Images OF Tents On The Dodder Pose Questions About Homelessness

Image courtesy of Sharon Kirkpatrick

Dermot Carmody

A year of staying at home has been a huge challenge for everybody, but for one section of our community the constraints and vicissitudes of Covid19 have added a new layer of difficulty to an already fraught set of circumstances. Homelessness in Dublin continues to be a serious problem, and one symptom of this is the familiar sight of small tents pitched along locations like The Grand Canal and the Dodder river.
Ringsend-based graphic designer Sharon Kirkpatrick noticed the proliferation of these tents in the course of her regular rambles in the area, on which she usually photographs local landmarks and scenery. “Due to lockdown, I’m going off the beaten tracks,” she told NewsFour. “Consistently every time I do I’m finding a tent. This is equally intriguing and wrong on so many levels.”
Sharon was particularly moved by the plight of those relying on these flimsy shelters as she has had experience of working with people affected by homelessness some years ago in a previous career. “I worked in frontline homeless services including high support (emergency hostels), HIV Respite, Rehab, and with other non profits over the years until I was made redundant in the last recession,” Sharon explains. Though she is keen to emphasise that her knowledge of the situation is rooted in her experience some years ago, Sharon is clearly affected by seeing the effects of homelessness scattered along the waterways. “I can’t even begin to imagine what living in a tent in the bitter cold could do to your overall and mental health,” she says.
The plight of homeless people living in small tents around the city has come to the fore regularly in recent times. Last year there was an outcry when a man received “life-changing” injuries during the removal of his tent from The Grand Canal by Dublin City Council, whose agents believed the tent to be empty. More recently many expressed concern when a number of tents were removed earlier this year by DCC. The Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) defended the removal pointing out that it was not legal, safe or sanitary for people to pitch these tents where they did. Further, the executive claimed it was in contact with people living in the tents and that some had active tenancies and therefore no need to use tents for accommodation.
If that is the case, however, then why do people elect a precarious life under a skimpy canvass by the side of a waterway in hostile weather?
The recent RTÉ Investigates report in January brought to light some of the underlying issues, where on the one hand the council-run DRHE is claiming there is surplus emergency hostel accommodation available for anyone finding themselves without a bed in the capital, whilst on the other hand a casual walk around the city will provide you with proof that some people either choose to live in tents, or feel that this is the best option of an unenviable bad lot.
This aspect of the problems encountered by people who have become homeless should be seen in the context of the wider causes of homelessness. Problems experienced on becoming homeless are greatly exacerbated by the fact of being homeless. For example the RTÉ Investigates report highlights the fact that while in a large number of cases people suffering from drug addiction did so before they became homeless, and that a large proportion of those consider their problem with drug use got worse as a result of the misery of being trapped in homelessness. Additionally the report demonstrated that people may either start to use drugs or relapse into drug use because they lack other resources to cope with the difficulty of being homeless and hopeless. The availability of drugs, and the proliferation of other drug users who can be encountered in the emergency accommodation provided, coupled with the attendant problems of violent or criminal behaviour in some hostels that might be associated with drug use, leaves some people feeling they are safer in a tent by the Dodder or The Grand Canal. Here at least they may feel they have some space which is their own, and some control over who they share that space with.
As suggested by Mike Allen, Director of Advocacy for the homeless organisation Focus, in that programme, the bigger issue may be one of policy, whereby resources are being used to provide emergency accommodation, which in some cases may perpetuate the problems of those clients using the services rather than directing resources towards actually finding permanent homes for people. Allen and others have pointed out that by providing stable accommodation for people you can give them a base in life from which it then becomes possible to deal with underlying problems such as mental health issues, trauma from domestic abuse or drug use.
Defending the DRHE in the same programme, its National Director of Housing Bob Jordan said it was a priority of the Executive to progress people to longer term housing solutions, but said that the emergency accommodation provided was necessary to protect them in the meantime. There appear to be a number of problems with the provision of such emergency accommodation however, in addition to the ones highlighted above. In some cases people who do not come from Dublin cannot access emergency accommodation here. The issue of policy in this regard and of its execution is further muddied in that the DRHE appears at odds with the government’s policy as stated by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Darragh O’Brien. O’Brien actually apologised to one individual highlighted by RTÉ Investigates and stated that people in his situation should be given emergency accommodation in Dublin where it is available, in contradiction to the apparent policy of the DRHE. In addition, the information about inspections of the suitability of contractors providing emergency accommodation is unpublished, which lack of transparency makes the discussion about policy and action on homelessness more difficult. Speaking for the DRHE Mr. Jordan said in the programme that such reports were considered an internal matter between the executive and contractors and not for publication, a position with which social policy experts, and perhaps many ordinary citizens, would surely disagree.
Agencies such as Focus and the Peter McVerry Trust do much vital and difficult work with limited resources to address the needs of homeless people, and to progress them from the cycle of emergency accommodation and rough sleeping in tents, car parks and doorways. And while no one would dispute that there is a need for temporary emergency accommodation provided by local authorities and others in order to address the immediate needs of people sleeping on the streets, a permanent solution must be to the fore in any long-term policy development.
However the conversation about policy on homelessness is not a new one and there is evident frustration that we have not moved on from this to a proactive long-term solution. There is a consensus that any such solution must focus on the provision of actual homes for those who do not have one, a so-called Housing First policy, which not only speedily escalates people from emergency response situations to permanent housing solutions, but also vitally provides support services for its clients in areas like mental and physical health, substance abuse and debt management, among others.
Housing First is a European policy which could, given political will, be prioritised and pursued in a coordinated way at national and local government level here. If more people are actually being removed from the cycle of homelessness and given the opportunity and support to move beyond their situation into a more dignified life there would be a financial benefit for the country as a whole, with valuable resources going towards the creation of permanent homes, instead of being funnelled into temporary emergency accommodation.
We’re not saying the solution is easy, and it does require resources at a time when dealing with the Covid19 pandemic has skewed the focus of all government resources. However sights like that in Sharon Kirkpatrick’s photograph of the shiny, magnificent and empty Aviva Stadium looming over someone’s tent-home huddled on the banks of the Dodder must remind us that despite efforts all around, we have a serious problem and are a long way from finding a serious solution.