More people than ever before are sleeping rough in Galway city

The number of people sleeping rough in the city is at its highest ever with up to 50 men and women lying in doorways at night. The "extraordinary" deterioration in the homelessness crisis has led to this "unprecedented" situation, according to Martin O'Connor, the assistant CEO of COPE Galway which provides emergency accommodation and day services for the homeless.

This is the other face of Galway, he says, which is becoming increasingly visible as the city gears up for the multi million euro Galway Racing Festival which kicks off next week.

“The most obvious manifestation of the crisis is the numbers of people who can be seen bedding down in shop doorways in the city centre at night time," he outlines. "I have been involved in this area for 20 years and this number is by far the highest I have seen."

COPE operates a street outreach service from 6.30am to 8am two mornings a week. Its staff identify where people are sleeping rough and they then signpost them to the services available.

"There were 15 people rough sleeping on Monday night/Tuesday morning in the city centre but we sense that is on the low side," says Mr O'Connor. "At the beginning of July there were 37 men and six women rough sleeping in the city centre and about six to eight more in outlying areas. As a worst case scenario there would be 50 people sleeping rough. Many of those would not be continually rough sleeping, it would be periodic.

"We are not seeing any particular age group, there would be some 18/19/20 year olds and some older people in their 50s and early 60s. There would be a number of people from Galway who would be eligible for services locally, then there would be another number from other parts of Ireland. They may be on a housing waiting list in a different town or city. “

The third broad cohort do not have habitual residency status in the city and are economic migrants. We have seen an increase in that group, from the end of April there have been a consistent number of those - 10 to 15. They are not eligible for State support and we have worked with some of them to have them repatriated to their countries of origin. These would be predominantly Roma and Romanian people."

While rough sleeping has not been a prominent characteristic of the city - there have only been pockets of it - this landscape has changed in the past 18 months, he says.

"In terms of the indigenous population there may be an episode of rough sleeping but it tends to be shortlived. One of the characteristics across all age groups, maybe with the exception of the economic migrants, is that many have poor mental health or are struggling with addictions. There is no typical rough sleeper, the situation is as individual as the individual themselves. But what is very noticeable is that the numbers of rough sleepers are much higher.

"For the past 11 winters we have operated a Cold Weather Response initiative whereby we provide an additional 14 beds for men - traditionally we have capacity for women - in portocabins in the daycare centre in Seamus Quirke Road from November to April. We are already planning for winter, that's our challenge, and there will be even more people this winter."

Mr O'Connor says there are a "proportion" of homeless people who opt to sleep rough because they are not comfortable in a hostel setting. "There may be a history of abuse or mental health difficulties and the options available to them are not suitable to their needs. They may intermittently engage with services on the streets but they won't stay engaged because the current homeless services setting does not work for them."

But while sleeping in a doorway in the city may seem safer than sleeping rough in an outlying area there are still dangers facing those who have no option but to sleep outdoors.

""We come across incidents where people are assaulted, threatened and harrassed," says Mr O'Connor. "There is a vulnerablity unfortunately, particularly around addictions, they may have drug debts, for example."

As the city's homeless crisis deepens the situation is becoming more visible and contrasts sharply with the other side of Galway and the revelry surrounding the various festivals.

"There is a huge contrast, more so than in the past, with the Arts Festival and Race Week."

There are sbout 50 homeless families, including up to 100 children, and 45 single person households in emergency accommodation in the city on any given night, according to the assistant CEO.

"Most people in our community don't realise there are so many people, families and single person households, trapped in emergency accommodation for weeks and months at a time as they cannot find and secure housing."

Mr O’Connor went on to point out that homeless services in the city are stretched to breaking point and that there are "very real concerns" about the coming autumn and winter period and how the city can address this situation.

"There is a lot of really good work happening in terms of intervening early to help prevent someone becoming homeless and there is a steady stream of allocations of social housing, but it feels that this is hardly making a dent on the large numbers coming through our doors."

COPE Galway has written to the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Refor Paschal Donohoe TD urging him to tackle the current homeless crisis as his number one priority in framing Budget 2018.

"COPE Galway is calling on Minister Donohoe and his colleagues in Government to take whatever measures are necessary to build additional social housing, including increasing the capital budget provision and both resourcing and supporting local housing authorities and approved housing bodies to build this housing."

It is also calling for further measures to be taken to support households which are homeless or at risk of homelessness to enable them to compete in the private rental housing market.

They are calling for increases in the maximum cap limits for the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP ) scheme to correspond to market rent levels and for the expansion to Galway of the Homeless HAP scheme which allows for up to a 50 per cent uplift on these limits for homeless households.

Shortage of supply of housing generally in Galway and, in particular, the shortage of supply of social housing, is indisputable at this point and the only way that this can be addressed is through the building of more housing," states Mr O'Connor.

“We know that there are a range of challenges and obstacles that have to be overcome to bring this necessary additional social housing on stream but ways have to be found to overcome these."

COPE Galway also highlights the need for additional resources to respond to the immediate needs of people in terms of emergency accommodation and to provide the necessary support to people moving out of homelessness, in particular those with higher support needs.

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