By Duncan Casey
It is no secret that Ireland is in the grip of a homelessness crisis. This is not a new phenomenon but the scale of what is being experienced today is unprecedented. Traditional methods of coping with the needs of those at risk are being stretched. Service providers have had to find new ways of delivering support in order to make a lasting difference in the lives of people whose luck has run out, or who never had any to begin with.
One of these is Housing First. Housing First is an innovative approach to tackling long term homelessness that was developed in the United States during the 90’s. It operates with one simple principle — provide housing first, then combine this with support services in the areas of physical and mental health, education, employment and substance abuse.
Clients of the programme are the most at risk people in society. They have rarely had any stability in their lives and have become trapped in a cycle of damaging behaviour which is almost impossible to pull themselves out of. That is, without a programme like Housing First.
Mid West Simon piloted the project in Limerick in 2016 and now have a dedicated Housing First team of five. Initially there was a degree of scepticism about how the project would run. The results speak for themselves. The programme has had a 100% success rate in the past twelve months, meaning that clients have remained in their original properties since the day they walked in. Staff at Mid West Simon tell me they have blossomed. They all pay their rent, are engaging with every service provided and are in and out of the office every day.
The reality is that in a chaotic situation such as sleeping rough or living in a hostel, it is very difficult for someone to put themselves in a position to tackle the major issues in their life that led them to becoming homeless in the first place. Somewhere to call home and a helping hand to guide them along the road to a normal life make an enormous difference.
Unfortunately the lack of property available in Limerick is a major obstacle to the programme’s continued success. We live in a landlord’s market and they are often reluctant to engage with a programme like this. There is a misconception about this being a stressful, unpredictable, insecure tenancy. The reality is very different.
First, the programme makes financial sense in many ways. While landlords need to be able to take rent allowance and HAP payments, they will never be asked to lease a property for less than the market value. The programme then acts as a free property management service for the landlord. Mid West Simon will collect rent each month from the client and will carry out any small maintenance work that the property needs, similar to the RAS scheme.
Additionally, utilities can be looked after through the Household Budget Scheme. This is a national budget scheme run through An Post which allows people to pay bills through the Post Office at source, when welfare payments come in. This provides even more reassurance for the landlord.
Anyone familiar with Limerick City knows there is a huge amount of vacant property around. Landlords may not be in a position to renovate these to a suitable standard for renting. The government’s Repair and Lease Scheme allows an approved housing body such as Mid West Simon to provide the cost of the repairs up front on the condition that it will be leased back to them for a specified period. This is a very attractive incentive for landlords who are not in a position to bring vacant dwellings back to the market.
There tends to be a worry that landlords will have to deal with problematic tenants. Mid West Simon steps in here. Tenancy support is provided 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If there is ever an issue, the Housing First team will deal with it immediately. The landlord will not be waiting two or three days for something to be dealt with. He or she is entitled to ring at any time, whatever the problem might be. Mid West Simon are currently in a very strong position to ensure that tenancies are maintained without issue.
Properties are sought anywhere in the city or county. Each property is another person taking the first steps on the path to a normal, happy life. A handful of dwellings will make a real difference.
I have come to know the staff at Mid West Simon quite well over the past number of years. I have seen how hard they have to fight for every inch of ground gained in the battle against homelessness. I cannot recall anything getting the staff as motivated, passionate and enthusiastic as the introduction of Housing First. There is genuine belief that this could be a game changer. If the team get the resources they need, many lives will be changed and saved. Before that happens however, they need access to more property.
Anyone landlord interested in learning more about the programme can contact Mid West Simon at 061 608980 or simply call into the office at Steamboat Quay on Dock Road.