Wednesday, 9 July 2008
Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs DebatePage of 5
Chairman: I welcome Mr. Patrick J. Burke, chief executive officer, and Ms Niamh Randall, national research and policy manager, Simon Communities of Ireland, Mr. Sam McGuinness, chief executive officer, and Ms Lorna Cronnelly, communications manager, Dublin Simon, and Mr. Tony O’Riordan CEO, Midlands Simon. I invite Mr. Burke to commence his presentation on the failure to replace the critical role of the Department of Social and Family Affairs in the development of the new homeless strategy.
I draw to delegation’s attention the fact while members of the committee have absolute privilege, the same privilege does not apply to witnesses appearing before the it. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Mr. Patrick Burke: I thank the members of the committee for this opportunity to meet them on this issue. We very much appreciate their taking time from their busy schedule to meet delegates from the Simon communities of Ireland.
As they are aware, the Simon communities of Ireland have been working in the area of homelessness since 1969 and we are currently working with 3,300 people nationally. We are eight communities based in Cork, Dublin, Dundalk, Galway, the midlands, the mid west, the south east and the north west.
Our mission has always been to work with people experiencing homelessness and people at risk of homelessness. We have a role around campaigning for legislative and policy change that will deliver better services for people experiencing homelessness, and we deliver a range of quality care and accommodation from street outreach to emergency accommodation, transitional and supported housing initiatives, detoxification and employment projects as well as settlement and tenancy sustainment services.
We very much welcome the new strategy that is currently being developed and led by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. We believe it is important that the last strategy is followed by a stronger and newer strategy. We particularly welcome the commitment to the eradication of the need to sleep rough by 2010 and also the renewed commitment to ensuring that we reduce significantly the length of time people have to stay in emergency accommodation before alternative long-term support is available to them. We also welcome the commitment that long-term housing solutions will be found for people experiencing homelessness.
The support for fora at local and regional levels is to be welcomed, particularly the role being given to them to develop and monitor local action plans to address homelessness. However, the current strategy is too aspirational and there is limited development of specific actions. There are no responsibilities allocated and no deadlines for implementation and there is no commitment to formally monitor the effectiveness of the strategy. We are also worried about the funding of the strategy. Unless it is made available, the core objectives of the strategy will not be met, thus affecting implementation.
We are concerned that the document is not truly a partnership document. Housing is only part of the solution to homelessness. We are also very much aware of the role of the HSE in providing for health and care needs. The critical relationship between the HSE and local authorities must be highlighted.
The draft strategy does not take account of some of the trends that have emerged since the publication of the Fitzpatrick report three years ago, some of the developments in regard to the habitual residency condition, the current economic downturn and the fact that there are increased levels of homelessness in cities. In our discussions with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, we have been reassured an implementation plan will be provided that will address some of our concerns in more detail.
We are happy to have the opportunity to speak to members about issues that are of specific concern to them. I refer to the provision of welfare and family support services to facilitate people to move from homelessness to long-term care. We want to say a few words about the rent supplement and also about the operational definition of homelessness. I will hand over to my colleague, Ms Lorna Cronnelly, of the Dublin Simon Community, who will speak to these issues.
Ms Lorna Cronnelly: I will address four areas of concern to the Simon Communities of Ireland that we feel are not adequately dealt with in the proposed new national strategy on homelessness. As Mr. Burke stated, these include the rent supplement, the definition of homelessness, the habitual residency condition and the role of community welfare officers. The rent supplement is a supplementary allowance available to those who cannot cover the cost of rental accommodation from their own finances. Current rent supplements are well below market rents for all types of accommodation. The Simon Communities of Ireland advise a 10% increase across the board, with two priority exceptions.
The first exception concerns the single person household. Current rent supplement standards are forcing single-person households to resort to poor quality bedsit accommodation. The extremely poor standard of such accommodation has been highlighted in numerous studies that compare current rent supplements with the actual cost of rented accommodation for single person households; the differential is clearly highlighted. In Dublin, the current rent supplement is €130 per week while the average rental cost for a one-bed apartment in Dublin city centre is approximately €277 per week. In Cork, the rent supplement is €115 per week and average rent for a bedsit for which the landlord will accept rent supplement is €147 per week. In the midlands, the current rent supplement is €100 per week but average rental prices exceed this.
In light of these differentials, the Simon Communities of Ireland agree with Threshold’s recent review of the rent supplement scheme and suggest a 25% increase in rent supplement for single-person households. This would amount to €165 per week in Dublin, €143 in Cork and €125 in the midlands.
The second priority exception concerns the local area rent caps, in respect of which the current system provides for broad geographical areas. For example, Dublin, Kildare and Wicklow are all categorised within the one geographical area. This does not take into account the higher rents paid in Dublin city centre by comparison with the outskirts of Bray, for example. Local area rents need to be defined and reviewed to provide a higher rate of rent supplement for areas where the market rent is above average.
We welcome the commitment in the proposed strategy to review the operational definition of homelessness. It is vital that this be undertaken as a matter of urgency because the current use of the operational definition is creating severe barriers for those trying to access emergency accommodation and welfare payments, that is, the supplementary welfare allowance. It is contributing to the increase in the number of people with little option but to sleep rough on the streets.
We are disappointed that the strategy does not envisage revisiting the statutory definition of homelessness, which was developed 20 years ago. In these changing times and circumstances, it is vital that the legislative definition is relevant and reflects today’s society.
The habitual residence condition, an additional criterion for qualifying for social assistance payments, was introduced in May 2004. We welcome recent changes to family payments for those from the European Union or European Economic Area. However, this condition continues to have real implications for single people who do not fit the criteria. The Dublin Simon Community rough sleeper team and staff throughout the communities have argued that this critical problem is putting people at risk of homelessness and leading to increased levels of rough sleeping. We regret there is no reference to the habitual residence condition and its implications for homeless services in the proposed new national strategy.
The important role of community welfare officers in respect of the aforementioned cannot be underestimated and the Simon Communities of Ireland readily acknowledge that their powers of discretion generally have positive implications for those who use their services. However, in an effort to increase transparency for all, we emphasise the importance of increasing awareness of both the rights of claimants throughout claims processes and the appeals mechanisms available.
Mr. Sam McGuinness: The main reason we are addressing rent caps and rent supplement is because of their impact on move-on accommodation. A recent report in The Sunday Tribune stated 1,036 people are in bed and breakfast accommodation and emergency accommodation. In excess of 700 people are in sheltered accommodation in Dublin city and one must ask for how long they have been there. We recently moved a man who was in sheltered accommodation for in excess of 20 years to a supported housing project we have on the North Circular Road .
The focus today is on removing the impacts of the rent caps and the inadequate rent supplement. I will refer to two case studies, one of which concerns John, who was a service user of Dublin Simon Community. He is working with our settlement team and we are sourcing private accommodation for him. He is a suitable candidate for private accommodation and is eligible for accommodation in the city centre and suburbs. His rent supplement is €520 per month. He has been very unsuccessful in sourcing one-bed accommodation given the current prices. Furthermore, he needs a cash deposit, which does not always become available quickly enough. When he talks to landlords, he discovers those landlords who accept the rent supplement want more money, such as an extra €20 per week. This amounts to €80 per month that he does not have.
Paula is in a bedsit supported by Dublin Simon Community. She is on rent supplement of €620 per month, which includes other emoluments. Her difficulty is with the quality of the bedsit and the safety aspects. She is having difficulties with electrical faults, etc., and wants to move. However, when trying to do so, one landlord sought an additional €200 per month on top of rent supplement. To get people to move on from the environments in which they have been living for some time, while still obtaining support under the strategy, we need to address the issue of caps and the rent supplement.
Mr. Tony O’Riordan: One of the major challenges faced by the Midlands Simon Community, which operates in Laois, Longford, Offaly and Westmeath, is trying to obtain affordable and suitable accommodation for the rent allowances our service users receive. This is a particular challenge for single people. A single person is entitled to a rent allowance of €100 per week. Trying to source affordable and suitable accommodation below this rent ceiling is very difficult. This is illustrated in one of the case studies in the packs distributed to members. It refers to Noel, a service user who had both an addiction and a mental health problem. He had to sleep on the floor of a friend’s bedsit for four months prior to his receiving an adequate allowance and accommodation. For us, therefore, the solution seems to be that the rent allowance clearly needs to be reviewed to reflect market rates. In addition, voluntary housing associations, like the midlands Simon community, need to be supported to provide accommodation, particularly for single people, through schemes like the capital assistance scheme. I thank the joint committee for its time.
Deputy Olwyn Enright: I welcome everyone here. The overall thrust of what was said shows a lack of connectivity between the various Departments and agencies. It appears that it can work well between the HSE and local authorities but not so much between Departments. I assume the strategy is to deal with that. I have difficulty in this area because when I tabled priority questions recently on homelessness to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs they were all disallowed and transferred to the Department of Health and Children. There is a specific role for the Department, which is in the brief Ministers get when they take up their posts, yet neither I nor my colleagues can question it. That does not seem to make a great deal of sense. On the specifics, has the strategy been published?
Deputy Olwyn Enright: The concerns are about resources and the timeline for delivering the strategy. The committee wants to know what kind of budget we are talking about. As regards the lack of connectivity, we have 22 Ministers of State so, while there is a Minister of State with responsibility in the area of homelessness, it would be useful if they would liaise to ensure that the strategy is dealt with.
Homelessness is not confined to urban areas, although there is a perspective sometimes that it is. Figures were provided for Dublin, but can we get figures for the other regions concerning homelessness, people sleeping rough and those in sheltered and bed and breakfast accommodation? As a public representative, I find that Friday evening is the time one is contacted by people who have nowhere to go for the weekend. Local authorities are good in terms of providing bed and breakfast facilities and deposits, but it should not fall completely at their door.
Can Mr. O’Riordan outline the expectations for the strategy in the midlands? The comments by Lorna Cronnelly on the habitual residence condition were interesting. We had a debate on this topic before Christmas from a few different perspectives. Has she some concrete examples? The previous Minister, Deputy Cullen, thought that much of what we said was anecdotal, rather than concrete examples of people affected. Mr. McGuinness gave an example of landlords seeking top-ups for rent supplements. It is a fairly widespread practice, but does Mr. McGuinness have any statistics as to how prevalent the top-up practice is?
Deputy Róisín Shortall: I welcome the delegation and commend them for the outstanding work that Simon has done here over a great many years. I want to run through the main points that have been made and ask a few additional questions. As regards the cap on rent supplement, the point about how the areas are organised is well made. We should probably pursue that matter. One cannot lump in Kildare and Wicklow with Dublin city centre because it does not make sense. There is a need to rejig those areas. As regards setting limits for rent supplement generally, it is a difficult issue in so far as the estimated budget for the current year is €120 million. Clearly a cap must be set. If there was a blank cheque it would feed into rent inflation, although I realise Simon is not saying that. Does the delegation have proposals on how rents might be set fairly for the purposes of rent supplement? Since Simon began campaigning on this issue, would the delegation acknowledge that rents have started to go down? There is a fair bit of evidence to indicate that has happened, certainly in the Dublin area. What is the best way of setting the level of rent supplement?
As regards the habitual residence issue, does Simon have figures from the current client profile on the breakdown between Irish and non-Irish? That would give us some idea of the scale of the problem.
I note the points made about the community welfare officers who will come to see us after this session. We will certainly take up those issues with them. What is the extent of Simon’s involvement in social housing and the residential accommodation scheme? What is the experience in that regard? Reference has been made to difficulties with capital assistance, so perhaps those difficulties could be spelled out.
Deputy Thomas Byrne: I welcome the delegation. Unfortunately, we all deal with homeless people in our clinics. It is a problem all over the country. The State can only do so much, but thanks to organisations like Simon a great deal more happens. As regards the habitual residence condition, the presentation put it in fairly blunt terms when it stated: “This critical issue is putting people at risk of homelessness”. Perhaps the delegation could expand on that point. The habitual residence condition is there for a reason. Should we have an open door as regards welfare? What Simon is saying is pretty stark.
Deputy Joe Carey: I pay tribute to Simon for the work it does throughout the country. The delegation has pinpointed relevant points concerning the rent supplement. I would like the delegation to expand on what it considers the best way to set an upper limit. Across the country, there is a differential in rents. In my area of Ennis there is a low level compared to Dublin. What is the best way to set a cap? What analysis has been done on that issue? Has Simon examined rents in other parts of the country? As regards homelessness in Dublin, one can see young people sleeping on the streets in Dublin. Has Simon analysed the number of foreign nationals who are homeless in Dublin? Have the figures been broken down in terms of age groups?
Senator Nicky McFadden: I welcome the delegation and thank Simon’s representatives for taking the time to attend the joint committee. Yesterday, the Seanad debated housing and homelessness. Deputy Michael Finneran, the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, addressed the Upper House and spoke about eradicating homelessness by 2010. I look forward to that development and the provision of a budget to achieve it.
I wish to expand somewhat on the habitual residence condition. If people are down on their luck, does it matter what nationality they are? We are all human beings with rights. Regardless of whether one is Irish or a foreign national, those who are homeless or in need of social welfare payments require such payments. This is the expansion and clarification that is needed in this regard. Obviously, the habitual residence condition questions who we are and our nationality.
As for rent allowance, I concur with the witnesses’ analysis. I have lobbied strongly for increased amounts for a number of constituents and wish to raise an issue in this regard. I refer to people who happen to be obliged to leave a local authority housing estate for some reason. All members are aware that those who suffer in their lives, through addiction or otherwise, can be asked to leave a local authority housing estate. This means they no longer are entitled to rent supplement and are banned from receiving it. Essentially, they then become homeless. This matter must be considered seriously and the witnesses should comment on it.
I refer to the idea of being homeless and the definition of homelessness. If one has been in emergency accommodation for a long time, it means one is homeless. Everyone has a fundamental right to have a roof over his or her head and sleeping on the floor of a family member or friend does not mean one has accommodation. I also share the witnesses’ concern regarding the definition of homelessness and the idea of emergency accommodation. I come from a midlands county the problems of which are as serious as those in urban areas. I echo Deputy Enright’s question regarding homelessness in rural areas and were the witnesses to provide some statistics, I would appreciate it.
I refer to the changing face of our society and the increased number of separations and divorces. I encounter a great number of single men who encounter serious problems, as do their families and children, in respect of the provision of social housing. Is Simon in possession of figures regarding single men? It is almost impossible to make successful representations on behalf of single men and their families although I consider their rights to be equal to those of single mothers and their families.
I acknowledge the great work done by the Midlands Simon Community on the regional resettlement programme. It is crucially important to provide support to those who get new accommodation to enable them to continue to live successfully in it. This has been achieved successfully in the midlands region. What is the Simon Community’s relationship with the local authorities and the HSE and how does it get on with them? While more joined-up thinking is required in this regard, I seek the witnesses’ comments.
Deputy Cyprian Brady: I also welcome the delegation and acknowledge the work done by the Simon Community. In my constituency of Dublin Central in particular, I see at first hand the difference it makes to people’s lives on a daily basis. The witnesses should expand on the interaction between the Simon Community and the Homeless Agency and other bodies, such as Threshold, and the local authorities. Is there constant contact or a constant flow of information on an operational basis? As for accommodation standards, does the Simon Community make an input in this regard through the HSE? Does it have a role in trying to maintain or improve standards of accommodation? Like other speakers, I refer to the newer communities. In inner city areas in particular, huge issues arise in respect of translation and trying to understand people’s needs. Obviously, as cultural differences exist, to what supports does Simon have access to assist it with dealing with homelessness among new communities?
Deputy Seymour Crawford: I also thank the Simon Community for providing members with such detailed information. As most of the issues on which I wished to speak already have been covered, I will not detain the witnesses for long. I am extremely interested in the issue of single men because it is becoming much more serious in my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan. It is a difficult subject to deal with, to put it mildly, especially when it arises from a marriage breakdown. Such individuals often seek accommodation that would be adequate to keep their children for a weekend or whatever and the lack of it certainly causes many problems.
As for habitual residence, the fact it was mentioned by the witnesses at all interested me because members had a long discussion on the subject and the departmental officials dealing with it did not appear to believe it would be a problem at all. However, as active representatives on the ground, members certainly consider it to be a difficulty, albeit perhaps more so in respect of issues other than homelessness. I have encountered a number of cases in which people who have been obliged to return home to look after their elderly loved ones suddenly find themselves deemed to be ineligible for carer’s allowance, similar benefits or for children’s allowance while at home with their children. This has been the case although such people may have lived in Ireland and have paid their taxes down through the years.
Rent allowance obviously is a major problem and the joint committee is due shortly to discuss with the HSE the issue of the transfer of community welfare officers. This will create another problem because community welfare officers are to be transferred to the Department of Social and Family Affairs, where I consider the regulations will be much tighter than is the case at present. I find there is a difference between what community welfare officers can do in some areas when compared to others. Certainly however, when the Department of Social and Family Affairs takes responsibility, I do not doubt the regulations will become much tighter and more difficult and this worries me.
Many different issues arise in this regard. A couple of weeks ago, a paedophile was housed beside a community crèche and I was obliged to intervene. Unfortunately, the same person was moved into an area for the elderly. Through the media, it has become national news that an elderly woman of 86 years of age was abused. Such issues are not easily dealt with. No matter where one places such people, they can cause great problems. It is only when such issues hit home in one’s own area that one realises how serious they are. That is my main question.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I apologise that I was unable to be present at the beginning of the presentations. However, I am glad the Simon Communities of Ireland have appeared before the joint committee. Everyone in the community recognises Simon to be a brand name, the status and reputation of which has been built up in people’s eyes on the basis of much hard work. I congratulate all concerned.
I have one brief question that has been touched on by other speakers. The presence of the Homeless Agency, which has a statutory remit, means the interplay in the Dublin area between organisations dealing with the needs of homeless people is provided for on an ongoing basis. Given its role, the representative from the Midlands Simon Community should enlighten me as to how he envisages this will work out for his organisation. Obviously some of the challenges it faces in a rural setting differ from those faced by its urban counterparts. How do its interactions with other agencies operate? Do specific issues arise that help or hinder the Midlands Simon Community in its interaction with other agencies? To put it bluntly, what is it looking for?
Deputy Catherine Byrne: Like everyone else, I acknowledge the work done by the Simon Community. Coming from Dublin, one frequently contacts people from the Simon Community. The Simon Community is on almost everyone’s lips when one goes to find out anything about homelessness, and I want to acknowledge that.
Yesterday evening I spoke to two homeless gentlemen who acknowledged that they would not go into a hostel because they were afraid of the drug scene and of being harassed. That has been a significant issue for people, especially more elderly men, who want to go into hostels but have found that they cannot do so because of the significant problem with drugs.
The rent supplement and rent allowance were mentioned. At present, approximately €400 million is being given out in rent supplement and I have grave doubts about the accommodation standards being applied to landlords. Some of the accommodation is rat-infested. There are no proper standards on facilities for young children, not even the use of a back garden to hang up washing or even for children to be able to step outside. Much of this accommodation in Dublin has no front garden and the tenants depend on back gardens, some of which are not accessible.
I acknowledge that in Dublin we will be closing down a hostel and opening up a new one on James’s Street in my community. What worries me is that we are closing a hostel that has 15 places and where we were to have a new hostel with 30 places, now it has been reduced back to only 15. What is the opinion of the Simon Community on that? Have adequate provisions been made through the Departments, and particularly the city council, to acknowledge that we need more places for the homeless?
Deputy Charlie O’Connor: I wish to be associated with the welcome extended to Mr. Burke and his team, and I wish them well. I was struck by the title of the submission which refers to the way forward for effectively tackling homelessness. “Effective” is an important word to use because all my colleagues have made the point that some efforts have been made and getting effective action is the way forward.
I was struck by this presentation. This morning I happened to be out and about even earlier than usual in my community. I have often made the point to Mr. Burke when he was kind enough to brief me, that in the village of Tallaght where I live there were people who had been homeless overnight and were packing up their bags quite early in the morning. It highlights that there is a problem out there. Deputy Catherine Byrne has made the point. Sometimes one must remind Members in the House that there are many Dublin people representing communities. I am a proud Dubliner, but as I walk around my city, although I do not live in the city anymore, I am struck by the problem.
I was really pleased this week that the new Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councillor Evelyn Byrne, highlighted the issue in her speech of acceptance. Incidentally, I noted that Councillor Evelyn Byrne is only the sixth woman to be elected Lord Mayor. Deputy Catherine Byrne, a former Lord Mayor, is present. I do not know where all the other women in the city have been over the years but there will be more of them made Lords Mayor in time. In any case, Evelyn Byrne stated that of all the things she wants to achieve, she wants to tackle homelessness in the capital city. I would be interested to know how Mr. Burke intends to take advantage of that commitment the Lord Mayor has made. It is one we would all want to support.
I was also interested in the point that Deputy Brady made about the relationship with other organisations. Not to be too parochial, I am very supportive of the Tallaght Homeless Advice Unit and I wonder how the Simon Community interacts with such groups. I know it does but I want to tease out how it does so.
As other colleagues have stated, there was a time when we all had a view on the meaning, location and ways of tackling homelessness whereas now our traditional view of homelessness has changed. I suppose we are in a different phase of society and there are people homeless who under many circumstances would never have been so previously. There is an issue surrounding rent subsidies and what the alternative might be. Would the delegation comment on how different it is to perhaps ten, 15 or 20 years ago?
I wonder what other supports the Simon Community is receiving, for example, from the business community. In my constituency, there was an attempt made to do that and I wonder how successful the Simon Community has been in that regard. There is always a balance to Government funding, State agency funding, etc. How does the Simon Community prioritise trying to get the business support to achieve that?
As I stated, any of us who walk the streets of Dublin will understand there is an issue to be tackled. I am interested in my colleagues making the point about rural areas, of which I would not have as much experience. If one listens to my accent for long enough one will know that I have not been down the country all that much. However, I am interested in the points my colleagues made that this issue, like everything else, is not just urban-based.
It is important that we have met the Simon Community. It is probably a good week to meet the delegation. With the little bit of doom and gloom around, it is important that we would focus on an issue which has been there in the good times as well. I wish them well as they continue to grapple with the problem.
Chairman: I would now ask the Simon Community to be as concise and focused as possible in answering the questions. As the delegation will understand, we have a great deal to get through during the afternoon.
I thank members for their focused questions. We will do our best to address them. I will make a number of comments on questions of national significance and pass over to my colleague from the midlands who will address some of the non-Dublin or rural issues raised. Then my colleagues from the Dublin Simon Community might address some of the issues specific to Dublin.
The Simon Community of Ireland’s view is that the rent cap should be set at the market rate, whatever that is in an area. As the members will be aware, the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 established the Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB. Part of the PRTB’s role is to collect data on rent levels throughout the country and it does so, to the best of my knowledge. It is, therefore, possible through the data the PRTB collects from the registration of properties to know precisely the rent level in a particular street, not to mention a particular town. That data should be available to the Department.
Mr. Patrick J. Burke: We are not saying that. We are not suggesting that the position must change, but that it should be set as a percentage of the market rent. At present, it is not. It is clearly well below, by approximately 10% nationally and, as we stated, by approximately 25% for single accommodation. The point is that information should be available to the Department.
On the work we do nationally with other organisations, there is a close relationship between ourselves, Threshold and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. We work together in what we call the Make Room Alliance on issues of common interest. It is important that we are not duplicating services or wasting resources, and that everybody is clear on what the other organisations are doing. Some of the information we presented today was produced by Threshold in its offices throughout the country. I am happy to report that that is the way in which we have worked and that culture is alive and well.
As we stated in our presentation, we very much value the discretionary role of the CWOs. It is critical to homeless services and to homeless people. I suppose we, as an organisation, are agnostic as to whether or not that role moves from the Department of Health and Children to the Department of Social and Family Affairs, although, as Deputy Crawford suggested, perhaps the culture would be quite different and we would be worried that the discretionary powers would change in some way. It is a matter on which we hope the committee would keep an eye to ensure that such discretionary power always remains in place because it is critical. The exceptions need to be addressed.
Standards in the private rented sector are of major concern. Most of the people with whom we work can only access the bottom rung of the accommodation ladder. We welcomed publicly the fact that the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is currently undertaking a review of standards and we have made submissions in that regard.
Mr. Tony O’Riordan: In response to the question on how homelessness manifests itself outside of the large urban areas, I suppose I can only speak on the homelessness in the midlands area, and particularly in the counties of Laois, Offaly, Longford and Westmeath in which we work. Homelessness in those counties does not present itself as rough sleeping or people having to sleep on the streets of our towns. As a result, it is not as visible. However, it is an issue because people are having to sleep in bed and breakfast accommodation, as Deputy Enright mentioned, in hostels, in overcrowded accommodation and, as in the example I gave in our own case study, on the floors of bed-sits for an extended period. Even within the Government’s integrated strategy, which looked at scoping out the definition of homelessness in the Housing Act 1988, people are experiencing homelessness. It might not be as visible in counties such as those in the midlands but, unfortunately, it is an issue.
While we are a relatively new organisation, since we established our services in 2006 we have received more than 300 referrals from the local authorities. I refer not to once-off telephone calls, but to a formal referral procedure where referrals come through the local authorities. Across the four counties, since we established in 2006, more than 300 persons have been referred which includes individuals, couples and families. There is a challenge in communicating the difficulty of the problem because it is not as visible.
On Senator Mullen’s question on the level of inter-agency work within the midlands, we have been successful in that there is a high level of inter-agency co-operation between the local authorities, the HSE and the voluntary bodies within the midlands counties. This is particularly evidenced by the fact that the regional settlement service has been in operation, to which Senator McFadden referred, and also the existence of a regional forum within the four counties where senior policy makers from the local authorities and decision makers from both the local authorities, the HSE and the voluntary bodies, meet regularly to plan services.
For us, the challenge, given the new strategy is to be launched within the near future, is that while plans have been developed based on needs within the four counties, and very much co-ordinated with all the parties involved, we now need resources to enable their implementation. Without that, that inter-agency co-operation will not be realised.
We were asked our response to the new national strategy. We will very much welcome the national strategy on homelessness when it is launched but we would ask that great clarity be provided in terms of commitments on how planned services will be resourced and implemented.
Deputy Olwyn Enright: Without taking from the Simon Community’s work, does it seem like a total failure of the system that local authorities must contact a charitable organisation to get people accommodation? Surely it should be the reverse, that the Simon Community should be contacting local authorities to get people housed. The fact that four relatively small counties from a population perspective have had 300 referrals in less than two years seems a total indictment of the system.
In terms of the strategy that is coming forward, does Mr. O'Riordan see any solutions to that issue or how that will be addressed in the upcoming strategy? It should be Mr. O'Riordan informing Westmeath County Council, for example, that the Simon Community has X number of people in this bed and breakfast or other accommodation and asking its plans to house them, rather than the local authority coming to him to say that it has somebody who is homeless and asking the Simon Community's plans to put him or her in a bed and breakfast accommodation.
Senator Nicky McFadden: I forgot to ask a question on funding for staffing for two hostels for Athlone and Mullingar in the midlands area and I thank the Vice Chairman for his indulgence. In this economic downturn, I am wondering about budgets and funding. Do they care to comment on that?
Deputy Róisín Shortall: No. I was just waiting for a reply on the extent of the Simon Community’s involvement in voluntary housing provision, the difficulties with the capital assistance scheme and also the breakdown between Irish and non-Irish in its client base.
Mr. Tony O’Riordan: On the capital assistance scheme and funding of the project, we would be relatively comfortable with funding for the services in 2008, but we have no firm commitments on how services will be funded beyond that. That poses a difficulty in the planning of services. That brings us back to the point made by Mr. Patrick Burke, our CEO nationally, that the strategy looks like a good one but there is a need for clarity on the resources and the timelines along which those resources will be drawn down so as to make realistic the implementation of any local services connected into it.
On capital assistance scheme, CAS, funding, we are a relatively new service in the midlands. We think there is significant scope for that to respond to the housing needs of single persons who might not be prioritised as much within the local authority system. Particularly where persons are single and vulnerable, they might not constitute a priority need within the local authority system but we think that there is scope under the CAS within the midlands to plan and build properties for single persons in particular.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: On a national basis, apart from the emergency housing provision, what is the extent of the Simon Community’s involvement in long-term housing provision as a voluntary housing agency?
Mr. Patrick J. Burke: At this stage most of our communities are registered voluntary housing associations. Therefore, they can receive funding for CAS developments and they are engaged in that process.
It must be emphasised that many of the clients with whom we deal will never go into full-time independent living again. There is a complexity of needs in such cases. Quite a number would be in 24/7 care or in various other levels of care. The independent unit will not be the solution for many of these people. Of course in some cases it is and we are engaging in that process.
Mr. Patrick J. Burke: The real issue will be to ensure that when one lines up the capital assistance scheme funding to purchase and develop a property, the associated care funding would line up at the exact same time. That is the critical aspect
Mr. Sam McGuinness: NGOs such as the Dublin Simon Community and other Simon communities cannot be all things to all men and women. To some extent, in Dublin, for example, we would be at the rough emergency end, supported housing, etc., in which our resources are fully absorbed.
To answer a few of the questions, one related to our relationship with the business community. The Dublin Simon Community must have a relationship with the business community because our funding generally has shrunk from 58% to 52%. We are working aggressively with companies such as those in the IFSC who want to engage in voluntary work and some kind of corporate involvement. We do not have any one major corporate sponsor.
If the committee would indulge me for a moment, I will outline a few statistics which might help on some of the questions asked. Approximately 80% of the people we have moved into our emergency hostel, which is quite a chaotic unit in Harcourt Street, close to the Garda station, are men and 20% are women. Those statistics apply not just here but in other countries such as the United States. Some 50% of them would be 35 years of age and above. The cause of homelessness for nearly 90% of them would be drug use, alcohol use, physical health issues and mental health issues. They could have experience learning disabilities and had behavioural issues and then moved on to alcohol, etc. On the institutions from which people come, 50% come from prison or general and psychiatric hospitals. This gives a sense of the type of person we deal with quite often on the street.
People asked about capacity and what has been happening recently. There is no doubt that in my term in the Dublin Simon organisation four years there has been significant improvement. Our biggest concern is the strategy which is being written, which sits very well with the Homeless Agency strategy. We are concerned that it does not have an extra leap with regard to budget and implementation plans. It is not even a song and dance if it does not have those extra steps. The Homeless Agency action plan at least has something to measure. It is critical for all of us and the credibility of the State.
I should have mentioned an issue at the start but forgot in my enthusiasm to answer questions. I sit here as a taxpayer and employee of Dublin Simon and indicate how much we all support the content and level of questions. We often wonder, when looking at the television and broadcasts like this, where is the content. The committee members have asked more questions than we could answer in a weekend. It is terrific.
A question was asked about the relationship with other NGOs in Dublin city. I sit on the board of the Homeless Agency as a representative of what is called the homeless network. There are 23 groups in the homeless network, including all the housing associations, such as Threshold, Focus Ireland, Depaul Trust etc., and we work very closely together. Crosscare has worked very closely on the James’s Street project.
There was a question about this project. Instead of an extra capacity of 30, we will only have extra capacity of 15 because the project has been moved. We are working on capacity. We talk of rent supplement on the one side, which is an opportunity to move people on, but our real difficulty is the cost of the emergency and supported accommodation. If we assume rent supplement amounted to €1,000 per person per month, it would be €12,000 per year. The cost of an emergency hostel, which is open 24 hours a day, is €50,000 per bed, which is astounding. The cost of a supported housing project is €30,000 per bed.
For example, we may have picked up people from the street and moved them into emergency accommodation but we could move them on quickly, before they end up on the street again, or on to detox. We have a detox unit in Usher’s Island, as most of the committee members may know. If we could act in such a way we may find that somewhere along the way behind this there is accommodation capability. The big constraint we have is in moving people on.
There are initiatives around like CAS and the rental accommodation scheme, RAS. Unfortunately, not all homeless people are eligible for RAS so maybe there is an opportunity there. I know there was money available in that budget the day before yesterday and if money is available, there could be a specialised RAS. Moving people on from the depths they are in is an issue.
Over the past six to nine months we have had serious issues on the street. Thankfully, NGOs, Dublin City Council and others have worked together to make a difference. The numbers in the past few days have been down to single digits rather than double digits up to 50. We have opened two night shelter units, one in Dún Laoghaire and one in Usher’s Island, which has helped. My colleagues, who are coming in after us, will probably elaborate on this as they are closer to the coalface than I am. That could be a trend in the future, given the climate we are in.
Mr. Sam McGuinness: There are different standards of accommodation everywhere. We have had evaluations and Dublin Simon accommodation in Harcourt Street probably rates low in terms of quality of accommodation but high in terms of the quality of effort made and results. There is an expectation that there will be a standard body similar to what we have for old age people in other care.
With regard to the relationship with the Lord Mayor, the issue for us is across the whole of the greater Dublin area. We need the same kind of relationship as good or as bad as there is with Dublin City Council, Fingal and south Dublin. There is much leadership coming from Dún Laoghaire but we do not have the same fora and strong plans from all the other county councils.
After we spoke the last time I went to the Tallaght Partnership and talked to people out there to see what we could do. That gave us some indication of work done out there which is trying to establish emergency shelter in the Neilstown, Tallaght and Blanchardstown area. We are all working tightly together as NGOs and we are working closely with the homeless persons unit, the CWOs, etc.
What is clear is that we see areas in which a difference could be made. The simple costings I gave could see people being kept in an emergency accommodation scenario, which is much more expensive than where we must go in terms of rent supplement and some of the caps. It would also make the process more effective and efficient. People are stuck in places as matters stand.
Ms Lorna Cronnelly: I am gladdened by the great interest in the non-national issue. Our rough sleeper team deal with the matter every day and it really affects its work. A study in 2006 entailing research over a week found 283 people, including those from the ten EU accession states, using homeless services. Due to HRC, people cannot always use services as when people are not receiving supplementary welfare allowance, they cannot access emergency accommodation in the city.
There are two beds available to our rough sleeper team and often its hands are tied and it cannot do much more. I am glad the issue has been brought up as a point to be debated. It is an issue with serious implications on the street.
Mr. Sam McGuinness: Our experience with non-nationals is that quite often they might use day facilities. They would use squats, be in the Phoenix Park or have other friends. For example, I have been in a few places outside of Ireland in the past while and one does not find Asian people on the streets. It is a phenomenon.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: I am thinking more about where they are coming from. Are these people asylum seekers or eastern European workers who have fallen on hard times or have drink problems etc? Is there any more information?
Ms Lorna Cronnelly: With regard to issues such as drink problems, the issue of hostels has been raised. One of the two beds currently available to the rough sleeper team for non-nationals is in our shelter on Harcourt Street. The beds are Dublin-specific. The other is in the Depaul wet shelter.
Our rough sleeper team finds it very inappropriate for non-nationals. When the team meet the majority first, there is usually no addiction or alcohol problem. We can investigate if further statistics can be broken down.
Vice Chairman: I suspect all colleagues would like that information. Perhaps the witnesses will copy it to the secretariat. Deputy Shortall has made a fair point and other colleagues would also welcome that information.
Mr. Patrick J. Burke: I thank Deputies for giving us such time and, as Mr. McGuinness said, for the questions which were so pertinent to the issues of concern to us. We very much appreciate the interest in the subject and commitment to it. We hope there is still time for this committee to influence the strategy and ensure its concerns are reflected in it. To state the obvious, no matter how good the strategy is, if it is not funded it will not achieve the objectives set out in it. That is our primary concern. It would be wonderful to have an opportunity, perhaps in a year from now when the strategy has been implemented, to report to the joint committee on our views on its implementation. If it were helpful to the work of the joint committee, we would appreciate an opportunity to appear before it again.
Deputy Olwyn Enright: The joint committee should write to the Minister to impress upon her the importance of ensuring the strategy contains timelines and explicit resources as it will probably be published during the recess. It is better to influence the strategy before it is produced, rather than after the event.
On behalf of the joint committee, I thank our guests for appearing before the joint committee. I expect Mr. McGuinness has made the soundbite of the day. His remark about the day before yesterday will ring a bell. This has been a good information sharing exercise, which demonstrated the effectiveness of the committee approach to issues. Those of us involved in Oireachtas committees are aware that while politics always enters into the equation, colleagues generally work together for the common good. As our guests acknowledged, this was evident in today’s proceedings. I look forward to future engagements with the Simon Communities of Ireland.
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