Friday, 15 December 2017
Child Homelessness: Statements
Given that it is the beginning of the last session of the term, I will avail of the opportunity to thank all the Members, the party leaders and the group leaders for their co-operation and assistance throughout the course of the year, and all the Members of the House for their engagement and support. On the Members' behalf, I extend a very sincere thank you to the Clerk of the Dáil and all the ancillary staff here in the Houses. We are exceptionally fortunate to work with the finest of public servants across a range of services. I wish each and every Member a happy and relaxing, and, for those who want it, a holy, Christmas in the period ahead.
On behalf of the Government, I echo the Ceann Comhairle's sentiments in relation to the staff here in the Houses and to all of our colleagues over the Christmas period.
It is good that child homelessness is one of the last issues we choose to discuss this year. People talk about Brexit potentially being the greatest challenge that we face as a State but thanks to the good work of the diplomatic corps, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Minister of State for European Affairs, it looks like Brexit may not be the threat that people assumed it would be. Nevertheless, there is a genuine crisis and challenge for society when we look at the numbers who are homeless and the numbers of families and children who are in emergency homeless accommodation.
This year has seen the number of homeless families increase to a point where we now have 1,463 families, and more than 3,194 children, in emergency accommodation. Thankfully, when it comes to the situation of families experiencing this crisis in their lives, we have supports in place so that no family would every be forced into that terrible circumstances of having to sleep rough. That means that we have had to use accommodation such as hotels, which, obviously, is not an ideal solution but which at least gets families initially into safe and secure accommodation. We hope that it is only for a temporary period because what we want is to get families into homes, and that is what we are doing under Rebuilding Ireland.
It is also important that we, as a new generation of politicians coming into 2018, learn from the mistakes that Irish society has faced in the past and that we confront these challenges head on. Too often in Irish society, people have tried to turn away from uncomfortable truths to try to keep them out of the public domain. It is only right and proper that we continue to talk about this crisis every day and every week in this House until we have finally gotten to grips with it and moved these families out of emergency accommodation and into homes. Even though sometimes it is uncomfortable to confront it and even though we recognise that it is a complex issue, as politicians and leaders in Irish society, we have a responsibility to put our best efforts together to solve this crisis and to help these families. It is imperative that we do not use it for political ends. I would never accuse any of my colleagues in the House here of doing that but we have to come together to find the solutions.
Sometimes when we talk about policy, data and the implementation of responses to homelessness and children in homelessness, it can sound cold and heartless, but what is most important is that those on the front line who are helping them are not only implementing policy responses that will work, but do so with compassion and care and provide a degree of comfort for those people because they are in such difficult circumstances. The public can take comfort from the fact that it is the voluntary sector which is implementing these policies on our behalf, in conjunction and in partnership with the Government, and that the public knows that they are receiving those levels of care.
I have had the good fortune to meet those who are working on the front line not only in the local authorities, but also in the voluntary sector and in the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, and they do their work in a fantastic manner. They do it with a smile on their faces and always with the person they are helping foremost in their minds. I hope the public can take comfort in knowing that taxpayers' money is going to fund these organisations so that they can give that level of care, and it is significant. It will be over €160 million this year between my Department, the Department of Health and the local authorities to provide those levels of care. Of course, as many Members will be aware, it is not about the amount of money that we spend but about how we spend it, and making sure that we are spending it in the most effective and best way to help these families and these children who are experiencing this difficult crisis.
As I have stated previously, it is my responsibility, as Minister, is to fix our broken housing system and to make sure that houses are built and there are homes for these families and for these children. I have to make sure that we get more social housing homes. That means having more homes built by the local authorities and by the housing bodies, but it also means a range of other solutions as well. These solutions include acquisitions, long-term leasing, vacancy and Part V social housing delivery. I am committed to ensuring that people get into homes and that they are secure social housing homes, and no matter what stream they come from in terms of the different solutions that we have, that we see an increase in each of those streams.
Where we cannot have a home immediately ready for someone who needs one, it is about making sure that our emergency provision is there to help those people until we have them in to secure homes. As a part of my responsibility in that regard, I speak to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and the Minister for Health on a regular basis. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, has a particular concern here, of course, because we are talking about families and children. I welcome the work she has done in relation to the hubs programme and that Tusla has done, and also that the Minister for Health has done.
I am in constant contact with the local authorities and with the voluntary sector to make sure that all the necessary supports are being made available. At the housing summit we held in September, I set up an inter-agency group led by Mr. John Murphy to make sure that the Government response is co-ordinated in such a way that it is most effective for those who are receiving the care and treatment. I met the CEOs of the main voluntary organisations only yesterday. I talked through some of the initial recommendations that will come from that inter-agency group and they agreed that these will be helpful in assisting the voluntary sector to do its work better.
I have also met the Ombudsman for Children to discuss the standards of care for families that are in hotels and the standards of care for families that are in hubs. I have assured him and his office of everything that we are doing to make sure that the concerns and the needs of children and families are foremost in the different supports and different policies that we implement.
I have also met representatives from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission in order to provide them with reassurances on everything the Government is doing and to help explain exactly the different supports that are provided. I have also met children and families who, unfortunately, are in emergency accommodation and have been moving from hotels into hubs. Last week, the Taoiseach and I visited a family hub where we met a few families. I met two fantastic children from different families. I will not name them in order to protect their privacy. They were bright - and not just intelligent in terms of the various questions they were asking us about who we were and why we were there - lively and energetic as children should be. They were excited about Santa coming very shortly, as are, no doubt, the children in the Gallery. We gave loads of assurances that Santa was going to come, that he knew where they were and that he did get their letters.
While it will never be normal for families in homelessness, we must ensure that the children who are there do not feel it is anything but normal for the brief period - we hope it will be brief - they are in emergency accommodation and in hubs. We want them to feel that there is nothing wrong until we get them into secure homes. This is exactly what the care workers in those facilities are doing, and they are doing a fantastic job.
This morning, the early learning initiative held a number of open sessions. I was not able to attend because I was at a regeneration project with the Minister for Finance, which is another fantastic story for the inner city and for families on which I will comment shortly. The early learning initiative is doing fantastic work. One of the first things I learned in my first weekend on the job is the difficulty experienced in some of the cases now. In the past, children might have been having developmental issues with language skills, but now it is motor skills because there is not enough room for them to crawl around in the hotel rooms in which they are living. This is exactly why we have the hub programme and why we put so many of our resources into it.
I have also met workers who have told me that, unfortunately, they have identified some children they feel might now be at risk of adult homelessness because they have spent way too long in emergency accommodation. This is also why we have the hub programme. We have seen that people stay far fewer few months in emergency accommodation when they are in a hub because there are supports in place, and that is welcome.
The end of 2017 is approaching and we are reflecting on some of the policies we introduced during the year in order to see whether they have worked. This is important that both the Government and the Oireachtas do this. One of the key responses we have put in place this year is the family hubs. There was not acceptance initially of the hubs. However, when Members of the Oireachtas and members of the public visited some of the facilities, they came to understand that they are far superior to hotels. The hubs are only a first response - and an emergency one at that. As one family told the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Katherine Zappone, when she visited a hub, they did not feel homeless there. However, hubs are only emergency accommodation and a first response. Families are spending less time in them than they are in hotels, which is welcome. Hubs have a facility for independent living. Some of the rooms in certain hubs have independent cooking facilities. They also have community living and the communities decide how the hub will operate. There are shared facilities for cooking, play spaces and homework clubs. Support is there for parents in terms of babysitting and everything else that they will need and with trying to find accommodation and all of the other difficulties they are experiencing. Supports are also in place in respect of children, such as free child care, transport to and from school through the provision of Leap cards and breakfast and homework clubs.
In 2016, Tusla developed a protocol with the housing authorities to ensure that the appropriate child protection and welfare systems were in place for children and families in emergency accommodation. This was reviewed again at the end of 2016. We continue to look at the Dublin Region Homeless Executive to ensure all of the necessary supports are there for families in care. Hotels are not appropriate but, as a result of the crisis we faced, we had to use them in order to accommodate families. It was not necessarily a choice we would like to have made, but it was an appropriate one at the time. I have assured the Ombudsman that every care is taken for a family when it enters a hotel. In November, I outlined to the Dáil the wraparound supports for families as they go into hotels to try to get them out of there as quickly as possible and into a hub, a housing assistance payment, HAP, tenancy or social housing.
More than 600 families are still in hotels. That is still to many but it is down from the high point in March. There has been a 22% reduction from that high point, which is welcome. We will reach a stage - I hope to get there in the course of next year - when no family presenting will be accommodated in a hotel and will instead go directly to a family hub, a social housing unit or a HAP supported tenancy. At present, 12 hubs - accommodating 300 families - are in operation. They are located in Dublin, Kildare and Limerick. Seven new hubs will be in place by the end of the year and will accommodate an additional 163 families. These will be located in Dublin and Limerick. We will open more hubs in Dublin, Cork and Galway next year. This will be safe, supported accommodation until we can get them into homes or HAP-supported tenancies.
As already stated, hubs are only a first emergency response. Obviously, a key policy response and solution is to build more homes and put in place more social housing supports. In 2017, we committed 21,000 social housing supports from a mix of solutions I mentioned earlier. We will exceed this in a number of areas, which is welcome. HAP is working and almost 350 new tenancies are being supported into HAP accommodation each week. We have a voids acquisition and build programme that is part of bringing secure tenancies into our social housing stock. We will increase our financing for this by almost 50% next year. Earlier this week, I visited a new social housing project in Lusk. It is the largest of its type in Dublin. Already, eight houses are tenanted and early next year the remaining 70 homes in the scheme will have tenants in them. That is welcome. I also opened the programme for the new Donabate distributor road, which is part of the lighthouse scheme. We will use a small bit of taxpayer money to open up large schemes on private and public land for development. This will facilitate 1,200 new homes by 2021.
Very recently, I agreed in the Estimates with the Minister for Finance an additional €100 million for 2017 to go into the hubs programme to support families and children in emergency accommodation. It is also going to regeneration projects, such as St. Mary's in Dublin 1, where I was earlier this morning. It is also going into acquiring more homes for our social housing stock this year for families who need help and this is welcome.
Next year will begin with another housing summit. We had one in September, which was successful. In January, we will have a second housing summit to discuss the targets for local authorities for next year and how they, together with the voluntary sector, will meet their obligations to ensure that more houses will be build next year. As a result of some of the changes we made in policy this year, there will be an almost 30% increase in the number of social housing units built by local authorities and housing bodies next year. In the course of 2018, almost 8,000 homes will be brought into secure social housing tenancies through build, acquisition, long-term lease, Part V and bringing voids back into use. This is very welcome. Another 16,000 or more supports will be delivered in other areas. Every day of the working week, almost 100 new tenancies - that is, 100 new households - are supported through social housing supports and taxpayer-funded schemes. This is very welcome and will continue in 2018.
As we build more homes, we have to ensure that we focus on affordability. We discussed this matter recently in the Dáil. There will be an affordability scheme. It will not just be about social housing units and private homes, there will also be affordable homes. As we look to all of the indicators we have in the building sector - from the percentage of construction activity that is residential all the way through to the number of ESB connections - all of them are up for this year, which is welcome. Until we have more social housing homes built we will, of course, continue to rely on the private rental sector. Importantly, as we look to 2020 and 2021, we will be relying more on build, acquisition, long-term leasing and void vacancy than we will on HAP-placed tenancies for our social housing supports.
When a family is in crisis or very difficult circumstances, we must also ensure that emergency supports are in place to help. There were 3,000 exits in 2017. We will have that again, but prevention is key. We had more than 600 families and individuals being prevented from falling into emergency accommodation in the course of 2017. We have seen the housing assistance payment as a preventative measure and we have used the additional flexibility we have to prevent families from falling into emergency accommodation. As a result of the housing summit in September, we extended the place finder service nationally. It is there to help people into HAP-supported tenancies. It can also provide the deposit and the first month's rent. This is working.
The targets for 2016 with the new homeless HAP, which was a pilot of 50% discretion was 550, but we helped 800 households with homeless HAP in the course of 2016. In 2017, our target for homeless HAP support as a prevention measure was 1,200. We will achieve somewhere in the region of 1,600 tenancies supported through homeless HAP that otherwise would have gone into emergency accommodation and homelessness but did not because we were able to put this measure in place.
The Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, has given us a definition of substantial refurbishment, so that landlords and tenants can be clear on their rights and people are not abused in terms of being forced either to increase their rent or into eviction as a result of this piece of law. There are a couple of cases in the courts with regard to evictions that will show the extent to whether the legislation is robust enough. We also have a new obligation on landlords to notify the RTB when they serve a notice of termination so we can get those wraparound supports in as quickly as possible. We have seen that early intervention helps and is preventing families and individuals having to access emergency accommodation.
I met the CEOs from the voluntary sector yesterday. They came to me with new ideas on prevention and they are very much worth considering if we can better integrate and co-ordinate the prevention responses across the voluntary sector, together with the Dublin Region Homeless Executive. There are also things we can do to try to incentivise landlords where property is being sold so that it can be sold, as it is in the commercial sector, with tenants in situ.
Therefore, where tenants are meeting their obligations or the State is helping them with housing assistance payments, HAP, there will be no changes in their circumstances just because the ownership of the property has changed. We will explore that to see if we can help in that regard.
We have a crisis with rough sleepers. They are the most vulnerable people that we face in this housing and homelessness crisis. I committed to 200 additional beds and they will be in the system. The final bed will open on Monday next week so that no person who is sleeping rough will be forced to sleep rough over the course of the winter period, not just over the course of Christmas, as these are permanent new beds for the system. We have the cold weather initiative, which means there are more outreach teams out now every day to try to get people into the system.
I thank everyone working in this area, in local authorities, the voluntary sector and my own Department, who are working on the front lines. It is a serious challenge. We know that new homes are the answer and that new homes are being built but we will not be able to solve the crisis until they are built. That will take more time. Until those houses are built, we will treat every family and child with the utmost of care until we can get them into new homes - forever homes, as people call them. That is our ambition and what the Government is working to achieve.
I am acutely aware how tragic it is that as the Dáil begins its final debates before Members rise for Christmas, they must once again discuss the failure of the Government and the State with regard to child and family homelessness. I do not know what else to say at Christmas about the disgraceful lack of urgency in providing solutions to child and family homelessness. Having thought about what to say today, I do not want to repeat all that has been put on record before. However, since this is a debate about child and family homelessness, I will share with the Minister and Members of this House the reality of children and families who have no home.
As most people know, I worked in my family hotel in Glendalough all my life until I became a full-time politician, elected by the people less than two years ago. In more than 40 years in the hotel business, through three recessions in the 1970s, 1980s and the most recent crash, I never witnessed until this year what I am about to outline. The Glendalough Hotel is located in a very rural part of Wicklow, 50 km from Dublin city, which all are aware is the epicentre of the child and family homelessness crisis. On several occasions this year, my hotel has accommodated families with children who have been sent by Dublin local authorities because they have no homes available in one of the fastest-growing cities in Europe.
These families arrive in the late afternoon and early evening after picking up their children from their Dublin primary schools. They have made a journey of over an hour by car after spending the morning ringing hotel after hotel seeking a booking. Eventually, having no choice but to pick my hotel some 50 km from their home city, the family, that is, mother and father and two primary schoolgoing children, arrive tired and anxious, a little embarrassed about arriving not as tourists but economic refugees. The team at the hotel makes every effort to welcome these guests while at the same time realising that this is not why they pay their taxes. These families should not be forced to endure this. Both the family and staff make every effort to pretend that this situation is normal so that it does not cause any further stress. When food has been made available, the Irish family is allocated a room and the parents try to get their children settled and hopefully able to do some normal activities such as homework, showering and watching television, all in a hotel room, before putting them to bed. The next morning, these families have no choice but to get up very early in the morning since their parents must get their children ready for school in their little uniforms for Dublin city schools, and make that long journey back to our nation's capital for school and work. One of the parents then makes contact with Dublin local authorities once again to see if any accommodation can be made available. The parent is then told again that no housing is available but there is a list of suitable hotels to ring. The parents then begin the long process of ringing Dublin hotels, then hotels farther afield until, once again, they reluctantly book into our hotel and begin to arrange transport.
I have seen this happen to my fellow citizens and families with young children day in and day out through 2017. Our hotel has accommodated families for up to three to five days in a row. Each day, the same process is undergone and there is the same humiliation and struggle. I do not know what else I can say about this experience. It makes all of us at the hotel ashamed that this is the Ireland we live in. Glendalough is a place of inspiration, tranquility and a reminder of the historic achievements of Ireland's ancient past. Sadly, it is now about part of our story of modern Ireland's shameful present. I am pleased that the Minister did not mention the word "normal" today or that it is below EU average, but that he mentioned the word "face-on". What we must face is that, even since the Minister took office in June, the number of homeless people, including children, has increased. Despite the Minister's statement that the use of hotels has decreased since March, the number of hotels being used for homeless families increased in June, July, August, September and October and those are the Minister's figures.
Working with Deputies Cowen and Rabbitte, we in Fianna Fáil have proposed several solutions. We have allowed the Government to implement solutions but there are still families without homes, forced to endure this disgraceful treatment that makes me and indeed every Irish citizen deeply ashamed.
I thank the Minister for his presentation this morning. I am speaking through the eyes of the child and will be the voice of the child. We often talk about the voice of the child. We have to think back to two Friday nights ago, when we watched "The Late Late Toy Show". In fairness to "The Late Late Toy Show" and Ryan Tubridy, he included children from homeless positions. It is important for anybody listening to the commentary to know that he explained the role of the chimney. He showed that there is a chimney for everybody in this country and how the fireplace was done so that any child living in hotel accommodation or overcrowded accommodation would know how the fireplace was designed so Santa, at this time of year, will be able to come to all children throughout the country, wherever they are living. For that particular night, he gave a great message of hope to all children looking in that no matter where they are, Santa will be able to come to all with that little fireplace.
Ryan Tubridy also made it real for other children, who are fortunate to have their own homes, so they could understand what their friends might be going through. Nobody knows what other people might be going through. He brought a great level of understanding and before the show began last night, I had my own three children and all the neighbours' kids in. We watch "The Late Late Toy Show" every year. I explained at the beginning that Ryan was also going to talk about children who are homeless. My children looked at me and asked me how that could happen and I told them they would understand as the night went on. Ryan Tubridy spoke to a little girl, asking where she lived. She said she lived with her mammy and other sister and he asked who else was in the house. She said granny and granddad. He then asked who else was in the house and then it dawned on the kids in my sitting room that the little girl was living in overcrowded accommodation and did not have her own home, though she was with family. There was a stark realisation, as I think was the case in many houses that night as people made their lists and anticipated Christmas, about what other children would be experiencing.
I am on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs and this week I went with the Chair and other members to visit a family hub. I felt it was important to visit a family hub because sometimes we come in here and give a lot of criticism but I wanted to understand myself what a family hub is.
I am glad that the Minister has acknowledged that a family hub is a first response.
My experience of the family hub was that the people there have what I would call a bedsit, basically, but it is a bedsit they can call their own. They do not have to encounter what Deputy Casey has recounted just now, and he is perfectly right. The people working in Dublin City Council and the homeless areas in Dublin were there to meet us. They explained what they are going to do. They explained that their focus for the coming weeks is on turnover, on helping these people to acquire, hopefully, housing assistance payment rented accommodation and on helping them to fill out the forms.
What was in the hub? There were play areas indoors and outdoors. I have been critical in recent months and since this crisis began. The most important thing that children need is indoor and outdoor play. Children in that situation do not realise that they are any different. To them, that area is their little world.
Anyway, it is important to realise that it is a first response. If we are looking for one solution for children in care, especially those in foster care, then we must look at housing adaptation solutions for those children who are turning 18 years of age.
This is the gravest and greatest issue facing the State and the economy. One might not think that based on this morning's attendance but let us make no mistake about that.
The Government often takes offence at commentators and commentary to the effect that it is doing nothing in this area. The Government is doing something in this area - it is doing its best. Unfortunately, what the Government is doing is simply not working. If it was working, the statistics and stories we have heard from Deputy Casey would not be repeated day in, day out.
We facilitated the formation of the Government. We acknowledged that stability for the economy was paramount. It was paramount then and was paramount some weeks ago as well.
Our economy is improving. Deficits will be a thing of the past. This area allows the Government an opportunity to promote and ensure that there is growth in industry and innovation and an increase in the revenues. In turn, those revenues can be reinvested in areas that have been subject to under-investment in recent years.
However, the Government's success, when it is ultimately adjudicated upon, whenever that might be, will not necessarily be on those issues or on Brexit. That is because on those issues as well as Brexit, there is almost universal acceptance of and approval for the policy thrust and direction. There might be some differences in respect of the way in which it is done, but there is an acceptance that the Government has built upon the stability and stabilising policies of recent years. In any event, it will be adjudicated on how it has performed and met the challenge in respect of those who are less-well-off, the poor, the disadvantaged and those who have been left behind through no fault of their own. Most relevant will be the Government performance in tacking homelessness. Most relevant will be how it has dealt with those on the ever-increasing housing waiting lists; those who are paying crippling rents; those who cannot afford a home; those who are facing repossession or eviction and children who are having their childhood stolen. That is what is happening.
In a way, the Government response was personified, in no predetermined fashion, by the response of the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, this morning to an item on "Morning Ireland". We heard from a man called Frank, who is 71 years old and facing eviction in the coming weeks. We thank him and appreciate his bravery in coming forward with his story. Many do not realise his predicament, despite the fact that Deputies most certainly do because they are at the coalface. They are stakeholders and are the people who hear similar stories recounted day in, day out. The Minister, Deputy Doherty, cried shame on the landlord who would allow this person to be evicted at this time of year. Of course that is the case, but shame on the Government that has not provided the necessary safety net for that person. That is the Government's job. She also referred to how the Respond! Housing Association deals specifically with the elderly and those in that predicament.
Respond! does but that should not have to because, in the first instance, it is a job for the State. That is the normalisation that has become prevalent in recent months and years. There seems to be an understanding or acceptance that it is the job of stakeholders and those who, thank God, are doing the great job they do. They provide assistance but, in many cases, this is because of the generosity of the Irish people. The Capuchins get €3.5 million from the people but €400,000 from the State. That is the difference and it demonstrates the innate nature and decency in the Irish people that they need to see in the Government too. We have not been seeing that.
I have been accused on many occasions of being part of the establishment and the response that is not working. As an elected representative of the Dáil and a member of my political party, I have a job to bring forward solutions. As my colleagues have mentioned, we have suggested many solutions and the Government has taken some of them on board. It is now time for me and others like me to say that there is a different direction in which we can go in order to help ameliorate the current situation. There are some local authorities that can do the job but many of them cannot. Many departmental officials can do the job but they are not doing it.
The time has come to recognise both the failings and successes of the past. The National Roads Authority built roads on budget and on time. The Dublin Docklands Development Authority developed the docklands. It is time for a housing authority to take control of this issue and it should be given terms of reference and a funding mechanism to ensure the job can be done properly. It can go off-balance sheet and it can have 51% investment from private sector elements, such as credit unions, pension funds and Irish private equity funds that wish to invest in capital projects. There could be Government-backed funds in which private citizens could invest. The 49% from the State could include the acres of land not being used. I have heard people in local authorities talking about expressions of interest but it takes them 18 months to put such expressions of interest into action and another three years to put a house in place.
Our party will put forward a proposal in greater detail in the new year. The Irish people will see that there is an alternative and they will have their chance to adjudicate on this Government's performance. It will not be about Brexit, particularly as we are all at one on that matter. I wish the Government every success in that regard and it has our full support. However, matters are different when it comes to how the Government treats those who cannot treat themselves. It will never be normal. As I said, we will not be seen as part of the establishment. The Irish people must regain a bit of trust in the political and democratic system and see that we are not all the same. We can do things differently. We will offer help where we can and we hope that what suggest will be taken on board. It is time for an extraordinary solution to an extraordinary crisis.
In all of our minds today are the people who will spend Christmas in emergency accommodation and, in particular, the more than 3,000 children who will wake on Christmas morning in hotels, bed and breakfast accommodation, hubs or other forms of emergency accommodation. I acknowledge the very hard work of departmental officials and local authority staff, particularly those operating on the front line of the homelessness crisis. I acknowledge the staff in non-governmental organisations, approved housing bodies, volunteer groups and soup runs as without all that work, this crisis would be much worse.
This is a political matter and the reason that more than 3,000 children will be sleeping in emergency accommodation this Christmas Eve is down to the failure of Government policy. Since 2011, when Fine Gael first took office, the number of children in emergency accommodation has increased by over 300%. Since 2016, when the current Government took office, the rate has increased by over 20%. Since the Minister took up his current responsibilities, the total number of children in emergency accommodation on a given night has risen by 299. The length of time children are spending in emergency accommodation since Fine Gael has been in power has dramatically increased, from six months in 2014 to two years on average now. That is the position for many families in Dublin this year. This child homelessness crisis has been created by decisions made by this Government and that which preceded it. If next year is to be different and if we are to finally get to grips with the crisis, we must name those policy failures and make changes.
What has the Government done since taking office? First, it slashed investment in social housing from 2010 to 2014 to the lowest levels in the history of the State, pushing huge numbers of families into the private rental sector and driving up rental prices.
This led to families presenting as homeless. For those of us who have worked on this issue in close detail, we can see that this family homelessness crisis really started to accelerate in 2014. The problem was that despite knowing what the problem was, the Government at that time refused to take action over spiralling costs of rents, which was the single biggest cause of homelessness at the time. While I have had many other disagreements with Deputy Kelly, he at least tried to get the then Government to tackle the issue of spiralling rents. He was, however, blocked by Fine Gael.
Vacant possession notices to quit then became the primary driver of homelessness. What did the Government do? It refused to support many Deputies who wanted to change the Residential Tenancies Act - at the request of Focus Ireland - to block off that cause of family and child homelessness. According to the latest research, which tallies with what Deputies hear in their constituency offices, the biggest driver of family homelessness currently is chronic overcrowding and stress within families. Many of the young families who present as homeless are told to go back to where they came from. They are told to go back in to those overcrowded, stressful and at times completely unsatisfactory situations.
The Government has finally increased capital investment in social housing, which I welcome, but it is nowhere close to enough. While the Government finally took some action this time last year on spiralling rents, I believe this was too little and far too late. One of the most frustrating things for many of us is that while there is more funding allocated for social housing, the targets are too low and the speed of delivery is nowhere close to the level of urgency we require.
For next year the Government needs to focus on particular issues, on which it will have the support of many Deputies in the House. First, the Government needs to increase dramatically the targets for real social housing output. It needs to slash the length of time it takes to deliver those units. This means the Government must end its over-reliance on the private rental sector. Compare the figures for this year - there are 16,000 housing assistance payment tenancies to 4,500 real social housing units. This is continually driving the crisis deeper. We also must end vacant possession notices to quit through amendments to the remit of the Residential Tenancies Board. Many Deputies have argued for this measure. We must also acknowledge there are overcrowding and family relationship problems in order to find better solutions to ensure those people are not sent back to unacceptable sets of circumstances. Crucially, the Government needs to end the self-accommodation option for families trying to find emergency accommodation. The Minister could do this with the stroke of a pen. We need to end the use of hotels and reduce the length of time that families, especially families with children, are in emergency accommodation to six months or less. Unless we see a dramatic increase in the investment and targets for delivery of social housing, this crisis will get worse before it gets better. I urge the Minister to make this his priority from the start of 2018.
All Members present are aware the State is in the midst of a housing emergency but I was still shocked, as were all Deputies, to hear the Taoiseach say during the week that the economy is "fixed" and the Government is now making "incremental progress" to improve people's lives. He was so impressed with this statement that he also tweeted it. This is the Taoiseach of this State. This is the man who does not think that homeless numbers in Ireland are that bad. He certainly does not recognise that we are at crisis point, never mind an emergency. If the Taoiseach cannot even bring himself to admit that we have this problem or crisis, then how can we ever expect him to solve it? Everyone here is aware that the Government is out of touch on this issue but that statement this week was quite unbelievable. It comes at a time when we are in the throes of a housing emergency extending throughout the housing sector. Working people cannot afford to buy houses. This pushes more people into the private rental market and rents continue to spiral out of control as demand increases. There are almost 100,000 households on the housing waiting lists and many of those have been waiting up to ten years. The standard of housing for many people is dreadful. People who are homeless are the biggest losers of the Government policy and its campaign against the poor. At the end of October there were 8,492 people homeless in Ireland.
Last week, the local authorities were instructed to carry out the rough sleepers count. The Louth local authority count was arranged for between 2.30 a.m. and 5.30 a.m. in Drogheda and Dundalk. The wording "rough sleepers" makes it softer although it should be a homeless people count. To the amazement of all the councillors, the count for Drogheda was zero. Every person in Drogheda can point to the various areas where homeless people are sleeping, cowering for shelter. If that is the mechanism the Minister is relying on to get these figures, I suggest they could be doubled.
This figure includes 3,194 children. That is a national disgrace. Behind these figures are real families and real children who are victims of the Government's relentless attack on the poor. They are victims of a broken housing policy and a Government that has shown no real inclination to fix it. I have said before that the Government's response to this crisis is developer led and driven. It is forcing people into private rental accommodation knowing well that the crisis exists. It has council-owned landbanks lying idle and barren the length and breadth of the State, which were bought during the Celtic tiger era solely for social housing purposes. The Government has refused to roll out a proper social housing building programme by releasing funding to do so.
Most of those 3,194 children are living in hotels. That is completely unsuitable accommodation for anybody, particularly children. They are moved around constantly and have no security. The Minister should think about this over Christmas. Does he ever stop to think about what it is like for a child to go into school and hear their friends invite one another to their houses for sleepovers or to play after school when that child knows that he or she cannot do that because they are stuck in a hotel room? Does he think about the fact that they cannot run about the house or in and out the back and front gardens because they are in a hotel room where they have to be silent so that they cannot be seen and will not be a stain on society? Does he ever think about that for a moment? This Government has been in place for seven years. Not only has it presided over this housing crisis, but it has escalated it by its inaction. It has done nothing to resolve the problem. It has not accepted that its ideological approach to solving this housing crisis is not working. It is compounding it. The Minister needs to get into his head that it is not working, and that the Government is making it worse and inflicting misery.
Last Friday, I passed a young chap on O'Connell Street. There was an icy cold wind. He was a teenager sitting with no shelter and with what appeared to be a very lightweight blanket over his shoulders. I was with my daughter. We walked past and stopped. I took money out and told my daughter to go back to give it to the chap and tell him to get soup and a sandwich to warm himself up. When my daughter came back she said, "Mam, he was crying."
He felt that no one gave a damn about him. I want the Minister to think about those children over Christmas and about every single person who is waiting to be housed by the State.
I had prepared a script but I am going to leave it to one side. Deputy Munster and Deputy Casey have very eloquently illustrated the reality. There are 3,000 children in this country who are getting up bright and early at 7.10 a.m. to catch two or three buses to cross the city to their schools. They are embarrassed and ashamed of their situation and, through no fault of their own, worried about going to school and being teased. They come home to their mothers and fathers who try to explain to them that some day soon they will be allocated a house. In reality, however, they know it could take three months, six months or, perhaps, even a year. They hope that the next day will be better and that some day soon the nightmare will end. They try to do their homework with clothes drying on clothes horses outside pokey bathrooms and go to the chipper for dinner after a long day at school because there are no cooking facilities or food in their accommodation. Parents worry about the quality of the food their children are getting. This can go on for inordinate amounts of time.
I have been dealing with a particular family who I am glad to say have been allocated a house. What they went through over the previous year, however, was incredible. This couple and their two children were living in a hotel and the man's partner was pregnant with twins. Until a few weeks ago, they were extremely worried about how they would find another hotel to accommodate a family of six. Of course, the parents were also worried about how they were going to manage Santa and the children were worried about how Santa was going to find them. This is the reality in the State and it is the greatest scandal of our times. I acknowledge that there is no desire on the part of Government to see this crisis continue but the policies it and its predecessor have pursued have not been adequate. They have not dealt with the crisis and I am concerned that they will not deal with the crisis any time soon. Next Christmas, we may still have several thousand children who are worried about how Santa is going to reach them and parents who do not know when the nightmare is going to come to an end. We need a radical shift in direction and we need to get these children and families into permanent homes.
I wish the Ceann Comhairle and other Members a happy Christmas and join him in wishing the staff and ushers the same. I mean that very sincerely.
What we are talking about today, however, is people for whom Christmas is very insecure. I hope that everyone here has a home to go to, but we are talking about people who have very temporary homes, if they have homes at all, and they do not know where their permanent home will come from. Our focus today and as we enter the new year must be on action and what we can do rather than what we can say. Speakers before me have very eloquently described the situation. Deputy Munster captured it very well, as did Deputies Rabbitte and Casey, in describing the situation in which children in particular find themselves. The three things I want to address are the emergency situation, how to stop people losing their homes and how we can speed up the construction and delivery of social homes.
I will focus on those three areas because they are all linked. We all know this issue is complex and requires a variety of actions. Perhaps in some ways Rebuilding Ireland contained too many different subsets of actions because many of the targets simply were not reached. I will divide my time between those areas.
The first issue is the more than 8,000 people and more than 3,000 children who are currently homeless and who have been described so eloquently. In a reply to a parliamentary question, the Minister told me that extra emergency beds would be provided. I presume they have been delivered. There were to be 200 extra beds in Dublin by mid-December and a number of extra beds in other cities. I am not sure if the Minister is due to reply to the debate but if he does I hope he will be able to reassure Members in that regard and that there will be enough beds for everybody. Unfortunately, that does not mean that everybody ends up in a bed. For various reasons, some people do not take up the beds. However, we must ensure there are enough beds. We also must ensure that there is enough information provided. A lack of information is often a problem for people. I accept that there are telephone numbers to ring and so forth but people often do not know exactly what to do when they become homeless or when they are in a precarious situation, so information is crucial. It must also be accessible to the people in that situation, not somewhere on a website but available directly to people.
Deputy Casey described the people in his hotel having to get up early to get to Dublin and the situation for children. There must be a way whereby people would not be obliged to ring around to find a hotel. The Dublin Region Homeless Executive does very good work, but it is totally wrong that a family should be put in that situation. I introduced the Housing (Homeless Families) Bill and it was agreed by all Members, which I welcome. I thank Deputy Bailey, the chair of the housing committee, who wrote to me to say that the Bill will be dealt with in the committee. I ask that it be dealt with quickly. One of the objectives of the Bill is to ensure that no families with children would be sent to a Garda station, as happened earlier this year in Dublin when 12 families and 30 children were sent to Garda stations. One of the reasons that happened is that there is no recognition of children. They are just recognised as dependants of homeless adults.
I believe the Bill will make a difference to that situation and also to the situation Deputy Casey described where families must ring around. They go off to work or school in the morning and then they must ring around to find a hotel. If my legislation was passed, the housing authorities would be obliged to take the needs of the children into account and to deal with the other issues involved. For example, people have described how homeless children feel about it. I was struck when a young child said that her little sister, who was two years old, wanted to play with her but the only place where they could play was between the two beds in the hotel room. It is wrong for children to be stuck in that type of situation. I realise that my Bill will not solve everything but I believe it could make a difference and I hope we can get it through Committee Stage as quickly as possible.
There is also the issue of people being put out of their homes and the ways of preventing that. I acknowledge that there has been some action and changes in that regard, but I am convinced that more must be done. We heard Frank on the radio this morning. He is 71 years old and has lived in the same house for seven years, but suddenly has received a notice to quit. That should not happen. There should be security of tenure. Many Members have argued in the House for security of tenure and for the so-called Tyrrelstown amendment to be modified to ensure that people cannot be evicted for spurious reasons. There is an article in the Irish Independenttoday which I believe relates to a leaked document from the Dublin Region Homeless Executive. It indicates that four in ten families that have become homeless have been issued with notices to quit by landlords. Only two of those cases were for anti-social behaviour. The others were for either not being able to pay the rent or due to plans to sell the property.
This issue of plans to sell the property definitely needs to be addressed because we all have heard evidence of landlords giving notice to quit, saying they were selling the property and then not selling it or have heard evidence of the other reason, which is about substantially altering the property. I know the Minister has brought in or will bring in some measures about landlords saying they will carry out major changes to the property and then putting up the rent. In respect of selling the property, we saw the examples in Tyrrelstown and my constituency involving the Strand Hotel and Grove Island where groups of tenants were given notice. I know there was a case in Cork, which Deputy Barry raised recently. We need to tighten up this area to prevent evictions.
Another issue involves rent pressure zones. Obviously, they are working in some areas for some people but I think people are getting around them even in rent pressure zones. My city of Limerick is not a rent pressure zone so there is no protection. On average, rents increased there by an average of 11% last year. Places like Waterford are also still not designated as rent pressure zones, while in the counties around Dublin, some areas are left out while others are included. That most definitely needs to be reviewed and it needs to be done quickly. Again, I received a reply to a parliamentary question on this issue and I acknowledge some work is being done on that. All the points I am making are on getting things done quickly and not waiting and talking. The Simon Community produced a document entitled "Locked Out Of The Market". It has updated its figures recently. It carried out research into available rental properties within the cap limits for housing assistance payment, HAP, and rent supplement. The statistics show that on a particular day at the end of the third quarter, only four properties under the different categories, that is, for single people, a couple, a couple with one child and a couple with two children in the whole of Dublin city centre were within the cap. There were three such properties in Cork, one in Limerick city, one in Waterford city and none in Galway city. This shows that the increased cost of rent has simply gone beyond the limits relating to HAP and rent supplement. Again, this area needs urgent attention. I know we hear about reviews but it seems to take so long to deal with any of these issues. It was this time last year when we were dealing with that housing Bill at midnight and were doing sums to figure out how we would calculate rent pressure zones, etc. All of us in opposition proposed various amendments. That was a year ago but we are still stuck with pretty much the same kind of rules we had then despite the fact that, as others have said, the numbers have been increasing all the time.
I also urge the Minister to develop Housing First. I acknowledge he has increased the numbers. A director is to be appointed. I do not know if that has been advertised but, again, that was something the Minister told me in a reply to a parliamentary question. Housing First is the solution for many people who sleeping rough on our streets. They are the kind of people who may have addiction problems and other problems such as mental health problems who need that kind of wraparound 24-hour service that Housing First provides. There are some really good organisations that have been funded to roll out Housing First. I am very familiar with it in my own city where the Simon Community and Novas are the two bodies that operate it. It really works for the long-term homeless who probably would have difficulty in sustaining a home if they did not have that kind of support.
The other area I want to talk about is supply. We need to see something happen with vacant homes. It is the one leg of the Rebuilding Ireland programme that was never brought in. I think March 2017 was meant to be the deadline in terms of a strategy. I acknowledge that some measures have been introduced but again, this is an area where we should be able to see houses coming into use quickly.
The local authority void scheme, which started back in 2014, was very successful. There have been at least 5,000, if not more, social houses delivered through that scheme. We need to see vacant houses brought back into use. Others have focused on the issue of construction, which is painfully slow. On Leaders' Questions yesterday, Deputy Catherine Martin cited statistics for the end of the third quarter of 2017 and said the aim was to have completed 2,284 social houses. Only 809 were completed by the third quarter. I think she said there was €1 billion of an underspend but I am not sure if that is the correct figure. The point she was making, which is correct, is that while there are commitments, and the Minister said what will happen next year, they are not being delivered within the timescale.
I did some research on the social housing construction projects progress report, which is published regularly. On the basis of the September 2017 report, 65% of the units were in the first four stages of the system, which is before building starts. The first four stages are capital appraisal, pre-planning, pre-tender and tender and 65% were in one of those categories. That means that 65% that are in that programme have still not started construction.
Before Deputy Alan Kelly left his ministerial office, he produced a report on approved projects. Of those approved projects, which had been approved by the beginning of 2016, about 46% were still in one of those first four pre-building stages. In other words, 46% were approved but by the beginning of 2016, they still had not started construction. There is a big problem. Deputy Cowen referred to the need to change the system. We could apportion blame to councils or the Department for the delay. I suspect the blame lies somewhere in the middle and is something to do with communication and delays in sending information from councils to the Department, sending it back again and asking questions, etc. There is definitely a delay and there needs to be a different system.
Deputy Cowen talked about a national system. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has backed the idea of municipal housing. There is the ONE Cork project, with which Cork Deputies will be familiar, which is being promoted as a pilot scheme. It is a start and is something that should be activated. We need something that moves things more quickly than the current system does. Even though the number of stages has been reduced we need something that moves more quickly. What I have tried to do, as I say in my contribution, is to focus on what we can do and what we need to do. We all know the problem. We all have a level of expertise and knowledge at this stage, particularly those of us who participate regularly in housing debates. I would love to see, as a promise for the new year, action in these areas and for something to actually happen so we are not having these debates again months into 2018 or even towards the end of 2018.
I will share time with Deputies Kenny and Boyd Barrett; we will take five minutes, three minutes and seven minutes, respectively.
I express solidarity with all those who are homeless and those who are facing the threat of homelessness. I also want to make my nomination this Christmas for Ireland's Scrooge of the year 2017. That dishonour must surely go to Lugus Capital, the new owners of the Leeside apartments in Cork city. This Christmas, the vulture fund is placing the threat of eviction over the heads of nearly 30 households, many with young children. It is a scandal. It is threatening to put young children out on the side of the road in order to maximise its profits. I send Christmas congratulations to the residents for choosing to fight these evictions and I look forward to joining them in marching in protest through the streets of Cork city tomorrow afternoon.
In early 2015 the number of homeless children first passed the 1,000 mark and there was a public outcry that such a situation should have been allowed to develop in this country. However, as we move towards the end of 2017, more than 3,000 children are homeless and living in emergency accommodation and the numbers continue to increase month by month. This does not even count the families living with friends or extended family. More than 3,000 homeless children are in living hotels, bed and breakfasts and increasingly they are being transferred to so-called family hub accommodation. That is over 3,000 childhoods blighted by homelessness and the anxieties and the stresses it inflicts on children and their parents. This is a time those children will never get back.
In September, Focus Ireland published a report based on research into the experiences of 25 homeless families. The authors commented that "The vast majority of the families interviewed reported being deeply negatively affected by becoming homeless." Negative implications for children's education is one of the most frequent and profound effects. Anxiety about their homelessness, and the lack of space and quiet for homework are widespread concerns. One parent surveyed for the Focus Ireland report commented:
Our 14 year-old didn't do well in school [when they were homeless]. He didn't study. There was no place quiet for him to study and he was too tired from all the travelling we had to do to get to school.
That is just one example of the thousands of children whose education is suffering.
Ireland used to have a large social housing sector that provided affordable housing for one in five households, but the policies of successive Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil-led Governments to privatise the social housing stock and slash new social house building has destroyed the availability of social and affordable housing. Neoliberal policies have been designed to and have succeeded in turning housing in Ireland into just another asset class to be invested in by finance capital for profit and capital accumulation opportunities.
Only the highest earners can now afford to buy a home. However, from a property investor's perspective things could not be better. The Irish Timesrecently reported that a European buy-to-let league table found that "the average yield on an Irish property stood at 7.08 per cent in August 2017, up from 6.54 per cent in 2016, and far ahead of the rest of the EU-28." A society has been created where property investors are achieving some of the highest investment yields in the world while more families become homeless and renters desperately try to cling to expensive, precarious tenancies. We need to stop serving the needs of property investors and start meeting the housing needs of families and children.
I strongly welcome the initiative of the National Homeless and Housing Coalition to call a national day of action against homelessness and the housing crisis on 7 April. I hope this day of action will demonstrate the mass anger that exists about Government policies. Solidarity looks forward to preparing for and participating in this social movement of NGOs, trade unions, political parties of the left and the many others seeking a society transformed to meet the needs of the 99%.
A Cheann Comhairle, along with my colleagues I wish you and the staff a happy Christmas.
Before I came into the Chamber I was trying to think of a saying to talk about the ongoing housing crisis. One thing went through my head; I do not know who wrote it.
The definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Over the past two years, the issue of the housing crisis has dominated these benches. The statistics say everything. In 2014, 880 children were homeless in the State while by 2017, that number had increased to 3,100. Obviously, something is dramatically wrong with the current policy.
Life in a hotel for that family and those children is unacceptable. I am talking about the long journeys to school, the mental stress on the children and the families, the emotional and behavioural problems that come with that, and not having a place to cook or where the children can play.
It is shameful that this has happened, and there is one reason for it. The Minister will not like to hear what I have to say and he probably will not accept it, but it comes down to an ideology. That is the reason we have a homelessness crisis. That ideology is allowing the free market to run amok; it is as simple as that. The banking crisis of 2008 did not come out of nowhere. It was a crisis that was manufactured by the ruling class in this country, of which the Minister's party is part. It comes down to class ideology as well. If people in hotels for the homeless were wealthy, there is no doubt that they would be housed.
Public and social housing has become a dirty word. It is not a dirty word. There have been huge successes when it comes to public housing. My family availed of public housing, like many other families, and it was a great success. Sometimes it goes wrong but in the vast majority of cases, it does not. Until this House understands that homelessness and children who are homeless is a by-product of ideology in terms of the Minister's party and Fianna Fáil in the previous Government, and until that is sorted out, we will continue in this situation and it will never end.
I want to first wish the Ceann Comhairle, all Members of the House and the staff in particular, who make it somewhat bearable for us to be in this place, a merry Christmas.
It brings complete shame on politics and on the State that as we face into Christmas, 3,000 children and their mums and dads are either in emergency accommodation, hotels or hubs. Tens of thousands more are the hidden homeless living in chronically overcrowded conditions and suffering all the stress, humiliation, neglect, fears and anxieties of not having a secure, affordable roof over their heads that they can call their own. It truly brings shame on our State.
Deputy Gino Kenny is absolutely right when he says there is a class ideology at work. I know the Minister is well-intentioned and that, within the terms of his own political outlook, he is doing what he can. However, while the Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar, said in this House a few weeks ago that while nobody had a monopoly on compassion and that he cared too, he went on to say something extraordinary. He said that people should not expect a free home. Where did a statement like that come from? What would make anybody say that nobody should expect a free home? First, it demonstrates a complete and utter detachment and ignorance when it comes to the meaning of public or social housing, but to say it indicates that he believes that having a council house is having a free home. We hear those prejudices repeated on the radio as well when some of us here are demanding a dramatic increase in the provision of social housing, but for the Taoiseach of the country to echo that sentiment was shocking. There is no such thing as a free home. There never has been. Council housing and social housing is not a free home, but why did the Taoiseach say it? It is prejudice. There is no other word for it and it speaks to the ideological blindness and blinkeredness of the ruling parties in this country which have fundamentally had a problem with council housing for decades.
It is repeated in the notion that we cannot have large-scale council housing estates and that we need a social mix. There is a deep prejudice in that sentiment, that if too many working class people are put together on a council estate there will be problems. That is a disgusting suggestion and it is just not true. If the services, infrastructure, transport, schools, community projects and supports are provided there will not be any problems. The implication is that if working class people are together in large numbers it is a recipe for disaster. This becomes a justification for running down the provision of council housing for decades. It is being done by this Government and was done by Fianna Fáil previously. As Deputy Mick Barry said, a layer of people in Irish society have been profiteering from it all.
Ireland's rich disproportionately get rich from property. They always have. It is another one of the elements of parasitical capitalism we have in this country. We have the tax haven capitalism of the multinationals and the parasitical capitalism of property, with a huge proportion of the Irish rich getting richer on the back of this crisis. That is a fact. For every person who is getting evicted there is a landlord getting increased rent. For every vulture fund that takes over what was public property under NAMA, which could have provided the public housing we needed, there are people who are not doing a tap of work but who are buying shares in these funds and making fortunes overnight. That has been facilitated all the way along the line by this Government.
A disastrous decision was taken by Fine Gael and, shamefully, Labour, back in 2011 formally to abandon the direct provision of council housing and develop a reliance on long-term arrangements with landlords, which finally crystalised into the housing assistance payment, HAP. It was a disaster. We said in 2011 that it would be a disaster. The Government at the time said it would not. When HAP was brought in we were told it was going to work. We told the Government it would not and could not work to say that HAP was social housing and that people could be taken off housing lists and that this would form a part of dealing with the housing crisis. We told the Government that HAP would not work. It said that it would work. It did not work. People in HAP accommodation now are being evicted. HAP is not social housing. It is better than being on the street, in a hub or a hotel, but it is not permanent and secure accommodation and many of those who are flowing into the hubs and hotels are now coming from HAP accommodation. This was the disastrous mistake that was made.
We have to break from these prejudices and understand that we need to go back to providing council housing by the local authorities in large quantities, but this time ensure that the infrastructure and services go with it. In the short-term we need to stop all economic evictions and repossessions of any description now. That is what declaring a housing emergency means. The evictions should stop now. We have to stop the flow into homelessness on the basis that this is an emergency. Emergency measures must be taken to get the thousands of vacant properties out there into use for public housing.
We have been protesting about the direction of policy and warning about where it would lead. My patience has run out, and so has the patience of the people who are suffering this hardship. On 7 April there will be an event which I hope will be on the scale of the water protests, with trade unions, community organisations, homeless groups and political parties in this House mobilising for a national demonstration. I believe that is the only way we are going to force a change in policy from this Government.
I agree with the Minister that this issue should be discussed every week in this House, because it is a crisis.
Not only is it a crisis, it is also an emergency, although the Minister has not declared it as such. That is where we find a difference between his approach and that taken on this side of the House.
Deputy Boyd Barrett mentioned that he has been losing patience over the past six years. Deputies Boyd Barrett, Catherine Murphy, Durkan and I who began raising this issue in 2012. We were seeing what was happening on the ground. We could see the train coming because we were dealing with people who were finding themselves homeless. We took every opportunity to raise this issue in the Dáil and to force the Government to think about what was happening. The Labour Party were in power with the Minister's party at the time. The Government failed to develop a moral policy platform to address the issue that was developing on the ground. We reached a point where, as has been mentioned, there were 1,000 families in hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation in 2015. There are now 5,298 adults homeless. Those numbers were mentioned. There are 1,463 homeless families, up from 1,178 in October 2016, a year ago. That includes 394 children.
Those figures do not include those families living in overcrowded accommodation. Dublin City Council's housing policy committee issued a report yesterday. We should all read it if we get a chance. I pulled some figures from the report issued at yesterday's meeting. There were 783 families living in commercial premises in October 2016 and there were 716 in October 2017. This figure has been reduced by the Government's rapid-build housing programme, which has housed approximately 200 families over the last year. Families who have been brought into hubs should also be considered. If those measures were not there, what would the situation be in respect of hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation?
Even more interesting than this figure from the council is the fact that 676 families were in commercial premises in September but the figure increased by 88 in October. In that month alone, 88 families declared themselves newly homeless and were accommodated in hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation. A further 76 were prevented from entering those commercial premises because they were placed in tenancies through HAP. Therefore, nearly 150 new families declared themselves homeless in the month of October, despite all the temporary arrangements and small arrangements, which are not making the dent in homelessness that needs to be made.
The report also details a survey that was even more important. It re-emphasised the issue of overcrowding in people's homes. The council carried out a survey on the reasons families found themselves homeless from June to August of 2017. It included a total of 279 families. The most common reason people were finding themselves in that situation was because they were being forced to leave private rented accommodation on foot of a notice to quit. That was the reason 46% of those 276 families gave for finding themselves homeless.
The second most common reason was that families were leaving the accommodation of families and friends due to relationship breakdown or overcrowding. Some 49% of families gave that reason. We are now finding that, over the past three or four years, people have been put up in the homes of their families, their parents and their friends. That is now becoming more difficult. When adults are living in the same environment and there are children from different families, the overcrowding can make matters difficult. These people are now finding themselves being forced into homeless accommodation. That is an absolute disgrace.
I made the point on Leaders' Questions two weeks ago that during the course of the week in which silly games were being played between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, in the real world two homeless men died. I also made the point that two more families from my constituency came to me having received notices to quit because their landlords were claiming that major refurbishment was needed in the homes. That is the reality for people.
Those two families, along with almost two families every week prior to that, found themselves in that situation and form part of the 46% of families forced to leave their private rented accommodation because of a notice to quit as noted in the council report. In the same week, Threshold released its annual report, which showed a massive increase in the numbers contacting it in fear of losing their homes, mainly in the private rented sector, which again confirms the detail of the council report. Some 71,000 calls were made to Threshold last year, which is more than double the number in 2015.
According to a report by the Simon Community published this week, 90% of homes available to rent in Ireland are beyond the reach of those dependent on State housing benefit. Such people are locked out of the market. The report found that the number of rental properties available has dropped significantly and there is an increasing gap between rent supplement limits and property prices. During the period over which the study was conducted, there were no properties available to rent at or below the housing assistance payment, HAP, limit for a single person and only two for couples within the 11 areas covered. It is a very profound report. HAP is a form of social housing support for those with long-term housing needs. The number of properties available fell by 53% from 1,150 in May 2015. Niamh Randall of the Simon Community said that State housing benefits must be increased to allow people to compete in a very challenging rental market. However, people are trying to compete in a very set rental market that is not expanding and in which there is a bottleneck. Only those of significant means can afford the rents being sought, such as €1,800 or €2,000 per month in Dublin city.
As we found out approximately two years ago having raised this matter, landlords are seeking large deposits. A family in Walkinstown comprising a couple and their three children are living with their parents and other family members in one home, which is causing major problems. The family sought rental accommodation in Tallaght but landlords were seeking three months' rent in advance. In view of the low level of support provided by HAP, what homeless or ordinary working class family can afford three months' rent in advance and €2,000 per month thereafter?
Rather than the situation is easing and possibly settling down, it is worsening. It is not getting any better, as is proven by the figures provided by the council and published yesterday. As has been said, there is an ideological difficulty whereby the Government is not building public and affordable housing according to the European cost rental model on public land owned by Dublin City Council and other councils across the country. The Minister will not accept that point. Such houses would be available to those on social welfare, the minimum wage, wages that one would earn in the retail sector, construction industry or private sector or the average industrial wage or less. The European cost rental model is crucial to workers getting access to homes. Unless a radical step of that nature is taken, the situation will worsen and the Government will have to stand over that. It will have to go into a general election in which people who normally vote for Fine Gael, along with their families and children who have no chance of buying a house in the coming years, will challenge Fine Gael Deputies and ask what they have done about the problem. The Government has done very little and has only tinkered at the edges of the problem. It has not fundamentally addressed the issue that needs to be addressed: how to build homes for which people can afford to get a mortgage or rent according to the European cost rental model.
I watched reports from a recent housing conference hosted by Newstalk at which the Minister spoke. Richard Barrett, who, along with Johnny Ronan was responsible for the infamous docklands disaster eight, nine or ten years ago, was at the conference and said that he, as a private developer, wants to build social housing because he believes people should not be in the situation that many are and that it is terrible for people not to have homes.
I do not trust these people - I will keep it clean - as far as I could throw them. They created the disaster we face, they made money back on their losses through NAMA and now they find themselves back on their feet. The reason Mr. Barrett is back on his feet is that he had more international investments than Irish investments. These people are coming back to make a killing. We should not accept this. The Government has a moral and policy-driven responsibility to ensure that housing is built for people who can afford it, that people can afford the rent on such housing and that they can afford to live in it without having huge mortgages around their necks. I still pay €1,400 per month on my mortgage - I have remortgaged a few times over the years because money was free and was being handed out willy-nilly, but very few people could afford that now. A Tesco worker or other retail worker, a hotel industry worker, a construction industry worker or a worker in most other sectors would not be able to afford such a mortgage. He or she would not be approved for one anyway because his or her income would not be enough even to cross the threshold of a bank to apply for a mortgage.
The Minister must radically reconsider the situation. He must consider public housing on public lands that is affordable, the European cost-rental model and the acquisition of lands from the OPW and other State agencies in order to start building these houses. It will be a real challenge because we do not have the workers to do so, the builders to build. We would have to encourage people to come back from Australia, Canada or wherever else and consider even radical alternatives such as telling them that if they take part in a certain building project, they could possibly get a home in it and consequently, coming home would be worth their while. Furthermore, major industry and international corporations are now saying this is becoming a major problem for them and that they do not have homes, including rented accommodation, to house their workers who are coming over. This is another huge problem for the Minister. However, it is not my concern; our concern should be that our people get homes they can afford.
I agree with Deputy Boyd Barrett. It is a year since the events surrounding Apollo House, when the then Minister, Deputy Coveney, promised that not one homeless person would be in a commercial property after July 2017. We know from the figures that this has not come to pass. Despite the hubs, in the period October 2016 to June 2017 a total of 716 new families were placed in commercial accommodation. I will make one short point about the hubs. The hub on Clonard Road will open in the next week or so. We went to visit it with the neighbours around the area because we included them in that process when it was announced initially. It is better than a hotel. There is a kitchen area, a separate area that a family will be able to book to bring in friends for a special event and so on. The residents will be able to cook their own food. However, the bedrooms are absolutely not up to accommodating two or three children. There are televisions in the rooms. A single parent with two children will not be able to leave the bedroom to watch television downstairs. Her only option will be to sit down and watch the television in her own room and switch it off at 9 p.m. if she wants to put her kids to bed early. There are fundamental issues in this regard. We raised these with the Salvation Army, the organisation running the hub.
I appeal to the Minister. A year on from the events surrounding Apollo House, a big event was held on Wednesday last in the Mansion House at which all the organisations involved, including the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and other unions, called for a demonstration for 7 April. I hope it is a mass demonstration because we must get the message out. This is not just about homelessness; it is about the generations that have no hope of getting roofs over their heads for their families in the future unless there is a radical change in policy. I hope we get this message out to people on 7 April. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions is also organising a major housing conference for 23 January in the Communications Workers Union, CWU, offices on the North Circular Road. They want political representatives, housing experts and homelessness advocacy groups to attend. Perhaps the Minister could come along to that. I do not know whether he received an invite. More and more organisations are beginning to realise that if this is not addressed and if we do not see a change in policy soon we face a disaster and I ask the Minister to take that on board.
It is a terrible tragedy that we are approaching Christmas in Ireland in 2017 but, as of September 2017, more than 3,000 children are homeless throughout the country. More than 8,000 people of every age are without a home. These figures have been going up. By the summer of this year, the figures had increased by 25% over last year. This is happening year on year. Between December 2014 and August 2017, there was a net increase of 5,412 in the number of people recorded as homeless, representing an increase of 189%. In March 2017, a total of 77 families presented as homeless to services in the Dublin region. In 2016, the average number of families becoming homeless each month was 85. It should be kept in mind that homelessness figures do not include people sleeping rough, people in direct provision or people in domestic violence centres that are overcrowded as well as many EU or non-EU migrants who cannot prove centres of residence.
The tenth report of the Government special rapporteur on child protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, was released only last week on 7 December. He noted criticism by UN human rights bodies of Ireland's handling of the crisis in child homelessness in a way that infringes numerous rights of children, including the right to play, the right to adequate accommodation and the right to family life. These are infringements of the principle of the best interests of the child and the right of a child to life survival and development. In particular, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights noted that social housing units should be increased and that Ireland must tackle homelessness adequately.
Beforehand, on 2 October 2017, Dr. Shannon had criticised State inaction on child homelessness. He said children are not passive spectators but are deeply affected by the impact of homelessness. He said emergency accommodation deprived children of the right to achieve their full potential and compromises their ability to grow and develop. Dr. Shannon said several rights were affected by the problem of homelessness. He said children's education is compromised, their ability to play is reduced and their physical and emotional well-being is damaged. The crisis in child homelessness in this country is a fundamental human rights issue. It is truly time for the Government to view housing as a human right to be enshrined in the Constitution.
The question of standards in emergency accommodation is another major issue. Peter McVerry has highlighted that emergency accommodation has no standards or inspections and that it is always shared. This leaves children exposed to violence, drug-taking and a severe lack of standards in health and cleanliness. This was exposed by thejournal.ieearlier this year. Grainia Long, chief executive of the ISPCC, told thejournal.iein 2016 that children's human rights are being breached in several areas in respect of the use of hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation as emergency accommodation. In May this year, UNICEF Ireland described as a total failure of State the shocking reports that 12 families, including 30 children, were left with no option but to present themselves at Garda stations because they had nowhere to sleep.
Homeless hubs are being introduced as a means of moving families out of bed and breakfast accommodation and hotels, but they have been heavily criticised by experts. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has described the approach as trying to normalise homelessness, institutionalising families and infringing the right to private and family life and dignity.
A recent report from Maynooth University on homeless hubs shows the damage they do to children's mental health, the structure of the family, privacy and autonomy. The report also shows that the Government policy of relying on the private rental sector, hubs and emergency accommodation from 2009 to 2015 has cost the State 31,136 directly built social homes.
There is a homelessness crisis now. There are more than 180,000 vacant dwellings in the State now. There is no time to wait on this issue. At the heart of this crisis is a broken housing system, a system dominated, unfortunately, by Government spin and not, regrettably, by building houses.
I raised this matter with the Tánaiste yesterday on Leaders' Questions, as Deputy Jan O'Sullivan mentioned. When I raised the reality of the figures for the number of houses being built, the Tánaiste said my statistics were "simply not true". I stand over my figures and the irony is my numbers were taken from those of the Department. The figures I gave yesterday have again been confirmed by independent experts. I will read them into the record as it is important to put a spotlight on this constant Government spin.
Of a target of 2,284 houses that were meant to be built or completed this year, only 809 were delivered. Of these, 303 were direct local authority builds in 18 different authorities, meaning 13 local authorities did not complete a single house in 2017. Of the 98 completions in Dublin, 76 were rapid builds for families on the increasing homeless lists, which leaves a grand total of 22 units in the greater Dublin area for a waiting list of over 40,000 people. As I said to the Tánaiste yesterday, surely an objective analysis of the Government's analysis would be results-driven but the results speak for themselves because they are appalling. Independent experts have backed me up and indicated they stand over those figures. Perhaps, due to the magnitude and seriousness of this emergency housing crisis, the Government should be afforded an opportunity to correct the record. Not doing so would bring a further lack of confidence and worry in the victims of this crisis, who have been left speechless, as well as upset, that the Government simply does not even have a handle on figures.
The humane and compassionate response from the Government should be at the very least to give accurate, reliable statistics. I plead with the Government to stop the spin and tackle this crisis once and for all. Start building.
Agus muid ag smaoineamh ar choinneal a lasadh san fhuinneog ar Oíche Nollag na bliana 2017 is scannalach an rud é go bhfuil 3,000 páiste ag fanacht in ostáin. Mar mhúinteoir, mar mháthair agus mar Theachta Dála, táim an-bhuartha faoi thodhchaí agus meabhairshláinte na bpáistí seo. Ní mór cur le chéile ar bhonn tras-pháirtí agus brú a chur ar an Rialtas níos mó a dhéanamh ar son páisti uilig an náisiúin. Caithfear níos mó infheistíocht, am agus airgead a thabhairt ar an gceist seo go práinneach.
How many children must be homeless for this Government to recognise that this is an unprecedented emergency? The Government lacks vision and strategic planning when it comes to the scale of the housing and homelessness crisis, which severely affects the most vulnerable in our society. The homelessness issue is complex and there is a large number of variables and perspectives that the Government needs to take into account to tackle it. However, it is absolutely unacceptable that we have seen a lack of real action and continuity of spin from the Government. It is not right on any level. How can it be right for the 3,000 children without a home this Christmas? The most basic human rights of the children of our country must be guaranteed as a matter of absolute priority.
I was not going to speak this morning as I just wanted to listen. I chair the housing committee and many of its members were here this morning. I recognise the ongoing work and commitment of the members of the committee, week in and week out. We work in a collaborative fashion and we never make the committee a political forum. It is the best way to deal with the crisis before us. I have heard many others speak in the Chamber this morning. Any Member is entitled to attend any committee meeting in these Houses and we would very much welcome attendance of the committee in order that people could bring their ideas and solutions. Some of the speeches this morning did not have solutions and I heard some headlines for the media.
Deputies Richard Boyd Barrett and Catherine Martin, who served with me on Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, are aware that direct build was withdrawn from the local authorities as the funding was not there. Time and time again I have said that when building stops the supply stops and inevitably a crisis will occur. I do not want to go back over causes of the deep recession Ireland had and who was at fault because this will not build any house for any family in the State.
I recognise that rhetoric will not build houses. It is solutions that will put foundations into the sites we have to build houses and homes for the families who need them. I have attended many family hubs and hostels in Dublin and other areas. I have spoken to many families and I am warmed by the empathy in the Chamber this morning.
For the record, I will clarify that there are people in this Chamber from all parties who want to make a difference and want to make a change. We have a policy that is not built on ideology; it is built on focusing on solutions-----
I know that Deputy Kenny is deeply emotional about this matter but will he please control himself and extend respect to the Member in possession to complete what she has to say?
I stand here in this Chamber because this is not just a job for me. The very reason I ran for national politics was to make a difference and to help with the crisis that is before us. I am a mum of two young children. I have listened to Deputy Rabbitte and I concur with all she said in the Chamber this morning. Everyone in this Chamber has compassion and empathy for the crisis that is before us, but I ask Members to come forward with solutions that will add to the policies we have put in place. Many Members have done this already.
I also listened to Deputy Catherine Martin in the Chamber this morning and I would argue her figures. I will not do so in the Chamber because I do not want to waste time doing that, but I ask that Deputy Martin contacts her councillors in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and work with the Fine Gael councillors on the council, as they have done before, in the policies that we are bringing forward locally to drive social housing on State-owned land that councils own. I am aware that Councillor Shane O'Brien from Sinn Féin is working with Fine Gael and Independent councillors on this. I ask that Deputies work with their local councillors to drive their local authorities to deliver housing in their areas. We have to work collectively. We have always said there is more to do in this regard.
On Friday I met with a family at a family hub. I was delighted to hear of three other individuals who had left to go into long-term accommodation. I am delighted for those people because they give me great hope that what we are doing is right, although we need to do far more. I spoke to another gentleman there who welcomed the supports he was getting from the facility for himself and his child. It empowered him and gave him hope that he could get back into his own home with his child. He would not have had this hope otherwise. I have heard people talk about building new houses and that we are wasting money on hotel accommodation and family hubs, but I never hear these people say how they propose to house those families and individuals while we are trying to get supply up and running. Family hubs have always been an interim measure to give families security and supports until we find that long-term home for those families, albeit not an ideal measure. I fully recognise that.
I respect the comment made by Deputy Joan Collins about the television and the bedroom area. I will take those concerns back. Nothing is perfect and we are always trying to amend as we go along if something is not working. Family hubs are far better than a cramped hotel room. I have two small children and I cannot think of anything worse than being in a small area with small children trying to do their school homework or trying to feed them, dress them and everything else that is day-to-day family life.
I will. I ask that Deputies in the Chamber work together, collectively, and rather than looking for media headlines to be solution-focused. I ask that they come with their ideas, not just in the Chamber-----