Threshold: The charity that makes people feel at home
In the first of our two-day series on housing charity, Threshold, Kelly O’Brien visits its office on South Mall. There, she finds caring and compassionate staff members helping people at risk of homelessness.
CAST your mind back to 1978. Patrick Hillery is the sixth President of Ireland, Jack Lynch is Taoiseach, and RTÉ Two has just been set up, kicking off with a live broadcast from the Cork Opera House.
It is also the year that a humble Blackrock priest set up a national housing charity to protect tenants, who had few rights.
Fr Donal O’Mahony, a former pupil of Rochestown College and a UCC graduate, was a late vocation. He was a sailor, and then a sports journalist, before joining the Capuchins in 1958.
Moving from Cork to Dublin, Fr O’Mahony quickly found himself working at the coalface of the country’s housing problem, and was appointed by the archbishop as chaplain to the flat-dwellers.
Appalled by the poor conditions in which many residents lived, Fr O’Mahony decided something needed to be done. That is how Threshold was born.
Over the course of the next 40 years, the charity grew exponentially, while retaining its ethos of housing as a human right.
Considering the current housing and homelessness crisis, its services are in demand more than ever before.
In the last two years, the charity’s Tenancy Protection Service has prevented 4,200 people from becoming homeless in Cork — 2,403 adults and 1,836 children.
Regina Baylor is the assistant manager of the service, which was set up in January, 2015.
“In the seven and a half years that I’ve worked with Threshold, 2016 was the year I’ve seen people under the most stress. They’re at their wit’s end. It’s the lack of supply of housing,” she said.
“People are under a lot of pressure. We’re worried for them. There’s enough stress in life, at the moment, trying to make ends meet, without them losing the roof over their head. If they go into the homeless system, they could be there for years.”
Regina says that the majority of people who use the service are, or were, working professionals. Nobody is immune to homelessness.
Most of the calls the service receives concern notices of eviction, and rent increases. However, it also deals with people in rent arrears, people who need general advice about housing, and anyone who needs to talk about their housing assistance payment, rent supplement, or receivership.
Upon initial contact — the service has a freephone number, 1800 454 454 and people can also call to the Threshold office, on South Mall — the urgency of the client’s case will be addressed.
If the case is more than a general query and the client wants Threshold involved, a meeting will be set up so that both parties can review the relevant documentation and the client can have their rights explained.
If necessary, Threshold may then advocate on behalf of the client, by mediating with the landlord, liaising with the client’s Department of Social Protection representative, if they have one, or by referring a case to the Residential Tenancies Board.
It’s important, says Regina, that Threshold workers remain calm.
“I completed four years in psychotherapy and I’ve also just finished a certified mediators’ course, so those are the skills you need with the landlords, because you can’t go in all guns blazing. You need to get the landlord on your side and work with them,” she said.
In the two years since the Tenancy Protection Service was set up, it has brought 145 cases to the Residential Tenancies Board.
“The client won the case in 65 of these, 27 were settled before the hearing, and in 21 cases the client withdrew their case when the landlord backed down,” said Regina.
“Some of the cases are still awaiting hearing, and, of all the cases, the client lost just eight of them.”
But while the service has undoubtedly had its successes, Regina said something urgently needs to be done to fix the problems that put people at risk of homelessness.
“I don’t see any improvements being made that will affect the immediate future,” she said.
“Having said that, I do have a lot of faith in Housing Minister Simon Coveney, if he can get other people on board. He has great ideas. He thinks outside the box, which is great to see. But he will need support. He can’t do it all by himself.”
In addition to the Tenancy Protection Service, Threshold also runs a Tenancy Advisory Service, which deals with issues surrounding standards, repairs, and deposit retention.
Clients include people who are having issues with their landlords, in relation to the standard of their home, or those who have moved out of accommodation and are finding it difficult to get their deposit back from their previous landlord.
In the last two years, 860 people have contacted the service about standards and repairs in their home. That’s 430 people each year.
While that statistic has stayed the same, the amount of people reporting difficulty with getting their deposit back has decreased.
In 2015 there were 310 such cases, while last year there were 270.
Edel Conlon, the assistant manager of the Tenancy Advisory Service, said this is, however, largely down to the fact that there wasn’t much movement in the housing market last year.
Finding alternative accommodation has been a huge difficultly, due to the lack of supply, so more people are trying their best to stay in the homes.
Another key service provided by Threshold is the access housing unit, where staff work with people currently experiencing homelessness.
They try and find accommodation for people, and support them to stay in accommodation once they find it.
More legislation is needed to ease the housing crisis
THERE have been many different names for the housing sector in Ireland over the last few years.
Some people call it the amateur sector, because most landlords are accidental landlords who have inherited a property. Others call it the forgotten sector, because it was relatively unregulated for such a long length of time.
Going forward, there are hopes that the sector can fashion a new nickname for itself — maybe a positive one this time.
According to Niall Horgan, regional manager of Threshold’s southern services, there are still gaps in legislation which need to be filled.
He would like to see a number of changes made in the coming months, namely the implementation of rent certainty, security of tenure an increase in rent supplement and housing assistance payment, the roll-out of a deposit retention scheme, and the strict enforcement of minimum housing standards.
“For us, it’s all about the tenants and saving them from becoming homeless. We’ve met with Housing Minister Simon Coveney a number of times and we’ve been highlighting the areas we think need to be addressed,” he said.
“At the moment, the housing sector is struggling — it can’t cope with the demand. That’s why we’re seeing incredibly inflated prices and a rise in homelessness. We’re seeing a type of homelessness now that we’ve never seen before, which is economic homelessness. People just can’t afford the rent.”
He said the lack of supply has been driving up the market rent and, while rent certainty would help, this problem can only truly be solved by bringing more accommodation on stream.
“A number of developers have said, and I think it’s a good point, that the government could, overnight if it wanted to, just reduce the VAT on building costs and that would change the situation overnight and they’d be building houses,” said Niall.
“They did it with the tourism sector — they reduced the VAT.”
It’s certainly something they could do immediately to kick-start building, but they’re choosing to do it very indirectly.”
He said, however, that Housing Minister Coveney has made a number of positive announcements recently, and is hopeful he will bring real change to the sector.
“He strikes me as a very authentic person and I think he means what he says. I wouldn’t agree with some of his ideological positions… I don’t think the free market sorts itself out. I think government is there to regulate the market.
“But I think Minister Coveney has got a good grasp of the issues.
“He is somebody that listens, even though he has his own ideas and opinions, he is somebody that’s open to suggestions as well and open to solutions. I’m hopeful.”
Compassion is key in helping people
IN order to help people who are at risk of homelessness, and therefore extremely vulnerable, you need compassion and competency, according to Niall Horgan, regional manager of Threshold’s southern services.
“When people come to us, they want solutions to their problems. After that, it’s about how we deliver those solutions — with empathy and compassion. A lot of people come to us desperate, and there are a lot of people who are very vulnerable,” he explained.
“You have non nationals, people with mental health problems, people with addiction issues, and then there are people in financial crisis, or people who have never been in this situation before but find themselves here due to various reasons like relationship breakdown. Homelessness, or the threat of homelessness, can happen to anyone these days.”
Threshold does its best to reassure people, said Niall, but steers clear of babysitting them. Instead, the charity, in most cases, tries to empower people to deal with the situation themselves.
“When we get a call, we assess from what a person is saying and how they’re saying it, if they’d be able to navigate the website. So we do signpost a lot of people to the website and guide them through that,” he said.
“But it’s when people feel vulnerable, or when they feel they need more support, then the advice can become more extensive and then it goes to the point of what we call advocacy… and then we’re representing the person, we’re ringing landlords.”
In the current housing and homelessness crisis, where clients in need are calling Threshold and bursting into tears over the phone on a daily basis, this can be a tough task for the staff members.
“At times it’s very pressurised and it’s not easy when you have phone call after phone call from people who are desperate and facing homelessness… or has a landlord threatening to change the locks, or indeed a landlord who has changed the locks,” said Niall.
“That’s very stressful for staff. You get situations like that and no matter how well equipped you are to deal with them, it’s hard. It’s my job to make sure the staff have all the resources they need.”