Dublin, Ireland – As the Irish go to the polls, the face of Ireland’s prime minister smiles down upon them from a poster at Mountjoy Street, a beaten row of Georgian redbrick and council houses on Dublin’s north side.
“Let’s keep the recovery going,” he urges.
But for eight-year-old Molly Rose Richardson, today is not about the vote. It is the day her family has been told to pack their things and vacate their rooms, along with 13 other homeless families.
“I don’t want to leave. All my friends are there,” Molly told her mother, Aisling Kenny, the day before, staring defiantly from behind pink-rimmed glasses. “Even though we’re not allowed to play with each other, because of the rules.”
The family has been living in emergency accommodation in Mountjoy Street for the past nine months, in buildings privately owned but used by the city council to house people temporarily.
On the eve of the election, Molly sat on the floor of the grey-carpeted lobby outside a Dublin City Council office, where her parents and a few other families had come to make a stand.
In their hands they held pieces of paper printed with their demands: “Protected housing rights, tenancy protection and the safety of a home.”
They wanted to stay where they were or be given more permanent options, not shifted to a single hotel room for weeks, or placed in other emergency accommodation.
“I know beggars can’t be choosers,” said one of the women. “But we have rights.”
Rents have been skyrocketing in Dublin, where tech giants such as Google and Facebook now have headquarters. After a crippling recession and harsh austerity measures, people are eager for signs of recovery, some buoyed by talk of a “Celtic Phoenix”.
But volunteers providing support to Dublin’s homeless speak of people sleeping in tents in parks, living in cars and dying of cold on the streets.
A shortage of affordable housing is forcing a record number of families on to the streets. In January alone, 134 families became homeless in Dublin, including 269 children, an increase of 148 percent from that time last year and the highest monthly rise in homelessness ever.
Focus Ireland, an agency working with homeless families in Dublin, has reported that the “vast majority of these families are becoming homeless due to economic factors,” although Paudie Coffey, the minister for housing, said that “relationship breakdown” was the leading cause “and not issues in the private rented sector”.
Homelessness – ‘I thought it would never happen to me’
Molly’s mother, Aisling, a 32-year-old with three children, had been renting for nearly a decade with her partner in north Dublin. For five years they had lived in a modest house in Coolock, where she grew up.
She worked nights with a cleaning company sometimes. Her partner had a job in a supermarket, but fell ill and ended up unemployed for more than a year as a result.
In 2014, the landlord decided to sell the house. He gave the family notice just a few weeks before Christmas.
“The tree was already up,” Aisling remembers. “We stuck it out in the house until the owners were knocking on the doors. We tried to find another place but the rents were too high.”
The city council advised them to register as homeless.
“I knew of people it had happened to,” she says of becoming homeless. “But I thought, it will never happen to me.”
At Mountjoy Street, they settled in and started to find their feet again. Her partner started working as a gardener through a back-to-work scheme.
Then, last Thursday, representatives for the council knocked on her door at 8.30am and told her they would have to leave the accommodation the next week.
From the window of their room, they can see a crane poking out of the side of a derelict, boarded-up building across the street.
“My ma doesn’t care if it’s a boarded-up house or what, there are lots of them houses in Dublin,” says Molly. “She would clean it and make it her own. She just needs somewhere.”
In the windows of homes a few doors down, posters for Sinn Fein and left-wing independent candidates are stuck next to messages of solidarity. “I support the Mountjoy Street families facing eviction,” they declare.
‘Whose economic recovery?’
Teresa, a 56-year-old mother of seven who has lived for more than 30 years in council housing nearby, has lost faith in a government she believes has turned its back on a crisis.
Two of her daughters are homeless and waiting for housing.
“One was told two days ago that she wouldn’t be entitled to be housed for another two years,” she says. “What am I meant to do when I find [her] dead?”
Her two sons have also struggled to find housing, “because rents are too high”. A five-minute walk away, a basic two-room apartment is being advertised for €1,600 (around $1,766) a month.
Séamus Farrell, a 24-year-old volunteer with the Irish Housing Network, a nationwide coalition supporting the families, blames the government’s reliance on public-private deals to provide such accommodation.
“Instead of building social housing, [the government] is pushing people into rentals, which is leading to [more] evictions,” he says. “It’s an affordability crisis. You need to build affordable houses for people.”
According to a statement by Fine Gael, the senior partner in Ireland’s ruling coalition, more than 13,000 new social housing units were delivered in 2015 and the government has committed to 500 “rapid-delivery housing” units this year for Dublin families currently in emergency accommodation.
But privately owned apartments, houses and B&Bs are still being sourced to provide emergency accommodation, which in the case of Mountjoy Street has ended with families such as Aisling’s unsure where they will be living on election day.
The council confirmed that the buildings on Mountjoy Street were no longer available because “the commercial contractual arrangements with the private landlord have ceased”.
While parties such as People Before Profit and Sinn Fein Ireland, as well as several independent candidates, have publicly supported the families, Fine Gael’s Coffey has warned that other parties are trying to “politically exploit” the situation of homeless families.
When asked what party she would be voting for, Aisling shakes her head. “We’re not allowed to vote,” she says. Like many, she thinks that because she is homeless, she isn’t allowed to register.
Who did she vote for in the past, when she had a home? “Fine Gael,” she sighs.
“It makes me feel sick, the way they speak about this so-called recovery,” she says. “Who’s recovering? Not me.”