Social services are increasingly using Grand Cayman hotels as emergency housing for homeless families.
The Needs Assessment Unit spent more than $50,000 on hotel bills last year – a sevenfold increase from the previous year.
Officials say the number of people unable to find affordable housing has spiked sharply in tandem with rising rental costs in Grand Cayman over the past 18 months. Matthew Hylton, deputy director of the unit, said hotels are used as a last resort when its clients have nowhere else to stay.
Over the past two years, social services has funded rooms for 68 clients in five different hotels, according to data released to the Compass under the Freedom of Information Law.
In many cases the hotels are used for a couple of nights until alternatives are found. But some families are housed for considerably longer.
The data includes an $11,660 bill – equivalent to 85 nights – for one family from the Sunshine Suites. There is also a $5,300 bill from the Wyndham resort for one client, and a $2,665 bill from the Comfort Suites. The exact length of the stay is not revealed in the data, and Mr. Hylton said that in some cases it was necessary to book more than one room for larger families.
The FOI, which covers the past two years and the early part of 2018, shows a dramatic jump in expenditure from $7,525 in 2016 to $52,776 last year.
Just over $6,000 was spent on hotels in the first four months of 2018.
Some in the charitable sector question the wisdom of spending the unit’s stretched resources on hotel rooms.
Tara Nielsen, of charity Acts of Random Kindness, which provides support to families in need, said increasing the $800-a-month rental assistance cap for needy families would be a more sensible use of funds and would mean less people needing emergency shelter for sustained periods.
“Using hotel rooms like this is an expensive Band-Aid,” she said.
“They are throwing money in the wrong places. If they could raise that $800 figure to around $1,100, they wouldn’t need to spend money on hotel rooms because these families would be able to find somewhere to live.”
The rental assistance cap was raised to $1,200 a month for a family of five in 2017, though it remains at $800 for smaller families.
Ms. Nielsen said entrenched poverty issues in parts of Grand Cayman were exacerbated by recent increases in the cost of living, particularly in the rental market, making it almost impossible find apartments within that budget. She added that many landlords refused to accept NAU clients, citing the fact that government frequently fails to pay rent on time.
She said many of the people seeking housing assistance from the NAU were young single mothers who were either unable to work or did not earn enough money to cover basic living expenses for themselves and their children.
Even when they are able to find apartments for $800 a month, she said, they were frequently unable to afford the deposit, which is not covered by the NAU. ARK has covered that charge for around 25 families in the past year.
If the NAU paid deposits, she believes more families would be able to find apartments, reducing the reliance on hotels.
Longer term, she believes a transitional housing facility is needed.
“This problem isn’t going away. In some cases people are living in cars or camping on beaches. There needs to be somewhere to go that isn’t so expensive. Paying for a hotel in the Cayman Islands is outrageous.
“It is not just about fixing one problem; it is a series of systemic problems.”
Mr. Hylton said the unit explored all other options, including housing clients with family members, before considering hotel accommodation.
He said the NAU had raised its rent allowances for larger families in response to the increase in property prices. But he acknowledged rising rental costs were part of the problem.
He said, “I believe the spike [in hotel payments between 2016 and 2017] would coincide with the rise in the rental market. This may have impacted the growing need for hotel accommodations due to homelessness and clients not being able to meet the increased prices.”
He added that the rental allowance was not the only problem, and for some clients with particularly large families or with known mental health or social issues, it is much harder to find accommodation. He said the unit referred them for professional support when possible, as well as assisting in their search for housing.
“It is not just a matter of locating apartments within the set price range,” he added.
Responding to the concerns that the NAU did not pay landlords on time, he said the unit had carried out an internal audit on late payments and found this was due to a number of issues, not all within its control.
He said clients often told landlords that the NAU would be paying the rent before making an appointment with the unit and without either party confirming such support was approved. In other cases, he said, landlords and clients provided late or incomplete paperwork, causing delays in payments.
Mr. Hylton added, “It was found that the majority of the rental payments processed by the NAU were done within a timely manner once assessments were completed and approved and necessary information provided to process payments.”
He acknowledged there were some occasions where delays were caused by internal staff shortages, but suggested this situation had improved with the hiring of new staff in 2018.