Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 31 May 2016
Committee on Housing and Homelessness
Before we commence, I draw the witnesses' attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. The opening statement that was submitted to the committee will be published on the committee website after the meeting.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I welcome the organisation SONAS, which is represented today by Ms Fiona Ryan and Dr. Stephanie Holt. Their submissions have been received and circulated and members have them. I ask Ms Ryan to make the opening statement and then my colleagues will have a number of questions for them.
Ms Fiona Ryan:
I thank the Chairman. I am conscious that the committee is at the end of a very long day, so members will be pleased to know that I will be making some very simple statements to the committee. If they are taken on board and remembered, members have the opportunity to make a real impact. I appreciate that we were facilitated to be here.
My name is Fiona Ryan and I am the chief executive of the SONAS domestic violence charity, the largest provider of front-line services to women, children and young people experiencing domestic violence in the State, although we primarily operate in the greater Dublin area. I am accompanied by Dr. Stephanie Holt of Trinity College Dublin, who is an internationally acknowledged expert in the area of child welfare, protection and domestic violence and latterly has done a great deal of research around the intersection between homelessness, child welfare and protection and domestic violence. In terms of expertise, we are very lucky to have her here today. One might well ask why the head of a domestic violence service and an academic are here today to talk to the committee about domestic violence. There is a simple answer. This committee is examining the issues of housing and homelessness and is looking for solutions. While I can put forward the case as to why women and children experiencing domestic violence are facing a perfect storm when homelessness is included - that is what we are facing every day out there on the front line - I am going to start with general homelessness statistics.
If I could leave the committee with one message today it would be that if it wants to find a solution to families entering homelessness, it has to engage with the reality of domestic violence. In a survey of 70 families who became newly homeless in March, one in six said domestic violence was the main cause of their homeless experience. Add that figure to those who said they had become homeless in the past because of domestic violence and the figure is closer to one in four. I will allow members to reflect on that figure. We were discussing this today and when we had the opportunity to go in front of the committee. We asked ourselves what would be our biggest challenge in going in front of this committee. It was not that we thought members would not be sympathetic to domestic violence or would not want to find a solution to homelessness, but we figured our biggest challenge was to say how domestic violence is a leading cause of families becoming homeless. I will leave members with that thought. One in four newly homeless families are such because of domestic violence.
Committee members will know from their own constituency clinics that 78% of victims do not disclose their experiences to anyone, which means that we have a massive hidden problem in terms of unofficial homelessness and domestic violence. Professor Holt will speak more about this and with more authority but we are talking here about a particular cohort of the homeless population that is at additional risk.
There is tendency in Ireland - I hope the committee will forgive me for digressing - to view domestic violence as something that is uncomfortable and hard to figure out. It is something that happens behind the hall door and even though we have the words to describe it, we have not quite come to terms with the fact that it is a crime. While it is a crime that affects women, children and men, it has a disproportionate impact on women and children. If one wants to talk about crime and prevalence, about what lands a person in an emergency room, in intensive care or in a morgue, then one must talk about domestic violence. More women have been killed in the past ten years by partners or in a family context than people killed in a gangland context. There has been a massive response, both in terms of the public imagination and the statutory response, to gangland killings but no similar response to women and children experiencing domestic violence. That is the nexus point, crisis or perfect storm to which we refer when we talk about families entering homelessness because of domestic violence. Such families are already at risk. We are talking here about their physical safety, not just talking their psychological or emotional well being. We are putting them into homeless services.
SONAS provides a refuge in west Dublin as part of its suite of services. Some committee members are from that constituency and they will know that we are overwhelmed. As part of my preparation for today's meeting, I consulted managers of other refuges, including Saoirse, Aoibhneas and the refuge in Rathmines. The quantum of services provided by SONAS goes beyond refuges. In terms of the front line, refuge providers are in the trenches and all are overwhelmed. We are turning away five times as many women and children as we can accommodate. These women and children are going to stay with relatives, sleeping on floors and presenting to the homeless services. There is a distinct link, a causal relationship, between domestic violence and families entering homelessness.
The overwhelming majority of these newly homeless families are female-headed households. As I said earlier, domestic violence is a crime which disproportionately affects women and children. The question has to be asked – how are solutions to families becoming homeless to be found when one of the root causes of women and children becoming homeless is domestic violence but this is rarely even acknowledged? I doubt that anyone who has appeared before this committee to discuss homelessness has even referenced domestic violence.
Ms Fiona Ryan:
I am delighted to hear that because it is absent from the national homeless policy. At best, it is referenced or alluded to but in terms of a cascade, following actions and a strategy, it is conspicuous by its absence.
SONAS is a member of the Dublin homeless network. I looked at the network's submission to this committee and asked: "Where is domestic violence in here?" The response was that of course domestic violence is a key contributing cause, which is why they gave us that statement. It is implied and that is the problem when one is discussing domestic violence and homelessness. There is an understanding that it is understood but this is Ireland and if one does not state something explicitly, then there will not be follow-up action to address the issue. If we do not engage with the fact that domestic violence is a key contributing cause of families becoming homeless, then we will not find a solution. This will require an intergovernmental response, as well as recognition and engagement by all stakeholders, particularly the Department dealing with housing, planning and local government.
Domestic violence is a key contributing cause of family homelessness and a dual approach must be taken.
It is not just about housing. This is what differentiates it from mainstream housing policy. We have Housing First. That is great for a particular group of the homeless population and, in fact, for a majority. Even within those families who experience homelessness and domestic violence, it is a solution for many of them but the reality is that families, women and children experiencing domestic violence require a number of safe accommodation options - post-refuge accommodation, step-down accommodation which is for up to six months; safe homes in the community. We provide all of this as part of the quantum of services but we do not have enough. That is something that would differentiate that service provision from general homeless provision. Some general homeless recommendations talk about a family having a centre of interests and trying to close them as close as possible to that centre of interests. That may be diametrically opposed to the safety, welfare and protection of the women and children with whom we work because they can be, literally, just down the road from the perpetrator and his extended family or associates. We need to be mindful and aware that not one size will fit all or not one solution will fit all. If we are serious about providing those client-centred needs-led services and finding real solutions to homelessness we need to take this on board.
In my submission I mentioned that SONAS is a member of the national monitoring committee of the second national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender based violence. The monitoring committee is meeting tomorrow. There is a real opportunity for this committee to put forward recommendations that can inform that national monitoring committee. Action 2.3 reads: develop guidance for local authorities with regard to the policy and procedural aspect of their housing role which will ensure effectiveness and consistency in local authority responses to victims of domestic violence. To be frank with the committee, the guidelines and the opportunity for engagement are welcome but right now we are facing a real crisis. We need to know that we can move this on at a faster pace. We need to know there is real engagement to be had around what are the accommodation supports women and children actually need.
I am conscious that the committee is at the end of a long day and is looking to find solutions. I would like to leave the committee with a couple of simple messages, following which I will ask Dr. Stephanie Holt to speak to the issue.
Our messages are as follows. It will be difficult to find a solution to families becoming homeless without engaging with the reality of domestic violence and the part it plays in families becoming homeless. Families are leaving home because of domestic violence. Again, I would remind the committee of the one in four figure for families becoming newly homeless with domestic violence as a cause.
The homeless crisis will require a number of solutions. There is no one size fits all solution, no matter how attractive that sounds. I feel like being facetious and saying any woman could have told the committee that. Victims of domestic violence need a variety of safe accommodation options and right now, the safety, protection and lives of women, children and young people are at risk. I am not being dramatic by saying that to the committee. Its members can speak to the Garda Síochána, front-line workers and social workers who will confirm this. This risk is real and is being multiplied by these families' experience of homelessness.
Because we knew we were appearing before the committee I would like to read a statement from the Dublin Homeless Network. It states: "The Dublin Homeless Network acknowledges that domestic violence is a significant cause of women, children and young people coming into and remaining in homelessness. National housing and homeless strategic responses should incorporate and recognise domestic violence as a significant issue which requires housing led and other support solutions." I would say that, perhaps, "housing-led" and safe accommodation is not necessarily the same as housing.
Because we only got notification on Friday that we would appear before the committee we had only a day and a half to speak to the other organisations. All the other domestic violence refuge providers in Dublin, Aoibhneas, Saoirse and Rathmines Refuge, are backing this submission. The National Women's Council of Ireland, Ruhama, the Immigrant Council of Ireland, the Safe Ireland Network which also provided the committee with a submission around domestic violence, and the National Collective of Community-based Women's Networks have all recognised the call within the submission and would support it.
As I said, the national monitoring committee of the national domestic and sexual violence strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence meets tomorrow. Together we have an opportunity to make a real difference to families, women and children and young people experiencing domestic violence and homelessness. The victims of domestic violence and homelessness are, in many cases, exactly the same people. Let us take the opportunity to make a difference and, hopefully, make it better. I will now hand over to my colleague, Dr. Stephanie Holt.
Dr. Stephanie Holt:
I thank the Chairman and other members for hearing my contribution to this debate. I will talk first about an issue in respect of which I have particular expertise - children's experience of domestic violence - before making some significant links to homelessness and, in particular, the significant risks to which children can be exposed as a result of that experience. One of the difficulties historically across all jurisdictions - it is not really an Irish issue - is how we respond appropriately to the welfare and protection needs of children who are exposed to domestic violence. That concerns how we understand the issue.
I have three points to make concerning that. One of the issues has been, similarly to homelessness and somewhat paradoxically, that domestic violence has traditionally been seen as an adult affair that does not concern children. This was despite a burgeoning evidence base to the contrary that would robustly suggest otherwise. International evidence on the prevalence of children's exposure to domestic violence would say that they are centrally involved in every aspect of that.
Domestic violence can be seen as episodic, something that happens every now and again. For the children who experience it, however, it is something that pervades their lives absolutely. It is something with which they live. They live with fear, anger and parents whose parenting capacity is somewhat compromised to various degrees. Exposure to domestic violence is clearly linked to child abuse and there is empirical evidence to support this. At its basic minimum, living with domestic violence is seen as a form of emotional abuse. That is reflected in our Children First guidelines. It is also clearly linked to the physical abuse of children and, to a lesser degree, their being sexually abused.
Unfortunately, for those experiencing domestic abuse, it is rarely the only issue that children, young people and families are experiencing. Alongside that, there is a multiplicity of other issues which complicate that experience to some degree. In that mix are substance abuse and mental health issues for parents and children. Seriously disturbed children are presenting with suicidal ideation as a result of that experience. Poverty also comes with that. Alongside the latter is homelessness, which we are discussing today. That presents a dynamic risk for children which is ongoing and quite difficult to tackle.
Focusing specifically on the issue of homelessness, it is a significant stressor in the lives of children and families. Poverty is both an antecedent to homelessness and it significantly adds to the stress that families experience. However, being homeless, which may arise from the need to leave a violent relationship, also significantly elevates the risk for children and their non-abusing parent. As Ms Ryan has already pointed out, the latter is largely the mother. Being homeless also seriously compromises their safety.
Before coming to my second point, I wish to highlight that the presence of domestic violence is a consistent factor in serious case reviews, both here and in the UK. We are talking about death and serious injury to children. Domestic violence is in the mix for many of those cases.
My second point concerns when families leave due to an experience of domestic violence. The drive behind a lot of social health care, child protection and welfare and An Garda Síochána activity is generally to keep people safe - leaving a scene and arriving at a safe point. Somewhat paradoxically, the first six months post-separation is the most dangerous time for women and children. Their risk of serious assault or lethal assault - that is, serious assault or situations where assault results in murder - increases by 50% during that first six-month period, which is quite significant. That is across all jurisdictions. In entering homelessness to get away from violence, women and children are at an increasing risk of lethal assault and our ability to protect them is compromised quite seriously. If we combine the first point about exposure to domestic violence and the second point about that leaving point and entering homelessness, I refer to what Ms Ryan was talking about, namely, that perfect storm. It is probably a slightly unfortunate term to use because there is nothing perfect about women and children choosing to leave home and enter homelessness. I use the word "choosing" in its broadest sense because very often it is not a choice.
The impact of domestic violence on children is generally central to the decision the woman makes to leave her intact relationship with her abusive partner and to enter homelessness. However, in doing so - and with some of the very unstable housing options there for her at the moment, particularly but not exclusively the hotel accommodation - her risk and the child's is elevated to a degree that is of huge concern to those of us who engage in research and practice with children and families who are experiencing domestic violence.
Our mandatory responsibility to promote and the welfare of and protect children is completely compromised given the current housing options and the lack of engagement with the debate around domestic violence and homelessness. There is a need to make that link. Ms Ryan referred to the gendered nature of domestic violence and that is very clearly seen in the current rise, a huge spike, in single parent families who are entering homelessness and the significant degree of domestic violence in the background to those situations. This is a very complex and multifaceted issue which requires an equally multifaceted response; one that demands a multi-agency, multi-professional and perhaps an intra-governmental approach to an issue that is quite complex.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. Many of us on this committee represent constituencies that have very high levels of family homelessness and housing need. We have been working with many of the realities described by the witnesses and they confirm the picture of what we are experiencing in the constituencies.
The job of this committee is to report and try to present as focused recommendations as we can to the Dáil and to the new Minister for housing. The more focused we can make our recommendations, the more chance that at least some of them will get taken up. Having accepted the outline of the presentations there are a couple of areas on which I am keen to hear the witnesses views. Part of the responsibility for funding the refuges lies with Tusla, but the general housing policy and long-term policy rests with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. Often there is a disconnect between the provision of services from entering the refuge, then into step-down and then into long-term housing. I am interested in the witnesses' reflections on whether that is a difficulty right across the system and whether they have any recommendations for how that could be addressed. Do we put all the responsibilities into the housing remit or do we put some of the housing responsibilities into Tusla? In their experience, what do the witnesses consider the best way to tackle that? In the interests of clarity I would like the witnesses to explain, on the record, a person's transition from the refuge to step-down to safe housing so that everybody who reads the presentation is clear about how that model works.
One of the difficulties seen in our constituency offices is when women with children who are experiencing domestic violence are private home owners. Their ability to access social housing supports of any kind is absolutely at the discretion of the local authorities. Some local authorities have a more sensitive approach while others have a very negative approach. Do the witnesses have any policy recommendations specifically on how that could be tackled? The same question applies for sharing tenants in local authority accommodation, the classic case of domestic violence within a shared tenancy. The local authority generally sees that as a domestic matter and will not get involved. The authority says it is a matter for the courts or for the gardaí. Do the witnesses have any recommendations regarding that?
I wish to pick up on a point made by Ms Ryan regarding the assessment of need. Obviously the centre of interest is one of the qualifying criteria. Perhaps Ms Ryan could clarify if it is SONAS's experience that local authorities are refusing to grant an assessment of need away from what would have been the person's centre of interest, even though there is supporting evidence from referring organisations that the centre of interest includes a violent partner? Does Ms Ryan have specific policy recommendations, for example in changes to how local authorities perform housing needs assessments, that could fix that problem?
I welcome the witnesses to the committee. I am glad this topic is being aired because I definitely see a link between domestic violence and the people I meet who are becoming homeless.
They are not leaving directly because of domestic violence and these cases are vastly under-reported. When we get talking to these women we discover there is a history of domestic violence. It is not necessarily the cause of their homelessness now but it has been in past relationships.
There is such a trend in society of victim blaming. Now is not the time for a discussion on domestic violence but there is a constant invocation asking why the woman does not simply leave. It is a little ironic now because it is extremely difficult for anyone to leave. We all know it is not as simple as just leaving. The point was made about the most dangerous time being when a woman leaves and in the period afterwards when partners follow up.
I am keen to draw these things out. One of the witnesses said her organisation is turning away five times more families than it can cater for. From my past interactions with rape crisis centres and other organisations that deal with violence against women, it is clear they are suffering under cuts as well. We have seen instances of refuges closing down. No one can see a refuge as being a solution, obviously. However, what I have been hearing from those involved in refuges is that women cannot get out of them. Will the deputation elaborate on that point? It is similar to the idea of a bed blocker - a horrible term - in a hospital in the sense that there are no places in refuges because of the homeless situation. This is a serious issue for the safety of women and children. One issue that probably has not been drawn out sufficiently at this committee is the child welfare aspect of homelessness. The damage that is being done to children psychologically arising from homelessness is extraordinary, but it is worse still if we factor in a history of domestic violence.
I have extensive anecdotal evidence of people having to stay in the house, and this has been brought out already. They may want to separate but cannot afford it. There can be psychological control of and damage to women in those situations as well. Will the members of the deputation clarify whether they are aware of situations where women have been hurt because they were afraid to leave given the likelihood they would fall into homelessness? Will the deputation draw out that point and give some details? Are we likely to see women and children facing serious injury, possibly even death, in the near future as a result of the housing crisis?
The deputation has said domestic violence is a leading cause of women, children and young people becoming homeless and that it is a pathway to homelessness. I assume the solution is not only building houses but providing affordable homes for families to be able to access. Are there specific immediate emergency accommodation issues as well? Do the organisations need more houses provided in the short term for families?
I thank Ms Fiona Ryan and Dr. Stephanie Holt for coming in to help us with our work. This is an important element of it. They have described how the problem of homelessness changes the crisis of domestic violence into a disaster when the two are combined. Previously, they indicated that before the homeless crisis there was safe accommodation and accompanying services. If we could magically address the homelessness issues generally, would that adequately deal with it? Would it get us back to a point where there is a reasonable level of support?
The deputation has said that while general recommendations around ending homelessness would benefit victims of violence, victims are at risk from perpetrators.
Do the witnesses want us to do more beyond that? One way of doing this is to facilitate transfer of victims to a greater extent in local authorities. That is very important. We need to get people away but there is a big barrier there as the witnesses know and we as practitioners know. That is a big problem for people in this situation.
Before the witnesses respond, I should say that this committee will be short-lived. It has a lifespan of two months. The primary focus is on homelessness and housing issues. While we deal with, and are conscious of, a range of other related issues, such as we are discussing today, addiction and other areas, in the responses to the questions we would like practical recommendations that a Minister could seriously consider. Deputies Ó Broin and Coppinger asked what are the immediate next steps. It is not as though we can wait until there is a recovery in the housing market. We need to understand whether there are tangible recommendations the witnesses would like to see this committee make. Could they please identify those in their response to the questions?
Ms Fiona Ryan:
I will take the last questions first. SONAS is very lucky to be funded by the Child and Family Agency. In 2015, many domestic violence services were co-funded by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government via local authorities and the Child and Family Agency, which had migrated from the Health Service Executive social inclusion area. Most domestic violence services are funded by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency.
I am not here to make an appeal for funding for SONAS or anyone else. We are talking about a much wider and bigger issue. That said, the national domestic violence budget for the country is €16 million. That is what the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE, spent on hotel beds in the Dublin area for homeless families.
Ms Fiona Ryan:
Yes. I appreciate that we are not here to talk about domestic violence per sebut it is worth making a comparison.
Deputy O'Sullivan asked about men and non-nationals. Men do experience domestic abuse. The figures, however, are seven times greater for women and children. The abuse suffered by women and children tends to be physical and brings them to the emergency departments, intensive care or a morgue. I am not minimising the experience of male victims of domestic abuse but from the public health policy point of view they are fewer in number and their experience of severe physical abuse is lower. The corollary is that women and children experience domestic abuse in greater numbers with much more serious physical repercussions. SONAS works with women and children who have suffered domestic violence. We recognise that there are other organisations which work with men as well.
Dr. Stephanie Holt:
I will add to that. In terms of how the current crisis has emerged over the past year, I echo Ms Ryan's point on male victims. We are very aware of that. The crisis to which the committee has a responsibility to respond is primarily about households headed by single females. That is what the statistics tell us. The statistics for male single homelessness have not shifted all that much over the past 15 to 18 months. What has spiked quite considerably is single female-headed households with children, and that is why our focus has been on that demographic.
Ms Fiona Ryan:
SONAS covers the greater Dublin area and is the biggest organisation in the country. My comments are purely from the point of view of providing the committee with an insight. Some 60% of our clients are Irish, including Irish Travellers, and 40% are non-national, a figure that is primarily split between Eastern European and African people. Within those groupings, the main focus is on Nigerian and Polish people. In fairness, that reflects the proportions within the population in terms of prevalence. The reality is that women and children who are migrants, in particular those who are undocumented, are particularly vulnerable. I had this conversation with colleagues in Ruhama and the Immigrant Council of Ireland. That is why they have lent their support to this submission. We need to be mindful that we are talking about another level of vulnerability.
Dr. Stephanie Holt:
We referred to the figures for March. That particular piece of research identified three at-risk groups, namely, women and children experiencing domestic violence, migrants and young women between the ages of 18 and 24. The migrant population, as Ms Ryan said, is a particularly vulnerable one.
Ms Fiona Ryan:
I refer to Deputy Coppinger's questions. I want to outline things in such a way as to explain our model of services. SONAS provides refuge, but we also provide outreach and visiting support. Part of the visiting support involves a homeless prevention initiative for families who have experienced domestic violence and have secured accommodation. That is a leading cause of a lack of tenancy sustainment for women and children.
We work with women and children in their homes to avoid them having to go to a refuge. We also provide safe homes in the community, which is different to the safe housing to which Deputy Ó Broin referred. Our safe homes are homes that are relatively discreet in communities where women and children receive intensive support from us. They are an alternative to refuges.
Ms Fiona Ryan:
It is a mixture. For want of a better term, it is an intensive visiting support. Our visiting support service also provides a dedicated crisis intervention service for families who are in homeless services. We developed this model of service because we believe in starting with the woman and child. We have a very simple response to this. Their needs shape our response, and their safety and protection needs have primarily shaped how we develop services. There is no denying that high-risk high-needs clients need refuge.
The Deputy described the situation perfectly and made an astute observation. I use the term "choosing" in the broadest sense, but women are telling us they would rather stay at home and manage the abuse than face risking their children going into homeless services. When I refer to abuse, I am not just talking about verbal abuse. I may mean regular beatings or sexual abuse. There is a very high prevalence of sexual abuse in the context of domestic violence. Our services peak after Christmas because women hold things together so that kids' Christmases are not disrupted. They peak after the leaving certificate exams because women make sure that their children who are doing exams are not disrupted.
The committee needs to be aware of the fact that the current homeless crisis is stopping women and children entering refuge. Many of those seeking refuge cannot access services. We make sure that no woman and child leaves our refuge with a being offered a service. When they are in refuge our first work with them involves finding them somewhere to move on to. No one wants to use the analogy relating to bed blocking, but when people are in refuge they are taking up places that others cannot access. To where do we move women and children?
It is not just about finding housing. That is a large part of it eventually down the line, but there is that interim step around that critical six-month period where there is a need for what we call step-down accommodation. It may be a transitional point beyond refuge where there is still a high risk. The committee asked for solid recommendations to be made to it. First, there needs to be a real conversation between the new Ministry, formerly the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Tusla and the Department of Justice and Equality. We need real inter-agency working on the ground, similar to what exists in adjoining jurisdictions, where accommodation needs are reflected in any care plan put forward for high-risk women and children. The agencies need to talk to each other but there also needs to be fluidity in the accommodation stock that exists. If accommodation is available it must be made available for step-down accommodation. Of course, people will want to move on to housing and move on with their lives but we must establish risk and safety as the priority criteria for post-refuge or any form of emergency accommodation.
Ms Fiona Ryan:
This is a new service we set up in response to the housing and homelessness crisis and as an alternative to refuges. We pioneered it in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown area with the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown local authority. It must be congratulated on its far-sighted approach in this regard. Dr. Holt carried out the evaluation of the service, which was overwhelmingly positive. My understanding is that there was no refuge in that area of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, where there is a combined city population equivalent to Cork and Limerick. There are four refuges in the greater Dublin area in a population where one in four or one in three, depending on one’s estimation of the population, lives. We came up with an alternative. The units are basically self-contained apartments or houses, usually apartments because if they are on the second floor they can be outfitted with security. We liaise with the local Garda Síochána and provide intensive visiting support. It is a new service that is getting off the ground.
Dr. Stephanie Holt:
One of the central and critical aspects of the service when we think about homelessness and domestic violence is that the solution is not just about housing, it is about integrating safety and risk and supporting women and children where they are at, if where they are at is in their own communities, or supporting them to move on afterwards. A number of the women who participated in the research highlighted that they would never enter a refuge with their child or children. Some of those reasons might have been because the child had a disability or because they themselves had a disability and, as such, they were linked into a whole range of services within their own area. Leaving their own area to go into a refuge would mean they would be compromising that network which was really holding the family together. By being offered a safe home in their home, the child could continue to go to school and the family could continue to engage with the services that are essential for normal functioning. The intense nature of the service was particularly highlighted in that women had support five days a week, Monday to Friday, from the visiting woman support worker and the child also got one on one support. The basis for that was an assessment of need and risk in order that a robust and informed safety plan could be put into place for those women and children to support them to move on.
To return to an earlier question asked by Deputy Coppinger about the risk of injury and death and how that is linked to homelessness, if we only look at that six-month period, regardless of homelessness, one has an extremely vulnerable population. Children experiencing domestic violence are one of the most distressed groups in the population of children in this country and further afield so they are already very distressed in a very vulnerable and at-risk situation.
When homelessness is added in, it just elevates that risk and increases what is already an established risk of serious or lethal assault. There is research evidence, some of which is in Ireland and more limited evidence abroad, of a clear link between serious and lethal assault involving women and children being murdered in that six-month period. When one adds in the crisis of homelessness, one just shoots up that elevator of risk.
Ms Fiona Ryan:
To echo Dr. Holt's comments, for some families, it relates to being near that centre of interest so they may not be the highest risk but being near that centre of interest because of disability supports may outweigh their need to get away. For other families and other women and children, getting as far away from where the perpetrator is and their extended sphere of influence is very important. This also goes to Deputy Ryan's point. Deputy Ó Broin reflected it as well.
We need fluidity. Members are asking for solid responses. Tusla and the new Department need to have that conversation. Domestic violence support services, which are on the front line and can bring that on-the-ground knowledge and shape those policy responses, need to be involved in that conversation. I am speaking for SONAS but I know other services feel like that. We feel that we have been marginalised and that we are there looking after the women and children on the front line but nobody is hearing or seeing us, which is one of our motivations for coming here today. That multi-agency response at both policy level and on the ground is one solid thing I would recommend to the committee. Local authorities must recognise that risk and safety are key determining factors, that they need to be criteria and that they outweigh centre of interest or housing need.
In terms of responses, women and children who are victims of domestic violence require a tiered response. Ultimately, people want to live safely. The issue of whether that is being able to go back to their own home with a domestic violence order, either a barring order or a safety order, or moving into local authority accommodation is down the line. The reality is that they have short-term accommodation needs and cannot be accommodated, which is what needs to be worked on. Again, this is about thinking creatively. What is our housing stock? What can be adopted? What can we do to move on from refuges those women and children who do not need to be there anymore? If they can go into general housing - with or without supports - that is great but what can we do to keep it moving? Again, I would say that there was a shortage of appropriate accommodation before the homeless crisis arose. The crisis has just added to it exponentially.
To clarify, most of the families that SONAS meets that become homeless through domestic violence are households headed by single women. Does SONAS have figures in respect of this matter? I ask this because sometimes there is a reason why women do not marry the fathers of their children, a point that previously arose in the Dáil. There are underlying and serious issues involved and these women then enter a world of poverty because of that situation. We all know single parents and it is interesting to realise that these women are more likely to become homeless. How many of the women that SONAS deals with would be married or in unmarried relationships and how many of them fall into homelessness?
Ms Fiona Ryan:
There are very interesting statistics. We have been collecting them for the past year or so and I am happy to a have a longer conversation with the Deputy and provide them. What is really important for the Deputy to realise is that domestic violence has an impact on all sectors of society but there are women affected by it who already face multiple challenges around poverty. Women are rational. People are rational and make good choices for themselves. Victims do not contact our services unless they have to.
Members should think of their own families and lives. If one considers that between one in five and one in seven women in Ireland will experience domestic violence at some stage in their lives, members know someone who has experienced it. The first people to whom they will turn will be within their own network as they will go to their families or friends. Consequently, we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg and are dealing with the people who must come to us. I refer to the range of services we offer and a person in outreach could be a home owner in Balbriggan who has approached us seeking advice on what kind of court order one can have and it might just be one contact. However, a foreign national living in an apartment in another area elsewhere in north or west Dublin in which we work might want ongoing support because there may be child and custody and access issues. Obviously, we are trying to build a profile of the clients with whom we work but we start with their needs and then work out to build that wraparound service around them.
Deputy Ó Broin asked me a number of questions and again is seeking solid responses. Local authorities really must engage with the issue and I note local authorities in the United Kingdom have done so. There are some instances in which domestic violence could be grounds for a notice to quit. The last thing a local authority desires is a scenario in which the victim of domestic violence leaves a three-bedroom or four-bedroom house while the perpetrator still resides there-----
Ms Fiona Ryan:
-----and she is with her kids in a refuge, if she is lucky, and then with homeless services. Thereafter, it will fall back on the local authority again to house that family. To bring it back full circle, this is one point I made to the committee. Our challenge in appearing before the committee today was to have members understand the role domestic violence plays in creating homelessness for families, women and children, and that a multi-tiered response is needed, starting at national policy level. Such a response would start with a national homelessness strategy that recognises one size does not fit all. Gender-based violence has an impact and contributes to homelessness. While housing will form part of the solution for the vast majority of people, it is not the only solution. A tiered accommodation response is required, with risk and safety at its centre, and we need that multi-agency working.
Dr. Stephanie Holt:
If I can add to that by going back to the families most recently entering homelessness, approximately 80% of them stated they had sought advice and support before becoming homeless and this advice was sought from the housing authority with which they engaged. This offers a golden window of opportunity to engage with families and to integrate that risk and assessment piece. The Chairman referred earlier to hearing a number of submissions previously on the subject of addiction in particular, and with domestic violence, one will encounter multi-layered issues. One will get addiction and all the other bits that make it more complex, which is why there is a need for a much earlier risk and assessment piece to inform safe housing options fully. If the committee wants a recommendation, this is where it starts, namely, that this risk and assessment piece must be carried out much earlier.
I have one final small question and the witnesses can take a question from Deputy O'Dowd as well. In the witnesses' own hands-on experience, how are they operating with local authorities? Do they have key personnel with whom they deal who understand the issue and are supportive or do local authorities require a better understanding?
I apologise, as I was obliged to leave the meeting earlier. The witnesses have used powerful language because they have brought home to me and to all members how serious an issue this is. On the statistics provided, I believe Ms Fiona Ryan stated one in seven women in a relationship with experience physical violence. I find that to be absolutely shocking, as I did not think the figures were anything like as high as that. Deputy Coppinger should not laugh-----
This is not a laughing matter; it is a serious issue. Ms Ryan mentioned Tusla and so on and, in the past, I have been interested in the Tusla reports from the Louth-Meath area about family dysfunction and the huge complexity of problems that arise. Obviously, if a family or a relationship is in difficulty, it has a highly negative impact on everybody, but in particular on the children and the person who is abused physically. I again apologise for being late but I refer to the responses about which the witnesses are talking. Ms Ryan mentioned a policy response from the United Kingdom which, from what she appears to have stated, may be deemed to be adequate there. What would be needed to put together the best solution or plan to meet the needs identified by SONAS? The witnesses might revert to the committee as I would not expect them to have it to hand.
I applaud SONAS in respect of the work it is doing. I was a teacher for many years and I met many families who had serious problems. I know that when one can reach out to help somebody, as SONAS does, it is hugely important. As Ms Ryan said, when people make contact they are in extremis. There is no other support available to them and they have exhausted the family support and community network. These are the most traumatised and difficult cases, so I just want to acknowledge what SONAS does.
Ms Fiona Ryan:
I thank members for their interest. SONAS alone worked with approximately 1,250 women and children last year. In a country where 80% of victims of domestic violence do not disclose their experiences to anyone, that gives an indication of the sheer scale of what we are dealing with. I appreciate that the committee is here to deal with housing and homelessness and not domestic violence, per se. In terms of its relevance to the committee's work, however, I reiterate that domestic violence is a leading contributory cause to families becoming homeless.
In terms of local authorities - an issue which the committee was discussing - the truth is that it varies. I have met some amazingly inspiring, far-thinking individuals in local authorities. We have also engaged with others. We have had experiences whereby people were quite delineated - I am trying to be as diplomatic as possible-----
Ms Fiona Ryan:
-----in what they thought were their responsibilities.
Fundamentally, what we are talking about here is an equity issue. I realise this is Ireland, but it should not have to depend on the quality of personal relationships, who one knows or whether such and such a person has taken the time to gain an insight into this. There need to be protocols and standards. I would refer the committee to action 2.3 in the national domestic violence strategy which outlines key areas to work on. However, I think we need to go beyond this. We should get the guidelines and have the participatory engagement sessions we are talking about here. Let us get real about what we are discussing because this was two years ago. It is great if we get this, but right now we need an emergency response on the ground, including tiered, safe accommodation for women and children experiencing domestic violence who are entering homeless services.
Dr. Stephanie Holt:
Echoing the point I made earlier, domestic violence is rarely the presenting issue to a range of professionals and that includes those who work in the area of local authority housing. It is usually buried way underneath a pile of other problems, including addiction and mental health issues. It takes a certain skill set and a certain understanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse to be brave enough to ask the questions. Part of it involves professionals being interested. It is also about their training, their awareness and their ability to work together. I am sure it is not the first time a committee such as this has heard that about professionals working together to share that skill set and an understanding of the dynamics involved. It goes back to a much earlier preventative point about when people are in danger of becoming homeless and the support they receive at that stage.
Ms Fiona Ryan:
The work that we do is not just responsive and reacting to emergencies, although that is part of it. We also do significant prevention work. Domestic violence services are doing significant prevention work in the context of stopping women, children and families from entering homeless services by providing, with Tús and An Garda Síochána, those supports around domestic violence orders that allow families to stay safely in their homes. The committee needs to be aware of the preventative work that domestic violence services do, as well as the emergency response.
At present, An Garda Síochána is looking at a standardised risk assessment tool for victims of domestic violence. In the UK it is called the domestic abuse, stalking and harassment and honour-based violence risk assessment tool or DASH. It is used by both NGOs and British police forces. SONAS would use DASH, which is a way of assessing how much someone is at risk. I cannot see any reason why, once we have that standardised tool, there cannot be co-operation in the future between housing authorities and An Garda Síochána - as well as multi-agency work to provide that safeguard and wraparound for women and children at high risk of domestic violence and homelessness - to find an appropriate accommodation response that will ensure their safety.
That concludes this afternoon's session. I wish to thank Ms Ryan and Professor Holt very much for their submissions and for attending. I also thank them for their answers and for their engagement with the committee.
While it is a specific area, the committee is concerned about the risk of homelessness. We talk about dealing with the crisis but the first step is to prevent people from becoming homeless. This comes across in several areas. In that regard, this presentation falls specifically into the area of the risk of people becoming homeless.
That concludes the business for today. The next meeting of the committee will be at 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 2 June. For those members travelling tomorrow, we will be meeting at 1.20 p.m.
In the morning, we have the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney. In the afternoon, we have departmental officials responsible for housing, planning and local government, the County and City Management Association and Fingal and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Councils.