I write this from the comfort of my couch, warmed by the fire, and utterly aware that this is a privilege.
Last Wednesday on the Opinion Line, we spoke to Stephanie McCarthy, a mother of five from Gurranebraher who faces eviction on Christmas Eve. If or when the McCarthy family are forced to leave their home, Stephanie will be lucky to get a place in Edel House along with her children. Her husband will be accommodated separately.
And that’s the best case scenario, because Edel House is at least designed for mothers and children, although even there mothers can’t cook for their children and there is serious overcrowding. If it’s full, Christmas could see her in a B&B, with no facilities to store food, eat a meal beyond breakfast, or wash clothes. Worst case scenario, it could even be a car, because that’s where families who have no home go, in 2015. Ireland, by the way, comes sixth in the world Human Development Index. In theory, it’s the sixth best place in the world to live.
The McCarthy family are tenants of a private landlord, who may have his or her own financial difficulties to deal with and is reportedly selling their home. That’s a landlord’s prerogative, and while we continue to rely on private, non-professional landlords to house the most vulnerable in society, this will happen, again and again and again.
Homeless services are coming apart at the seams despite government commitments which include guaranteeing no rough sleepers over Christmas. The government’s much publicised row over rent controls and provision of new housing has come to very little.
Cork City has over 8,000 people on the housing list. Many of them have been there for years. In April, Minister Alan Kelly allocated €1.5bn nationally for social housing. Cork City Council was to build 1,349 new units by the end of 2017, aimed at reducing the housing list by 21%.
Very few of those units will be owned or run by Cork City Council. They’ll be the property of a range of investors, developers, housing agencies, charities, and quangos. You’d think we’d have learned from eircom, Irish Water, the recent ‘carmageddon’ in the Jack Lynch Tunnel, and a plethora of other privatisation disasters, that privatising essential, basic, public services simply doesn’t work. And that’s if they’re built at all.
In the UK, observers looked on in horror last week as the Conservative party announced that council tenants would no longer have a lifetime right to remain in their social housing. Contracts are now to be reviewed every five years. It’s being billed as an end to sink estates and a culture of entitlement, but in reality it is the beginning of chaos in the lives of thousands of – primarily – women and their children, whose homes can no longer be considered such.
While many of the ‘squeezed middle’ working to pay mortgages, won’t see a problem with this regular testing of how ‘deserving’ council tenants are, stability must be the basis of family life. If your marriage breaks up, you have another child, you lose your job, or have another major life event within the five year term, you have no guarantee of retaining your home because you might not tick every box on an assessor’s sheet. The new UK rules make social housing almost as insecure as private rentals.
Given that Irish governments don’t tend to be very original, surely it’s only a matter of time before the calls begin to extend this policy to Ireland, making public housing almost as insecure as private. And it’s a particular problem for women, because a woman becoming homeless means total family breakdown, and this can repeat itself over generations.
The main triggers for women becoming homeless and seeking support from Simon are family conflict and domestic violence. Alcohol is the primary cause for men.
If a woman is on the street, her children may be divided among relatives or taken into the care system. Many women who are homeless have themselves come from the State care system, perpetuating a cycle of instability, insecurity, poverty and homelessness.
They have a higher rate of poor physical and mental health than men who are homeless and are far more likely to self-harm and express suicidal ideation. The health and related issues appear to be starker for women in emergency accommodation. They appear to be starker again for women who are long-term homeless.
Women also tend to be younger than men who are homeless. One third of women staying in Cork Simon’s emergency shelter in 2014 was aged between 18 and 26. That year saw the highest number of young women staying in the shelter in over five years.
Women who are homeless tend to have left school later and have achieved a higher level of education than men who are homeless yet more women than men, if previously employed, have worked in unskilled jobs.
Currently, 1 in 7 people supported by Cork Simon are women and as many as 1 in 5 people staying at the charity’s emergency shelter are women.
As the face of homelessness continues to change in Ireland, it’s clear that, much like with privatisation, the government is leaving much of the hard graft to charities. Charities like Cork Simon are filling a gap that is shamefully large, with a lack of political will to find long-term, practical, stable solutions.
Providing basics like food and shelter is only the first step in bringing women who have lost not just a roof over their head but a family, a life and often their dignity and sense of self-worth, back from the brink.
This coming Nollaig na mBan, Cork Simon’s Women’s Christmas Lunch takes place at Maryborough House Hotel on January 9th will celebrate women’s solidary with all funds raised from the lunch dedicated to women’s services at Cork Simon. I hope to see you there.
For ticket information, see http://www.corksimon.ie. This piece was first published in the Evening Echo.