Op Ed by Niamh Randall, Head of Policy and Communications with the Simon Communities of Ireland and Senator Colette Kelleher.
People experiencing homelessness are excluded from Irish society. They are overlooked, forgotten and neglected, denied basic human rights and constitutional protections. Imagine not having a kitchen where you can cook your daily dinner, not being able to apply for a job because you do not have an address or having no private space of your own. Under international human rights obligations, housing should not be a commodity but a human right. Homelessness, therefore, must be a clear violation of this right. Under international law, to be adequately housed means having security of tenure – not having to worry about eviction or having your home taken away with very little notice. It means having the right to live somewhere in peace and dignity with access to appropriate services, schools, and employment.
Rough sleeping is a very visible manifestation of homelessness, but is not its only form. Homelessness is often hidden from view. It includes people living in shelters and emergency accommodation, people surfing from one couch to another, people living in inadequate housing or people at risk of homelessness because of insecure tenancies or the threat of eviction.
Right now, there are at least 7,699 men, women and children living in emergency accommodation and the numbers continue to grow. Many people who live in hotels, hostels and B&Bs are stuck there for months on end, sometimes years. They are forced to wander the streets during the day until such a time as they can return to their accommodation and hope for a bed for the night. They have nowhere to bring friends to share food and conversation, nowhere for children to play with school friends, nowhere to call home. The damage and the trauma done are untold. A child who is homeless is more likely to become homeless again as an adult.
Discrimination is both a cause and a consequence of homelessness. Those who face discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, family status, mental or physical ill health, sexual orientation are more likely to become homeless and, once homeless, experience additional discrimination. People become homeless for a whole range of complex and overlapping reasons. Primary causes are poverty, inequality and lack of affordable housing, often coupled with systems failures and individual circumstances. Many of the people the Simon Communities work with have been disadvantaged and isolated from a young age; the state has failed them repeatedly.
Sadly, the end of homelessness has moved out of sight. Our housing sector is in crisis; all elements show signs of being broken. The private market has failed. Social housing construction has halted in recent decades. Mortgage debt and rents have spiralled. These are having devastating consequences on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in this State.
On the 5th of July this year the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights found that Spain violated the right to housing for a family with children evicted from rented housing arguing “Through our decision we reaffirm that all people, including those who live in rented accommodation, have the right to housing. States have a duty to ensure that their evictions do not render them homeless.”
If the right to housing were to be enshrined in our constitution then homelessness would rightly be recognised as the failure of the State to implement this right. This would change the way we as a society think about people who are homeless, moving away from blaming people who are homeless for their circumstances to directing attention at the State’s failure to fulfil its obligations to protect this right.
In Scotland, there is a legal right to housing. A qualitative comparison of Scotland and Ireland by Dr Beth Watts shows that this right to housing resulted in people being moved more quickly into permanent accommodation but critically it also gave people who are homeless an expectation of being housed. The report concludes that Scotland’s legal rights appear to “promote self-reliance rather more than the highly discretionary Irish model.”
A right to housing would not mean that everyone would instantly receive a key to his or her own home. Instead, it would provide a ‘floor’ in respect of access to basic adequate housing for all. It would oblige the state to reasonably protect and fulfil that right. For example, where the gap between housing assistance payments and market rents are so great that most people cannot afford to rent a home, the right to housing would allow this to be constitutionally challenged.
Across Europe, the right to housing is recognised in the Constitutions of Belgium, Finland, Greece, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden and in the legislation of Austria, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the United Kingdom. Across the world, the right to housing is included in eighty-one Constitutions. Here in Ireland we must re-write the rules and fundamentally shift our approach to housing. At the core of that shift, acting as an anchor, we must enshrine a constitutional right to housing in Bunreacht na hÉireann.