Unprecedented demand resulting from the housing crisis has led a local homeless charity to say it cannot go ahead with a proposal to close emergency accommodation services in Athlone and transfer to a new facility in Tullamore.
“At the moment we are absolutely overwhelmed with the demand for our services,” said Tony O’Riordan, CEO of the Midland Simon Community.
“Due to the level of calls coming to us, we need more services and more housing for people. We are not able to meet the demand that is there.”
Mr O’Riordan said the relatively new problem of rough sleepers in Westmeath was on the rise, with a new outreach service run by Midlands Simon seeing 29 rough sleepers in the county over the past three last months of 2021.
“We stand by these numbers because we only count people we meet ourselves. Unfortunately, the perception is that rough sleeping is a problem confined to large urban areas,” Mr O said. ‘Riordan.
“We never would have seen this as a problem when Midlands Simon started (in 2004), but in recent years it has become more of a problem.”
Since 2009 Midlands Simon has operated a six person emergency accommodation unit on Ballymahon Road in Athlone. More recently, she acquired three apartments in town to use as part of her service.
With fellow homeless charity Sophia Housing, he is moving forward with plans to convert Clonamore House, a former hotel in Tullamore, into a serviced emergency accommodation facility for 17 residents.
A December opening date has been penciled in for the Tullamore facility.
A merger of emergency accommodation in Athlone and Tullamore into a single facility in the county town of Offaly was recommended in a 2018 report on behalf of the Midlands Joint Homelessness Consultative Forum.
Westmeath County Council CEO Pat Gallagher has also signaled in recent years that Midlands Simon would “transfer existing homeless services in Tullamore and Athlone to (Clonamore House), with additional capacity”.
However, Mr O’Riordan, co-CEO of Midlands Simon and Sophia Housing, told the Westmeath Independent that the closure of emergency accommodation in Athlone was not on the agenda.
He said the problem of rough sleepers in the Midlands hadn’t gotten much media attention, and that it was happening because of crippling housing shortages and expensive rents.
“If we try to help someone to rent accommodation in Athlone or Mullingar, and they receive a housing assistance payment (HAP), they would still be hundreds of euros short of finding affordable accommodation .
“The HAP payment has been criticized, but even if you were to accept it as a good faith intervention, it does not even reach what is available in the market when trying to rent places for an average of around 1 €100.”
He said Midlands Simon continued to have a good working relationship with Westmeath County Council, but the homelessness crisis was so deep that it could not be solved by any organization.
“This is a major structural problem that will only be solved by massive investments from the State in which all the rigors of the State are put to work to accelerate the delivery of social housing”, he added. he commented.
Asked if there were any signs that the supply of new housing was slowly increasing, Mr O’Riordan said he had no real evidence of this so far.
“We want to stay positive, but we don’t see any signs that this (crisis) is going to ease or subside for a while. That’s why we would be looking to increase what we do at Athlone, rather than decrease it. .
He said that after the opening of Clonamore House in Tullamore, Midlands Simon would continue to use the Ballymahon Road unit in Athlone for emergency accommodation.
“Whether we increase the number of units there or keep it as it is…how we configure it hasn’t been decided yet. But we just have to keep the services open,” he said. he declares.
Additionally, he said the three flats that Midlands Simon now also used as emergency accommodation in Athlone would remain in use.
“These apartments are still not close to what we need to do. They will continue and we are looking for more,” he said.
Figures provided by Mr O’Riordan showed that in addition to the 29 rough sleepers that Midlands Simon’s ‘out of hours’ service recorded in Westmeath in the last quarter of last year, the service met 27 other people who were rough sleepers elsewhere in the Region.
Midlands Simon and Sophia recently launched a tender for construction work to convert Clonamore House from a hotel into emergency accommodation.
The facility has been described as “the first of its kind” in Ireland, and there are plans to have a team of trained social workers on site to provide support to the 17 residents 24/7.