A protest at the Montague Hotel Direct Provision Centre in 2015.
Fifteen houses and apartments in Portlaoise have been bought, refurbished and fully kitted out, down to new children’s toys, ready to take families out of direct provision centres.
However they are sitting idle for nearly a year over delays by the Government in closing the centres, including that at the former Montague hotel.
The houses and an integration support service for residents offered with them, are the pilot project of a new company called Dídean, funded by a Laois based philanthropist.
Edward Dunne is the founder of Nua Healthcare, now the largest provider of residential social care which he sold on in recent years. He has also helped fund the BloomHQ centre that is helping to revitalise Mountrath.
In an interview with RTÉ radio’s Drivetime, he explained why he founded Dídean and volunteers as its chairman.
“As an Irish person I’ve been particularly distraught and upset by the experience of people in our country who have children, living in direct provision. The idea of children growing up in hotels and being segregated. I think this is the next scandal of our time. I’m ashamed of it and I wanted to do something about it,” he said.
The 13 houses and two apartments are scattered throughout Portlaoise he said, all within 1km of the town centre, with a drop-in support centre on Main Street.
Dídean say they can accommodate 82 asylum seekers in family units, with a vision for buying more, limited at 200 people for a town the size of Portlaoise, with 22,000 people.
He says the Portlaoise model can be replicated in every county , and in the long run, will save the Government money.
“The vast majority of people who come out of congregated settings are dependent, institutionalised, not able to perform as functioning members of society. If they instead become independent they are less of a burden on the state because long term supports are cheaper,” Edward Dunne said.
Colleen Wall is Director of Operations.
“Laois has over 90 nationalities, speaking over 50 languages, and practicing 22 religions. We have proven that we can welcome a multicultural community. We want to integrate them, our staff will come out and help them,” she said.
She said the houses being idle is “heartbreaking”.
“We have them empty almost a full year now, we’re ready, we’re waiting on the green light,” she said.
Lye Ogunsanya is the CEO of Dídean, and himself a former asylum seeker, arriving in Ireland from Nigeria 20 years ago. He had to wait to get citizenship before he could go to university, and he went on to work to end direct provision in other European countries.
“There is a massive return on investment when you integrate people,” he said.
“If I’d lived in a community I would have been able to bring my friends home, I would have been able to watch tv like other children, watch my mum cook, study with friends. Just changing what’s there right now would really impact them positively,” he said.
The houses were offered to the department a year ago but must wait while the Government forms a new tender document to seek alternative accommodation to direct provision centres. It has committed in a White Paper to shut down all centres by 2024, after decades of criticism over how they are run.
Dídeon's staff continue to be paid while they wait for residents.
"I set it up in the belief of doing the right thing, they are ready to go in the morning. But there is a cash burn, I have staff to pay and I will have to move on at some stage.
"We have to motivate social enterpreneurs to come forward and offer a solution, to do this differently and treat people with dignity and respect and integrate them properly," Edward Dunne said.
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