Wednesday, January 11, 2017

In the final instalment of our two-day series on housing charity Threshold, Kelly O’Brien talks to staff about standards, repairs, and getting homeless people out of shelters and into private rented accommodation. 

Stephen O’Connell from Threshold’s Access Housing Unit at work in their city centre office. Pic: Larry Cummins.

Every day, Threshold receives calls from people who suddenly find themselves at risk of homelessness.

In the vast majority of these cases, the housing support charity manages to prevent this from happening by advising them of their rights and, if necessary, stepping in to mediate between tenants and landlords to keep people in their homes.

Unfortunately, not every story has a happy ending. Sometimes, for example, Threshold staff will find that a landlord has followed all the rules and has in fact issued a valid notice of eviction. Given the current housing crisis and the lack of affordable supply, this means ousted tenants often become homeless and must present at a shelter.

As such, Threshold set up a dedicated Access Housing Unit which deals directly with people in emergency accommodation, or who have recently been in emergency accommodation.

Its main aim is to try and get people out of shelters and into their own private rented accommodation, but it also supports people beyond this, working with them and their specific needs to help keep them in that tenancy.

Stephen O’Connell, a project worker at the Access Housing Unit, said the service is in huge demand.

Since it was set up four years ago, it has supported more than 300 people move on from emergency accommodation — 175 adults and 123 children. Of these, 85% managed to sustain their tenancies and have not returned to homelessness.

“My role would be primarily to work with people in homeless services. I would link in with them and carry out assessments with them and build up a relationship,” explained Stephen.

“My aim is to try and get them into private rented accommodation. The other side of my role then would be to provide tenancy sustainment. In the weeks before they move into private rented accommodation I’m getting a better understanding of where they’re at, what their needs are, and then creating a care plan around that.”

Stephen said care plans could be anything at all, from advising people where to go for mental health support or literacy issues, to creating healthy eating plans, financial plans, and rent repayment plans.

“We support people with whatever needs they may have. That varies from case to case,” said Stephen.

“I always make sure people have all the information they need regarding their financial supports. If they’re on rent supplement, or Housing Assistance Payments, we tell them what all that entails and what they need to know in terms of speaking with landlords about that. We do also contact landlords ourselves and see if they will accept these housing supports and financial schemes.”

Stephen said the housing crisis makes his job an incredibly challenging one.

“There are so many people out there looking for houses. People who are on financial aids like rent supplement or HAP are up against professionals and people who can have the ready cash. Look at Daft.ie on any one day and you’ll see the ads have hundreds if not thousands of views.”

But, he added, it can be extremely rewarding to secure accommodation for someone and to see a person eventually leaving homelessness behind them.

He loves his job so much, in fact, he describes it as his calling. Having entered the working world as a plumber, Stephen quickly realised it was not for him. He decided to do a bit of travelling and ended up working as a hospital porter in Melbourne, Australia.

“I loved interacting with all the patients. Me being Irish, they thought it was cool, and I used to get in trouble for talking too much,” he joked.

After three months, Stephen returned to Ireland and immediately volunteered at a day care centre for older people. It was that job that made him realise he wanted to spend his life helping other people.

He returned to college, studying at both Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa and CIT, and went on to work with older person’s charity Alone, and with Dublin-based homelessness charity the Peter McVerry Trust.

Little more than a year ago, Stephen returned home to Cork to work with Threshold.

“It is challenging to try and source accommodation for people but when we do get it, it’s very rewarding — for us but more importantly for the person themselves. They’re getting out of homelessness, they’re getting their lives back on track,” he said.

“I still remember my first time, when I was only working here six weeks, and I got a person out of homelessness services and into their place. The feeling was phenomenal. I couldn’t describe it.”

Stephen explained that when a person enters homelessness, their confidence and self-esteem drops. It is essential that they are encouraged and motivated so that they don’t lose hope.

“It’s unreal seeing a person getting out of homeless services and realising ‘This is my place, I’m gonna protect it, I don’t want to go back to homelessness’. It gives them real purpose and a focus to keep doing their best.”

Stephen said he is extremely worried about the state of the homelessness crisis in Cork at the moment, but hopes the future will bring solutions.

“I’m optimistic. I’m hoping to see improvements this year. Housing Minister Simon Coveney has a challenging job, but I have faith in him. I think he knows his stuff, so fingers crossed.”

Threshold staff at their office on South Mall. Pic: Larry Cummins.

Tenant and landlord mediation can solve issues

As part of Threshold’s Tenancy Advisory Service, assistant manager Edel Conlon deals with tenants who are having trouble with housing standards, repairs, and deposit retention.

When a client initially makes contact, she starts by making sure they know their rights. Sometimes that’s all they need. In a number of cases, however, additional support is required.

“First we try to sort it out between the landlord and the tenant. We inform both of their rights and responsibilities and hopefully they can come together and sort it out. It works in a lot of cases, but unfortunately sometimes the relationship has broken down and there is a need for mediation,” says Ms Conlon.

“If we can’t sort it, we have to get the local authority involved. They have the responsibility to ensure all rented properties meet minimum standards.”

Ms Conlon says people would be surprised just how substandard a lot of properties in Cork actually are. Because of the housing crisis, tenants quite often don’t speak out about the poor conditions for fear of eviction.

“A woman came to me recently. She was living in a two-bed in Cork city with her three-year-old son. There were leaks all over the property, damp and mould, a mouse infestation. The toilet wasn’t flushing, the heating wasn’t working. She was so upset that she was letting her son live in these conditions,” says Ms Conlon. The woman, who was paying €750 a month, approached the landlord about the issues and was threatened with eviction.

“We assisted her. We knew that because the property was so substandard it needed to be inspected. So we went straight to Cork City Council for an inspection. The building control team inspected it and they issued an improvement order. Now the property is meeting minimum standards,” she says.

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