IN A RECENT report, a number of Traveller children spoke to the Ombudsman for Children’s Office (OCO) about what conditions were like on the halting site where they lived:
“People ask why I’m dirty, but I’d be ashamed to say. I don’t want to say it was from walking out of the site,” said one girl, aged 14.
“We don’t go to school in the mornings because it’s too cold to get out of bed,” said a boy, also aged 14.
“It’s hell,” said another girl, aged 16.
The No End in Site report from the OCO was published in May and looked into living conditions at a local authority-run halting site. It found serious issues with living standards for the 38 families and 66 children living at the site, including extreme overcrowding, rodent infestation and unsanitary conditions.
A HSE public health nurse told the OCO that children on the site presented with skin conditions and respiratory problems at a much higher rate than the general population.
“It’s like an abandoned place that people forgot about,” one of the children interviewed said.
“It’s like we’re forgotten, we feel like garbage.”
Housing for minority groups
While the housing crisis affects large swathes of the Irish population, the problem is at its most acute among minority groups, such as Travellers, migrants and asylum seekers who have been granted status to remain in Ireland but are unable to move out of Direct Provision centres because of the lack of other places to live.
The most recent Census figures from 2016 show that there are about 32,000 Travellers living in Ireland. A distinct ethnic group, Travellers are far more disadvantaged than the general population, and have a long and complex history with the state when it comes to accommodation and discrimination.
Travellers face huge challenges when it comes to accessing adequate housing. Because of this, despite only accounting for about 1% of the population, in 2018 Travellers represented about 8% of the homeless population, rising to 10% in Dublin.
Travellers are far less likely to own their own home than the general population, and are almost 10 times more likely to report discrimination in accessing housing.
The most recent figures from the the Department of Housing show that 529 Traveller families were living in “unauthorised sites” (at the side of the road or in areas with no running water or proper electricity) in 2019 and 933 families were sharing accommodation with other families.
“We’ve been saying this for many, many years,” said Bernard Joyce, director of the Irish Traveller Movement (ITM).
“And so have many other bodies – it’s appalling to see a situation where many of our community are living in what can only be described as sub-standard, inhumane conditions.”
The ITM and other Traveller advocacy groups and experts point to numerous problems in social housing and in the private rental sector that need to be addressed to ensure a better standard of living for Travellers.
Under the 1998 Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act, local authorities are obliged to assess and provide Traveller-specific accommodation where needed. However, in the two decades since it was enacted, many local authorities have failed to meet targets in this regard, and millions of euro worth of funding wasn’t drawn down.
In 2019, the Traveller Accommodation Expert Review found that the system was failing in this regard and in many other areas.
It found issues around planning and provision of housing, a lack of action by local authorities on Traveller accommodation, and failures to properly assess the need among Travellers for housing.
The review also highlighted issues with rent subsidies paid by local authorities to private landlords in the form of the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) and through long-term leasing schemes.
“We wouldn’t see [HAP and the private rental sector] as a solution to addressing the needs of Travellers by any means,” said Joyce.
The expert review stated that the 1998 Act needed an “overhaul” and put forward numerous recommendations that it said needed to be implemented.
Among these was including an ‘ethnic identifier’ on the social housing needs assessment, to identify the demand among Travellers for accommodation, and changing the Part 8 planning mechanism for delivering social housing, which would prevent elected members from putting a stop to developments of Traveller-specific accommodation.
Advocacy groups are calling for these recommendations to be implemented in full in order to begin to address the myriad of social, health and housing issues affecting the Traveller population.
“Travellers are part of communities, they’re part of the schools, they are accessing local services, it’s just mind blowing… that people are just coming from these sites that don’t even have water, the ground is muck, they don’t have showers,” said Bernard Joyce.
“I just think that it’s an absolutely appalling national disgrace. People just need to get to grips with what’s there. The solutions are all there, it’s now a matter of stepping up and implementing the expert recommendations.”
The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Key Issues affecting the Traveller Community is currently holding meetings, with a final report due to be published by the end of July.
A spokesperson for the Housing Department said that in response to the publication of the Expert Group report, a Programme Board had been established to oversee the implementation of its recommendations. The Board has met twice already with a third meeting scheduled this week.
The spokesperson said that progress had been made on a number of the recommendations of the Expert Group, including adopting an “ethnic identifier” for families on the social housing support application form, and changes in 2020 to the method of allocating funding to local authorities.
“Full use was made of the €14.5 million budget provided in 2020 for Traveller-specific accommodation,” the spokesperson said.
Stuck in Direct Provision
Another group facing extreme difficulties when accessing housing are former asylum seekers who have been granted the right to live and work in Ireland, but cannot find anywhere to live.
Ireland’s system of housing asylum seekers in Direct Provision centres for lengthy periods while they await a decision on their applications has been widely criticised over the past decade. The government recently published a White Paper outlining how it plans to put an end to the system.
Recent figures from the Department of Children show that as of March over 1,000 adults and children who have been granted status are still living in DP centres across the country. These people are not listed as homeless by the Department of Housing, despite being unable to leave Direct Provision due to a lack of housing options.
“It’s a very big concern,” said Lucky Khambule, co-founder of the Movement for Asylum Seekers Ireland (MASI).
“There are lots of people who have to stay even more than a year, almost two years for others, with a big challenge of moving away from Direct Provision and getting their own houses.”
Originally from South Africa, Khambule came to Ireland as an Asylum Seeker in 2013, and lived in Direct Provision for three years before being granted status in October, 2016. However, he remained in the Direct Provision centre for another year without being able to source a place to live.
“No one would accept me, rents were high. HAP was no, no, no. So it took me a year,” he said.
“I was struggling to get a place and there was no one to help. The only thing they were doing for me was to push me to be out. They would come into my place where I was staying asking me, ‘when are you going out, when are you going out?’
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“They would want me to prove I was looking for the house.” Khambule said that this is the experience for many others living in the system. People who may be older, have no connections in Ireland and language difficulties find it especially hard to source accommodation.
Problems with HAP
While the issues facing the different communities are distinct, Traveller, asylum seeker and migrant rights groups have problems with HAP as a means of social housing support. “One of the big problems is the non-acceptance of HAP by landlords,” said Khambule.
“Once they hear it’s HAP, most of the landlords are shying away.”
HAP frequently comes under criticism from housing and homeless charities, with a lack of available properties, rents above the limit of the payment, and discrimination by landlords against people of colour or Travellers seen as major barriers.
A spokesperson for the Children’s Department said that the housing charities Depaul and the Peter McVerry Trust are funded to provide support services to Direct Provision residents who have been granted their status.
“Using this service, to date, 2,405 residents have been assisted in finding accommodation in the community,” the spokesperson said.
They said that multiple supports are provided, including face-to-face meetings with support workers, assistance in locating properties, assistance with moving and with arranging HAP applications.
After over a year of searching on his own in Dublin, Lucky Khambule re-located from the capital and found a place in Wicklow, where he still lives. MASI is calling for more support for people leaving DP in finding better homes.
He said that while housing charities are “doing what they can do” it is not enough to properly help people.
“People are left to do things on their own. Remember many people have been stuck in DP for many, many years,” said Khambule.
“They’re not in the mainstream community. Socially. So to start to manoeuvre on their own it’s very, very hard.”
This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.