Terrifying ease of slipping into the homeless trap

Limerick city’s most shameful moment of 2015 was reported on December 10. A man’s life had come to an end in the most undignified fashion.

He had been sleeping rough in the city and spent his final moments in a recycling bin, having climbed in to escape the awful weather. For days he remained there, lifeless, before being transported up the M7 to Nenagh and discovered.

The man’s death came a year after Jonathan Corrie met a similar fate, in a doorway located in the shadow of Leinster House.

His death was the catalyst for a range of of initatives to tackle rough sleeping. We were told this could not be tolerated, that it could not be allowed to happen again.

It has. Plenty of times. Four had died on the streets in a single six-week period at the end of September. The latest tragedy, which caused little more than a flicker of outrage nationally, reminds us that homelessness is not confined to the capital.

Limerick is fighting a battle with the issue – one it is struggling to maintain control over.

The level of rough sleeping in the city is unclear. The Mid-West Simon Community estimates the number is 25-30. Novas Initiatives, who were familiar with the man who died, say the number is far lower.

The logistics required to carry out an accurate count in a city like Limerick mean it is very hard to have any certainty. The city centre is small but a large number of vacant buildings means there are plenty of places to squat.

Estimates from local service providers are what we have to rely on.

One thing then that can be confirmed is the number of people sleeping in emergency accommodation – around 120.

Forty-seven of these places are provided St Patrick’s Hostel on Clare Street, which is run by St Vincent de Paul. I recently visited the hostel for a tour and a chat with Darren Crowe, the manager.

He painted a grim picture of the pressure being placed on emergency-service providers in the city.

Until 18 months ago, there were three services men could access: St Patrick’s Hostel, McGarry House on Alphonsus St and Br Russell House on Mulgrave St (both run by Novas Initatives).

Br Russell House has now changed its focus to medium- and long-term support, meaning 26 emergency places were lost.

This must have had a significant impact, given that service providers are always near capacity – St Patrick’s Hostel operates at 96% occupancy on average, year round.

When people get into the hostel environment, it’s difficult for them to get out, becuase of a major shortage of private rental accommodation in the city centre.

Darren told me that there are probably six to eight city-centre properties available at any one time, two of which might fit the budget of a homeless person.

If someone is lucky enough to find a suitable property, it is likely to involve dealing with an estate agent.

They will require work references, property references, a deposit and first month’s rent. This is a tall order for most people earning a decent salary, let alone a homeless person who is likely to have some level of debt.

Mid-West Simon helps to offset the scale of such a task, providing people with deposit loans for rental property.

The loans are paid back in interest-free installments, usually at €10 a week.

Sixty-one people availed of this scheme in 2015, an indication of just how many Limerick people are struggling to find some stability in their lives.

These are often the ‘hidden homeless’ – people who may have been living comfortably but through loss of work, increases in rent or eviction by landlords, now find themselves in difficulty.

They don’t fit the usual bill. In many cases, they first come into contact with Mid-West Simon at their food bank, a service that 200 people avail of in Limerick each week.

Two hundred people – a frightening figure for a city this size.

It is widely accepted that the solution is more housing. Money is being pulled away from emergency services to provide housing, or at least that’s what those suffering the cuts are being told.

And yet this hasn’t resulted in additional options being made available for homeless people. If there’s no real commitment to addressing the housing stock, homeless numbers will continue to rise.

What is made clear to me by every service provider I speak with is that people of every description pass through their doors, hopeless and in need of support.

I’ve met some of them myself. Kind, capable people who either ran out of luck, or never had any to begin with. The young person with drug issues from a disadvantaged area is only half the problem.

As Darren put it, the reasons people find themselves homeless never cease to amaze you. One thing’s for sure – demand isn’t going to drop any time soon. Christmas, as always, will be a tough time for many people in Limerick. Spare a thought for those without a place to call home this December.

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