Thursday, 18 February 2021
Covid-19 (Drug and Alcohol Services, and Homelessness): Statements
Thomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
Unfortunately, we cannot believe the homelessness statistics provided by the Government. We have known this since the previous Minister's days in charge of the Department. Figures were re-categorised to hide the real and distressing extent of the crisis. We know that the number of adults and children in domestic violence refuges and direct provision centres are not included in official homeless data, despite the fact that this type of accommodation is temporary and the housing crisis is exacerbating access to move-on options.
I have asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to report how many adults and children are in domestic violence refuges in Donegal in each of the years from 2017 to date; to report the number of domestic violence refuge places in Donegal, compared to the recommended number of refuge places; the refuge capacity per county; and plans to increase access across the Island. I have also asked the Minister how many adults and children are in direct provision accommodation in Donegal in each of the years from 2017 to date.
We are due to have 60 new neighbours arriving in Letterkenny soon and I understand that there will be children with these families. I would like to see the families being empowered to shop in the local community and have agency and choice in where they use their food vouchers. It will help for a smoother integration into the local community. The direct provision centre in Letterkenny is self-catering and own-door accommodation, but it is still not secure and permanent housing.
Due to the lack of transparency around social housing waiting lists and homelessness data, I have requested information from the Minister of State's Department. I am looking for a full report on housing and homeless in Donegal, including the number of people who are on the rental accommodation scheme or in receipt of housing assistance payment, HAP. I am also seeking a report on the emergency homeless accommodation in the county, the number and demographics of those accessing this accommodation and the number of people on social housing waiting lists in the county, indicating the type of accommodation and the length of time they are waiting. Any figures supplied in respect of this request will be false, because those who earn over €25,000 per year cannot even get on the social housing list. They have no hope of providing themselves with housing. In Donegal, landlords do not want to be included in the HAP programme, so these people cannot access rented accommodation either. Therefore, there is a crisis right across the board that is affecting people there.
I have also asked about the level of funding provided to Donegal County Council for housing in recent years. This information should be readily available on the Government's website. Everybody should be able to access this information: policymakers, advocates, civil society organisations, Deputies, the media etc. Why is this information not easily accessible? It is important to ask that question.
Earlier this month, Linda Hayden, of the PAC Woman Podcast, held a live podcast panel discussion on the impact of homelessness on health. A theme of the podcast was the huge rise in women experiencing homelessness, particularly young women and Traveller women. Women experiencing homelessness are at increased risk of sexual and physical violence. Over 60% of families experiencing homelessness are single-parent families, usually headed by a woman. What female-specific policies are being implemented by the Minister of State's Department to address this growing trend? Another important point raised in the podcast was how bad consecutive governments have been in implementing strategies. Those in government all love a good photo opportunity and a glossy document, but not the actual implementation of strategies that will make tangible differences to people's lives. That is one of the areas in which this Government, and every government, is significantly lacking.
I have another question. When will people experiencing homelessness, and those working or volunteering in this area, receive their vaccinations? In the first wave of the pandemic, the organisations working with those experiencing homelessness were commended for the low number of cases in hostels and shared accommodation. People were given single rooms, where possible, and an improved type of accommodation for those experiencing homelessness was provided. If this can be done during a pandemic, why can it not be done outside of it? People with addiction issues are more likely to have underlying health conditions and therefore be more vulnerable to Covid-19. Vulnerable and marginalised groups should be prioritised in the allocation of vaccinations, right across the board, including those with underlying conditions.
I would like to commend the Irish Examinerjournalists, Noel Baker, Ryan O'Rourke and Aoife Moore, for their work in bringing the names and human stories to the horrifying statistics of those dying on our streets. Some 79 people died in our homeless services and on our streets in 2020. That is just the official figure. I note that there has been a move to reduce that figure, because the Minister has said that it has not been reported properly. In the special report in the Irish Examiner, the faces and stories behind the deaths of homeless people were reported earlier this week. These three journalists brought some humanity to the victims. There was a report that the Minister of State is seeking to re-categorise homeless figures again. I suggest that it would make more sense for him to re-categorise his thinking on data. If he sees a homeless person on the street as he walks around town to his office or to get a coffee, he should look them in the eye and acknowledge them as he walks by. He should see them, look into their eyes as he passes them, and categorise them as a vulnerable human being with rights, a life, a history and hopefully a future. He can provide the future for them. The role of this Government is to ensure that that happens.