Updated: 02/01/17 : 06:17:19
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True extent of homeless crisis in Sligo

Two men recently spent a night in the trolley bay at Sligo’s Tesco store.

It is not clear why they ended up taking shelter there but local councillor Gino O’Boyle (People Before Profit) said it was not the first time people had been forced by circumstances to sleep beside the stacked trollies, pictured.

“It is cramped but at least it is dry,” he said.

Marese McDonagh writing in The Irish Times reports that homelessness in the State’s major urban centres repeatedly made the news in 2016 but the problem is not confined to Dublin and Cork.

The numbers accessing Focus Ireland’s services in Sligo jumped by 50 per cent last year, with the majority (172 people) looking for advice or information on accommodation options.

The northwest Simon Community branch assisted 44 people in crisis situations in Sligo last year, most facing imminent eviction. No social housing has been built in Co Sligo since 2009/10 and there are more than 1,000 households on the county council’s housing list.

Mary Jameson, Focus Ireland project leader in Sligo, said couch surfing was a growing phenomenon in the county.

Couch surfing

“It is definitely getting worse. There are ‘hidden homeless’ out there, people who are couch surfing, staying temporarily with different relatives. That puts stresses on a family,” she said.

Ms Jameson estimated that two or three homeless people regularly slept on the streets of Sligo but said emergency beds were available for anyone in need.

However, Cllr O’Boyle believes that up to a dozen people, some with addiction issues, often sleep rough. Others may have shelter but are being traumatised by their living arrangements.

Left: Cllr Gino O'Boyle (PBP)

“One couple who between them have four children from previous relationships, are living in a two-bedroom house,” he said. “When all the kids are there, the couple sleep downstairs in the sitting room. If his children are with their mother, the couple get a bed.”

Cllr O’Boyle has advocated for a young woman with four children, two with special needs, who lost her home when her landlord returned from the US and wanted to move back in.

“She got a month’s notice and the council put her up in a hotel for three weeks which was hard going when the children had challenges.”

He said a Traveller family of 11 people, including nine children, was living in a caravan with no outlet for running water. “If you are a Traveller you have even more obstacles to overcome.”

Both Cllr O’Boyle and Ms Jameson believe a reluctance among landlords to accept tenants on Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) is keeping people in substandard and unsuitable accommodation.

Chimney fires

“I am dealing with a family who have had three chimney fires in their rented house. Even when it’s freezing they can’t light the fire because the mother is afraid of a tragedy,” said Cllr O’Boyle . “The landlord won’t do anything as he says the rent they pay would not cover the costs”.

Focus Ireland has been operating in Sligo for 10 years.

“Five years ago banks were not repossessing homes. We never had to deal with people in that category but that has all changed,” said Ms Jameson, who says her clients include families opting to hand the keys to their homes back as well as those facing repossession.

Emma Dolan, head of client services with Simon in the area, said people were being forced to move to rural areas with poor infrastructure due to lack of accommodation in Sligo.

“If there is no public transport and you don’t have a car to bring your children to school or to get to work, that’s an issue but people have no choice,” she said.

Sligo County Council said the 1,045 households on the housing list included 120 who were availing of HAP, and 97 who had been approved for a transfer to alternative accommodation. The numbers availing of emergency beds in hostels or B&B accommodation in Sligo fluctuated between 20 and 30, it said.

Complex Needs

The council said anyone who presented seeking emergency accommodation was being facilitated, but Cllr O’Boyle said some people with complex needs were not equipped to “present”.

“To be fair, the council does its best to accommodate people, but there are some with addiction issues and other problems,” he said.

Through his job as a bouncer in a late night venue in the town, Cllr O’Boyle said he got to know many of these people. Some stay in a car park in an unfinished apartment block in the town centre or sometimes they bed down in a vacant building not too far away where rats are an issue when the door is left open.

Social housing

Sligo County Council received a €6.5 million allocation for social housing last January and plans to build 28 housing units on the Knappagh Road, pictured below, but it’s a lengthy process, with four approval stages to negotiate before construction can begin.

Those working with homeless families are frustrated by the delays.

Councillors were also infuriated last year by news that 95 local authority houses were boarded up, awaiting refurbishment, at a time when more than 1,000 households are waiting for a home. The council said 38 of these properties had since been refurbished and allocated and the remainder would be dealt with this year.

        Sligo County Council plans to build 28 social housing units on Knappagh Road

Focus Ireland has 14 apartments in Sligo town for single people and has accommodation for two families. “We are in the process of buying three houses,” said Ms Jameson, who is concerned for women who are forced to remain in dysfunctional relationships. “They have nowhere to go.”

Ms Dolan said women and children in refuges “are not counted but are part of the hidden homeless” problem.

“Rough sleeping should not be the indicator for homelessness. By the time that happens something is broken.”

Ms Dolan said house building was the key to ending the homeless crisis in Sligo as everywhere else in the State.

“We all need to work harder, and to work faster.”