Dáil Éireann - Volume 417 - 25 March, 1992

Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Housing for Homeless Persons.

12. Mr. J. O'Keeffe asked the Minister for the Environment his views on whether the needs of the homeless are now greater than they have been for five years and that a crash housing programme will be necessary to resolve these needs.

Mr. Smith: I am satisfied that the position of homeless persons has been significantly improved by a number of initiatives taken in recent years. The more significant of these are as follows: wider powers conferred on local [1588] authorities by the Housing Act, 1988, to secure accommodation for homeless persons; assessments of housing needs undertaken by local authorities and which now specifically include homeless persons; more flexible financial arrangements have been introduced where voluntary bodies provide accommodation for homeless persons and there is increased Exchequer funding for this purpose; better liaison between housing authorities and voluntary bodies providing accommodation for homeless persons; improved arrangements to provide an emergency response service for homeless persons; new schemes of letting priorities adopted by housing authorities under the Housing Act, 1988, give greater prominence to homeless persons; and, finally, the level of capital assistance available to voluntary bodies providing accommodation for, inter alia, homeless persons has been increased substantially.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: Would the Minister not accept that we have a housing crisis and that the problem which appeared to be resolved in the mid-eighties has worsened? Second will he not accept that local authorities need money more than power and that the number of houses which they can build now is minuscule in proportion to the number built in the past? Finally, would the Minister not agree that unless action is taken now we will have more and more horror stories in our clinics of homeless people or people living in rat-infested, slumlike or overcrowded conditions? Will the Minister accept there is a crisis and tell us what he will do about it?

Mr. Smith: Deputy O'Keeffe should accept that in the Housing Act, 1988, for the first time statutory provision was made for dealing with this problem. Nobody is trying to deny there is a problem and that it will take a caring and wide range of proposals to deal with it. For the first time also there has been a recoupment to the local authority. Expenditure in this area has grown, and in the voluntary housing area up to 600 units will be provided this year for which a sum of [1589] £11 million is being provided. That is an indication of a certain amount of progress being made. That is not to say the problem is being resolved. As long as there are homeless people a major concern of Government must be to dedicate resources to that area. For the first time the legal framework has been put in place. The resources committed to this area in terms of the mix of different solutions applied by the Government are more extensive than ever. To the extent that I can find additional resources to deal with this matter over a period I will do my best to get them.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: At least the Minister has come some of the way in that he now admits there is a problem. I suggest that in fact there is a crisis. Can the Minister tell me the extent of that problem? The Minister has differentiated between the number of people who are actually homeless and those who are living in totally unsuitable conditions. Has he any idea of the extent of the problem under both headings so that we can then think about the resources that would have to be applied to resolve that problem. Otherwise, I genuinely believe we will have major social unrest in this country apart altogether from having our fellow citizens living in conditions that are totally unacceptable?

Mr. Smith: The local authorities were asked to submit to the Department details in relation to their assessment of housing needs as they affect the homeless. The most recent figures available to me show that the number of persons who have no accommodation is 729; the number of persons who are living in hostels, 1,001; and the number of persons who are living in health board accommodation, because they have no other accommodation, 1,021.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: What about the people in unsuitable accommodation?

Mr. Smith: These are the three statistics I have.

[1590] Mr. J. O'Keeffe: Would the Minister not accept that the number in unsuitable accommodation would be far higher?

Mr. Smith: We regard the housing authorities as being absolutely responsible in this regard. The figures they have prepared are those which I have given to this House.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: Under the headings——

Mr. Smith: That is the extent to which I can answer that question at this time.

Mr. Farrelly: Responsible but cashless.

An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Jim Mitchell and Deputy Eamon Gilmore are offering. Certain members here are very anxious to have their questions replied to also within the prescribed time so I would ask Members to expedite matters.

Mr. J. Mitchell: Would the Minister not accept that homeless figures grow daily if there is no new housing supply. The Minister gave us figures — I believe they are already out of date — which indicate that 2,750 persons are homeless today in this country. Can he tell me how many people were in bed and breakfast accommodation in the Eastern Health Board area in each month for this year because they have no homes?

An Ceann Comhairle: That is a separate question.

Mr. Smith: We should not try to twist the argument. The information I have given to the Deputy does not suggest that there are that many people homeless; I said there are 729 people who have no accommodation. The others are staying in either health board accommodation or hostels. I am not trying to tell the House that this is adequate and it is equally unfair for Deputy Mitchell to pretend that this means a person has no accommodation. This is not adequate and the position has to be improved.

[1591] Mr. Farrelly: That is not true and the Minister knows it.

An Ceann Comhairle: I call Deputy Gilmore.

Mr. J. Mitchell: A Cheann Comhairle, I asked the Minister——

An Ceann Comhairle: I have called Deputy Gilmore and he will be heard.

Mr. Gilmore: On the same theme, is it not the case that the three categories the Minister has listed are the categories that are defined in the 1988 Act as constituting homeless persons? Second, is it not the case that the figures the Minister has given us understate the position having regard to the fact that some local authorities have not yet submitted their assessment of housing needs? Third, is it not the case that those figures are three times greater than the figures indicated in the previous assessment of housing needs and that the rate of homelessness is now three times greater than it was when the Government took office?

Mr. Smith: These are the figures which have been given to my Department by the county councils having regard to their legal responsibility under the provisions of the Housing Act, 1988. It is not true to suggest that the local authorities in the discharge of their legal responsibilities are submitting inaccurate figures to me. I accept that these are the true figures. However I am perfectly prepared to accept whatever additional information is made available from time to time by a variety of organisations that are endeavouring to deal with these problems in the context of increasing public awareness. The figures I have given to the House which have been made available by the local authorities are accurate.

An Ceann Comhairle: I call Deputy Mitchell to be followed by Deputy Kavanagh with a final question.

Mr. J. Mitchell: The Minister listed three categories of people who are without [1592] homes and the total comes to 2,751. May I ask him what date we are talking about? Is it 31 March 1991, the date by which the local authorities were to have submitted their assessments of housing needs, or a more current date? Let me repeat the question he did not answer. How many people are staying in bed and breakfast accommodation in the Eastern Health Board area which is being paid for by that health board this month, last month and the month before?

Mr. Smith: I do not have the detailed statistics the Deputy is seeking. If I had the figures for that health board area I would need to have them for each health board region. I have given him the overall figures.

Mr. J. Mitchell: The Minister should have them.

Mr. Smith: If the Deputy is interested in getting detailed figures——

Mr. J. Mitchell: The chairman is sitting behind the Minister; he should ask him.

Mr. Smith: ——he should put down another question.

Mr. J. Mitchell: What date?

Mr. Smith: So far as the date is concerned, the local authorities were asked to submit this information some time last year.

Mr. J. Mitchell: They are already out-of-date.

Mr. Kavanagh: I am sure the Minister is aware that he answered a question last week dealing with the capital allocation for housing. I am sure he is aware also that this allocation — I presume that it covers accommodation for the homeless — will not make even the slightest dent in alleviating the problems of the homeless let alone the crisis facing all those who wish to be housed by the local authorities.

[1593] Mr. Smith: I am extremely interested in hearing of and being close to developments in the voluntary sector. There are extraordinary differences in relation to the provision of these facilities, recoupment and the support available from the Department, from one part of the country to another. I am extremely interested in having discussions with the voluntary agencies some of which have been immensely successful in dealing with this matter. In other areas little or nothing is happening. Everyone in this House who wants to get involved seems to have the notion that the Government have unlimited resources to resolve every problem raised, be it sanitary services or housing.

Mr. J. Mitchell: What about the “Taj Mahal”?

Mr. Kavanagh: We know what can be done when the effort is made.

Mr. Smith: I will do all I can to ensure that the funds available to me are allocated in such a way that this and other problems can be addressed to the best of our ability.

Mr. Farrelly: No effort is being made.

Mr. Smith: It is not reasonable for Deputies to pretend that they have the solution — that additional resources should be made available to address this and other problems.

Mr. Carey: You said you had a better way.

Mr. Farrelly: Does the Minister remember the passport he was prepared to put his name to — “There is a Better Way?”

(Interruptions.)

Mr. Smith: The Deputies can compare the record any way they like but 600 houses will be completed this year by the voluntary sector. They were not able to [1594] build one in the time in Government of the people opposite.

Mr. Farrelly: We need 650 houses in my constitutency, never mind 600 in the country. It is a disgrace.

An Ceann Comhairle: Order, please. I had hoped to dispose of Deputy Deasy's question. I will call it if it is dealt with now.

Mr. Farrelly: A rush of blood to the Minister's head.

Mr. D. Wallace: The Deputy has been sidelined over there.

Mr. Farrelly: We did not get the chance to have a go at the Minister of State.