Torontoist posts: Homeless services under pressure, health cuts and urban isolation


Vulnerable seniors. A week after this article was posted a City of Toronto report found that the senior homeless population had doubled in four years. Worrying.

Homeless Youth:

Health cuts:


Migrant workers helped fuel the Celtic Tiger. Now they’ve been thrown on the scrapheap.

The labour of Eastern European workers helped fuel the Celtic Tiger. Now they have been thrown on the scrapheap.

On May 1, 2004, Ireland opened its arms — and border — to floods of workers from the European Union accession states following the fifth enlargement of the EU.

They were economic migrants from countries such as Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and they became our bricklayers, carpenters,  cleaners, pub workers and waiters. Now, those very same people make up a significant cohort of our homeless population: destitute, with their dreams of a new life in Ireland in tatters.

In prosperous times, no-one considered the consequences of signing these people up for the long term. And while some EU member states placed temporary restrictions on the rights of eastern European workers, Ireland did not. In the midst of a building boom, there were jobs for everybody in Ireland Inc, and the Poles in particular came in their droves.

Now, with the Celtic Tiger’s roar long silenced, and a 14% unemployment rate, many are surplus to requirements. The state, by enforcing draconian welfare rules, and paying for flights home for those who have fallen on hard times has made its position clear: You can now go home, thank you very much.

Though no national figures are available showing the number of destitute migrants, it is safe to say the figure runs into the hundreds.

All came here to work, most to save money for a better life, or to send it home. Many who believed they were paying taxes, and so would have some form of social protection, later found out employers were not paying their PRSI. And even for those who were, there is no guarantee of getting any form of benefit due to a clause called the habitual residence condition (HRC), designed to deny welfare payments to people who are not Irish.

Southern president of the St Vincent de Paul, Brendan Dempsey, maintains there is pressure not to feed or shelter Eastern Europeans.

“We are housing destitute migrants, though I think the state would prefer if we did not,” he says. “The state advertised for them to come here in the good times, they worked and paid taxes and now they are not entitled to anything.

“We have about 33 or 34 of them here in Cork City. It has been said to me by state employees: Do not feed or house them, then they will go home.”

On a European level, there has long been concern that workers from less well-off EU countries moving to wealthier ones would be victims of “social dumping”, whereby migrant workers would not receive the same conditions, including pay, as national workers.

This has come to pass in Ireland, and Brendan and others who work with migrants tell stories of
exploitation and unfair treatment. Some employers do not want to pay migrants the minimum wage and, if challenged, tell workers to take it or leave it.

Even during the good times, many were not paid properly for work, and now, some are being not paid at all, driving them into debt.

“Patrick”, 56, came to Ireland in the very month that Ireland opened its borders.

“The Polish government was flying home from Ireland, I was flying in,” he says. “I worked for eight months straight — with just three days off — on Cork Airport. I was paying taxes and working legally, just like anyone else.”

Speaking through an interpreter, he explains that he first began working in construction and “hoped” his employer was paying PRSI on his behalf, but his English was bad, so he did not know. He worked in Mallow for six months, then at Fota House. As the building boom came to an end, he began working for small-scale builders, but whenever he asked about documentation he would get sacked.

Patrick registered himself as self-employed and, for two years, he has been trying to work for himself. He maintains he is owed more than 1,500 from one job, as well as other smaller amounts. “I have no record and so have no chance to get it back. My English is not good and people take advantage of that.”

Stoic, humble, and grateful for the help he has received, Patrick is finding it tough being homeless.

A talented carpenter and craftsman, all he wants is to work, and is studying to improve his English.

“I invested all my money into my tools to get better, but without work and not getting paid for work, it became very difficult.”

He says he feels “very upset” that he has become homeless.

“I am a new homeless person, so it is very hard to deal with. I have always worked and never had to rely on charity.”

He has been living in a Simon shelter in Cork for about a month.

“People at the hostel have a lot of problems,” he says. “I am shocked by the drinking and the problems, but they do want to change, it’s just so difficult to get out.”

Brendan Dempsey sees men like Patrick every day, though often they do not have the drive he does to change his life. In the SVP’s hostel, they gather by night, after spending the day out and about, some looking for work, others just hanging around.

They all worked in the good times, and do not want to go home now, as is their right, and the SVP is refusing to put people out on the street despite signals that they should not assist them. Some men, however, have taken to drinking heavily and are caught in a cycle of poverty and apathy.

“They tend to cling together because they can’t speak English. And they are living alongside the high-support people we deal with, who don’t know how to interact with them so that increases their isolation.”

One man in the hostel had been living in a tent under a flyover on the outskirts of Cork City.

Although he was working, he could not afford to rent somewhere to live. The SVP took him in and he is living there now until he gets back on his feet. There is another Polish man who has been sleeping in a church doorway in Cork for weeks but does not seem to want any help.

“We offered him a bed in the hostel but he doesn’t want to come in,” says Brendan. “For some reason, he has a fear of it and won’t engage with us. But the priests over there are minding him and feeding him. Again, he had years of work in this country is not entitled to anything now.”

Similarly, in Waterford, hostel manager Terence O’Neill says these people have been dumped out on the streets and left for charities such as the SVP to pick them up.

“We have a lot of Russians, Romanians here, it’s a real mixture, we had an Italian man recently too,” he says. “It really is terrible what is going on.

“There are language barriers and people don’t understand their rights, and this welfare clause, the HRC, is causing people to be homeless. It is a huge drain on us. We had a woman from Latvia who was working away, but cleaning chemicals she worked were getting to her so she had to take time off.

“She was not entitled to get any welfare payment, even though she has been living and working here and paying taxes, and she ended up getting evicted from her flat with her young child.”

The woman’s doctor eventually wrote a letter on her behalf and she managed to get an emergency payment. “Unfortunately people have little or no tolerance for these people,” says Terence. “We are subsidising the Government, people are being denied payments and we are picking up the slack.”

According to Terence, migrants often report being treated very badly by welfare officers. “It depends on who you get in Community Welfare Office, but one man told me he was not going back, he had been treated like a dog and was embarrassed — this was an educated man looking for work. People are treated like they are nothing. This is an attack on people, and we are left to pick up the pieces.”

Homeless services for migrant workers are dependent on their
immigration status, and national policy appears to ambiguous and ad-hoc outside of the capital. And while there are options for homelessmigrants in Dublin, they are limited, and there is a clear is a practice of separation from Irish homeless.

In Dublin, migrants are housed together, and there is also a “new communities unit” run by the department of Social Protection, for non-Irish and non-EU nationals, to assess eligibility for mainstream social welfare payments.

A spokesperson for the Dublin Region Homeless Executive said people who do not satisfy the HRC rule can still access emergency accommodation.

But while the powers that be maintain there is no overt policy to systematically move migrants out of Ireland, plans are afoot to try and relocate them home.

Jointly funded by Dublin City Council and the Mendicity Institute, about 20 Polish and Lithuanians in Dublin have been “earmarked” for a “reconnection initiative”.

Based on a successful model in Britain, the Barka project has seen 1,000 Eastern European migrants living on the streets of London return home.

In Dublin, the programme will run for six months with a view to broadening out if it is successful.

Charles Richards of the Mendicity Institute maintains at least 70 Eastern Europeans are utterly destitute on the streets of Dublin.

He said several of them have died in the past few years: one was knocked down by a bus while drunk, another died of liver damage. “They drink cheap Polish vodka, which is like window cleaner,” he said. “When they  initially come to us they are positive and are applying for jobs but gradually they become more and more passive, lose their health, their teeth start to rot and they are sucked into the street life.”

In Cork, Voyteck Bialek, the chairman of a voluntary Polish support and integration centre, Together-Razem, hopes to get funding for a similar initiative.

But, he says, people cannot be forced to leave Ireland it they do not want to. “The person has to want to go home,” he says. “I know of a lot of people who have moved back, but some can’t because there is nothing for them.

“If there are opportunities for some to go home, it should be done in a professional way, through reconnection programmes. It is a long process. You need to find out if there are family members, jobs, a future. You can’t just send them back to end up back on the streets over there.”

Voyteck says a lot of homeless organisations in Poland are run by church bodies and many do not want to go to those places. “There is a pride issue also. I know two cases where the person rings home and says they are still working and doing well but, in reality, they are homeless. Reconnecting people would have to be done in a very sensitive manner and it is a long process. People have to be asked, and they have to be willing to go.”


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