In the foreword to the Focus Ireland annual report for 2021, President and Founder Sister Stanislaus Kennedy refers to the “shameful new record” of 10,500 people who are officially homeless within the state. Among them are more than 3,400 children.
It is indeed a shame that any person is without such a basic requirement, especially when many find themselves in such a situation not through reasons connected to their own personal choice, as would traditionally be associated with the relatively small number of people who sleep rough, but through not being able to afford either to acquire or maintain a secure place to live. Sometimes that is the situation even when the person or persons are working.
Among the factors which have seen the numbers increase dramatically from the 6,000 in 2020 (Department of Housing) and from the 3,808 who were officially recorded in the 2011 Census as having been among the 64 rough sleeping or 3,744 in homeless accommodation, is the increased demand for housing, especially in the larger cities and towns.
Much of that, whether people wish to recognise it or not, is the vastly increased and increasing numbers of people coming to live in Ireland from overseas. You cannot have both an unpredictable and increasing level of migration, and propose to address that through some state “plan” where one of the key factors is x.
While some of those who believe that mass migration and ensuring that everyone has an affordable place to live are in some way compatible, Sister Stanislaus recognises that, whilst she still believes that the state ought to play a central role in the housing sector, the more simplistic targeting of private landlords is not a solution.
Indeed, she specifically refers to the need to “stop the great exodus of landlords from the private rental market,” which she correctly states is a “key cause of rising homelessness.” That contrasts with the attitude of the left parties which appear to believe that the state could come up with tens of billions to buy those landlords out, although she does not specify what the exact “tax incentives” to encourage them to remain might consist of.
If there is a problem with landlords it is with the large overseas pension or “vulture” funds which have been gobbling up properties here, often with the co-operation of local authorities, including Dublin City Council when it had a Sinn Féin/left majority between 2014 and 2019 when deals with developers who sell them to such entities were an integral part of their “plans” – God help us – to address the housing crisis.
The key role of a private sector made up of people who might own one or a small number of properties is illustrated by the statistics which Focus Ireland itself refers to regarding where people moving from precarious accommodation situations find a more secure place. The private rental sector, supported by the state Housing Assistance Payment (HAP), accounts for the vast bulk of such placements. The local authorities provide only a fraction of the demand.
While it may sound like poor form to refer to such matters, the role of the largely state funded homelessness NGOs such as Focus and others also needs to be examined. While Focus and Simon and Fr. McVerry began as traditional voluntary charities, they are now vastly funded organisations and employ several thousand people. The question is, are they are more effective than when they were as originally intended?
The board of Focus is now largely comprised of people with backgrounds in the private property and corporate sector. And while nobody questions the sincerity of their commitment or concern, it is a long way, and not necessarily a more efficient way, in which to address a problem that once was predominantly driven by dedicated volunteers.
In 2020, Gript, looked in detail at this aspect of the housing crisis and calculated that the combined homelessness NGO sector was spending on average €33,000 for each person then officially recognised as being homeless, which was 6,082 in 2020. That was based on the sector’s income of €200 million, of which €90 million came directly from the state.
In its current annual report, Focus declares that it had a total income of over €41 million. The main sources are state grants, fundraising, rental income and other.
The direct grant aid from local authorities and other state bodies amounted to €15,644,870 which would account for a relatively modest, in NGO terms, state funding of under 40%. Yet that does not account for all of public funding as a further €7,508,219 of what are listed under the broad heading of “fundraising” also comes from “public funding.”
Focus of course also spends the bulk of its income on staff and administration costs for the over 500 people it now employs. The vast cost of all of the homelessness sector is compounded by the numbers directly employed by the state and local authorities and by the Housing Assistance Payment which has contributed over €1.5 billion in subsidies to private landlords since 2017.
Given all of that state spending, and its seeming ineffectiveness when looked at in quantitative terms, one might wonder why all of the money is not spent more directly. There are many proposals as to how this might operate, including tax incentives including to working families trying to find a house to buy. It is a penalty kick of course for the opposition as they can just propose all sorts of things that didn’t work when they were in charge of councils and clearly do not work in the north where the housing waiting list has grown to over 40,000 on Sinn Féin’s watch.
Perhaps we might, however, start to look at what worked in the past. Certainly one thing that did seem to work, and the evidence is there in all our major cities and towns, was the policy of encouraging private housing construction and private home ownership through specific targeted state and local authority policies which facilitated that.