Tony O’Riordan, CEO MIdlands Simon Community, says plans to transfer emergency housing in Athlone to a new central headquarters in Tullamore will not go ahead due to the need to keep both facilities open.

Midlands Simon 'swamped' with demand for services

Unprecedented demand arising from the housing crisis has resulted in a local homelessness charity saying it can't proceed with a proposal to close emergency accommodation services in Athlone and transfer them to a new Tullamore facility.

"At the moment, we are absolutely swamped with the demand for our services," said Tony O'Riordan, CEO of the Midland Simon Community.

"Because of the level of calls to us, it's more services we need, and more homes for people. We are not able to meet the demand that's there."

Mr O'Riordan said the relatively new issue of people sleeping rough in Westmeath was on the rise, with a new outreach service operated by Midlands Simon encountering 29 people who were rough sleeping in the county during the last three months of 2021.

"We stand over these figures, because we are only counting people that we are meeting ourselves. Unfortunately, the perception is that rough sleeping is a problem that's confined to the large urban areas," said Mr O'Riordan.

"We would never have seen it as a problem when Midlands Simon started (in 2004), but in the last few years it's become more of an issue."

Since 2009, Midlands Simon has operated a six-person emergency accommodation unit on the Ballymahon Road in Athlone. More recently, it acquired three apartments in the town for use as part of its service.

Along with fellow homelessness charity Sophia Housing, it's moving ahead with plans to convert Clonamore House, a former hotel in Tullamore, into a serviced emergency accommodation centre for 17 residents.

A December opening date has been pencilled in for the Tullamore facility.

A merger of emergency accommodation in Athlone and Tullamore into one facility in Offaly's county town had been recommended in a 2018 report on behalf of the Midlands Joint Homelessness Consultative Forum.

Westmeath County Council CEO Pat Gallagher also reported in recent years that Midlands Simon would be “transferring existing homeless services in Tullamore and Athlone to (Clonamore House), with extra capacity.”

However, Mr O’Riordan, who is the joint CEO of Midlands Simon and Sophia Housing, told the Westmeath Independent that the closure of emergency housing in Athlone was not on the cards.

He said the problem of people sleeping rough in the Midlands had not been getting much attention in the media, and it was happening because of crippling housing supply shortages and costly rents.

“If we are trying to support someone to rent a place in Athlone or Mullingar, and they’re getting a Housing Assistance Payment (HAP), they’d still be hundreds of euro off from getting a place that’s affordable.

“The HAP payment has been criticised, but even if you were to accept it as being a bona fide intervention, it’s not even reaching what’s available in the market when you are 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 that the homelessness crisis was so profound it couldn’t be solved by any one organisation.

“This is a major structural issue that’s only going to be fixed by massive State investment in which all of the rigours of the State are brought to bear in speeding up the delivery of social housing,” he commented.

Asked if there were signs that the supply of new housing was slowly increasing, Mr O’Riordan said he had no real evidence of that so far.

“We want to remain positive, but we can’t see any sign that this (crisis) is going to ease or lessen for a while. That’s why we’d be looking to increase what we’re doing in Athlone, rather than lessen it.”

He said that after Clonamore House opened in Tullamore, Midlands Simon would be continuing to use the Ballymahon Road unit in Athlone for emergency accommodation.

“Whether we increase the number of units there or maintain it as it is... how we configure it hasn’t been decided yet. But we just have to keep the services open,” he said.

In addition, he said the three apartments which Midlands Simon was now also using for emergency accommodation in Athlone would remain in use.

“Those apartments are still not even coming close to what we need to do. They will be continuing, and we’re on the lookout for more,” he said.

Figures provided by Mr O’Riordan showed that, in addition to the 29 rough sleepers which the Midlands Simon ‘out of hours’ service counted in Westmeath in the final quarter of last year, the service encountered 27 others who were sleeping rough elsewhere in the region.

Midlands Simon and Sophia recently went out to tender on 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 it’s planned to have a team of qualified social care workers on site to provide support for the 17 residents on a 24/7 basis.