What about parents or grandparents spare rooms? If there's a child involved where the other parent's support? There's more to the 10,000 homeless in Ireland than meets the eye.

Last Saturday a few thousand people marched through Dublin city center in protest at the continuing homelessness crisis here.  The marchers included children of homeless families, which made it even more emotional.   

The speakers at the mass meeting which followed all condemned the government's failure to tackle the crisis effectively and pointed to the most recent figures which show the problem is getting worse rather than better.   

These figures, which were released two weeks ago, show that there are now almost 10,000 homeless people here, a watershed number which was used as the headline in all the news reports.  The headlines prompted reactions of shame and bewilderment from many commentators and anger from the homeless organizations.  We don't live in a Third World country, they said, so how can this be allowed to happen? 

Video of #Dublin march against #homeless crisis filling both sides of the quays pic.twitter.com/TDe9p3A9o6

— Workers Solidarity (@WSMIreland) April 7, 2018

The precise numbers in the figures (which were for February) were 9,807 people homeless, including 6,052 adults and 3,755 children in 1,739 families.  The number of homeless adults was up by 215 in the month between January and February.

Many of the reports pointed out that the number of homeless children had grown by 488 in the same month, a huge jump which indicates that many more families are becoming homeless.   

These are shocking figures and deeply concerning for the government, as well as everyone else here.  The outrage they provoked from the many groups working with the homeless is understandable.

But getting angry by itself won't solve the problem.  The issue is far more complex than the 10,000 homeless headline suggests.    

Proud to march today in largest housing protest in over 30 years in Dublin. 10,000 in solidarity with all those affected by #HousingCrisis the homeless, students, renters, workers, migrants, Travellers - a new growing movement for the right to housing in Ireland @_HousingCrisis pic.twitter.com/1O1xFjlCOx

— Rory Hearne (@RoryHearne) April 7, 2018

Why was there suddenly such a huge spike in homeless numbers in February?  The vast majority of people who declare themselves homeless and seek emergency accommodation from local councils are from the private rented sector.  They are people who lose their accommodation either because they can't keep up with the rent or their home is being taken back for other reasons.  

Of course rents are going up steadily all the time.  But there was no massive rental spike in the past few months to explain such a big and sudden increase in the numbers presenting to councils as homeless in February.    

Those working in the sector were puzzled. So they analyzed the data and found that a significant number of the new homeless had come from secure accommodation, either renting their own place or sharing with parents, relatives or friends.  

They had taken a decision to declare themselves as homeless for a particular reason -- they wanted to secure a place high on the social housing list before the current preference given to the homeless is ended.     

Over the past couple of years, as the homelessness crisis grew and pressure on politicians increased, a political decision was quietly taken to use social housing to reduce the embarrassing numbers making the homeless headlines.  Half of all social housing that became available was to be given to those who were homeless and in emergency accommodation.  

You don't need to be a 'grown-up' to understand this country is in a full-blown crisis #housingcrisis pic.twitter.com/nKFQqO1Qef

— Fiona Hynes (@HynesFiona) April 7, 2018

This was never declared as official policy but everyone knew what was going on.  It undermined the integrity of the social housing list system and it was deeply unfair to all the people who had been on the list for years and in the meantime were living with parents or family and had not declared themselves as homeless.

An unintended consequence of this unofficial policy was a rapid rise in the numbers declaring themselves to be homeless.  Several local councilors -- even including one from Sinn Fein -- were brave enough to say that they were concerned about what was going on.  The top official for housing in the Dublin region said he was worried that people were gaming the system.    

This could not go on and a decision was taken earlier this year that the unofficial policy of giving preference on the housing list to those who had declared themselves to be homeless must end.  The word got around and a significant number of people decided to declare themselves as homeless to get a place on the list while they still could.  Hence the sudden spike in the numbers of homeless in February.   

This is not to suggest that all those in emergency accommodation are gaming the system.  The majority are genuine cases of people who cannot get social housing, who cannot survive in the current rental market and who don't have an alternative.  

Having said that, research on the problem has also shown that many who could stay with relatives do not wish to do so because of claimed overcrowding or relationship breakdown.     

All of this illustrates how complicated the problem is.  There are no easy answers.  

Emotive headlines about the disgrace of having 10,000 people homeless do not tell the full story.  And they can be seriously misleading -- especially to those outside Ireland -- because they imply that those involved are literally homeless and are sleeping on the streets.   

These headlines and reports, often illustrated by a picture of a rough sleeper in a doorway, can give the impression that 10,000 homeless adults and children are sleeping rough in Ireland when in fact they are in emergency accommodation, in rooms in hotels and B&Bs which are paid for by the state.  The number of rough sleepers in Dublin is now well below 200, all of whom are adults and many of whom have addiction and mental health issues and refuse to go into shelters.    

Life in emergency accommodation is far from easy for many of the homeless, particularly for families with young children stuck in a hotel room with minimal facilities. But at least it's clean, warm, dry and secure and it's a world away from being on the streets.  

And it's not all second rate accommodation either -- some of the top hotels in Dublin like the Gresham on O'Connell Street and the Shelbourne on Stephen's Green have been providing rooms.  

We all know the background to the homeless problem here.  The reason we have this housing crisis is because the financial crash here 10 years ago stopped all construction, both private and public.

The state was virtually bankrupt so it could no longer fund local councils to build social housing.  For at least six years no social housing at all was built.

Now, with the economy back on its feet and tax revenue flowing in again, the government is ramping up building social housing and developers are back on sites building private homes.  But there is a huge backlog of demand and it is going to take at least another five or six years to begin to catch up.   

The lack of supply means that prices for private houses are soaring again, putting them beyond the reach of many people and forcing them to rent.  This has resulted in soaring rents and some low-income families are finding themselves priced out of the rental market.  

Even with the state-provided housing assistance payments, they can't afford the current rents in the private sector.  They then end up in emergency accommodation in hotel rooms while they wait for social housing to become available.    

Even if the state had unlimited funds to throw at the problem -- which is not the case -- gearing up the construction sector again is taking time because of a lack of manpower (so many building workers emigrated after the crash) and a lack of developer credit.  It will eventually come right and sufficient supply will eventually bring down rents.  But it will be years before we get there.  

One of the factors involved in all this, which is rarely discussed, is the change in the way our society operates these days, something that is also evident in other western countries, all of which seem to have homeless problems. Family support structures that used to be there a generation or two ago no longer function.  You would think that most single parent families -- typically a single mum with one or two children -- who become homeless would be able to move in with parents or grandparents or siblings or friends until their crisis is over.  But frequently these days that is no longer an acceptable option.  

So instead of being a problem that the extended family might solve, as used to be the way in the past, it becomes a problem for the state.  There is an immediate assumption that the state has a duty to step in and provide accommodation without question or delay.  

At present there is minimal checking when someone presents as homeless to their local council and requests emergency accommodation.  Obvious questions like whether parents or grandparents have spare rooms in their homes are not explored.  When children are involved income details of partners or ex-partners and their ability to contribute are not followed up.  

As we said, the real story is far more nuanced and complicated than the headlines suggest.

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