigan is the CEO of Focus Ireland.