An Irish housing association will be forced to evict its most vulnerable tenants as Government funding cuts axe vital support services.
As a result twelve Irish men who battled the most destructive of demons to turn their lives around face a worrying return to the ‘dark days’ of street homelessness, jail sentences and substance abuse.
All are supported tenants of Innisfree Housing Association – the Irish organisation which pulled them from park benches, prisons and pubs and put a roof over their heads – who will be forced to leave their rooms in April due to the Government funding cut.
With no exit strategy currently in place most have no idea where they will end up when the door is closed on the houses they have called home for up to two years, while some worry they will fall back into bad habits and hard times once again.
We met the Innisfree team and tenants at one of the Ealing houses affected this week, to learn exactly what the drastic cuts will mean for them and the Irish community in general.
Saoirse Keating is a Housing Support Officer with Innisfree. “It’s been a shock and a very sad realisation that the funding will not be renewed for Ealing,” she said.
“We have a lot of vulnerable Irish men here and have helping so many of them over the years but there will be a massive hole here in services now despite the need.
“The Irish are no longer seen as a priority here, but who is going to help the older Irish and the vulnerable Irish in Ealing and the surrounding areas to access services now?
“Some don’t have a roof over their head, never mind a bank account or a GP, who will help them?”
With Supported People Funding of £68,000 a year Innisfree has provided these men – and woman at times – a room and space to call their own and a sense of optimism for the future which many had never before experienced.
Practically, they assist and advocate for them when applying for welfare and benefits, they can help them set up bank accounts and register with GP surgeries and they are available 24/7 to assist if a tenant is in need.
Jim Sheeran is the Supported Housing Manager. He said: “The funding which has been axed allowed us to provide weekly support for our tenants in these schemes to ensure they are living in harmony and learning how to take steps towards moving into their own independent housing after a two-year period.
“Our support officers are on hand to make sure they have the skills to be able to manage a tenancy on their own with the support needs that they have.”
He added: “We are dealing with the most vulnerable people here – people who are homeless because of alcoholism, mental health issues, substance misuse. They might be survivors of institutional abuse or victims – male and female – of domestic abuse.
“We deal with some very serious, very complex cases and we have to explore the causes of their situation and get them to access the services that will help them manage their condition, work towards being able to manage a tenancy with these needs and minimise the impact that those needs will have had on any future return to homelessness.”
But the important work of the organisation has been unceremoniously stopped by a government decision to withdraw their Supported People Funding, and the 12 men currently living at their Ealing properties will bear the brunt of the blow.
Hugh, a 61-year-old Innisfree tenant for two years, said: “I have a long-term chronic illness and have moved from room to room in houses across London most of my time here. I was very isolated and my health was really deteriorating.”
He added: “I was at extremely low ebb when I came to Innisfree, but they have helped me bring about some changes in my life which have been very positive. Being here with Irish people has probably had the most striking effect on me. I am finally feeling like my life is straightened out. So it’s devastating to hear the service here will be cut, no-one can replace them and the important work that they do.”
Mr Sheeran and the Innisfree team believe their services are too valuable to be scrapped and hope their fundraising efforts will see them raise the £68,000 needed to continue the service for another year. He added: “The worst scenario after this cut is that our tenants will be back on the streets again. Where their mental and physical health will deteriorate and many will go back to using drink or drugs as a coping mechanism and falling into trouble. But with no one to support them out of that, and with no accommodation or benefits, they are left to fall through the cracks again.
“There will be a slow unravelling of these men – their lives and their dignity.
“Maybe they’ll be alright for a few days, some a few months or some a year but they will not be getting the help to move away from the lifestyle that was destructive to start with. No-one can afford to see that happen.”
Ealing Council said: “Following significant Government cuts, we have been forced to make some very difficult decisions. Prior to these government cuts, we provided annual funding to Innisfree Housing Association for housing-related support to 12 tenants.
“We have been working with Innisfree since the decision was taken in January and seven of these tenants now have somewhere else to go. We will continue to work with Innisfree to find a solution for the remaining five.”
Innisfree tenants’ stories
After two years in Innisfree accommodation John Hannon is about to move into his own flat.
John, 44, believes he would probably be in prison if he hadn’t found the Irish organisation when he moved over from Limerick to find work two years ago.
“When I arrived finding digs was a big challenge,” he said.
“I hadn’t expected that. I ended up sleeping on different couches every night and sometimes sleeping on park benches.
“It was Innisfree who changed all that for me, they gave me a room, helped me fill out my forms and get my entitlements and think about moving forward.”
He added: “In fact I think I would be in prison if not for them, I would have probably ended up stealing to get money for a room rather than staying in the parks or on couches.
“Staying on someone’s couch is pretty rough – you’d wake up and feel like the people didn’t want you there so you grab your coat and leave, you wouldn’t even have a wash. It’s kind of like sleeping rough with a roof over your head and I don’t think I could have done that for much longer.”
John’s two years with Innisfree has already passed so his move into independent living has been arranged prior to the cut to services.
“I was one of the lucky ones – if I had less than two years done now I don’t know where I would stand.” He said.
“I have been lucky with how the timing fell. I have a place to go to, but most of my fellow tenants have only been here a couple of months. They have no idea where they will end up. It’s a very worrying time here.”
Limerick-man Brian McNamara served two stints in British jails before turning his life around as a tenant of Innisfree housing association.
He was crushed to hear the government cuts would close the door to his Ealing home.
“I came to this country 10 years ago thinking it was the land of milk and honey,” the 36-year-old told the Irish Post.
“I soon found it wasn’t, and that finding employment and accommodation was a struggle. I ended up staying in houses here and there and spent many lonely times in the pub drinking with the other lonely Irish men.”
He added: “One drunken night I got into trouble and ended up with a five year prison sentence.”
It was only after a second prison sentence that Brian decided it was time for a change.
“When I came out that time I said to myself this is going to be different – it has to be. I have paid my debt and felt I had enough tools to make a go of life for myself. I found Innisfree and they gave me a room and helped me get on a college course – so I am now in a position to find work. It’s been life-changing for me.”
Regarding the cuts that will force Brian and his fellow tenants to leave their Inisfree home, he added: “My experience here has been very positive. I have been able to take a course and think about getting work and for the first time genuinely I can say I don’t think I will ever be in prison again. So I was crushed to hear the funding has been cut.
“Some of the tenants are far more vulnerable than me, but we all have different demons and the organisation plays an equally huge role for all of us, helping us to deal with them. Without the support of Innisfree I wouldn’t be at this point.
“For me, you never know what this could mean if they close the door on my room. I like to think I can make the best of any situation but situations can come along which could bring out the dark side in me again. When you have no housing or security or any personal space of your own it’s hard.”