Dáil Éireann - Volume 459 - 14 December, 1995

Adjournment Debate. - Homeless Persons.

Mr. O'Dea: I thank the Chair for allowing me to raise this important issue. Those of us who have the good fortune not to be homeless have a stereotyped image of the typical homeless person. When the word “homeless” is mentioned, the image that comes to mind is that of aimless drunks, drug addicts and bag ladies. We tend to think of those people as always having been homeless but that is not the reality. Homelessness can be ruthlessly random. People become homeless for various reasons. A high proportion of the homeless population are people who once lived comfortably with their families in middle class homes with all their attendant comforts.

Contrary to popular misconception, all homeless people do not sleep out on the street. The vast majority stay in hostels, night shelters, sometime bed and breakfast establishments, with friends or in squats all of which are stressful short-term arrangements. Focus Point, the excellent organisation which has done enormous work in this area, stated in its 1994 report that: “in some of these locations only essential living necessities are available; in others, not even basic human needs are being met. None of them are homes”.

Focus Point estimates that anything between 3,000 and 5,000 people are homeless at any one time, although precise figures are notoriously difficult to estimate. All the evidence suggests that the number of homeless is increasing, yet in some vital areas services are declining. There are approximately 800 hostel bed places in Dublin city. Between 1988 and 1993 the number of hostel beds decreased by 14 per cent. [1928] The 1993 census of hostels showed a 6 per cent increase in hostel usage since 1991. If this trend continues, that is, growing numbers and declining services, the inevitable consequence will be that more and more of the homeless will be forced to sleep rough on the streets. This will inevitably lead to the creation of the cardboard cities which so tarnished the image of Thatcher's Britain and finally laid to rest the theory that a rising tide will of itself lift all boats.

Young people under the age of 18 who become homeless are the responsibility of the Department of Health which provides the resources to health boards which directly provide the appropriate services. The problem of homeless young people was confined almost exclusively to Dublin until recently, but, unfortunately, it has now spread to the provinces. Children have to leave home as a result of some family crisis, violence, sexual or physical abuse. Focus Point stated that “only a specialised hostel with suitable back up and support is appropriate and these are unfortunately very few and far between”.

Despite undoubted improvements in recent years the number of places available to cater for the young homeless is totally inadequate to meet this growing problem. Focus Point indicated that “homeless children need an urgent 24-hour child centred response with intensive professional support and guidance”. Homeless children are extremely vulnerable to sexual exploitation, addiction to drugs or alcohol or involvement in crime. A short period on the streets can do considerable long-term damage to a homeless child. Focus Point has found that not only are some homeless children remaining homeless for longer, but also that the age profile of the young homeless is falling. Focus Point indicate, and we have no reason to doubt it, that some of the homeless children met by its volunteers on the streets are as young as 11 or 12 years.

We are constitutionally bound to cherish all the children of the nation [1929] equally. Therefore, we have a constitutional as well as a moral obligation to provide for the growing army of the homeless. Our readiness in the past often to look the other way challenges our claim to describe ourselves as a Christian society. The homeless are entitled to expect that this nation will do everything in its power to help them recover their dignity and self-respect. If we allow this problem to grow, fester and worsen at a time when the economy is growing faster than at any time in the history of our State, we will have allowed ourselves to become that country where, to paraphrase Goldsmith, wealth accumulates while the quality of life of more and more of our people decays.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment (Mr. Allen): I thank the Deputy for raising the issue of homelessness. It is particularly appropriate at this time of the year. Christmas is traditionally associated with the home and the family while at this time of year homeless people are at greatest risk from the elements.

As nearly there years have elapsed since the 1993 assessment of housing need and the number of homeless people, local authorities have been directed to carry out a further assessment in March 1996. Authorities have been asked to ensure that the homeless assessment will be a thorough one and to take the necessary steps to achieve this.

Various measures have been taken in recent times to deal with homelessness. The most significant is the expansion of the local authority housing programme from 1,000 starts in 1992 to 3,500 in 1993 and again in 1994 and 3,900 in 1995. As a result of this significant numbers of homeless people have been and will be housed.

Another measure is the increased funding under the voluntary housing capital assistance scheme for voluntary bodies providing accommodation for people. The provision for the scheme increased from £11 million in 1992 to [1930] £15 million in 1995 while the maximum unit cost ceilings were increased earlier this year. A large part of expenditure under this scheme, generally between one-third and one-half, goes on the provision of accommodation for homeless people.

The level of recoupment paid by the Department in respect of local authority current expenditure on the accommodation of homeless people was increased from 80 per cent to 90 per cent from April 1993. As a result of the increased level of activity by local authorities, recoupment paid by my Department increased from £674,000 in 1992 to over £1,500,000 in 1995.

In November 1993, the Eastern Health Board, by arrangement with Dublin Corporation, introduced an after hours referral service up to 1.00 a.m., including weekends. The service, which is freefone, complements the existing daytime call-in referral service at the board's homeless persons unit in Charles Street, Dublin. If local authorities in other major urban areas consider it desirable to establish a similar referral service in their area, the Minister with responsibility for housing and urban renewal will be open to any proposals authorities may make.

One of the priorities of the Minister with responsibility for housing and urban renewal has been homelessness. The Minister has visited hostels and shelters for homeless people in the Dublin area and has met voluntary bodies in different areas of the country to discuss the issues involved. The Minister is keeping in touch with the situation and while it is reasonably satisfactory there is always room for improvement and certainly no grounds for complacency.