Seanad Éireann - Volume 185 - 15 November, 2006
Mr. Ryan Mr. Ryan
Mr. Ryan: I move:
“That Seanad Éireann:
notes the call of the MakeRoom campaign that homelessness in Ireland should be ended by 2010;
recognises that this campaign is supported by Focus Ireland, the Simon Communities of Ireland, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Threshold;
acknowledges the commitment of these organisations to the care of homeless people in Ireland;
supports the call of the MakeRoom campaign for action in the following areas;
service provision based on the multiple needs of homeless people;
the provision of more and better housing;
the provision of support for those who wish to leave homelessness;
a guarantee of the availability of affordable rented accommodation;
the enforcement of proper standards in private rented accommodation;
a strategy to tackle poverty and thereby prevent homelessness; and
calls on the Government to respond quickly to each of these six demands so that the Government’s own target of ending homelessness by 2010 can be achieved”.
I wish to commence by stating that by a process of omission on someone’s part, the name of Senator Henry is missing from the motion. That may well be my fault because I may have omitted to contact the Senator. However, I took for granted that she would support a motion of this nature. The absence of her name is not in any way to be taken as a matter of significance and resulted from an omission on my part.
There is a history to my moving this motion. In May 1984, I moved Second Stage of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Bill. It caused enormous trouble for the Government at the time because those in the Labour Party, who subsequently became my colleagues but who were then in Government, refused to support the Government which wanted to vote down the Bill. My good friend and one who is, I am glad to say, in the whole of his health, former Senator Jack Harte, was the Whip at that time. He assured me in his inimitable Dublin accent there was no way he would whip the Labour Party to vote against a Bill to support the homeless.
I deliberately chose the language in this motion to try to create a consensus. Whatever about my party affiliations, throughout my career I have tried to deal with issues — the Minister of State, Deputy Tim O’Malley, can confirm this — such as the care of the mentally ill and those concerning specific aspects of disability, however naive that may appear to the hard men and women of Fianna Fáil — they are not all hard but the ultimate core is very hard. I would prefer to be in politics to try to make progress on these issues rather than simply to launch into a wonderful rhetorical flourish about the heartlessness of the Government, as I am more than capable of doing.
The motion is inspired by the MakeRoom campaign, which was developed by Focus Ireland, the Simon Community, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Threshold. That campaign is based on and grows from the progress that has been achieved. I am more than happy to accept progress has been achieved, given the evidence in Dublin and Cork that the number of people sleeping on the streets is not growing and may be stabilising or declining, which is no small achievement.
The fact it is 22 years since I first raised the issue in the House is no great compliment to a succession of Governments, including some of which my party was a member. However, although we are again discussing homelessness, any feelings of déjà vu are not appropriate. When we dealt with the issue more than 20 years ago, we first had to convince a sceptical State, including the local authorities, that there was a problem. The view then was that the only people who were homeless were those who chose to be homeless or who were not housable. We have moved on from that position and we no longer hear that argument.
When we made progress in that regard, the next problem was to sort out who was responsible for dealing with homelessness. The litany of buck-passing between Government, health boards and local authorities was one of my most significant political educations. We got beyond that phase and we now know who is responsible. Local authorities are the lead service providers in dealing with homelessness, although they are not and should not be the only service providers. It took blood, sweat and tears to achieve that but it has been achieved.
We have made progress and I will not pretend otherwise. Nevertheless, the people sleeping on the streets were an affront to us. They are still there. One can go out the front gate of Leinster House at 11 p.m. any night of the week, turn right, go less than 100 metres, look right into a doorway, and one will find a man sleeping there. One can go to the bottom of Kildare Street and turn left down Nassau Street in the direction of Grafton Street, and one will find a person sleeping in a doorway there also. There is something particularly symbolic in people having to sleep on the streets within 200 metres of the governing Parliament of the State. However, I accept we are making progress.
If we moved every homeless person off the streets and into hostels and shelters, we would not end homelessness, although we would make homelessness less visible or perhaps invisible. My Bill of 22 years ago stated that a person forced to live in a night shelter or hostel was homeless. A shelter or hostel is not a home for anybody. The MakeRoom campaign recognises that to end homelessness, provide for homeless people and ensure that homelessness is a problem of the past it is not sufficient to provide night shelters and hostels, however good they are. I accept shelters and hostels are better than they used to be but they are a step on the road to ending homelessness, not the solution.
The MakeRoom campaign emphasises the need to recognise that nobody ends up homeless simply by accident. There is a process that happens to people. The first indicator of a likelihood of becoming homeless is poverty. There is a tendency for everybody in church and State to say: “It could happen to anybody.” The church person will come up with a story of the member of the clergy who descended into homelessness while the State person will come up with a similar story. They are seen as sad and tragic stories but as exceptions. It must be remembered that homeless people are poor people who have fallen through the limited nets available for them. Therefore, any way of dealing with homelessness involves dealing with poverty.
The consequences and, less often, the causes of homelessness are considerable social and personal distress which can manifest itself in psychological and mental disorders, serious ill health and serious and sometimes scary anti-social behaviour. I speak having had a few interesting experiences in my time with the Simon Community. Most of this is a consequence of homelessness or is the reason people became homeless. Therefore, the motion recognises the need for integrated services.
I thought there was an agreed position in this regard. I thought, because I had read references to this in Cork, where I am still involved slightly with the Simon Community, that the Health Service Executive and the local authorities had accepted that one cannot simply deal with homelessness as a housing issue alone. In the old scholastic logic tradition, housing is a necessary but not a sufficient remedy for homelessness. One cannot solve homelessness without housing provision but one will not solve it by housing provision alone.
I thought we had reached that stage until I read the most ungracious Government amendment. I am astonished that the line in the motion “acknowledges the commitment of these [four] organisations to the care of homeless people in Ireland”, which is recognised by every citizen, was left out of the Government amendment by choice. Whoever drafted the amendment, could the Government not at least have had the grace to recognise the commitment and extraordinary service of the four organisations?
Unfortunately, the amendment does not respond to the complexity of homelessness and it only recites Government achievements relating to housing. Housing is a necessary condition to deal with homelessness but there is not sufficient availability nor does it address the entire problem. The Government raised the housing issue in this debate but if it is going to deal with homelessness, it must support the homeless and others who are threatened with homelessness. If I had time, I could go through the multiple steps of alienation.
The Government claims to have taken action regarding housing but it has not done so, particularly in the private rented accommodation sector where the absence of standards is a scandal. The PRTB, the Revenue, local authorities and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government do not share their data so that everybody knows what everybody else is doing. Advertisements printed in local newspapers that state “no rent allowance” provide a signal that the owners do not pay tax on the rent. The only reason they will not take in people on rent allowance is they are afraid they will get caught for tax. Every one of those advertisements should be investigated by the Revenue. The cap on supplementary welfare allowance is causing enormous hardship. I conducted a quick check on www.daft.ie earlier. Only three apartments in inner city Dublin advertised on the website meet the rental conditions of the SWA scheme, while no accommodation is available to rent at under €500 per week in Galway city.
I am greatly disappointed the Government chose to have a confrontation rather than seeking a consensus and, instead of dealing with homelessness, it decided to table an amendment touting its own successes. In view of this I will use my reply to the debate to list the Government’s failures. That is not what I intended to do, as I wanted to move the homelessness debate to a new level. However, we are back to the silly politics in regard to this issue, from which I had hoped we had moved. I am very disappointed.
Ms O’Meara Ms O’Meara
Ms O’Meara: I am happy to second the motion and, like Senator Ryan, I am very disappointed with the Government parties’ amendment because they should have no problem with our motion. However, it is opportune, as the budget approaches and as we experience one of the worst days weather-wise we have had in a long time, that we should discuss the homelessness issue and review the current position. It would be great to say progress is being made, which the Government has attempted to do in its amendment but, unfortunately, that is not the case.
The number of homeless people has doubled since 1996. In 2002, 5,581 people were homeless, 87% of whom were to be found in urban areas. Those who sleep on the street visibly demonstrate homelessness but Focus Ireland points out that there is more than one category of homelessness. The organisation refers to the visible homeless sleeping rough on the street and those who stay in emergency accommodation in shelters but it also highlights the hidden homeless, who comprise individuals and couples who are forced to share accommodation with relatives, such as young couples who cannot afford to rent or buy and must live at home or with friends or people in insecure or substandard accommodation.
Despite recent legislative changes which attempted to bring landlords into line and address substandard accommodation, that is not happening. In addition, people are at risk of homelessness because of economic difficulties, for example, if rent becomes too expensive or if they experience health difficulties, marital breakdown or mental illness. Inevitably, some of these people will become homeless because the triggers for homelessness are poverty, marital breakdown, employment loss and mental ill-health. The necessary progress on this issue has not been made and new problems are emerging, such as homelessness among the migrant community. A number of immigrants have travelled to Ireland to earn a living but they have not succeeded and they have found themselves in straitened circumstances similar to Irish people in London and other cities during periods of significant migration.
I represent an area that does not experience homelessness to the same extent as Dublin or Cork but it lurks in the background. I am occasionally approached, like other public representatives, by individuals and couples who have nowhere to live because they cannot continue to stay with a relative or friend or their rented accommodation is being sold and they cannot obtain suitable replacement accommodation. They ask what I can do and, in many cases, they are accommodated in bed and breakfasts and hotels. That is a short-term measure, which is not suitable for children, in particular. The average time spent in emergency bed and breakfast accommodation has increased from only 20 days in 1993 to 18 months in 2006. There is widespread use of such accommodation, which is expensive for the taxpayer and which is not appropriate for the people involved. It may be considered a short-term solution but it is not in many cases. It does not work and it highlights that there is a serious underlying problem.
The shortage of affordable rented accommodation is a contributory factor. The cost of housing has shot through the roof because of the property boom and rented accommodation is expensive, especially for those on low incomes. All groups working in this area, such as Focus Ireland and the Simon Community, point to the need for affordable rented accommodation as an essential in any strategy to tackle homelessness.
In 2000 the Government launched Homelessness — An Integrated Strategy. A review conducted on behalf of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on the implementation of the strategy stated progress was mixed. For instance, the establishment of night shelters was recommended but that has been a hit and miss initiative. New shelters have not been established in the northern suburbs of Dublin city, despite the need for them. A new wave of homelessness is being experienced by the immigrant community and victims of domestic violence.
I refer to the link between mental illness and homelessness. As we know, there is a move away from large institutional care for people with mental illnesses. In general, our community must support that move, but it does not work for a number of people. Given that in many parts of the country, including north County Tipperary, the services on the ground are insufficient to meet the needs of people with mental illnesses, people will inevitably fall through the cracks. People with mental illnesses must be considered as one of the most vulnerable groups in terms of being prone to homelessness.
No examinations of the issues around mental ill health and psychiatric care can be complete without an examination of the implications for people who become homeless. This is the last point I have time to make and I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to speak. I also thank Senator Ryan for tabling this important motion. I ask that Government parties support the motion because it is not too late to do so.
Mr. Kitt Mr. Kitt
Mr. Kitt: I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after “That” and substitute the following:
notes the call of the MakeRoom campaign for an end to homelessness in Ireland by 2010;
 acknowledges the significant progress by the Government on homelessness, including:
expenditure of €450 million since 2000 in addressing the issue in a comprehensive and co-ordinated manner;
developing a wide range of homeless accommodation and services across the country;
the significant reduction in the numbers of homeless persons in Dublin and nationally;
the publication of the independent review of the Government’s homeless strategies and the Government’s commitment to act on the review and prepare a revised strategy on homelessness;
further acknowledges the achievements of the Government in:
increasing housing supply as the key response to the broad range of housing needs and demands with one third of Ireland’s total housing stock being completed in the past ten years;
providing for the needs of 100,000 households in the last ten years through various social and affordable housing programmes;
bringing forward five-year housing action plans by local authorities to co-ordinate, accelerate and bring greater integration to action on housing at local level;
launching a new housing policy framework — “Building Sustainable Communities” — to provide an integrated approach to guide housing policy and investment over the coming years;
welcomes Towards 2016 commitments to:
eliminate long-term occupancy of emergency homeless accommodation by 2010;
further additional investment, in 2007 to 2009, to enable 27,000 new social housing units to be started or acquired and some 17,000 affordable housing units to be delivered;
update and effectively enforce the minimum standards regulations for the private rented sector, and the recent announcement of an action programme to address the standards issue; and
supports the development by Government of a new national action plan for inclusion, which is being prepared in tandem with and will complement the forthcoming National Development Plan 2007-2013.”
I welcome this debate and compliment Senator Ryan on his work with the Simon Community of Ireland which, with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Threshold and Focus Ireland, supports the motion. While the debate is timely, we are discussing the issue on one of the worst days of the year in terms of weather. I agree with Senator Ryan regarding the number of people near this building who are homeless. While there is much emphasis on the homeless situation in Dublin and other major cities, there are difficulties for people in parts of rural Ireland, particularly persons who do not want to move to bigger towns and cities.
The issue of youth homelessness, which has been discussed, arose on “Liveline” several times during the summer in respect of families’ serious difficulties, namely, the hell on earth families go through when young people cannot get on with their parents or guardians. Much as on any “Liveline” programme, the different views were interesting. Some people said young people should be put out of their houses or accommodated in some way with the help of social workers and other agencies. I welcome the reduction in the figures relating to homeless children. Last year, the figure was 460, but in 2002, it was 1,405, a reduction of 67%. Senator Ryan accepted this trend. Between 2002 and 2005, the global figures relating to homeless persons have decreased. This is the good news.
In rural Ireland, many single people are not helped. In every local authority, there is a tendency to house families, but the traditional family no longer exists. People in their 40s and 50s who try to get accommodation experience significant difficulties. I applaud the fact that some local authorities will now provide housing for people in that category.
Long before phrases such as “social and affordable housing”, Galway County Council tried to reserve at least 10% of its housing estates for elderly people, lone parents or the homeless, which was a good policy. Emigrants were often mentioned in that context. Through social and affordable housing, that figure is currently 20%, but there is a vacuum in terms of the difficulties faced by returning emigrants when trying to get housing. Special regard should be given to them because they have worked hard all of their lives. Perhaps they did not have proper pensions in their workplaces or where they lived, but they deserve consideration.
When schemes are put in place by the voluntary sector, which has done great work, I hope they are built to the highest standard. A voluntary organisation known as the Clúid Housing Association — clúid means shelter — has established many good schemes. It has been concerned about security, particularly for older people, and there is a house for an estate caretaker in each scheme. When CCTV systems are rolled out, I urge that they be made available to those housing schemes.
The important issue of rent was referred to. Higher rent is paid for voluntary housing than for local authority housing. Why is this the case and will it be examined? Regarding the assessment of needs, I welcome the decrease in the numbers on waiting lists, the result of a positive investment in social and affordable housing. I hope the Minister’s plans for 2007-09 will be fulfilled. I welcome the MakeRoom campaign’s examination of homeless persons centres. It is trying to help people who want to get out of homelessness.
I understand the Minister will examine the limit on the amount of rent. Senator Ryan gave figures concerning how expensive rent is in places such as Dublin and Galway city, which I know has a difficulty in this respect. That the Department of Social and Family Affairs is reviewing the rent supplement and the rent limits to determine the limits that should apply from next January is important. If one speaks with any community welfare officer, he or she will say there is a real difficulty. From January, we will need definite figures, but I am sure some of these issues will be addressed by the budget in December.
When we discuss rent, another issue is that of proper standards. In September, we were told that under the Residential Tenancies Act 2004, 123,000 properties were registered with the Private Residential Tenancies Board. Some of the funding is used to promote further improvement in private rented accommodation. The regulations must be implemented and they must be enforced properly.
I welcome that there are some improvements, which every Senator would acknowledge, but the work of Focus Ireland, the Simon Community of Ireland, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Threshold is admirable. I hope they continue their good work and that the Government can address the question of homeless persons as quickly as possible.
Mr. Bannon Mr. Bannon
Mr. Bannon: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. On behalf of Fine Gael, I support the Labour Party motion and give our support to the MakeRoom campaign, the launch of which we attended in October.
As we speak, 22 children under 12 are homeless on our streets, according to figures compiled by the Health Service Executive and the Department of Health and Children. These are the children whom the Celtic tiger has forgotten. They are the children on whom the Government has turned its back. They live in one of the richest countries in the world but they are not getting, nor looking for, luxuries. They are not expecting places at private schools, exotic holidays or expensive gifts for Christmas. What they are looking for is a warm, loving and caring home, which is the right of every young child. Instead they face a winter of extreme cold and extreme danger on the streets.
If we had read about it in Dickens we would be horrified, but thankfully times have changed. In fact, times have not changed and they will not change under this Minister’s watch. The Government has a target of ending homelessness by 2010 which, even were it to be met, would be too late for these children. It also had a target of ending sleeping rough by 2004 so I am not too optimistic about the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats commitment to a 2010 end to homelessness.
The facts on homelessness have been stark in the past nine years and remain stark today. By March 2005, 43,684 households were still waiting for a local authority house, and many housing bodies say this is an underestimation, which I believe. There are 5,581 homeless people in Ireland but the Simon Community claims the overall figures are a gross underestimation, which I also believe. In Dublin, 4,060 people are homeless. There are 492 homeless children in Ireland, the majority of whom are in their mid to late teens, with the highest number being recorded in urban areas such as greater Dublin with 210. The next highest is the south with 132, the west has 46 and the mid-west has 43. The lowest figures were in the north west, where five children were found to be homeless. The overall number of homeless children grew from 476 in 2003 to 492 in 2004.
Adding to the statistics of Irish homeless, the Polish Embassy has said there may be as many as 600 homeless Polish people in Ireland. According to voluntary aid workers, more than 300 Polish emigrants sleep rough in Dublin every night. Most of the homeless gravitate towards the Phoenix Park, bus shelters and Garda stations. As Senator Ryan pointed out, we see people living rough in doorways not 100 yards from this House. With the Polish population currently standing at 90,000 and growing, the homelessness problem has become a major issue in the past few months. Some 10% of St. Vincent de Paul’s night shelter beds are now occupied by homeless Poles. Focus Ireland has warned that Polish and other migrant workers are almost certain to become Ireland’s new homeless poor within the next five years due to an inevitable downturn in the economy. Their problems will be reminiscent of those the Irish in London faced some decades ago.
The MakeRoom campaign, supported by Focus Ireland, the Simon Communities of Ireland, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Threshold, four national voluntary organisations working in the area of homelessness and housing, is for everyone who wants to see an end to homelessness in Ireland. Those agencies hope it will provide an opportunity for politicians, voluntary organisations, families, individuals and communities to be part of the debate and part of the solution.
The MakeRoom campaign stresses that a comprehensive strategy is needed to prevent homelessness. It believes each person, regardless of income or housing status, must have the opportunity to access vital services, and to redress if his or her needs are not adequately met. It also believes that Government policies should not contribute directly to trapping people in homelessness.
The six policy planks on which the MakeRoom campaign focuses are responding to what people need, more and better housing, support to leave homelessness, renting on a low income, proper standards in renting, tackling poverty and preventing homelessness. This is not rocket science and the Government should not have to think too hard to achieve these aims.
We should not have a debate on such an important issue simply to be negative and my party has developed a good policy in this area to tackle homelessness once and for all. To do that, we are convinced of the need for the State to invest heavily in move-on accommodation. Such housing is designed both to assist homeless people to move out of homelessness and to ensure vulnerable people do not become homeless. In essence, it provides a semi-sheltered environment for those who cannot cope with independent living.
It goes without saying that the Government’s shameful failure to deliver on the social housing units it has repeatedly promised is adding to the problem. It is also vital that the root causes of homelessness, such as poverty and the twin scourge of drug abuse and alcohol dependency, are tackled. More social housing is urgently needed as the current supply is not adequate to meet demand. The number of social houses made available under Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000 is also below expectations. In the second quarter of 2006, 1,358 social houses were provided, approximately 6.2% of total houses built in that period. The work of voluntary housing associations needs to be supported, as they cannot and should not be expected to meet the demand for their services unaided. The Government has neglected those in certain areas, as will be confirmed by anyone involved in those organisations.
Fine Gael shares the belief of organisations like Focus Ireland that the legislative definition of homelessness is too narrow. Rather we need to look at three groups for the real picture. They are the visible homeless who sleep rough or in emergency shelters and bed and breakfasts, the hidden homeless who live in inadequate, unsuitable or insecure accommodation and those at risk of homelessness, as well as those who are not homeless but are in danger of becoming so due to economic, familial or health difficulties.
Fine Gael remains committed to full implementation of existing Government strategies and will work towards the implementation of the independent review of the Government’s homeless strategy. The review of the implementation of the Government’s integrated and preventative homeless strategies examined the actions recommended to tackle and prevent homelessness and local authorities’ action plans in response to the strategies. It shows that a lot more remains to be done in the areas of long-term accommodation, co-ordination between Government agencies dealing with homelessness, the development of a case management approach to meeting the needs of the homeless and preventative strategies for other groups at risk of homelessness.
Again, I thank the Labour Party for tabling this motion and I wish the MakeRoom campaign every success in tackling the continual presence of homelessness. The Minister of State has statistical figures but they are not accurate in many cases. I have learnt from discussions with local authorities around the country that there is a huge underestimation in the numbers of homeless today. What has the Government done in the past couple of years? It has changed the format of the housing application document. Many people find it difficult to complete that document so they abandon it and continue to live rough on the streets. The figures the Minister has quoted over recent years are inaccurate. People involved in supporting the homeless will confirm that. I am not happy with the distorted figures offered by the Minister. In the not too distant future we will have more accurate figures that will shame him and his Government on this issue.
Mr. Minihan Mr. Minihan
Mr. Minihan: I welcome the debate on this motion. The issue of homelessness is one in which all Members have a keen interest, especially in the current economic climate. We all hope to arrive at a position where there will no longer be homeless people on our streets. Equally, however, we must acknowledge that there are many and varying reasons for homelessness. In this debate I will concentrate on a new element of homelessness which arises from the expansion of the EU.
I have had a series of meetings with the Cork Simon Community and the Cork Homeless Forum in this regard and as a result, some interesting statistics have come to hand. I will highlight them because they must be included in the overall debate on this issue. In Cork city significant progress has been made in recent years in ending homelessness. Due to a strong and productive partnership approach by all the relevant and statutory agencies, a significant base of expertise and provision has been developed that has enabled the Cork Homeless Forum to be effective in its approach to addressing a broad spectrum of issues related to homelessness.
The forum’s first action plan was produced in 2000 and it was subsequently revised in 2005. It included an extensive range of specific actions incorporating timescales for delivery and inbuilt evaluation processes. A comprehensive consultative process with all key stakeholders informed the development of these action plans. The report published last year, the review of the Government’s homeless strategies by Fitzpatrick Associates, described the approach in Cork as an example of good practice that all local homeless forums could follow, regardless of the nature of the specific problems within their areas. I congratulate those associated with it.
Notwithstanding the positive impact the Cork Homeless Forum is having on homelessness in Cork, an issue is now emerging to put pressure on the homeless services in the city. An increasing number of people from some of the EU accession states are getting into difficulties, ending up sleeping rough and living in tents or other unsuitable accommodation. Many have poor English language skills and access to social welfare support is limited. While the Health Service Executive, HSE, and the community welfare officers have been doing all they can to help alleviate some of the difficulties being encountered by people from these EU states, they must work within the parameters of the habitual residence condition or HRC. They are, therefore, restricted in the level of help and support they can offer.
This situation is further compounded by the direction that local authorities have received from the Department to the effect that people from the EU states who present as homeless should not be accommodated unless they satisfy the requirements of the HRC. This, in turn, has limited the scope of local authorities and voluntary agencies to respond. We must examine this situation. It is newly emerged and I believe we can tweak the regulations and move in a certain direction to help alleviate these problems.
There are interesting statistics regarding how this problem has grown. In 2005, the Cork Simon Community, in monitoring homelessness in the city, found that 16% of residents at its emergency shelter were from the EU accession states. An average of 27% of service users in the Cork Simon Community day centre were from these states. Another 19% of people living rough and 25% of the people availing of temporary cold weather shelter over the Christmas and new year period of 2005 were from EU accession states.
This trend increased dramatically in 2006. A total of 58 of the current 491 service users in the Cork Simon Community day centre were from the EU states while 35% of all people living rough were EU immigrants. Throughout January during the nightly soup run volunteers made contact with an average of 19 people per night but in February this increased to 25. This compares with an average of three people from EU states in the same period in 2005.
The Cork Simon Community outreach team said in a report that the majority of EU nationals arriving in this country who find themselves in difficulty have basic English language skills or none at all. Many arrive with little more than €200 and high expectations of finding work immediately. Most are unaware of the cost of living or of the high cost of private rented accommodation. While the majority have skills related to the construction industry, most do not have the required Safe Pass to work in the building trade nor the resources to acquire the Safe Pass. Their level of awareness of their rights and entitlements under employment legislation is low. As a result they are vulnerable to exploitation and at a further risk of homelessness.
Many travel here in search of their fortune. We must acknowledge this. The key issues highlighted by the Cork Simon Community in this regard are that these people have no income, no access to suitable accommodation, limited capacity to access employment and little or no support from the statutory or voluntary agencies. Of the 105 people the organisation came into contact with in the relevant period, 80% had no income. It should be noted that the HSE and community welfare officers are aware of the situation and they continue to be proactive in helping individuals case by case who find themselves in difficulty. However, they are still required to work within the parameters of the HRC and are, therefore, restricted in the level of help and support they can give.
Existing accommodation services for homeless people are specialist in their nature. They were established to respond to the specific needs of people with addiction, mental health and other support needs. These services are in high demand and are experiencing full occupancy on an ongoing basis. The accommodation needs of people coming from the EU are primarily economic and employment related and neither the State nor the voluntary sector has responded adequately to them. Existing homeless services do not have the spare capacity and were not designed to respond adequately to their needs. This lack of alternative homeless services and alternative sources of support for people from the EU who are in difficulty has the potential to displace other people who are homeless.
We can move in a certain direction on this issue with a little thought. There are a growing number of homeless people from the EU, and existing services that are designed to respond to a specific range of needs of people who are homeless are not an appropriate response to their needs. These services are already functioning to capacity.
Perhaps the Minister of State will consider a number of options. I ask him to examine the option of repealing the habitual residence condition. I ask this not in an effort to play politics but in an effort to make a contribution to this debate. The Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2004 is having an unintentional but noticeable impact on a small but growing number of men and women from the EU states who arrive to this country to work. The financial destitution and subsequent homelessness of people from these states can be immediately addressed and resolved.
Repealing the HRC would help alleviate the financial destitution, assist people in attempting to access private rented accommodation, support people in attempting to develop English language skills and assist them in accessing our labour market. All statistics show we need these people in our labour market. I do not believe we should be so strict and stringent in not accommodating them.
We should also extend the remit of the Reception and Integration Agency to include short-term accommodation. Consideration should be given to this so that we can provide immigrants with short-term accommodation while they establish themselves. We should also provide clarity and direction to local authorities and voluntary agencies for dealing with these people. The establishment of an integrated referral service to assist people from the EU member states to move to independent living could go a long way towards helping them.
We have all heard the stories of the Irish abroad. It is the first weeks and months that people coming here find most difficult. They have come here to work, not to live off social welfare. We should meet and encourage them and help them get set up. I ask for this to be considered.
Mr. Norris Mr. Norris
Mr. Norris: I wish to share my time with Senators Quinn and Henry.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach An Leas-Chathaoirleach
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Is that agreed? Agreed.
Mr. Norris Mr. Norris
Mr. Norris: This is an important debate. I am sorry to see that once again the Government has introduced an amendment. We are all on the same side on this issue and it is unnecessary for this sort of amendment. All the amendment has done is remove some references from the motion and added more, mostly praise of the Government, but it is basically clear we are moving in the same direction. I am puzzled by the removal of any mention of Focus Ireland, the Simon Community, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Threshold, particularly as the Government side of the House frequently invoke and praise these groups. I do not understand the reason these names had to be removed or why they were not acknowledged. The requests of the MakeRoom campaign are ones that are supported by the Government side, so I cannot understand why in the name of God we have this awful adversarial system.
Senator Minihan made an excellent contribution and I support his call for the removal of the habitual residence qualification, which principally affects people from European countries like Poland. In today’s paper there is a sad picture of a young man unconscious in hospital. He collapsed outside the Merchant’s Quay Project, which is among the groups that briefed us for this debate, and was taken to hospital where he has been unconscious ever since. His entire possessions consisted of a small amount of Polish currency. This situation is a reproach to all of us and one with which we must deal.
Who are the homeless? We know who they are because we have a definition in the Housing Act. The Act provides that a person is homeless:
If there is no accommodation available which, in the opinion of the authority, he, together with any other person who normally resides with him or who might reasonably be expected to reside with him, can reasonably occupy or remain in occupation of...
or . . .
(b) he is living in a hospital, county home . . .
and has no other means.
The Merchant’s Quay people have broken down the homeless into three categories. First, the visible homeless who are those people we see, even on the steps of our great public buildings. It is a cause of distress to many of us to see these people settling down for the night. These are not all stereotypical old people and drunkards, but young people who should be on the threshold of life. The second group is the hidden homeless who are people who are staying with relatives and so on who do not possess their own home.
The third group is the people at risk of homelessness. This is a growing section because, despite our increasing wealth and our satisfactory position on the world table, we have a situation where property is increasingly placed outside the capacity of young people to afford. The cost of housing has gone completely off the register. The house I bought in 1978 for €25,000 is now valued at €3.5 million, which is insane.
It is difficult to know how many homeless people we have. We can take a snapshot, but homelessness and the number of people we can detect as homeless change. There are approximately 5,000 homeless people. This is worrying and reflects the fact that housing has become increasingly unaffordable.
On the matter of affordable housing, it is a shame the Government has so often colluded with property developers in the avoidance of this responsibility. It has allowed them hand over parcels of useless land or money so that the middle class occupants of their developments will not be troubled or distressed by having to live beside people who come from a slightly different social background with a different accent. In 2002, there was a total of 102,000 local authority houses, but we had some 48,000 households on the waiting list. We need to take a look at this situation.
Homelessness has an impact on people’s welfare. The average life expectancy of somebody on the streets is 42 years, yet this week we heard that women born today can expect to live to 100 years of age. People on the streets are also more prone to diseases such as TB and hepatitis and to drug addiction, etc.
I would like to end on a positive note. The ready for work programme is sponsored by the various groups involved in homelessness and by one of our banks. This initiative gives us a different view of the homeless who are often dismissed as shiftless or of having brought it on themselves. Since 2002, out of 178 referrals to the ready for work project some 118 or 66% began training. Of these, 95% completed the training and most went on to employment or to further training or education. It is marvellous that people from such a disadvantaged background could be assisted to get up and do something for themselves.
I like to put the human face on these issues. A woman was kicked out of home when she was 18 years of age and slept in doorways and begged all over the city. She now has two children and is in the business in the communities return to work scheme, assisted by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. She said: “It is very strange having people respect me, if you know what I mean. When I was on the streets I just kept my head down. No-one hardly ever looked at me. It was horrible. Looking back to that time, it was just what was happening”. This is one person who has been given hope. We have the resources and can do it.
I salute Senator Ryan and his colleagues for putting forward this important motion and I hope that more will be done. We should stick together and should not be divided by silly, unnecessary, adversarial amendments.
Mr. Quinn Mr. Quinn
Mr. Quinn: I thank Senators Norris and Henry for allowing me to share their time. I support the motion and the opportunity to have this debate. I was in Brazil last week to explain the Irish economic miracle. While I was there I never mentioned homelessness because I am ashamed that I cannot explain how such a successful country can have a solvable problem like this.
I have been trying to do something about educational disadvantage which is a significant problem that will not be solved easily or over a short period. Homelessness is solvable. The answer is in the motion put down by Senator Ryan, which puts forward six proposals for the Government and asks it to do something about the situation. The problem can be solved by providing the financial resources required. The nation is swamped with money as a result of our economic miracle. The Government must act with determination and decide the issue is a high priority about which it can do something. We have the answers in the motion, which is being supported by this side of the House.
I too am disappointed the Government put down an amendment that does not mention the specific solutions offered by the MakeRoom campaign. These are supported by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Focus Ireland and the other groups and is doable. It will cost money, but we have the money to do it. The Government must just determine to act on the issue.
Dr. Henry Dr. Henry
 Dr. Henry: I am very surprised the Government amendment does not mention the organisations which have put so much work into the area of homelessness. I would like to include others such as the Salvation Army, Los Angeles Society for homeless boys and Ruhama.
One group not mentioned in connection with homelessness is that of prisoners leaving prison, some of whom have nowhere to go when they come out. There are far too few hostels run by the charities that cater for them. Unfortunately, when planning permission is sought by some groups to provide housing for people coming out of prison, local people object to the granting of permission. Homeless people have multiple needs.
We need to give more attention to the issue as it affects children. When the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, was Minister of State with responsibility for children, she was frequently told that homeless children were children who were out of home. Given that they are frequently out of home as a result of physical or sexual abuse, that was no explanation. We have to provide services, including foster care, for these children if we are going to stop them from sleeping rough or turning to prostitution, drugs and crime. In that regard, I was delighted to note the increase in the number of foster parents for older children.
Those who are mentally ill and homeless also face particular difficulties. Health services for the mentally ill are provided on a sectoral basis, so if a person stops taking his or her medication and is found in the wrong sector, it can be difficult to access the proper treatment.
Homeless people encounter terrible problems in terms of finding employment, even after they have found a roof over their heads. Several surveys have been conducted which indicate that people living in hostels rarely receive replies when they send curriculum vitae to prospective employers.
I support the motion and regret that the Government parties were not in a position to do likewise.
Mr. Brady Mr. Brady
Mr. Brady: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the important issue of homelessness. We tend to take our homes for granted but being homeless is not just a matter of bricks and mortar or four walls and a roof. The comfort of family and neighbours, safety in a community, access to health and education services and a sense of hope are also important. There are complex reasons behind an individual becoming homeless, especially where addiction or mental illness is involved. However, homelessness can also result from simple circumstances.
When it comes to hostel and bed and breakfast accommodation, we have to reconsider the definition of homelessness. I have encountered individuals and families who had to leave their bed and breakfast accommodation at 9 a.m. and remain on the streets until evening, sometimes purely because of bureaucracy.
Addressing homelessness involves providing people with the resources they need to make a choice. There will always be exceptions to the rules or people who do not fit into a box, and some will try to take advantage of the system. The people who make decisions on the problems associated with homelessness must be given the flexibility to make allowances for exceptional circumstances. It is not easy to accommodate a person with, for example, addiction related needs. A multi-agency approach is required, as well as understanding and support from the wider community.
Appropriate accommodation and back-up services on an ongoing basis in health, employment and education are in the interest of everybody, not only clients of homeless services. The Government has done a great deal of work on social inclusion but if somebody is to be socially included, he or she has to be accepted by the community rather than highlighted as different. Unfortunately, some organisations fail in this area, giving rise to problems for the individuals concerned and for the wider community.
I wish to make a special plea with regard to health services for homeless people. The vast majority of homeless people do not have medical cards, so when they fall ill, they are usually referred by a GP or brought by ambulance to an accident and emergency department, where they tend to spend more time than other patients. For various reasons, they also spend more time in the general hospital system. However, when they recover, they are sent back out to the cold and rain in a vicious circle. I congratulate Dr. Austin O’Carroll and his colleagues in the Mountjoy Street Family Practice on the submission they have made with regard to providing an intermediate care centre for homeless people which could offer a range of statutory, treatment and back-up services in a central location. However, that is only one part of an array of necessary measures because there is no quick-fix solution to this problem.
While the overall number of homeless people has decreased and significant progress has been made, as the amendment notes and organisations dealing with homelessness acknowledge, statistics indicate that the age at which people become homeless is decreasing, the number of homeless females is increasing and people tend to be homeless for longer periods. Drug addiction and its accompanying ailments, such as blood infections and transmissible diseases, are increasingly prevalent among homeless people. Some 64% of homeless people have used drugs at some stage, while a quarter continue to use drugs. I commend Focus Ireland, the Simon Community, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Threshold and the other agencies who deal with these complex and difficult issues on a daily basis.
Providing a home is a more complex matter than merely giving someone a room and, in this regard, I commend Dublin City Council on its close collaboration with homeless agencies and the successful initiatives, such as the night bus, which it has taken. I encourage the council to continue to explore the issue of single person accommodation, although accommodation must also be provided to families. While Dublin City Council has taken several successful initiatives on the north side of the city to provide social housing for young families, single person accommodation remains a significant issue in the inner city. Many single people who lack a home tend to congregate in the inner city because that is where most services are based. People have referred to the problems which have arisen as a result of that in locations not far from where we are standing.
The amendment points out all the advances that have been made. It is widely accepted, having regard to Towards 2016, that it is possible to tackle the vast majority of these problems by 2010 but there are no quick fixes. A comprehensive holistic approach must be taken to this issue. The Department, in conjunction with all the other agencies, is working extremely hard to address it. We will continue to provide the resources for it.
As we near Christmas, which is a time when we focus on our homes and families, we should realise this is a perennial issue. It is complex in many areas but much work has been done. I congratulate the Minister and the Department on what has been achieved so far.
Ms Tuffy Ms Tuffy
Ms Tuffy: Senator O’Meara mentioned the hidden homeless. As a former county councillor, my experience of homelessness would be more in terms of the hidden homeless and dealing with people who have been on the housing list for years.
Another aspect is the problems to which the housing crisis is contributing. For example, some relationships never get off the ground because the couple and their child have waited for housing for many years during which time they had to live apart. In those circumstances the relationship never gets a chance to develop and all concerned are affected in a detrimental way by that.
There are also the people who lose the opportunity, because of our housing policy, to have a career because of the catch-22 situation they are in regarding the rent supplement scheme and all that involves. If they were housed in council accommodation there would not be any catches in that regard. They could get a job and improve their circumstances.
Health issues arise also. Someone may suffer from ill-health but if they become homeless it makes matters much worse. If people with drug abuse problems do not have secure accommodation, it will not help their circumstances.
I have been provided figures by Focus Ireland which indicate that a large number of children are homeless. More than 35,000 children have a housing need. Every second homeless child in Dublin is under the age of five. Those statistics are very worrying.
I have experience of dealing with people who are homeless. They are living in bed and breakfast accommodation in Dublin although they are from my constituency in Dublin Mid-West. They must travel into town each day to bring their children to school. Sometimes they do not do that and the children’s education is affected. If the parents of the children have a drugs problem, for example, and are living in homeless accommodation, such as bed and breakfast premises, the children are separated from the family network that could fill the gap if their parents are unable to look after them properly. Those are the hidden problems behind the housing crisis. There have been many lost opportunities and issues created by the fact that we have not tackled the housing crisis in the past few years.
Every public representative here will have had the experience of people who have been on the housing list for years telephoning us in tears because of their circumstances. I have dealt with people who, for whatever reason, ended up living in a rundown caravan with no water or electricity. They were living in terrible deprivation.
There are many problems with the way the housing crisis is being dealt with by the Government and we need to review it. I will quote some statistics from a recent article in a Jesuit magazine by Fr. Peter McVerry. He made the point that one of the reasons so many people are on the housing list and so many are homeless is because the issue of the price of housing land has never been dealt with. The Minister of State’s brother, the Taoiseach, made a big deal of the last report on property rights issued by the all-party committee on the Constitution but that report is sitting on a shelf. Nothing has been done about it and in the meantime, the average price of housing in Dublin and throughout the country has gone up by another €100,000 since the report was launched by the Taoiseach.
The Government has made much of its plans for further housing. I am in favour of affordable housing but, first, it has not been delivered to the extent people expected from the Government announcements about thousands of affordable houses coming on stream and, second, the affordable housing scheme should have operated in conjunction with the building of a substantial number of council houses. Fr. McVerry made the point that the percentage of council housing as a proportion of the overall housing output is minimal compared with what used to be the case. In the article he states:
[In summary], in the 1970s and 1980s, new social housing, as a percentage of total housing output, was between 20% and 33%. [Actually], from 1922 up to the mid-1960s, 50% of all housing output was social housing ... new social housing is well below 10%, despite the scale of need established by the local authorities assessments ...
He mentions the report of the National Economic and Social Council which recommended that over eight years, from 2005 to 2012, there would need to be an increase of 73,000 units, net of tenant purchase, of council houses to deal with our housing waiting lists but in reality we have not got anywhere near that target. From 1995 to 2004, 4,275 social housing units were provided each year, less than half the output recommended by the NESC, and when one takes into account the sale of local authority houses, the situation, according to Fr. McVerry, is much worse. He states that to meet the target set by the NESC, the number of new local authority and voluntary housing units being provided would need to more than triple over the next seven years.
This is an emergency and the Government has not tackled it in any real way, despite its claims. I have heard the Minister say in the House that 90,000 houses were built this year but the majority of that is private housing. When it comes to examining other ways of tackling social housing need, for example, through the rental supplement scheme, the onus appears to be on the private sector, which is based on profit making and is not concerned with meeting people’s housing needs.
I ask the Government to go back to basics on the housing issue and deliver a certain number of council houses each year. It should ensure they are integrated but that should be the Government’s focus. Affordable housing is important but there are many drawbacks with that scheme. It should not replace the need to provide council housing units. We may look back in years to come and wonder if we made a mistake with affordable housing. The Government owns the council house and if the occupants decide to buy it, they must purchase it.
The affordable housing scheme has clawback provisions but they do not apply after 20 years and the State may be left with no equity in the houses. The clawback provisions may, in themselves, generate hardship among the buyers of the dwellings because the dwellings tend to be apartments and are not supposed to be lived in for the rest of one’s life. The clawback provisions are such that many will end up staying in an affordable house because they will not be able to afford to move up in the market.
It is very important to place major emphasis on getting county councils to deliver housing on the ground. If they are not delivering as they should, they should be penalised. County councils have a problem matching the funding they receive but the Government can do something about this. There needs to be much more local authority housing and it should amount to 30% of overall housing output. People should be able to purchase their local authority house if they have an opportunity to do so.
Mr. N. Ahern Mr. N. Ahern
Mr. N. Ahern: I thank Senators for their views and the opportunity to speak on the issue of homelessness, which we all accept is of major concern. I welcome the overall goal of the MakeRoom campaign to end homelessness by 2010. The campaign’s representatives have indicated this means “nobody will sleep rough; nobody will stay in emergency accommodation for longer than is absolutely necessary and nobody will become homeless because of a lack of appropriate services”. This is very much the Government’s goal also. As we become more affluent, it becomes even more important to look after the vulnerable.
The Government’s commitment to tackling homelessness is clear and is evident from the funding provided. Six or seven years ago, the Department provided just over €12 million on a national basis for the provision of accommodation and related services for homeless persons. This has increased to €50 million per year, which is a huge increase. If the issue were only about accommodation, we would have solved it a long time ago. It is much more complicated and it is not simply a question of building houses.
In addition to the money spent by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the Department of Health and Children spends an additional 50% or more on care for the people in question. Many homeless persons have very complex addiction and mental health problems. Years ago such people were probably placed in psychiatric institutions but we are now more enlightened and let them out into the community. Some, however, fall through the cracks and very often end up homeless. Reference was made to the safety net for gaps in many services. We must be aware of this but also note that it is not just a question of putting a roof over people’s heads. If it were, the solution would be much simpler.
Since 2000, when Homelessness — An Integrated Strategy was published, the Government has provided some €450 million in capital and current funding for accommodation and care related services for homeless persons. There have been very significant improvements in services for homeless people in recent years. The integrated strategy recognised the need to address factors not only related to the provision of accommodation but also to health, care and welfare, education and training, and prevention in order to tackle homelessness effectively. An interdepartmental committee is working on this.
The Homeless Agency was established in Dublin as a partnership body to co-ordinate the delivery of homeless services. Similarly, local homeless fora were established at city and county levels in the rest of the country. These partnerships between local authorities, the Health Service Executive and other relevant statutory and voluntary organisations have developed three-year local homeless action plans. The plans set out how accommodation, health, settlement, welfare and other services are to be provided to homeless persons in a co-ordinated fashion and they have been vital in achieving the progress made to date. The partnerships have pulled together many strands and achieved co-ordination among voluntary groups and Departments, which is very important.
The homeless preventative strategy, published four years ago, built on the achievements of the integrated strategy with the aim of providing a direct preventative response by targeting groups at risk of becoming homeless, including adult offenders, young offenders, those leaving mental health facilities and acute hospitals and young people leaving institutional care. Senator Henry referred to people leaving prison but these people are catered for in the strategy. If offenders are on temporary release, the system may not always work fully but it is meant to. The strategy is such that people coming out of hospital or prison, or people from the Army who might have been living in an institutional set-up for a while, can be catered for through co-ordinated services, thus preventing the problem of homelessness from arising.
Real improvements have been made, as evidenced by the falling number of homeless persons reported in Counted In 2005, the Homeless Agency’s most recent periodic assessment of homelessness in Dublin. The data indicate a 40% decrease in the number of rough sleepers and a 19% reduction in the number of homeless households, as compared with the figures in the assessment of 2002.
Through the vital work of the local homeless fora, there has been significant progress. The housing needs assessment 2005, which we published some months ago, recorded a 46% fall in the number of homeless persons nationally by comparison with previous years. I am not suggesting everything is perfect or that the problem has gone away — it has not and will not, in the short term in any case — but circumstances have improved. We are working very much with local authorities, the HSE and the voluntary bodies. We fund the voluntary groups, which are part of the campaign and part of the Government’s service provision. Many of the services are of an outreach nature and many of the groups have availed of the capital grants to provide accommodation.
The social partnership agreement, Towards 2016, contains a commitment to the elimination of the long-term occupancy of emergency homeless accommodation by 2010. This is well-aligned with the goals of the MakeRoom campaign. It also ties in with the Homeless Agency’s overarching objective of eliminating, by 2010, long-term homelessness and the need to sleep rough in Dublin.
One will be aware of the Review of Implementation of Homeless Strategies, prepared by Fitzpatrick Associates and published earlier this year. The consultants engaged in wide-ranging consultation with both homeless service providers and homeless persons as part of the review process. The Government accepted the broad thrust of the recommendations of the review and is committed to taking them forward. Work is under way in my Department on preparing a revised and updated strategy on homelessness, having regard to the recommendations of the review.
We are at a crucial stage in addressing homelessness, a point with which the MakeRoom campaign would agree. We have made good progress in dealing with the emergency aspects. Senator Brady mentioned the Dublin City Council bus which brings individuals to emergency accommodation every night if they so need it. Needs very much depend on the time of year. Many of these people choose not to get on the bus or to accept a bed for the night, for whatever reason. All our energies are spent on trying to attract such people to use these services. If we can get them to use the services, we can build up a certain level of understanding and start to work with them to meet many of their other needs. The need for a roof over their heads at night is just one of the many needs of homeless people, as I have said.
Our current homeless population was largely identified in last year’s housing needs assessment. Systems and structures are being put in place to ensure that the long-term housing, care and support needs of homeless people are met. The Department has an ongoing focus on supporting projects in the areas of tenancy sustainment and resettlement, as well as on moving people out of homelessness. We all agree that a need exists in such areas. There is enough emergency accommodation. We are working with the agencies which are involved in the various projects to move people on. That is a much slower process, however. We are paying for various services which are run by the voluntary groups. We are all frustrated by the results because things are not happening as quickly as we would like. We cannot throw money at it and expect it to be solved six or nine months later. We are dealing with complex people and complex problems. The departmental projects I mentioned will involve the provision of a range of long-term accommodation options for homeless people, including the provision of social housing by local authorities and the voluntary housing sector through the local authorities’ social and affordable housing action plans.
I listened to Senator Tuffy’s speech. I remind her that a great deal of money is being spent. The Department’s housing Vote is approximately €2 billion per annum, €1 billion of which is being spent on what the Senator referred to as standard local authority housing. We are trying to move away from that in many ways. We are trying to provide integrated housing estates, to develop the voluntary sector and to police the Part V guidelines. We are trying to move away from the development of vast local authority housing estates. Some €240 million of the €2 billion I mentioned is being spent on remedial works and regeneration as part of an attempt to correct the mistakes of previous decades. I got the impression that Senator Tuffy is longing and yearning for the days when we developed nothing other than vast local authority estates, with hundreds of houses. I assure the Senator that the days when we did that are gone.
We are building approximately 6,000 local authority houses, 1,500 voluntary houses and 3,000 affordable houses each year. We are meeting the needs of approximately 12,000 families each year. Our spending on the national development plan is ahead of schedule. We do not intend to develop vast housing estates as we did in the past in places like Ballymun, Clondalkin, Moyross, O’Malley Park and Sligo. Ministers and other politicians thought at the time that it was great to dispense keys at a rate of knots, but 25 years on we are spending approximately €200 million each year on trying to correct the mistakes which were made when we had a vast throughput of housing. Such a system is not the answer. Senator Tuffy quoted a report that was produced by the National Economic and Social Council, but nobody ever quotes the Economic and Social Research Institute. Perhaps we are all guilty of selectively quoting from the various Government agencies as it suits us.
Mr. Ryan Mr. Ryan
Mr. Ryan: We should all be wary of economists when it comes to housing. They do not understand what it is.
Mr. N. Ahern Mr. N. Ahern
Mr. N. Ahern: I realise that.
Mr. Ryan Mr. Ryan
Mr. Ryan: They see it as a product.
Mr. N. Ahern Mr. N. Ahern
Mr. N. Ahern: The ESRI is probably part of NESC as well. I am just saying that one can choose different——
Mr. Ryan Mr. Ryan
Mr. Ryan: The NESC is more important because it has people who know what housing is about.
Mr. N. Ahern Mr. N. Ahern
Mr. N. Ahern: I assure the Senator that I am not influenced by the ESRI’s way of thinking, which is that the poor should wait.
Mr. Ryan Mr. Ryan
Mr. Ryan: I am glad to hear it.
Mr. N. Ahern Mr. N. Ahern
Mr. N. Ahern: Senator Tuffy seems to be yearning for the vast estates of the past, which would not solve anything.
Ms Tuffy Ms Tuffy
Ms Tuffy: I am not.
Mr. Ryan Mr. Ryan
 Mr. Ryan: That is not what she said.
Mr. N. Ahern Mr. N. Ahern
Mr. N. Ahern: They might help to put a roof over people’s heads, but they lead to many other bloody problems.
The rental accommodation scheme has been mentioned. I listened yesterday morning to a radio programme that is not always favourable to the Government’s way of thinking.
Mr. Ryan Mr. Ryan
Mr. Ryan: I am glad to hear that. We would hate it if everything was favourable to the Government.
Mr. N. Ahern Mr. N. Ahern
Mr. N. Ahern: The programme featured a complimentary piece about the scheme, which will be of huge benefit over time. It is being developed slowly, but the people who are availing of it will be able to go back to work without losing their rent allowance payments, as they would have previously. I accept that it is happening slowly as a result of various difficulties, but it will take those who avail of it out of one of the main poverty traps which exist.
The MakeRoom campaign has raised issues relating to the rent supplement scheme and the affordability of rent generally. The Department of Social and Family Affairs is reviewing the rent limits of the rent supplement scheme to determine the limits which should apply from January 2007. The action that is being taken to promote the reform and development of the private rented sector is helping to improve the availability of affordable rental accommodation. Approximately 60,000 people, or 40% of the overall rental market, are availing of rent supplement payments. If the Department were to continue to give larger amounts of money without watching what was happening, there would not be any point to it. If the scheme is not properly focused and targeted, it will add to the overall price of renting.
The MakeRoom campaign has called for the enforcement of stricter standards in private rented accommodation, which is a matter that is being addressed by the Government. When I attended the launch of Threshold’s annual report some weeks ago, I took the opportunity of announcing the Government’s plans in that regard. Towards 2016 includes a commitment to update and enforce effectively the minimum standards and regulations in the private rented sector. Under the action programme that is being undertaken to promote further improvements in the standards in private rented accommodation, the regulations will be reviewed and an attempt will be made to provide for more effective enforcement. When we started the rental accommodation scheme and inspected some of the accommodation in respect of which people were getting rent allowance, we found that some of the accommodation was very poor.
Mr. Ryan Mr. Ryan
 Mr. Ryan: Did that come as a surprise to the Minister of State?
Mr. N. Ahern Mr. N. Ahern
Mr. N. Ahern: I am just saying it would be good if——
Mr. Ryan Mr. Ryan
Mr. Ryan: The rest of us have known that for 20 years.
Mr. N. Ahern Mr. N. Ahern
Mr. N. Ahern: ——the community welfare officers who are allocating rent allowance would inspect some of the properties.
Mr. Ryan Mr. Ryan
Mr. Ryan: Many of us did our best to get local authorities to inspect such properties.
Mr. N. Ahern Mr. N. Ahern
Mr. N. Ahern: Like all Senators, I am aware of houses in my constituency and every other constituency in respect of which certain people have been getting rent allowance for many years. The people in question know their accommodation is substandard, but we continue to give them rent allowance for such properties. I do not know why we are doing that, especially as many of the 80,000 houses in question are being rented out to people who are in the homeless category. They are getting the best of accommodation in houses which have been built relatively recently.
Mr. Ryan Mr. Ryan
Mr. Ryan: That is as it should be.
Mr. N. Ahern Mr. N. Ahern
Mr. N. Ahern: I accept that such people are not in their own homes — they are in such accommodation on a short-term basis — and that they would like to be able to say they have a roof over their heads. The notion that the standards in the private rented sector are all bad is not true, as much of the accommodation in that sector is very good.
Accommodation alone will not solve homelessness. We must provide the supports which are necessary to enable previously homeless persons to sustain long-term tenancies. The independent review pointed out that the use of case management systems, the provision of services at local level, the effective operation of the local homeless forums and the establishment of a more formal and transparent funding system are crucial to continued progress. I assure Senators that those issues are addressed in the Government’s revised homelessness strategy, which is being prepared. All the agencies which are involved in this area will have to buy into the process if we are to maximise the outcome of the revised strategy. The voluntary sector, including the organisations which are sponsoring the MakeRoom campaign, has a fundamentally important role in providing accommodation and services for homeless people in a caring and compassionate manner. I publicly acknowledge the value of the work being done by the voluntary sector. I know it will continue its involvement, which is vital if the Government’s strategy is to be implemented successfully.
The voluntary sector and the Government are partners. The Government is funding the voluntary sector. We are working together. The Government is providing the services on the capital side and on the services side in co-operation with the voluntary sector. We are part of a single strategy for dealing with this issue.
The independent review that I mentioned recommended the establishment of a national homeless consultative committee, which will operate through the Housing Forum. Its aim will be to facilitate input by voluntary sector providers of homeless services at national level into the development of the revised homeless strategy and into ongoing Government policy in addressing homelessness. We will be making the necessary arrangements for the establishment of this committee at an early date.
Have I overstretched my time allocation?
An Cathaoirleach An Cathaoirleach
An Cathaoirleach: A little. There are a few more speakers.
Mr. N. Ahern Mr. N. Ahern
Mr. N. Ahern: The resources are being provided. In tomorrow’s Estimates, Members will see that more and more money is being provided for social housing. We are well ahead on our expenditure on the national development plan in that area. I accept that the figure for needs assessment is still at 43,000, but it is down 10%. Approximately 40% of those included are single.
Senator Brady correctly pointed out that many of those in need of accommodation are single people. We keep trying to tell local authorities to look at the people on their list. Some officials in local authorities consider that they can still build the same three-bed semis that they built 40 years ago. We keep telling them to look at the people on their list and to build accommodation suitable to the needs of the people on it. If 40% of them are single, the councils should be providing one or two-bedroom houses or apartments and not three-bed semis. It seems to be quite hard to get through to them on this issue.
To respond to Senator Tuffy, we have plenty of money for the local authorities. We are driving them to spend what we give them, but they are supposed to follow the remit of the housing strategy. They are supposed to tell us what amount of social housing is needed as they provide the information for the housing strategy and the action plan. They tell us, we give them the money and we drive them all the time to use it. I wish they were knocking on our door looking for more. We are taking the initiative, especially at this time of the year.
Mr. Ryan Mr. Ryan
Mr. Ryan: I will send a message to them all.
Mr. N. Ahern Mr. N. Ahern
Mr. N. Ahern: The notion that we are doing nothing and the authorities are looking for money is wrong. I want units to be built and I expect something for providing the money. However, the authorities have given us their strategies and plans and we are resourcing that. If that is not enough, their officials should tell us.
I welcome this debate. I thank the Senators for their contributions. We are all committed to solving this. We may differ about certain issues——
Mr. Ryan Mr. Ryan
Mr. Ryan: Why is the amendment not being withdrawn if we all agree?
Mr. N. Ahern Mr. N. Ahern
Mr. N. Ahern: ——but we are working with the groups. The motion was a bit unbalanced.
Mr. Ryan Mr. Ryan
Mr. Ryan: It was a very reasonable motion.
Mr. N. Ahern Mr. N. Ahern
Mr. N. Ahern: It was not a true reflection of what has happened.
Mr. Ryan Mr. Ryan
Mr. Ryan: It was not because it is about the future.
Mr. N. Ahern Mr. N. Ahern
Mr. N. Ahern: The amendment gives us a better flavour of what has happened and where we are going.
Mr. Cummins Mr. Cummins
Mr. Cummins: I wish to share my time with Senator Brian Hayes.
An Cathaoirleach An Cathaoirleach
An Cathaoirleach: Is that agreed? Agreed.
Mr. Cummins Mr. Cummins
Mr. Cummins: I support this motion and I commend the efforts of the voluntary organisations instrumental in supporting the MakeRoom campaign. It is most regrettable that the Government’s amendment deleted the names of the voluntary organisations.
I am particularly interested in highlighting the plight of those within the justice system, many of whom enter and leave prison homeless. According to Bishop Donal McKeown, speaking at the opening of the new legal year, half of the State’s prisoners have a history of homelessness and two-thirds of these have spent time in a psychiatric hospital. The Simon Community estimates that the provision of high-quality accommodation in the private rented sector, with a support worker, would cost €12,000 in a year. The average cost of hospital psychiatric care is €120,000 a year. To provide the same person with supported housing in a community environment would cost €40,000.
Fine Gael proposes to deal with the threat of prisoners becoming homeless when they leave prison by giving prisoners with drug addiction problems the option of full addiction treatment and rehabilitation. Currently, only those who are on the methadone maintenance programme prior to entering prison can avail of this treatment. I believe that treatment must be provided for those who have a drug problem and for those who begin to abuse drugs while in prison. Once they have left prison, we will provide increased work and educational facilities for all prisoners. Prisoners who are drug free or on methadone maintenance must receive greater assistance to allow them to remain drug free once they leave prison through the use of a compulsory specialised pre-release programme.
A strong link between housing and employment can be seen in the difficulty of holding down employment while homeless and sustaining accommodation while unemployed. This creates a vicious circle out of which it is hard to break, particularly for newly released prisoners with previous addiction problems. Little progress has been made on the proposal that the Prison Service build and provide transitional housing units as part of its strategy to prepare offenders for release, or on the proposal that education services for homeless adults be extended across the country. It is essential that we provide a greater follow-up system and co-ordination between prison officials and probation services to monitor the progress of prisoners, once they leave the prison system. It is envisaged that this would involve co-operation between prison staff, juvenile liaison officers and probation officers.
Consideration must be given to support those who move on from being homeless. Former homeless people, who tend to have few ties to family or community need continuing support after finding accommodation. Many need continuing help to allow them to live outside an institutional setting. According to the MakeRoom campaign, once a person is no longer considered homeless by the authorities, such support may be difficult to access. The main reason given for this situation is that the funding mechanism is not in place for this eventuality. Action in the new national homeless strategy on the barriers to participation in society of people who are homeless must include voting rights, participation in public policy formation, employment rights, access to financial services and so on.
To extend the area even further, it is estimated that 60% of homeless people in London are Irish-born and help must also be given to these people. Here in Ireland, I need not draw the attention of the Minister of State to the fact that he only has to leave Leinster House to see people sleeping wherever they can, in doorways, laneways and any other safe — I use the word advisedly — places they can find. Last night at 11 p.m., I walked 50 yards in each direction from the front gate of Leinster House and I counted six people bedded down for the night in doorways. Governments and society are judged on how they treat the less well-off. Based on what we see in the streets of Dublin and other locations throughout the country, I would suggest that we are failing miserably to address this problem.
Mr. B. Hayes Mr. B. Hayes
Mr. B. Hayes: I thank Senator Cummins for sharing time with me and I congratulate the Labour Party for putting down this motion. I am disappointed that the Government has chosen to produce a self-congratulatory amendment when there was no need to do so.
Today I read the report for 2005 by the Tallaght Homeless Advice Unit. A total of 346 new clients used its service, which is an increase of 111% of the previous year. It demolishes the myth that homelessness exists only in big cities or large towns. There is a homeless problem in every Dublin suburb tonight and in any large or medium-sized town in the country.
I agree with the Minister of State that it is not just a problem of temporary accommodation and that we have seen progress in this area in recent years. There needs to be a change of heart and attitude by the local authority housing departments to put more emphasis on smaller units, especially for single men. If there is one group of people which is losing out the most, whose members are ending up in chaotic lifestyles and circumstances, depending on their aunt, former partner or whoever, it is single men. How can a single man, who may have a child or two, possibly hope to remain in touch with his offspring if he does not have any permanent accommodation?
The message from tonight’s debate regarding the general campaign of the voluntary organisations mentioned in the motion, which I support, is that there should be much more pressure on local authorities in Dublin to provide smaller units better tailored to the needs of men in particular who are rock-bottom and going nowhere on the housing list. They have no chance of securing a house because their child lives with their former partner or spouse. We must do much more to produce creative housing solutions for those men in particular, even if it is in a co-operative or community environment, with three or four men in separate bedrooms in a single unit. One takes away a man’s dignity if one denies him the right to see his child or children regularly. They cannot do that in the current environment, since suburban Dublin does not provide enough or suitable housing units.
The Tallaght Homeless Advice Unit, which is doing superb work in the Dublin 24 area, needs the support of local authorities and the Government to ensure that creative responses to the problems of homeless men and women can be found.
Ms Ormonde Ms Ormonde
Ms Ormonde: All the relevant points have been raised. I will take up where Senator Brian Hayes left off regarding the involvement of local authorities. I like the name “MakeRoom” campaign, which says it all. We must find simple accommodation — rooms rather than houses — to facilitate those who want to overcome homelessness. I have often given a great deal of thought to why such people become homeless. It is a major issue, and for many the problem is more than accommodation. It is not simply a matter of finding a room, and I know of many who were facilitated with accommodation but within a few weeks were on the street again. For whatever reason, they do not wish to be accommodated.
Young people can become homeless because of a breakdown in their relationship with their parents or because of physical or mental abuse. We must create the infrastructure for such people, and that is why the Departments of Education and Science and Health and Children must become involved. There must be joined-up thinking in this regard. Services must be provided to accommodate and facilitate young people at risk. I congratulate the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, who has moved in the direction of home-school links regarding educational disadvantage.
Many young people are on the street tonight because they cannot go home. They are at risk, and we must spot that before the worst happens. We should examine that area too, since it is not only a matter of accommodation. Rather, the question is how to pick them up. I compliment the city council on its night bus, along with the Simon Community, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Focus Ireland and all the voluntary agencies working in tandem with the Government to see how best we might tackle the problem. The Minister of State has said that there is no quick fix. However, local authorities have a major role, since they are in touch.
I see nothing wrong with all those local centres being in a little room in Molesworth Street. There should be several of them in the city centre. They should be in south Dublin with drop-in centres in which they can assess needs, determine problems and decide how we might facilitate people. I would increase the number of drop-in centres, and the best way to do so is to get each local authority area to provide such centres to facilitate people. A preventative strategy is very important, and that is where the schools come in, since they have a major role in that. For example, those leaving prison must be facilitated and the requisite infrastructure and services provided to assist their transition back into society.
I have a great deal more to say, but time is short. The Government is doing all it can, but there is no quick fix, and local authorities must do more. I compliment the Government on the substantial sums that have been spent addressing the problem. While the unbalanced Labour Party motion should have facilitated everyone’s work, that was not the case. I compliment the Taoiseach on the Government’s work in tacking this problem, which will not go away. It is easy to see that it is not solely a matter of accommodation, so let us provide the services to facilitate those at risk.
Mr. Ryan Mr. Ryan
 Mr. Ryan: I thank Members for the debate’s extremely positive tone and content. It has been interesting, challenging, thoughtful and reflective. Although we had a few cross exchanges, I include the speech by the Minister of State, which was quite constructive.
In that context I cannot figure out who drafted the Government amendment, since no one in this Chamber used its tone or confrontational language. A few weeks ago, we had another Minister here, who, in the face of the good sense of Fianna Fáil Senators, had to excise large parts of his speech and become a good deal more conciliatory than intended. It is a pity that it did not happen here, since the issue is extremely important. It is welcome that we have come so far in the tone of the debate; I have something of a history in this area, whether it is positive or negative.
I will address one or two matters of great importance. What Senator Minihan said regarding the new immigrant population becoming homeless highlights a matter of great urgency. To start with, we need language skills so that people can speak to them. I spent ten years of my adult life campaigning to get homelessness recognised as a problem, and we have spent the subsequent 25 years trying to deal with it. I accept unequivocally that we are making progress, since things are better than they used to be. However, we all agree that they are not ideal. If we allow homeless immigrants to become another problem that must wait ten years to be recognised and another 25 to be resolved, we do both them and Irish society enormous harm.
I am sceptical of the suggestion by the Minister of State that agencies set up by the State were co-ordinating voluntary groups. The experience of voluntary groups is that they spend most of their time trying to co-ordinate State agencies that do not talk to or collaborate with each other, often being in competition. The situation may be better now, but that was how things were. Voluntary organisations have played a positive role in getting State agencies to face in the same direction and agree to the same agenda and to similar standards of service provision.
On standards in private rented accommodation, I am at a loss as to why the Private Residential Tenancies Board and the tax system cannot be co-ordinated so that no one may register with the PRTB who has not been paying his or her tax and no one doing so is able to claim allowances. One should meet certain standards before either is possible. It is very simple; one would give a landlord a statement to certify that he or she was compliant. He or she would sign it as a statement of fact — as happens with self-assessment for tax — and give it to the tenant, who would then be free to tell either the PRTB or the Revenue if the landlord was telling lies. Through making it self-assessed, one would obviate the need for large armies of inspectors . If, on the other hand, one is waiting for shyster landlords to improve who may make donations or campaign in elections, one will not do that. There are plenty of ways to do so, however.
The country’s housing problem has reached crisis proportions. Earlier this week, I came into possession of a submission from the American Chamber of Commerce in Ireland to the Government in respect of the national development plan in which it was stated that unless the housing crisis is dealt with, US executives would find it difficult to come here to live because the level of house prices has reached ridiculous proportions. One cannot provide housing for the poor if the richest in our country are beginning to feel that houses are becoming ridiculously expensive. This is not the only issue at stake, but it is fundamental in nature.
It is a great pity that the Government did not have the graciousness to recognise, in its amendment, the work of the voluntary sector. That sector forced the State and a succession of Governments, including those of which my party was a member — albeit reluctantly at the outset — into providing a service. To omit the voluntary sector from the Government amendment is, unfortunately, a good example of insensitivity.
We could have reached a good consensus on this matter and engaged in a serious debate on the future of homelessness rather than hearing a succession of speeches of self-congratulation. In light of the quality of life we currently enjoy, none of us should congratulate ourselves about how we cater for the homeless. We have failed these people for 25 years. I accept that things are improving but we remain in failure mode. No one who enjoys the privileges enjoyed by Members of this House will be in a position to congratulate himself, herself, the Government or anyone else with regard to how we care for the homeless for some time.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 26; Níl, 20.
Motion, as amended, put and declared carried.
Seanad Éireann 185 Homelessness: Motion.