Opinion: the human right of homeless families to access housing is undermined by programmes like HAP and family hubs

By Rory Hearne and Dr Mary Murphy, Maynooth University

"When I came here first, I was much happier. Spending time here takes something away from you. I’m just fed up …now I don’t want to talk to people anymore…I just want to be on my own… it’s the system…"

These are the words of a homeless mother, describing her family’s experience of life in a family hub. Yet, the government claims family hubs are "family-focussed facilities to provide better short-term accommodation solutions for families".

Another mother describes her experience of trying to find accommodation in the private rental sector using the social housing subsidy, Housing Assistance Payment (HAP): "I have been in the family hub for six months and I have had no replies to emails from landlords. I am still looking for accommodation through HAP. The agencies and landlords keep asking for work references and past landlord references. But we don’t have that. They say they don’t take children and they don’t allow children in the house. When I tell them that I am a single mom - they say the viewing list is full". Yet, government and local authorities tell homeless families that HAP is the only way they will access housing. 

From RTÉ Radio One's Drivetime, Rory Hearne discusses why there are still more than 3,000 children homeless in this country, despite many government programmes to tackle the problem

These voices of homeless families were gathered through our Participatory Action Research into the impact of social housing policies on the human rights and capabilities of vulnerable groups in Ireland. Our approach aims to involve and empower the research subjects and to play a part in challenging social exclusion and injustice. We worked with a group of families in a family hub in Dublin over a 12 week period, introducing them to the right to housing and co-producing new insights into impacts of HAP and hubs. We also interviewed housing policy officials, experts and NGOs.

In contrast to claims that homeless families are "gaming the system", our analysis finds the primary cause of homelessness in Ireland is the lack of affordable rental housing. This lack of supply is a consequence of austerity cuts to social housing building budgets; longer term marketisation policies which reduced the state’s role in building social housing to rely more on the private market; inadequate tenant protections against private rental evictions and the growing gap between market rent and HAP limits. 

We find the human right of homeless families to access housing is undermined by HAP. Families described that central to the right to a home is "security, stability, safety and freedom". Lack of private rental security of tenure means families are reluctant to take-up insecure HAP housing as they are fearful of exposing their children to the risk of becoming homeless again.

From RTÉ's Prime Time Big Picture on Homelessness, a day in the lives of Ireland's homeless population 

"I don’t want to keep moving my daughter around all the time... and then I’m afraid that I will end back up in the homeless services again after my lease is up… I would take HAP if I was guaranteed to be able to stay in the accommodation for a five year lease or whatever, and that I would be guaranteed somewhere else after that lease was up."

Under HAP, the local authority has shifted responsibility for finding accommodation in the private rental sector to tenants. Although eligible for HAP, families find it extremely difficult to compete for limited and increasingly expensive private rental accommodation. The mothers describe the impact of this on their well-being as "soul-destroying": "you can only go on so many viewings before your mental health is affected. It knocks you back every time you go see a place and you aren’t successful." 

We see HAP as part of longer term processes marketising and undermining social housing provision. Social housing is not seen and provided as a human and social right to a secure home and it is instead reconstituted as a temporary "support". Consistent with other neoliberal policies, access and entitlement is restricted. Further, because HAP has been designated as social housing, HAP tenants are removed from social housing waiting lists. The 2016 housing waiting list of 92,000 households would increase to 128,000 with the inclusion of Rental Accommodation Scheme (RAS) and HAP recipients. Thus HAP has a political use, masking the real scale of the housing crisis.

From RTÉ Radio One's Today With Sean O'Rourke, Mary Murphy discusses how family hubs could be "the next Direct Provision"

The experiences of trying to compete for HAP funded private sector accommodation has to be understood in the context of pressures of living in emergency homeless accommodation including family hubs. As our openig quote demonstrates, these hubs negatively affect the well-being of the parents and children and parents report feeling "demeaned" and being "in prison." 

Our research highlights the gendered nature of the impact of family homelessness and how women manage the reality of homelessness. The majority (67 percent) of homeless families are headed by female lone parents who already suffered from particularly harsh austerity cuts to social supports and new workfare policies. Families placed their children’s needs at the centre of decisions and lone parents saw accessing housing close to family and community networks as vital to children’s well-being. This gendered and emotional perspective is often ignored by policy makers. 

This is nothing new and follows a long Irish history of social violence inflicted on poor mothers and their children who were made invisible, incarcerated and excluded from society. Family hubs are being legitimated as a suitable response because they are primarily for poor lone parents who require structure. This is in line with historical oppression and abuse of single mothers, austerity and marketisation continue in other forms of gendered discrimination.

The local authority has shifted responsibility for finding accommodation in the private rental sector to tenants

Marketisation places the blame on the homeless as they are made responsible for failure to compete in the market. In contrast, a rights-based approach would focus on state obligations to fullfill the right to housing. That the Rebuilding Ireland plan does not once mention the right to housing is consistent with the absence of right to housing in the Irish constitution and wider legislation. Ultimately, as the research recommends, solving the family homelessness crisis requires the building of homes by the government and implementing the right to housing, rather than extending family hubs and HAP. 

This research has had an impact achieving political, policy and media interest. It has also garnered interest from European academic researchers and NGOs. This shows the importance of participation of those suffering exclusion in research and policy making and demonstrates how research can contribute to changing and challenging structures that create inequalities

Dr Rory Hearne is a postdoctoral researcher at the Social Sciences Institute at Maynooth University. Dr Mary Murphy is a lecturer in Irish Politics and Society in the Department of Sociology at Maynooth University. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ