Tuesday, 3 December 2013
Topical Issue Debate
I take this opportunity to express my sympathies to the family of Paul Doyle, who died of exposure in November while sleeping rough in Bray. I also convey my sympathies on the death of the man who was sleeping rough in the Phoenix Park. His death might well lead to a murder investigation.
Some 139 people were sleeping rough in Dublin on 12 November 2013, an increase of 45 in just six months. The figure does not include the hundreds in emergency accommodation, including the 265 given shelter by the Peter McVerry Trust. In fact, approximately 1,400 people are in emergency accommodation every night in Dublin, and the homelessness rate has increased by 18% in a year. Staff members at the Dublin Simon Community recently told me that they are operating at absolute capacity. It is having a damaging effect on the morale of the very good people who dedicate their time to that organisation and to the fight against homelessness. People are sleeping rough in cold and dangerous conditions, at risk of exposure and vulnerable to assault. The additional beds put in place as part of the cold weather initiative are not sufficient to meet demand, as the number of homeless people has risen since the count that took place after last winter's initiative had ended.
The incidence of homelessness and rough sleeping is increasing at an alarming rate. It is the consequence of budget after budget which went for the easy targets, cutting the most basic services and having the greatest impact on the most vulnerable. The programme for Government referred to alternative funding models for housing, such as social housing bonds. The latter have been very successful in other countries, raising billions across Europe. The Government, however, has taken no action in this regard. Instead it continually restates the promise of NAMA housing and rehashes old announcements and spin as new funding. The Minister must consider establishing semi-independent housing trusts through the local authorities, which would allow the latter to raise funds separately from the national debt. This has worked well elsewhere when capital funds were not available. I urge the Minister to consider it.
Any Government that cannot put roofs over the heads of its citizens and ensure they are not obliged to sleep on the street is not worthy of the name. For the two and a half years I have been in the Dáil, the issue I have raised most consistently is that of the housing and homelessness crisis. I have said repeatedly that the policies of the Government are leading directly to homelessness because they not only fail to address the problem but are, in fact, making it worse. The reduction in rent caps, the failure to mount a serious emergency social housing programme and the introduction of such measures as real estate investment trusts and property-based tax incentives for speculators are combining to produce the disastrous consequences we have seen this week, where the number of people sleeping on the street has doubled.
Every week people come into my clinic who are facing homelessness as a direct result of the Government's policies. Ann Heffernan, a mother of two children who worked all her life but lost her job last year as a result of the recession, will be evicted tomorrow because her rent has gone up to €1,300 while the rent cap is €1,000. She cannot find anywhere to live. Paul Verburgt will be evicted next week because he cannot find any accommodation within the rent cap. At the same time, people are waiting ten years or more on the housing list. What are these people supposed to do? Platitudes about ending homelessness and pie-in-the-sky plans will not cut it. Cathal Morgan was clear that what is needed is direct provision of social housing. Given that we will pay €9.1 billion in interest to bondholders next year, the Minister of State cannot tell me that we could not hold back a couple of billion for housing. Action must be taken to put roofs over the heads of people sleeping rough and those waiting on housing lists for ten or 12 years.
It may have escaped Deputy Boyd Barrett's notice, but a couple of days ago, I announced the provision of funding of €100 million for social housing next year. I am glad to say we are back into mainstream provision of social housing, something which was not possible up to now, not because of our policies, but because of the economic collapse of the country. I cannot comment on the specific circumstances surrounding the death of the man in the Phoenix Park as referred to in the issue raised, but I share with Deputy Ellis in offering sympathy to the family of Paul Doyle and of the man who lost his life in the Phoenix Park.
The growing number of people sleeping rough on the streets of our capital city is unacceptable. The figures released today, showing a marked increase in rough sleeping in Dublin are troubling. Those in need of an emergency night's shelter must be provided for. I have noted the expansion of bed spaces under Dublin City Council's cold weather initiative, which has provided additional bed spaces since 1 November. Cathal Morgan was mentioned, and he has said that more than 80 beds have been provided in the Dublin area since 1 November. I have been in contact with the city council to ensure more beds are made available to tackle the situation and I will provide any support needed in this immediate task.
Homelessness is an affront to the dignity of the person and a stain on our society. It is a complex problem, but rough sleeping is the most extreme manifestation of it. The figures released by Dublin City Council show that 139 people are in this category, up from 94 in the spring of this year. This situation is unacceptable, but providing secure, warm accommodation on an emergency basis for 139 people is a problem that housing authorities should be able to address in conjunction with my Department and the voluntary bodies working in this area. Almost €23 million was spent on emergency accommodation in the Dublin region in 2013. Therefore, considerable money is spent on this problem and a considerable number of beds is provided. The statement from the Dublin Region Homeless Executive today informs us that on the night of the winter count, there were 1,461 temporary beds in the Dublin region.
Emergency accommodation is not a viable long-term solution to homelessness. The Government's homelessness policy statement, which I published earlier this year, emphasises a housing-led approach to homelessness, which is about accessing permanent housing as the primary response to all forms of homelessness. My priority is to ensure homeless people have access to secure, stable, appropriate accommodation. In Dublin last year, more than 870 people moved from homeless services to permanent housing. This year we anticipate the figure will be more than 900.
The Government is committed to innovative, practical solutions to resolve long-term homelessness. These include initiatives such as the social impact initiative announced in budget 2014, which will see 136 families moved from extremely expensive long-term emergency accommodation to permanent homes supported by a voluntary body. The Housing First pilot in Dublin has placed 24 entrenched rough sleepers in permanent housing, where they are offered the necessary services to maintain their housing. Also, a rent supplement initiative, in conjunction with the Department of Social Protection, offers homeless households in Dublin an additional opportunity to avoid or to escape homelessness.
I would like to stress that some community welfare officers are assigned specifically to deal with homeless people and to address the issue raised by Deputy Boyd Barrett about the caps. We are also working very closely, with the Dublin authorities in particular where the problem is most acute, to address the issues. The issues are complex and require a mixture of responses. Deputy Ellis has made a suggestion we are open to considering. There is nothing to impede local authorities from setting up their own housing associations. We work closely with bodies like those mentioned, such as the Peter McVerry Trust and Simon. They are doing tremendous work and I commend them on the work they do in this area.
Does the Minister of State accept at this stage that the plan to end homelessness by 2016 is a fairy tale? The current rate of homelessness suggests this is the case. Does she also accept that the rental supplement and RAS policies are not working and that building and providing proper social housing is the only answer?
There are a number of reasons we are seeing this huge increase in homelessness, one of which is the lack of private rented accommodation. Also, landlords who are renting to people on rent supplement are seeking to evict tenants, through charging rents that are €50, €100 or whatever higher than the supplement. This is pushing people into homelessness as they cannot find other private accommodation covered by the rent supplement. People in the RAS are in the same boat. We were told that people in the RAS were as good as housed and would not be put out, but these people are not reporting homelessness. These are two good reasons the homelessness figures are going through the roof. This will continue unless something changes radically.
There were no answers in the Minister of State's response for the two people I mentioned, or to be honest for the huge number who are being forced into or threatened with homelessness every week. The Government does not seem to grasp how bad this problem is and how quickly it is worsening.
I spoke with Peter McVerry a couple of weeks ago and he said clearly that the rent cap reductions were a disaster. He said they were driving people into homelessness and that emergency measures were needed to provide tens of thousands, not a few hundred, council houses. At the Focus Point conference this week, it was stated that only 1.2% of all the available private, rental accommodation in Dublin is within the rent caps. The policy is a joke and cannot work. The cap is driving people into homelessness. As Cathal Morgan said, this does not affect just the traditional categories, of people with drug addiction or mental health problems. People, as a direct result of not being able to pay the rents demanded, are being driven into homelessness. What does the Minister of State propose to do about this?
I already gave the Deputy the statistics on the number of beds that are available for emergency purposes. There are an extra 80 beds available since 1 November. I told the Deputy how many people have moved on into permanent accommodation and I told him that at the weekend I announced the provision of €100 million for the construction of social housing next year.
With regard to the rent supplement, my colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, improved the rent caps in the Dublin area earlier this year. We have a commitment in the programme for Government which we will implement next year, to transfer to a payment called HAP, housing assistance payment, which will get us away from rent supplement, except when used in the short term. All long-term rent supplement people will transfer to a system of payment whereby they will pay the same as if they were a local authority tenant. We are making progress on this and will start the transition in 2014.
I have provided the Deputy with statistics on what we are doing. We are also working closely with the voluntary sector and they are helping us provide accommodation. They particularly support the housing-led approach, which is the ultimate solution. If people continue to stay in emergency accommodation when they are ready and should move on into long-term accommodation, there are no beds available for the real emergencies that arise daily. We have a programme and an implementation plan and we are supporting people to move into homes. This is a housing-led approach, which has been shown to be the right way to go.
I am committed to reaching the goal of ending long-term homelessness by 2016. We will not do this by continuing to do things as we have always done them. This is why we are changing the way we are doing things. An oversight group will report to me in the next week with specific proposals regarding what we need to change to achieve this goal. One of the things we need to do is to move people out of emergency accommodation into homes and to provide the supports they need to deal with their addiction problems or whatever problems they have. Then, when there are emergencies, there will be spaces available in the emergency hostels.
We are working on a variety of solutions to this issue. None of us wants to see anybody sleeping rough or out in the cold weather. I pay tribute to the Dublin Region Homeless Executive which is taking strong action on this issue. It is successful in what it is doing, but there is more to do. The provision of housing is an area in which we want to see an increase now that the economy has started to turn around. We have already started on work to increase the supply of social housing.