Christmas brings to mind the story of a family refused accommodation when there was no room at the inn and a baby was born in a stable. The enduring and evocative image causes every right-thinking person to be sympathetic to the plight of homeless people.

According to the Government’s most recent Homelessness Report, there were 5,298 homeless adults accessing local authority emergency accommodation during the week 23-29 October 2017.

In County Clare 60 people registered as homeless by the end of November 2017. Hidden from view, but no less real is the fact that the official statistic does not account for 60 children who are also homeless in the county.

Today’s homelessness is partly a legacy of the 2008 housing market crash and the result of an ideological agenda pursued by successive Irish Governments that stopped local authorities from building social houses for poorer families in favour of competitive market forces.

This resulted in local authorities struggling to maintain long lists of housing applicants despite being deprived of funding for social house building programmes. It is in this context that the homelessness issue must be viewed.

When Clare County council’s Social Development SPC held its regular meeting in Ennis the homelessness issue was vigorously discussed by all present. It was made abundantly clear that councillors and officials do not condone the present situation, but are doing as much as they can within their limited resources to cope.

Social Development director Liam Conneally informed the committee that 400 people in total presented as homeless in Clare this year to date. By the end of November, 60 people still registered as homeless, of these 13 men are accommodated in Laurel Lodge, the St Vincent de Paul accommodation service in Ennis.

The remainder, except for one man, has been provided with access to private emergency accommodation at two hotels, a number of B&Bs and a hostel.

Speaking comparatively, Mr Conneally said that while he wants to see numbers reducing, the homeless problem in Clare is not escalating at the same rate as other parts of the country.

Since taking charge of the Social Development Directorate this year, Liam Conneally has had a very positive influence. Under his guidance, the council’s Housing department now ensures that every person presenting as homeless is offered emergency accommodation at the very least.

In the short-term, Mr Conneally is focused on opening a one-stop-shop facility in Ennis for a Homeless Action Team (HAT) in cooperation with the Dept. of Social Protection, HSE, Gardai and relevant agencies. A premises is presently being acquired and the facility should be operational during Q1 2018.

In addition, Mr Conneally confirmed that the council is submitting an application under Section 10 of the Housing Act to fund a Family Hub facility in the Ennis area early in the New Year.

Both the HAT office and the Family Hub will go some way to tackling homelessness in Clare, particularly for families living in emergency accommodation.

Asked by social inclusion sector representative Dermot Hayes how many children are in receipt of homeless services, Mr Conneally confirmed that there are now 60 adults and 60 children homeless in the county.

Fine Gael councillor Pat Burke was rebuked for his view that the public perceives homeless people as living and sleeping on the streets. Two sectoral representatives on the committee took him to task for asking, “is it fair to say that there is nobody actually homeless tonight, as in being left out under the elements?”

Dermot Hayes reminded Cllr Burke that 120 people are homeless in County Clare, five of them living in one room. In his defence, Cllr Burke said he was offering a view that the perception is that homeless people are living on the streets. “I’m very glad that they’re not,” he added.

Thomas Guilfoyle, who represents the trade union representative on the SPC, said nobody can say that 120 are not homeless in Clare because they do not live a normal life and their children are being dragged around B&Bs.

Liam Conneally clarified the issue of people sleeping rough on the streets, he said Clare County Council surveys ‘rough sleepers’ in the county every year adding, “In November 2016, there were 5 rough sleepers in the county, one in Shannon and four in Ennis.

“This year there is one rough sleeper in Clare who is fully aware of the supports but has chosen not to avail of those services. He attends Laurel Lodge on a daily basis for food and other supports.

“We would be happy to put him into emergency accommodation. Nobody is sleeping outside in County Clare except in this case where it is the personal choice of one individual.”

According to the Simon Community, homelessness can be defined as sleeping rough, staying in emergency accommodation or shelters, staying in B&B accommodation or staying with friends and relatives when there is nowhere else to go.

SPC chairman Cllr Gerry Flynn commented, “It is not ideal to have people going from pillar to post, particularly coming up to Christmas when hotels are busy.”

Sensing the underlying frustrations that had entered the discussion, Liam Conneally said the council does not want any family to experience emergency accommodation longer than is necessary, which is why it is setting up a family hub facility in Ennis that will facilitate at least seven family units in supported accommodation.

“Our intention, is to take families out of emergency accommodation, into a transition hub and from there into permanent council housing,” said Mr Conneally.

Fianna Fáil councillor Tony O’Brien commented that he wasn’t at the meeting for an argument but to try to enhance public services for the benefit of those people who need them most.

“This particular homeless problem, and all other problems associated with social housing,” said Cllr O’Brien, “are not confined to Clare, they exist the length and breadth of this country. It’s our job to work together in cooperation, come up with solutions and formulate a plan to tackle this.”

In conclusion, Dermot Hayes asked, “when will these people be housed?” Liam Conneally said it is difficult to give a short answer to a fluid situation.

However, he did say, “People in emergency accommodation are given priority when our own social housing stock becomes available. I can’t say how many houses will become available in the first half of 2018 but we will continue to offer permanent accommodation to people who are homeless and on our social housing list.”

People’s Housing Summit

Meanwhile, a People’s Housing Summit held in Dublin has called on the Government to immediately implement a set of policy objectives aimed at providing a real and meaningful solution to the housing crisis.

The National Homeless and Housing Coalition (NHHC) also called for people to join them in organising a major national demonstration to protest against the housing crisis and government inaction on Saturday 7th April next year.

Speaking at the event, Fr Peter McVerry said, “The homeless and housing situation is now out of control. People are beginning to feel hopeless. Even working people don’t have the money to pay the rents being demanded. The solution is obvious, the provision of public housing.

“There are two ways to do that – build public housing at the same rate as the 1970s, use the empty houses and apartments even before the new dwellings can be built. The emphasis on the private sector is absurd”.