Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 11 June 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs
Impact of Homelessness on Children: Discussion
I welcome all of the members as well as viewers who may be watching our proceedings on Oireachtas TV to this session of the committee. The purpose of today's session is to meet with representatives of Focus Ireland to discuss the impact of homelessness on children. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. Mike Allen, director of advocacy, and Ms Niamh Lambe, team leader of the family homeless action team, from Focus Ireland.
Before we commence, in accordance with procedure I am required to draw the attention of attendees 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 their evidence to the joint committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
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 Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I remind members, witnesses and guests in the Gallery to turn off their mobile phones or switch them to flight mode as they may interfere with the sound system and make it difficult for parliamentary reporters to report the meeting. Phones also adversely affect television and web streaming coverage.
I advise witnesses that any submission or opening statements made to the joint committee will be published on the committee website after this meeting. After their presentations there will be questions from members of the committee.
I now invite Mr. Allen to make his opening statement.
Mr. Mike Allen:
I thank the committee for the invitation to address it. At the outset, the simple and clear statement one can make is that the experience of becoming and being homeless is deeply traumatic for children and their parents and has the potential to have lifelong consequences. It is extremely important that the country addresses that issue from the perspective of children. Historically, homelessness has been seen as a problem experienced largely by adults, particularly adult men. The legislation passed by the Oireachtas to guide local authorities in responding to homelessness is blind in respect of children, and that follows through in the practice and the way the interests of families, particularly children, are addressed throughout the homelessness system. Obviously, that gap or absence could be addressed by changes in practice and in regulation, but it falls primarily to the Houses of the Oireachtas which passed the original legislation that guides the homelessness services to amend that legislation so the interests of the child can be addressed.
Focus Ireland is recognised as the homelessness and housing organisation that has the longest experience of working with homeless families. We have worked with homeless families for over 30 years. Ms Niamh Lambe is the team leader of the family homeless action team which works with the Dublin Region Homeless Executive in supporting several hundred children and their families in Dublin, helping them to cope with homelessness and, essentially, helping them to move out of homelessness. A key part of what we have come to understand, and it is crucial to how we should be responding to the homelessness problem, is that families that are coping with homelessness are more likely to move successfully out of homelessness.
There is an increasing sense that the frustration with the scale of the homelessness crisis is leading to a concentration at policy level that is concerned only with numbers. We consider the total number of children and families who are homeless and the Minister and the Department repeatedly tell us the number of families who have moved out of homelessness. We do not doubt that the total numbers are extremely important, but a concentration only on numbers overlooks the reality of life as experienced by families and children who are homeless. If we have measures of success regarding family homelessness that just count the number of families who move out of homelessness, the inevitable long-term consequences will be that the families who have the greatest vulnerabilities and who are suffering the most in homelessness will be the ones who are left behind. They will be unable to access private rented accommodation and will find themselves at the end of queue, even for social housing. We will come to the end of this homelessness crisis, and we must come to the end of it sometime no matter how many years it takes, with a residue of a large number of families who have been homeless for a very long period and a large number of families whose future lives will be destroyed because of their long period of homelessness. How we handle this issue is extremely important.
I believe the committee's invitation issued to us as a result of the excellent report from the Ombudsman for Children, No Place Like Home. Focus Ireland has welcomed the report. It is a very wise balance between listening to the voices of the children concerned and examining in forensic depth the policies, or absence of policies, in respect of family homelessness. We particularly welcome the recommendation in the report that the Houses of the Oireachtas support the Private Members' legislation from the Labour Party to amend the housing legislation to include the rights of the child. It has been supported by all parties in the House but has not been passed into law. We support that legislation. We also support the recommendation of the Oireachtas committee on the right to housing. However, the rights of children that we put in our Constitution recently do not appear to have influenced the way children are treated in the homelessness system. We must not only change our Constitution but also put into effect the changes we have already made in it.
We also support something that is at the heart of what the Ombudsman for Children's report is saying. The only part of policy in respect of families who are homeless in which the Government is proactively engaged is the introduction of family hubs.
Nobody is defending putting children into hotels and nobody is defending putting children and families into bed and breakfast accommodation. It is important to note that the Ombudsman's report looks only at hubs. The majority of children and their families are not in hubs; they are in far worse accommodation than is provided by the hubs. It is legitimate to look at the hubs, however, because the Government is standing over that, saying it is a positive intervention and that this is what the Government wants to do. The Government is putting the provision of hubs forward as good practice, and therefore it is appropriate to look at that in detail. When one looks at what is happening in the hubs - and the Ombudsman's report is excellent on this - one finds that there is no policy and it is not clear what analysis of the homelessness problem is being put forward, to which the hubs are meant to be a solution, other than that the hubs are better than hotels. We need to move away from an approach to homelessness in general which says that one type of intervention is better than people being on the street or better than being in emergency accommodation. We need to have a much more ambitious and deeper understanding of homelessness. If that statement is true of all homelessness, and the 10,000 men, women and children who are homeless in the State, it is ten times more true when we talk about children and the extent to which we as a nation are failing our children after so many generations of doing that before and thinking we have learned the lessons. We have almost 4,000 children currently in homeless accommodation, and the consequences of that experience on their lives will be devastating. It is extremely welcome that this committee is looking at that issue.
With the practice that Ms Lambe can bring and the policy and research that I can bring to the advocacy team, I hope we can help the committee to look at a way forward and find ways of addressing this problem more effectively.
Ms Niamh Lambe:
In the family health service I manage we have more than 1,000 children linked to the service we work with. To put it into context, some 9% of those children have a child support worker. We have many case managers working with the adults of the families but to look at the families as a whole I believe it is important to look at every child and hear every child's voice.
I thank Ms Lambe for that. It is important to note that the committee is also looking at the issue of social workers - in a very broad manner - in how they interact with children. Unfortunately, it is a very big issue, as a report of this committee will find in the very near future.
Prior to opening up to the other members - who will, I am sure, want to ask a number of questions - I have some questions for both of the witnesses. I shall pick up on two points made by Mr. Allen. The witness said that legislation would have to be changed, and he heavily referenced the Ombudsman's report. What legislation would Mr. Allen amend and what would the amendments be? Mr. Allen referred to the production of information for the public to digest around homeless numbers and men, women and children in unsuitable accommodations. I am paraphrasing Mr. Allen when he took issue with the Department only producing numbers and the inference that the reports miss the individuals in question. How would Mr. Allen come to that conclusion and, more important, what measure does he believe would be more appropriate for the Department to produce in order to inform the public of the position, specifically around children in unsuitable accommodations or in homelessness and their parents? Perhaps Mr. Allen could address those two questions to get us started and then we will open up the discussion to others.
Mr. Mike Allen:
The legislation of the late 1980s defines homelessness and gives the authority to the local authorities to deal with the issues. It was very important and groundbreaking legislation at the time. It understands homelessness as something that happens to an adult individual. It refers in passing to "any other person who normally resides with him or who might reasonably be expected to reside with him". In the interim, since that legislation was passed, we have had all the revelations about the abuse of children in State and other institutions.
We have had Children First legislation, the approach to which social workers and others have fully adopted, and the children's rights referendum, but none of it has carried into practice. In an ideal world we would not have to deal with this issue, but in a world which would be a bit better than what we have, we would go through a major process of rethinking homeless legislation through consultation on how it would be drawn up in a way that would reflect the reality of how it would affect children. It is interesting to note that while family homelessness is a big issue in the United States for instance, in most European countries it is not an issue in the way we are experiencing it. It is a unique experience.
The proposed Private Members' Bill which is referred to in the Ombudsman's report proposes to insert into existing legislation that the local authority would have to take into account the best interests of the child. It is a clever and elegant piece of work. It is not the perfect solution, but the children in homeless accommodation cannot wait the four years it would take to do the perfect job. Therefore, it is important legislation. I know that it has not been supported by all parties represented in the Houses, but to see it become law and carried through into action would make a significant difference.
From my perspective alone and notwithstanding anything the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government might be doing, it has often been the case in my years in the Houses that we have declared something as an emergency such as the climate emergency, for instance. It is all well and good to declare something as an emergency, but something has to be done after the emergency is declared, or preferably beforehand. I have visited hubs, hotels, social housing, unsuitable and suitable private rented accommodation and seen all of it. I am sure I have not seen half as much as Mr. Allen, but I like to think I have a good grasp of this issue. My observation on it is that if we enshrine primary legislation, with specific information on and tasks to be performed for children, how will we implement it, with the local authorities and approved housing bodies? We must recognise that citizens are citizens, regardless of whether they are children or adults. Is it fair and equitable to take a person who is 15th, 20th or 30th on a waiting list for social housing or bump up a person on the waiting list for a six-month hub placement on the basis that there is a child to be housed? I appreciate the remit of the committee, but at the same I recognise that we are dealing with citizens, individuals who reside in the State, who have a right to housing, as enshrined in legislation. I recognise everything that comes with it.
I refer to hubs and the standard of same which Mr. Allen referenced in his submission. It is a critical contribution to this discussion. Deputy Rabbitte and I, with a former member of the committee, were in a family hub in Inchicore and I was impressed by it. I was impressed by the services being provided. In Mr. Allen's professional experience, are we rolling out such facilities and is the standard the same? Are there variances in how they are being managed? I mention the fact that the Ombudsman has highlighted certain deficiencies. Does Mr. Allen have recommendations he would like to make?
Mr. Mike Allen:
I return to the changes legislation would make. We are not specifically saying putting it into housing legislation would change the allocation of housing, for instance. To a large extent, the local authorities do what these Houses tell them to do. When somebody who works for a local authority sits down and asks what his or her responsibilities are, he or she looks at the legislation and sees that the Houses of Oireachtas have not told him or her to look after the children in families and to have a particular perspective on that issue. If the Houses of the Oireachtas were to do so, a number of matters would stem from it, of which regulation would be the first.
As far as I am aware not a single local authority in the country has given its own staff any guidelines, recommendations or training whatsoever on how their services should respond to the fact that they now have parents coming in with children who are in trauma. There is no guidance, no training, nothing. That follows through into all the systems. I know there has been criticism in the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government and here of the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive and the Department because they cannot tell us how many children move out of homelessness but they can tell the number of adults. That is because all the systems are designed around adults, which in turn is because the legislation states that homelessness is a thing that happens to adults. It is not a magic wand and will not solve the problem but if children are not written into the legislation they will be forgotten because there is huge pressure on all the systems which to some extent will do what they are told and if children are ignored that will be lost, and that is what is happening.
The implications of the child-centred approach are quite frightening because they raise all sorts of serious questions but we cannot avoid them by not raising them. Ms Lambe may come in on that topic but first I will speak about the standards in the hubs and how our organisation sees them. Focus Ireland is not opposed to hubs. The question over the years has been whether we are for or against them. What we know from international experience is that putting people who are homeless into congregated or institutional settings for significant periods does them harm. It makes it harder for them to re-enter mainstream living. That is even more true of families. Any form of institutional living where 20 or, in some cases, 60 families are put in one place, even if it has wonderful facilities and so on, is not a good idea. It may be better than having them on the street but it is not a good idea. We want to avoid a discussion about the best form of hub. There are some very good ones and some very poor ones but we should be looking for another solution. The best practice in emergency accommodation is to not have a homeless problem and if we have a homeless problem the best practice is own-door accommodation. That raises real questions because as we see across Britain the local authorities have a number of social houses and instead of putting people into these as their homes they put them in as emergency accommodation. People say they are wasting a house and ask why it is not given to somebody but if some form of emergency accommodation is needed that is the best. There are real trade-offs in that.
I want to briefly address the numbers and the data. If there is one issue in discussing homelessness that is driving people to distraction it is a row about what the numbers are. The minute we started counting the numbers in 2014 they became a political instrument. The Opposition uses them to attack the Government and the Government uses them to say things are going well. That is the least important use of statistics. If someone listening says Focus Ireland is sometimes in that game too we put our hands up. We have used them to highlight how serious the problem is. We all need to recognise that using statistics in that way does not necessarily lead to good outcomes. The main reason for collecting statistics is to understand what is happening. The changes that the Government made in taking a particular group of families and saying if they are in own-door accommodation, if they have their own key to their door, even though they have been given the accommodation because they are homeless and are funded under section 10 in the Housing Act 1988, they are not homeless any more. There are certain things we could understand before about the flow into and out of homelessness that we cannot understand any more. We could see families come into and leave homelessness from the statistics. We cannot see them. The Minister of State, Deputy English, says he cannot predict how many families will be homeless next year but part of the reason for that is the way the figures are handled. A family that enters homelessness and goes into a hotel is still homeless, when it moves into own-door accommodation it stops being homeless, according to the figures, but it is not measured as leaving homelessness. It moves from own-door accommodation into its own home and then leaves homelessness but was not homeless beforehand.
It begins to be very torturous. Where there is own-door accommodation in Britain it is recognised as the better form of accommodation. British authorities recognise that it is different from the other form of accommodation but they count it. Progress through it can be tracked. If, for whatever reason, the Government wants to say that people living in own-door emergency accommodation are somehow in a different category from those in a hub or hotel, that is fine. However, we call on the Government to publish the data so that we can see the patterns and who is moving where. If organisations like our own collectively agree on how to report and use the data we have, we will be in a much stronger position to solve the problem, rather than using it as a brickbat to beat each other over the head with, which is unfortunately the situation at which we have arrived.
We have been in that position for a while, but I agree. In their professional experience have Mr. Allen or Ms Lambe encountered variations in the standard to which family hubs are managed? What would they say to this committee to influence that element of policy?
Ms Niamh Lambe:
There are variations. The Focus Ireland family homeless action team works in 15 private emergency accommodations and nine hubs. To echo what Mr. Allen said, hubs are obviously not the ideal. However, while families are in a hub we find that things work well if the staff has social care training and if child support workers are in place. As I mentioned earlier, our team deals with more than 1,000 children. We are the largest team working with homeless families in Dublin. Only 9% of the child support workers on our team are working with children. If every child had a child support worker, whether he or she was in a hub or in private emergency accommodation, that would make a huge improvement to overall family outcomes. It would help both the parent and the child to move on more successfully and to be less traumatised by homelessness. In the hubs where there is social care training one can see the difference. Behaviour is managed better and supports are in place.
Some of the hubs also have more facilities and spaces for key working. Children should not meet a key worker alongside their parents while their parents are in trauma and are disclosing what has happened to them with regard to homelessness. More facilities should be in place so that children have the one-to-one support they require based on their developmental needs and so that parents also have their own support. Some accommodation has shared kitchen facilities. The facilities are better than those in private emergency accommodation but there is still a long way to go. We have to acknowledge that children are severely displaced as well. We have children travelling to school from Ballymun and elsewhere on the north side to the south side and all over Dublin. Self-accommodating families are also a major issue for us because they move from place to place each night. There is huge displacement for children. I firmly believe that child support workers should be in place for all children and parents. That would give them an advantage, in contrast to being at a further disadvantage while in homelessness.
I thank the witnesses for coming in and for their presentations. To return to the issue of standards, what body should oversee the standards of hubs? Should it be the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs or another body?
Mr. Mike Allen:
We do not have a decided position on that. We have seen proposals to set up an independent standards authority for homeless accommodation. The cost of that is quite worrying. Moreover, building such a structure implies there will be a long-term need for this sort of thing. We at Focus Ireland find that deeply worrying. The Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, has been proposed for this role. We are open to that. Of the existing organisations that carry out this work, HIQA is probably the best placed to do this. However, we do not think HIQA's standards should apply to this because hubs are not clinical facilities.
However, it would be good to employ a body with that experience without incurring the overheads involved in setting up a new organisation.
Ms Niamh Lambe:
A child support worker is specially trained to work with children. He or she has a background in early education and received childcare training to degree level. Child support workers work with children on a one-to-one basis to work through with the child the trauma of homelessness and help him or her express himself or herself and understand the difficulties arising from displacement. A lot of the team members are psychotherapists or have a background in social work. They refer children for assessments. We work with children from birth to the late teenage years. There are very different delays in development among the children with whom we work. We make suitable referrals to support children in that regard. We also work on one-to-one basis. We provide support for parents through tummy time, support with homework or providing links with after-school support and crèche placements. We provide parenting supports to meet whatever family needs present. We have case managers on our team who work alongside the child support workers to support parents. It is very much a multidisciplinary team and that is what works best. It means that children have space in which to grow and they and their parents receive help from their child support workers.
Mr. Mike Allen:
I will refer to how that came about. That is the Focus Ireland model which we developed as a social impact bond from our experience with the then Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive. Around 2012 we thought there was a major problem with family homelessness. At the time in Dublin there were about 160 homeless families, some of whom had been homeless for eight or nine years and been forgotten. We set up this team to work with them. We argued that the children needed this, that it was good practice and that it actually helped to end homelessness. One of the reasons families are unable to sustainably move out of homelessness is the difficulties their children experience. The HSE funded the child support workers in the initial phase. Two years ago, under the Government, Tusla gave us three more child support workers. The team is funded partly by the HSE and partly by Tusla. However, there are now twice as many homeless children as there were at the time of the last increase. The system of child support workers has not been adopted as the model in most of the hubs or by any other local authority. The Dublin Regional Homeless Executive is recruiting a family team for its own staff, but it is entirely concentrated on the needs of adults, which is not just bad for the children. As Ms Lambe said, it is also less effective in tackling homelessness.
I would like to touch base on the topic of education. We spoke about education supports and have seen the report. In one example the children said noise made it difficult for them to concentrate or read. Are there data for the effects of homelessness on children's education? Are the children who are living in the hubs and hotels falling behind in their education?
Mr. Mike Allen:
As far as I am aware, nobody has conducted any systematic research. We work very closely with the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO. In the next couple of months we will be bringing out a joint support pack with the INTO for national school teachers and schools. The teachers who work with these children see this as an issue. Millions of euros are spent on homeless services, whereas the amount spent on evaluation and research into what does and does not is negligible. Most of the money spent in researching homelessness is spent by Focus Ireland. Most of that comes comes from fundraising. There is an extraordinary absence of adequate research into questions of this sort.
That brings me back to children's mental health. The Ombudsman for Children's report states that children in homelessness expressed sadness, confusion, anger and isolation. We all agree it is tough on children. What supports are provided for children in the hubs who are expressing these feelings? Is therapeutic assistance available?
Ms Niamh Lambe:
There are not therapeutic supports in the hubs in which we work. We supply the supports to the child support workers who visit to support the children and work with the parents. The support varies with the house managers who also support families. However, there are no specific therapeutic supports such as child psychologists or therapists in place in the hubs.
Mr. Mike Allen:
Bord Gáis Energy is a corporate partner of Focus Ireland in a number of projects, particularly working on family homelessness. It has provided funding to have children in need seen in private practice on a number of occasions.
We have done a piece of work with Tusla, the Department, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive and others which examined the therapeutic needs of children in homeless accommodation. We have produced an interim report on this and the answer is not necessarily to bung a child psychotherapist into the team. Many organisations, all of which are underresourced, are trying to resolve that issue. We are trying to look at the best way of approaching the issue. We will be happy to share the interim report with the committee.
That would be great.
I read with interest Focus Ireland's recent report which showed that of 119 children leaving care, 14 children were homeless and 22 were facing the risk of becoming homeless. These are children leaving care and moving on to independent living. What could the committee do to support these children? What difficulties do these young adults face?
Mr. Mike Allen:
Under a Government initiative known as the Tusla capital assistance scheme, CAS, some of the capital assistance money, which is in theory for buying and building property, is being made available to care leavers. This is a really valuable scheme which is just starting. In the medium term, it has the possibility of transforming the situation. If Focus Ireland had a stock of housing, including apartments, which it could make available to young people moving out of care as they become adults and in which we could provide them with support, that could well make a big difference in ten years' time. Focus Ireland provides after-care and support, with Tusla, primarily to young adults who have probably lived in residential care and have the biggest difficulties in entering adulthood. People working in the care services say that one of the big challenges is the preparation for leaving care. Young people are still reaching the age of 18 without basic skills or a plan in place. There is no doubt that considerable improvements are being made but there is still a gap. Tusla has indicated that it envisages a significant increase in the number of care leavers in certain areas in the coming years. There is some very good planning being done with us and other organisations. We are asking how we will be prepared to address the greater numbers coming over the next number of years.
When we are in a housing crisis, the people who will be most badly affected are those who are already vulnerable. We need to compensate for that as a society. If we have a child in care, we are effectively their parents and we need to ensure they are cared for. We have made some steps forward but a great number of people are suffering as a result of the gaps.
I am sorry I missed Mr. Allen's presentation but I have read the document provided to the committee.
The support that Focus Ireland indicated is required - Ms Lambe focused on this in particular - is the idea of providing child support workers for children. I am assuming that she is not referring to one-to-one support. The committee discussed this matter and is of the view that it would be completely unrealistic. Given that there is a shortage of social workers, what number does she have in mind? We have to try to be realistic in our expectations.
They work with groups of children. It would be the case then that the support on offer would ideally include the services of one of these people who, if not trained as a social worker, would have some training in the relevant scenarios in order to enable him or her to deal with the children who might be in the particular unit.
To be helpful, Ms Lambe mentioned that Focus Ireland is dealing with approximately 1,000 children and that 9% of those of are covered. How many of these individual workers would be needed to deal with the 9%?
Mr. Mike Allen:
Each child support worker works with approximately 20 children. Some of their time is spent working one to one but, obviously, it is not one to one as such. They work with 20 or so children and they also do group work. In addition, where it is deemed appropriate, a child support worker will stay with a family for a period after the family has moved out of homelessness. It is not the case that the trauma ends with the exit from homelessness and then everyone walks away; it is extended over a longer period.
That is really good. I am interested in the language relating to what Ms Lambe described as "own-door housing", which is still emergency housing. I do not mean to sound in any way lacking in empathy, but why would we describe somebody as homeless when he or she, depending on how long he or she has been in his or her own-door accommodation, has a home as such? That is not necessarily a home in the way one would like to have a home on a permanent basis. However, why would it serve the statistics or anyone working in the area of homelessness to describe someone who has a home as such as being homeless?
Mr. Mike Allen:
It is not a home. As an example, I highlight the service we operate in Limerick. The same would be true of Tallaght. Although we do not generally run hubs, in Limerick, for a variety of reasons, we are running this service in a premises which was formerly a set of flats for medium-term accommodation at the back of a hotel, where the local authority-----
Mr. Mike Allen:
When we started, it was a hub and the families were all homeless and were counted in the statistics. However, the actual physical units have front doors and they are in a block which was formerly part of hotel accommodation where people would take a short stay. The Senator will know the type of accommodation to which I am referring. Originally, it was a hub and they were homeless. With the reclassification, they did not move and stayed exactly where they were and their conditions were the same in that they were told that while it was a reasonable place to live, they were not staying there and their job was to get out.
There is no security and it is temporary. It is different from a hub in that instead of having a couple of rooms and sharing a kitchen, people are in a physical unit within their own control.
Mr. Mike Allen:
The commitments in the service level agreements with the local authorities are generally for six months. That is the expectation. Interactions with legislation begin to apply if people stay longer than this period. In some circumstances they can obtain tenancy rights if they stay longer. This issue keeps coming up in the Tallaght hub because there is nowhere for people to go. There are difficulties and people are moved out of the units when they start to approach the point at which they would obtain legal rights, reasonably so because it is emergency accommodation, but we end up with a dilemma because people are homeless and do not have security. The best place to put them to ensure they will not become institutionalised and can continue to lead an independent life with their family is a place where they can control their own environment.
It is a different category; that is what I am getting at. There are many issues with perception. When we speak about homelessness, there is the idea that people are without a roof over their heads. There is an important distinction to be made between families who do not have a roof over their heads and those who are housed-----
Mr. Allen made reference to the distinction and I was trying to understand exactly how the figures were arrived at. If the Senator has a problem with the way it is categorised, clearly it is something at which we need to look.
Mr. Mike Allen:
I will be clear that it is a form of homelessness for a number of reasons, one being that it is a form of homelessness under the legislation. The way in which we, as taxpayers, fund the accommodation is under section 10. Families who find themselves in these circumstances have case managers from the team that is also funded under section 10 because the family are homeless. We cannot state we are paying to put a roof over their heads and for support services because they are homeless but that they really are not homeless as they are. I absolutely accept that there is a useful distinction to be made between the high-end accommodation in which people are secure and accommodation at the lower end-----
Mr. Mike Allen:
Part of our broader discussion is if the Department, in wanting to reflect this, sat down with organisations such as ours and stated it ought to recognise it as being different, we would state from working at an international level we know what is best practice and how it is done abroad. We would not state we were opposed to it. If we had been able to discuss it, we would have been able to arrive at a position where collectively we could have made the change to the way the figures were announced. We would then have been in position to support the Minister in making the change against people who just wanted to use the figures for political-----
That is the interesting part. Depending on the figures we hear or to whom we are speaking, it is hard to have a full understanding of the reality. That is the point I am making. It is by no means to suggest somebody in emergency accommodation should be delighted with it. That is far from at what I was trying to get. I am trying to get a clear picture of why Mr. Allen is critical of the statistics. The interface he suggests could be a really good take-out from our interaction. I often think there are too many voices to obtain a coherent view.
Mr. Mike Allen:
Each of us is coherent in our own right. All together, however, it may be otherwise. I note the progress made in that regard. About six weeks to two months ago the Minister reconvened or established a new consultative forum with the organisations. It involves all of the key voluntary organisations, including Focus Ireland. It also includes all of the Departments relevant to this issue, with the exception of the Department of Education and Skills. We believe that Department should also be represented. One of the recommendations coming from the forum was that a new data group be set up. The data we use from 2014 did not arise out of the blue. They arose out of collaboration between Focus Ireland, the then Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Trinity College, Dublin and others on how best to count the numbers who were homeless. If we are trying to solve the problem, the last thing we want to do is row about the figures. We should be putting all of our energy into addressing the problem. That involves collaboration at a level which has been lost a little in the crisis. We believe there should be that level of collaboration as a matter of urgency.
With that discussion in mind, I have a question before I bring in Deputy Rabbitte.
From an international comparative perspective, it is very difficult to pitch Ireland with any meaningful outcome. I have asked this question before, specifically about children, and never received a satisfactory answer. Broadly, regarding the 10,000 people living in unsuitable accommodation in the State, is it possible for us to look back at Irish history and determine what was the level of unsuitable accommodation? I know that there are too many on social and affordable housing waiting lists. That is obvious to everybody. They are too long. There are too many people in family hubs and too many children in unsuitable accommodation. However, what is considered to be an acceptable level? There has to be a level that is transient. It is similar to what we deem to be full employment - an unemployment level of 5% or thereabouts. Some say it is 6% and others 4%, but we know that the level is there or thereabouts. I would prefer if there were no children in unsuitable accommodation in the State. However, I know that it is a reality of life. There will always be people in transient accommodation or in need of support from the State or other organisations such as Focus Ireland. Is it possible for us to look back and determine what was the level of homelessness or, as I call it, more appropriately, unsuitable accommodation, at particular moments? I do not wish to diminish the individuals in question, but what would be an acceptable level in that context?
Mr. Mike Allen:
The concepts of unsuitable accommodation and homelessness are distinct. They are quite distinct in legislation. The housing Acts state the local authorities will assess persons applying to them to determine if they have somewhere where they can reasonably be expected to live. If they do not have somewhere that can be deemed to be reasonably acceptable, those people are deemed to be homeless under the law. That number is now 10,000. The people who might reasonably expect to live with those deemed to be homeless, their children, partners, etc., are also deemed to be homeless.
Under housing legislation, there are the concepts of overcrowding and inadequate accommodation. There has been a significant improvement in the publication of the figures from the Housing Agency. The total number on waiting lists is now broken down into those persons who are in that situation because of overcrowding or a place is unsuitable in which to live. It also includes homelessness which has a slightly different definition, into which we will not go now. That is the level of complexity involved in this situation. They are, however, quite different notions. If the Chairman is asking about comparative levels of homelessness, that is a difficult question to answer because we have just received the current-----
Mr. Mike Allen:
Yes, that is correct and it includes men, women and children. We can only go back in the same series to 2014 when the current definition was introduced and we started to publish statistics. Professor Eoin O'Sullivan from Trinity College, Dublin and I - it was mostly Professor O'Sullivan - did some work in looking at comparable figures before that date. We have found that we have much higher levels of homelessness in Ireland today than ever before.
Mr. Mike Allen:
It is well worth remembering that point. Around 2010 we had brought down the level of homelessness to probably the lowest level ever achieved historically. Counting adults, we might only have been talking about 3,000 people or fewer.
I cannot remember the figure off the top of my head. It is also true that we have far more people in emergency accommodation. Since the tragic death of Jonathan Corrie the number of single people without children in emergency accommodation has gone up enormously. We have built more emergency beds in Dublin since his death than we have built social houses. Some of the way in which we think about homelessness leads us to the wrong solutions. The answer to homelessness is not emergency accommodation.
Mr. Mike Allen:
The answer is homes. Quite a lot of our responses, as a society because there is no particular person is responsible, has been to say, "Look, get them off the street". The answer to getting people off the street seems to be emergency accommodation but once one puts people in emergency accommodation one has built an institution and all of the evidence shows that it is very hard to reverse out of that.
From my own perspective, a hub or emergency accommodation is the lesser of two evils but I know what Mr. Allen is getting at. I would be of the view that in order for us to ensure we do not have more tragedies like the one mentioned we ensure persons are provided with suitable accommodation even if it is temporary. There is nothing worse than reading about the emergencies that occur when the weather worsens in December, January or February of every year because individuals refuse to avail of accommodation. I know that Focus Ireland and other organisations work with homeless people at first hand. I have been out on the streets on a couple of occasions over the years at such times so I know it is really disheartening when one does one's best, as I am sure it is for Focus Ireland, to deal with individuals who refuse to take shelter. At the same time, if accommodation does not have its own door and a garden or gardenette, I do not view it as permanent. If it is not permanent then it is not a solution. I understand and accept that but I would rather a person, as I am sure Focus Ireland would too, was in emergency accommodation, provided by the State, to a relatively good standard, which is imperative.
Mr. Mike Allen:
Absolutely. Without doubt, we should not tolerate a society where people have no choice but to live on the streets. Generally speaking, the people who will not go into emergency accommodation either have mental health issues or very good reasons, from their experience, that emergency accommodation is not suitable for them. As a society, a policy of responding to homelessness by building emergency shelters, which is what we have done - it is not what we have tried to do but it is what we have ended up doing - does not work. Let us consider the countries that have long-term homelessness. New York is a very problematic example because there was a campaign just after the Second World War whereby a commitment was given in New York that everybody had a right to shelter, not a right to a home but a right to shelter. As a result there are tens of thousands of shelters and people are permanently in them. Let us consider Finland, which is the good case, where shelters have been closed and people have been given homes. We must make sure that the crisis response is not where we end up in permanent crisis. If we continue the way we are going at the moment then that is where we are headed. A crisis is a thing that should happen for a very short period and then stop. We are turning ourselves into a permanent crisis around this matter.
I thank the delegation for their contributions and compliment Focus Ireland on its good work. It is important to acknowledge that. For a minute there I felt that the conversation was becoming normal. This cannot become a normal conversation because it is not normal to have 4,000 children in emergency accommodation of any sort whether it is in a hub, bed and breakfast or whatever. If children do not have their own front door or are not in accommodation located near their own community where they can attend their local school or engage in their activities in their own community, then it is not their home. The only solution is to start building houses. That is not what we are discussing today but that is the solution. What we need to do in the middle of this crisis is ensure people have a better experience of the trauma that they are encountering. Earlier Mr. Allen said that some things need to change in terms of best practice. Some best practices do not cost money. They call for common sense, decency, manners and empathy, which must start in local county councils. We should have rooms for families who present to county councils. They should not have to wait in queues. They should not have to be conscious that their children are roaring or need feeding. They should not feel like they are on show in a very public format.
The trauma they are experiencing is being exacerbated tenfold by having to sit there, on the third floor at Galway County Council, waiting to meet a housing officer when they press the bell and if he or she is at lunch, they will have to wait for two hours. That is not the way it should be, but that is the trauma about which Ms Lambe talks and Focus Ireland has to bring in social care workers to help to address that experience. A mother might nearly have lost her marbles and lost the will to live because she is being told that the family might have to be split up into different rooms in order to find accommodation that night and they might not all find it in the one hotel room. That is not normal, but that is the trauma experienced.
It is a question of how we do business in the various county councils. They need to learn that the people in question have, for whatever reason, fallen on hard times. None of us has today discussed the elephant in the room, that this housing accommodation issue is not going to end because we are still coming to terms with the banking crisis. We are coming to the end of the ten-year debt period for our fixed-term loans which are just starting to mature. It is a fact that more people will become homeless in the foreseeable future. How we do business in the various councils, therefore, needs to improve.
We need to hear from Focus Ireland on best practice in how people engage with others. Ms Lambe is correct that we need to invest in people with the skill set and empathy required - I keep coming back to the word "empathy" - to engage with parents and children in order that they will not be scarred for years to come. That is a big statement piece by me, but I feel passionately about it and it does not cost money.
I do not know how long Ms Lambe has been working on the issue of hubs, but what does she notice? What stands out in what she sees on a daily basis? What does she hear back from case managers? What are they saying about repeat incidents and the trauma children are experiencing? At the end of the day, it has to be about the children. When we assess people for housing, they have to wait at Galway County Council. I can only talk about the position in Galway because that is my area. If a person has a disability, is living in an overcrowded and unfit house or is participating in the HAP scheme or the RAS, nowhere is he or she asked whether there are children involved or how many there are or whether there is a family network involved. It is about numbers. We do not hear the voice of the child or the whole community. What is Ms Lambe finding? What does her research show?
Ms Niamh Lambe:
I thank Deputy Rabbitte for her passion and empathy because they are things we should never lose. We are seeing a lot of trauma. It is very important to acknowledge that when a child becomes homeless, it is his or her first traumatising experience. If we talk about adverse childhood experiences, children experience more and more trauma as they stay in homeless accommodation and the longer they stay, the more they will experience. The stories I hear on a weekly basis from case managers and child support workers include children having sleepless nights, the antisocial behaviour of other neighbours within the hubs and private emergency accommodation and children losing the ability to go out and play on the road, very basic things a child needs. For example, children are not able to go to the sitting room and play or have friends over on a play date because they have to be supervised when playing with their neighbours who are also homeless children. We are seeing suicidal ideation among very young children, although I do not want to sensationalise it. It is not among all children, but it is certainly present and increasing. There are, therefore, child protection and welfare concerns. We are seeing children missing school a lot because of the displacement to which I referred all over Dublin. I am not just talking about the children in hubs and private emergency accommodation; I have not even focused on self-accommodating, one-night-only, families who are on the periphery and even more marginalised.
On health, there is the question of what children are eating. For example, there are shared kitchens. I am a mother. If I was given a time slot to cook and do my washing, I would find it very difficult. It is very difficult for families to even maintain what they might or might not have had before they became homeless in terms of maintaining a family lifestyle for their children.
For children, the stigma is huge. They cannot have their friends over, which is bad enough, but they also cannot tell them why they cannot have them over.
They were living around the corner from their school friends one minute and the next they were living far away and also not in school as much. Those children may not even be turning up to school. There are, therefore, many layers of trauma involved. Children might also not be getting support if a parent has addiction issues as well. I do not want to sensationalise that aspect. Many families do not have to deal with addiction issues. They have fallen on hard times and become homeless. Children experience many layers of trauma daily and are retraumatised each day by their experience of homelessness.
The child support workers on the team work through that trauma with holistic play, one to one interaction and group work. They are the voices for the children and they listen to the children. It is important that those children have that support for themselves alone. They are exposed to very adult conversations a great deal. The eldest children in a family will often become additional primary care givers as well if mom or dad cannot cope. They become additional parents within the family. There are, therefore, layers upon layers of trauma involved. I hope that answers the Deputy's question.
That is fine. I have two final questions. One concerns homework. How is homework being impacted? These children are future adults. We have already discussed them missing school. We need to discuss if they are hitting their grades. Is that a priority? I assume it is. We have to ensure that is happening. There was also mention of antisocial behaviour within the hubs. Will Ms Lambe expand on that point please?
Ms Niamh Lambe:
I will refer to the hubs and private emergency accommodation. I want to be careful again and state that I am not referring to all such locations. People are congregated together, however. Many of those people are under stress and in difficulties, so issues will arise. We know that happens. Children who may have been in local authority accommodation, private rented accommodation or in a mortgaged home prior to homelessness suddenly find themselves in a large place with 60 families, or perhaps less depending on the size of the location. They are of course exposed to much more than they would have been previously.
Ms Niamh Lambe:
Homework is sometimes done in a car on the way home from school or while mom or dad is on the way to collect another child. One child might finish school at 12.30 p.m. or 1.30 p.m. but another child might not be finished until 3.30 p.m. Parents could be in a car or, in the absence of a car, which happens quite often, on a bus or another form of public transport. In the accommodation where children are staying, homework is done on the bed or on the floor. These children are missing some basic developmental things. Children do not have space to crawl. Younger children do not have space to learn how to crawl. Older children do not have space to sit and do their homework without their younger siblings around. Teenagers do not have space to be teenagers. The trauma is reinforced at every level of childhood while these children are homeless.
I had not expected to be called the first time. I thought Deputy Rabbitte might have been in before me so I had not thought of what I was going to say. I did not mean to appear lacking in empathy about the seriousness of-----
-----of children being in homelessness. I am delighted that Deputy Rabbitte articulated that seriousness so well. I share her views and join with her in those comments. I thank the witnesses for the work they do. Mention was made of developmental goals. They were touched on briefly at the end of the last comment. I made a note to come back in on that point. Children in this situation are not reaching their milestones at the same stage as children who are in homes in the true sense of that word. Are there professionals in Focus Ireland, or other organisations, who assess those milestones and keep an eye on the developmental goals that could impact on those children? All parents want their children to reach their developmental goals. We often hear about children who are ahead of those goals. I refer to my niece being so advanced whenever I talk about her, jokingly in a way. Everyone, however, wants to see that children are progressing and that this period of homelessness will not impact on them throughout their lives.
Ms Niamh Lambe:
I agree. Our child support workers, our team and our case managers do the best they can. The case managers do as much as possible in cases where child support workers have not been allocated. We often refer families to ensure they are liaising with the public health nurse and educational welfare officers.
We hold meetings in the schools with parents and teachers. Sometimes where there is not an appropriate space in the private emergency accommodation or the hub, our child support workers will work with the children after school in a space in the school. Schools are very supportive. It is not the answer but it is what is working for us at the moment.
The fundamental point I am taking from this is that emergency accommodation, little as we want as a form of accommodation for people, should be for a very short and defined period with a view to getting families into homes. The overarching problem is the lack of supply of homes, which is being addressed but it is slower than I think everyone would like.
I thank the witnesses for giving their time today. Earlier it was mentioned that 9% of people in emergency accommodation have the support of case managers, case workers or social workers. Am I correct?
Ms Niamh Lambe:
The Family Homeless Action Team of Focus Ireland work in 24 locations in Dublin and I can only speak about the services provided by Focus Ireland. In terms of support, 9% of the children on our caseload would have child support workers and all of the families that we work with in these locations have case managers. A case manager works with parents and the child support worker works with children.
Mr. Mike Allen:
The case managers who work with the adults are funded by the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive, primarily, but we have to fundraise to meet the funding gap. The child support workers are funded by Tusla or the HSE, depending on which they are. To be clear, a significant part of the money going into the services that we provide comes from the State. Our settled view is that organisations like ourselves that specialise in certain areas, and we specialise in working with homeless families, homeless young people and people with chronic multiple needs, are better placed than the State services to provide for those services but should be funded by the State to do so.
Mr. Mike Allen:
We had very useful discussions on child support workers with the Minister, Deputy Zappone, when she came to office. As a result, additional staff posts were created by Tusla but that was over two years ago. At present we are in discussion with the people in her Department and have said that we need to go further than that because as the problem gets bigger one needs more staff to deal with it, unfortunately. As far as I am aware, there are no child support workers working with homeless families outside of Dublin.
Is Mr. Allen proposing that Focus Ireland could be similar to a social work agency and have social workers on its books? I am not saying that it is such an agency. Do social workers work directly for Focus Ireland? I know there are child support workers.
I understand that but there are social workers in Focus Ireland working in the child support area. Obviously, they want to work in that area but what are their reasons for that? Would they find the conditions in Tusla too difficult or is there something going on there to explain why they would not take up a social worker position? I would like to get feedback on that question.
Mr. Mike Allen:
What we hear and everyone else hears is that the pressure on social workers is so great that it is unattractive to do that job in certain areas. The blame that is attributed to social workers when things go wrong means there are reactions. Given the pressure associated with the job it is one people do not do for as long in their lives as they might otherwise do. It is a pretty demanding area of front-line activity.
Mr. Mike Allen:
The same applies, for example, to a transport worker in homeless services. A few front-line staff have been in those services for a long period and they have long experience of it but it tends to be work that people do for a period of time in their lives rather than something that they would do for 40 years.
On behalf of the committee, I thank the witnesses for coming in and answering all our questions in such a comprehensive manner. The joint committee is adjourned until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 19 June when we will meet representatives of the Ombudsman for Children's Office and the Children's Rights Alliance.