In conversation with Wayne Stanley of the Simon Communities Ireland

In this Q&A, we chat with Wayne Stanley, Head of Policy and Communication for Simon Communities Ireland about the recent Simon Week 2022 conference and their call for a crisis response to homelessness.

Following the 2022 Simon Week on September 26th, LGIU’s Thomas Lynch is In Conversation with Wayne Stanley, Head of Policy and Communication for Simon Communities Ireland.

The Simon Communities are a network of eight local communities providing homelessness services across Ireland. Simon Week 2022 calls for a crisis response to homelessness and presents solutions through the 166,000 vacant homes across the country.

Could you start by just telling us a bit about your role and what you do at the Simon Communities?

My name is Wayne Stanley, and I am head of Policy and Communications and Executive Lead in the Simon Communities of Ireland, which is a national federation of Simon Communities across Ireland. With communities in Cork, Dublin, Dundalk, Galway, the Midlands, the Midwest, the North West and the South East. The Simon Communities of Ireland provides support in areas such as fundraising and a national voice for the communities.

All of the Simon communities are community-led organisations, often starting from universities. Some communities are newer, but all are community linked, with the national level involving shared services ideas around policy and some fundraising. That is what Simon Communities Ireland does. My job is to lead, particularly in the policy area.

Organisationally, I think it would be helpful to hear what policy goals you want to deliver in 2022/2023, and what role you see for local government in this?

The first thing to say is that Simon communities work closely and collaboratively with local authorities. This relationship has become closer and more collaborative and more client-focused since Covid. We had worked together before, but Covid brought out the best in these relationships, with an immediate, urgent and shared common goal really enhancing those relationships.

In terms of policy goals, the overarching policy of all the communities is ending homelessness, whether that be the person in front of us or seeking the local and national policy change that will prevent people coming into homelessness or support people to move on. We are big proponents of housing first, and to implement this, we need local authorities. We want to see this ramped up and those kinds of housing-led policies expanded so people can move on to secure homes. On the other side of the equation, we want to see a greater focus on preventative measures to ensure that where we can, we are stopping homelessness before it starts.

That said, none of this works unless we have the housing. We are in the midst of a chronic housing crisis at the moment. We do a quarterly report ‘Locked Out’, where we look at a snapshot of the private rental market across Ireland and track what is available. Very significantly, we are seeing the number of people in homelessness going up because of a shortage of supply, rent has become unaffordable, they enter homeless emergency accommodation, and they don’t have the resources to get themselves out. At the same time, we don’t have the stock of public housing to alleviate those issues in the private rental market.

So our big focus this year and next year has been on vacant properties. Ireland has a high number of vacancies in our towns and cities, and we really think that this is an opportunity. The common refrain is that there is nothing easily done in housing. But looking in the short term, the only potential for quick gains are in vacancies that can move us beyond the crisis situation we are in.

That’s really interesting to hear. There has undoubtedly been an uptake in local authorities utilising Compulsory Purchase Orders.

That has been used effectively in some local authorities, but others steer away from it. The figures suggest that there is enough supply to mean that CPO is not necessarily where local authorities need to go. As an ultimate response, CPO is where we end up. But there is probably a lot of leverage in just encouraging property owners to understand better the potential of engaging with local authorities and housing bodies. We can try to get those properties back into use, and the owners can do social good with them while getting some rent out of it for themselves. If they do lease it long-term to a local authority, they don’t have to become landlords in the same way by letting out the property. By leasing to a local authority, the property owners gain rent without the same level of landlord responsibilities.

Looking back to last year, organisationally, can you tell us what you are most proud of from 2021?

From 2021, that feels like a long time ago. Across the Simon communities, one of the things that really stands out is how front-line staff stepped up. At the start of the pandemic, when we didn’t know the impact, staff were there every day and ensured people were kept safe. The level of mortality in a vulnerable population in shelters was low. Many communities reported no cases in their services for a long time. I think over the last couple of years, that has been a huge achievement and perhaps has gone under recognised purely because they were so successful that the success isn’t seen.

In terms of policy, it has been a challenging period. Over the pandemic period, there was a moratorium on evictions and a real focus on getting people out of homelessness and some increased capacity from short-term lets being empty with those being reallocated to those in housing need. We saw a significant fall in family homelessness till mid-2021 when those moratoriums were lifted. Since then, we have seen a huge rise in homelessness. So it is hard to talk of successes when homelessness has risen from 7,500 to 10,500 in the space of a year.

But there is a youth homeless strategy in the coming months that the Simon Communities has inputted into, and as a sector, we hope that it will have a positive impact. We had the passage of the Simon Homeless prevention bill in the Irish Parliament. Even if it doesn’t pass, we have a commitment from the government that they will take up the bill’s provisions and implement them at the local level. I would add here a shared success in 2021, the Irish government signed the Lisbon declaration, which set up the European Platform on ending homelessness. Our colleagues in FEANTSA (European Federation of Homeless service providers) played a significant role in seeing the Declaration developed, and locally the Irish membership actively encouraged the Irish government to sign and play an active role in the platform. While I think we were pushing an open door to some degree, I do think we had some influence.

You touched upon the impact of the pandemic in the last few responses. Reflecting on Ireland’s overall experience with the pandemic, what did you identify as key lessons for homelessness in Ireland?

What stood out was the client-centred nature of the provision. We actually treated homelessness as a crisis, albeit in the context of it being a health crisis of the pandemic. We looked at every person in homelessness and asked what does this person need and when they found they needed their own space, they provided that. There were more homes provided, and we got people out of homelessness. There was a real client centre focus. Even when a person was caught in addiction, there was a focus on getting access to different treatments. We commissioned a report on the response to Covid from colleagues at University Cork College. What they noted was how the initial response identified that what worked well was the client experience.

So the learnings were a strong client-centred approach, real strong partnerships and inclusion from the health service, local authorities and service providers coming together to see what the people needed and how we were going to protect them. That real client-centred approach was critical, and that was a huge learning. We found that local authorities are not set up to deal with things like homelessness. They are set up to administrator policy, and that is fine. In a normal engagement, a set system that is clear and transparent and set out is the best way to administer a service. When you have someone in a crisis you need to look at the circumstances of how we manage that. Ideas like moral hazards are not useful. They throw up barriers to providing people with the support they need. Covid meant those barriers came down, and people were quickly assessed and supported and moved on and provided with the support they needed. That is really how you tackle homelessness.

The other side of this is that the best policies in the world and the most compassionate staff means this does not work with supply housing. The answer to homelessness is housing. But housing plus, with access to these services.

(Interview continues below)

Swift read: All in the numbers: using evidence and data to inform homelessness prevention

This briefing provides background and context to the Centre for Homelessness Impact’s End It With Evidence campaign, which aims to use the opportunity presented by the pandemic to “mobilise a growing chorus of ‘what works’ champions” so that we can end homelessness effectively, and for good, by putting in place sustainable and evidence-led strategies. Read here.

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It’s interesting to hear your thoughts on the pandemic’s impact on homelessness. At the recent conference itself, what did you find were the key takeaways?

We went in with the hypothesis that more could be done on vacancy, and we came away with this hypothesis affirmed. Professor Alan Barrett provided the opening system and discussed the broad economic context and the positives and negatives going forward. Then we heard from the different Simon Communities across the country about increasing homelessness, increasing hidden homelessness and the real slowing down in the move on into the private rental market. So it’s clear we need more affordable accommodation.

We also saw that in Ireland, the national and local government policy sphere understood that housing is the answer to homelessness. There is a housing first strategy rolled out, and of course, we saw it should be more ambitious, but it is still there and being rolled out.

On the front line, the support infrastructure is there. If we get the housing right, we could make real in-roads on homelessness. What we need to make sure is that we protect that infrastructure and that it does not get undermined. We are seeing on the frontline as we move into a bleak winter that homelessness will continue, and there is a real trauma of crossing the threshold into the homeless service. No matter how good your services are, crossing the threshold of a homeless service is a trauma. If you cannot move on, there is a trauma upon trauma that can spiral into long-term homelessness relatively quickly. But, if we have move-on options, we can do more,

On the front line, the Simon Communities across Ireland have staff coming in every day who manage the trauma and comfort people and make them aware of their options. There are not a lot of roads out for those in homelessness at the moment. We are going to lose people from the emotional toll of dealing with that and supporting that trauma.

Now, the point to make is that the first priority of the Simon Communities is always supporting the person in front of them, but if we continue as we are, we will erode our infrastructure. So the answer is getting housing on stream. That is why we are focusing on vacancies; it provides us options to get things moving, meaning we can have a positive impact.

Going back to the conference, we had a panel on vacancies. We heard from Tom Gilligan, head of services at Mayo County Council, and Mayo is doing really good stuff around vacant properties. It shows that if there are champions for it, you can do a lot of good things. The other panellist was Alison Harvey, Planning Officer at the Heritage Council. She is doing health checks across towns and finding a high level of vacancy. She feels there is scope, so this reaffirms our belief that those 166 000 vacant properties can be put to good use. Whilst some people may push back, there is a clear scope to use these properties. We only need 5000 of those vacant properties a year, that is 3%. So the conference panel, in my view, set out that it is doable to use Ireland’s vacant properties to tackle homelessness.

As an organisation, how have you noticed changed working cultures since the pandemic?

In terms of the conference, I was much more nervous. In terms of working culture, we work a 5-day week, with 3 days in the office and 2 days at home, so the work-life balance is improving. What I am getting back from the front-line experience from Simon Communities is being able to do more informal stuff with service users and staff. I think now that it is happening again, and the Head of Galway Simon remarked that after an event, staff reported they didn’t realise how much they needed that personal connection.

Because there is that level of trauma from homelessness numbers increasing, having human reconnection and the support of colleagues is really important. You can do a lot on Zoom, but you need those quiet moments over coffee where you learn or share an experience, and you learn how they dealt with it. It is a practical thing. You don’t have to write an agenda for the breakroom. You just talk about what is at the top of your mind, and if you do that on a regular basis you have a really invaluable connective learning process. This is particularly important to service users who are presenting to staff who have had a chance to work in that way. Zoom is great, but we want to hold onto a connective element as well.

One final question, I know the recent budget will have taken a lot of your time, but from an organisation standpoint what were the key takeaways of the 2023 budget?

On vacancy, there was the introduction of a vacant property tax. This is the first time it has been brought in. It was brought in at a low level, so we worry it might not have the same transformative impact that we aspire for, but it was a paradigm shift.

This budget was very much about the cost of living crisis, and when you look at the economy on the whole, this budget and its short-term targeted measures will help a lot of people.

But if you take the perspective of someone in homelessness, this budget will help less. Their social welfare payment will have increased, but not with the rate of inflation, so they’ll be worse off, especially when we are looking at an anticipated 7% inflation next year.

For the Housing Assistance Payment, there was no increase in the rates. We already know that it is a payment from local authorities on local income and housing needs. A lot of people top-up above that, so they pay a 15% contribution to a local authority to pay their rent, but they are having to top up anything between 2,000-6,000 a year to pay additional rent. That is still going to happen, and they won’t get the tax credit.

If you do the analysis for those on the sharp end of the housing system and at risk of homelessness, they will get the targeted short-term measures, but there is no structural change in terms of support. We can only see a limited impact, which means homelessness will continue to grow.

Find out more about The Simon Communities and the work they are doing all year round here.

Related LGIU content

Scotland ending homelessness together: A call for action

Ending rough sleeping: the Kerslake Commission on homelessness

Swift read: All in the numbers: using evidence and data to inform homelessness prevention

Ending homelessness with evidence: outcomes from LGIU and CHI’s panel discussion