Tuesday, 15 December 2020
Homeless Prevention Bill 2020: Second Stage [Private Members]
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am sharing my time with a number of colleagues. Finbar and Mary are a working family. Finbar has a full-time job and Mary has a part-time job. They have young children. They are just above the threshold for eligibility for social housing. They were renting accommodation for approximately €1,200 a month but got notice to quit. While there were rental properties available, unfortunately, rents had increased to a level they could not afford, €1,800 to €2,000. Ultimately, because they could not access private rental accommodation or social housing supports, they fell into homelessness.
Danielle is a single mother. She has two young children. She has been homeless before and was in housing assistance payment, HAP, accommodation provided through the local authority. She also received a notice to quit and was unable to transfer her housing assistance payment during the early part of the period of her notice to quit. It was only in the final four weeks that she was able to do so, which was not sufficient time to find an appropriate rental property. She too fell back into emergency accommodation.
Stephen is a constituent whom I remember very well. He had a very troubled life. He came from an abusive home, which led to a serious addiction to heroin. He fought against addiction, got into detoxification treatment and got himself clean. Despite this, because there was no aftercare plan for when he left detoxification treatment and because the only hostels available were low-threshold hostels where active drug users were staying, he had no other option but to sleep rough.
These are three real-life cases from my constituency. I am sure colleagues from all sides of the House have experience of similar cases. While many people in local authorities and voluntary service providers tried to help these three households, they were ultimately failed by the system. The single biggest failure was probably the lack of an adequate focus on prevention to keep Finbar, Mary and their children, Danielle and her girls, and Stephen from homelessness.
Next year's budget for homelessness is €218 million, representing a massive level of expenditure. Unfortunately, more than 90% of this will be spent on emergency response. I do not mean that as a criticism. That emergency response is urgently needed. It is also, however, a clear sign of our failure. Some very good work is being done. Threshold still has a tenancy sustainment programme which keeps people out of homelessness, local authorities do a great deal of work to make HAP available to homeless people as a preventative measure, and we have Housing First, which is good, although we need more. Despite all this, not enough is being done on the prevention side. If we are all honest, we will accept that is definitely the case.
The Bill Sinn Féin is proposing this evening is a contribution towards shifting the focus onto prevention. It is based on legislation introduced in Wales and England a number of years ago which has already proved successful. It does a very simple thing. It places a legal obligation on local authorities to put in place a homelessness prevention plan for single people and families 60 days before they become homeless.
Why is this prevention plan so important? We all know what happens. A family get a notice to quite or a single person leaves care or detoxification treatment. These people go to the local authority, which tells them they have access to HAP and that they should come back on the date on their notice to quit or the date on which they have to leave a residential care or detoxification facility if they cannot find anywhere. People who are already in very difficult and vulnerable situations are effectively left to their own devices. There are good support services and HAP for homeless people but when one is trying to find private rental accommodation, particularly in our cities but increasingly in rural areas, those supports are simply not enough. If our local authorities were under such an obligation, it would force them to be more proactive in ensuring that the maximum number of people possible never see the inside of a hotel, a hub or bed and breakfast accommodation.
This legislation is not perfect. While it is modelled on the Welsh and English experience, it could certainly be improved. It is one of the Bills which, with the assistance of the Government side and the expertise in the Department, could be amended, improved and strengthened on Committee Stage. I understand the Government is not opposing the Bill. If that is the case, I welcome its decision. We have many arguments about housing in this Chamber. We will continue to have those policy arguments. That is how the cut and thrust of policy development works and there is nothing wrong with that. There are, however, also occasions on which we in this House should put party political differences to one side. The Government should accept good ideas put on the table by the Opposition and the Opposition should welcome the advice and views of Government. Let us make a clear commitment that 2021 will be about preventing homelessness. This Bill, in whatever form it emerges after the various Stages in this House and in the Seanad, could have a very important role to play in that. On that basis, I commend the Bill to the House.
This evening, there are 34 two and three-bedroom properties available to rent for less than €1,200 in Longford and Westmeath. I fully agree with my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, that 2021 must be about preventing homelessness. We are leaving behind significant and growing numbers of people who live in our communities - our friends and neighbours. What would have been unthinkable a few years ago is now an everyday occurrence. Next week, not for the first time, Santy will visit children who do not sleep in their own beds. For far too many, there is a commonplace and almost automatic route from private rented accommodation to emergency accommodation, which now also has waiting lists. Some families in my constituency who find themselves at the end of their notices to quit face the stark reality of being separated and of not only leaving their town, but their county. We know there are multiple complex reasons for this, but they are not impossible to tackle. We need policies that help renters when the need is first identified.
The system in place means there is little to no support until a family is staring homelessness in the face and that must change. A notice to quit does not just represent the loss of a roof over somebody's head. It impacts on the everyday realities of life which are made more difficult because of the housing crisis. Does a family need to leave a town where they have always lived? Will their children need to find new schools? How will they get to work? Will they need to find a new GP? All these realities cause additional stress, worry and anxiety for all members of the household and not just the parents. An additional burden is also placed on wider family members without adequate space, who will often offer a bed or a sitting room.
There is no such thing as hidden homeless. These people are in our towns and our communities. They are in all our constituencies. The threat of homelessness needs to be addressed as soon as there is an identified risk. Supports need to escalate earlier than the moving-out date and not when the family is on the verge of handing back the keys.
I commend Deputy Ó Broin on this excellent legislation. I also commend the Minister on accepting the legislation and moving it forward. All of us in this House need to work in the interests of the many people who come to our constituency offices throughout the country and who are experiencing the absolute terror of falling into homelessness.
I recently came across a young woman with three children. She is renting a house at the moment and got a notice to quit. She is earning about €28,000 per annum putting her slightly above what will get her on the local authority housing list and slightly above what would qualify her for HAP. She is renting in a rural area and paying €650 a month. She does not have a hope of getting a house for her family at that rate anywhere in the area in which she lives and where her children go to school. She is in a real crisis. She cannot go to the local authority as she would just be told she does not qualify.
We need to accept that thousands of people fall into this trap and get no service when they go to the local authority seeking a service. The reality for most people is that they are able to manage and get by. Family members and others come around to help them and they depend on that. However, at the end of the day, we need to be able to provide everybody in our society with a long-term home which is secure. The Bill is about recognising that reality. It is not on the day of the crisis that we need to address the issue; it needs to be addressed in advance. We need to work with people to ensure they do not fall into homelessness. We need to provide for them in a caring and compassionate way in the very beginning when they face the possibility of falling into homelessness.
While we have local authority accommodation, HAP accommodation and the private rented sector, at the end of the day we do not have enough homes in appropriate areas in the country to provide houses for people at an affordable rate for rent or purchase. That is an absolute necessity. We need to provide an adequate level of housing for everyone in the State and we need to work together to do that.
This is a first step and I welcome that the Minister will work with us to make the Bill a reality, to ensure that every local authority in the State has an obligation to work with people 60 days before they enter homelessness to ensure they do not fall into homelessness. We need to ensure that happens immediately.
Gabhaim mo bhuíochas le mo chomhghleacaí, an Teachta Eoin Ó Broin, as ucht an Bille fíorthábhachtach seo a chur os comhair na Dála.
Homelessness and the threat of homelessness is undoubtedly the main issue that I deal with every day in my constituency office. I am sure we have all met people who have received a notice to quit and are unable to find alternative accommodation. Unfortunately, that is the reality in my home city of Galway, where time and again no properties are available in Galway city centre within the HAP limits.There is also limited access to social housing.
Seeing the deep worry of these families as they edge closer to the day they must vacate their home never gets easier, nor does the very difficult conversation they have with the local authority when it advises them that if they cannot find alternative accommodation, they will have to come to the local authority office and present themselves as homeless. This is a horror that no family should face but unfortunately it is a reality for many.
I will never forget one woman telling me of her heartbreak as she and her little two-year-old son were walking back to the hotel they were living in, and he pointed at the hotel saying "Home, home." This family had been in emergency accommodation since the boy was born and over a year later, they are still experiencing homelessness. My heart breaks every time I think of that story. This is not an isolated case but is the reality for many children across the State.
Another woman contacted me today after I told her that we were discussing this issue in the Dáil and she said:
I am a lone parent and I always have been. My child has an autoimmune disease and chronic asthma. We have been two months in homelessness and 14 years on housing list. I am going to get incredibly upset saying this, but my child is under intense pressure when going to school due to the stress of being homeless. The impact this has had on my family is absolutely chronic. Everything comes down to trying to keep your child happy... My son is so intelligent and so nice, but how can he be happy when he doesn’t have his health... or a home.
Recently the Minister said on radio, I believe on "Morning Ireland", that no one in Dublin sleeping rough would be turned away from emergency accommodation. If this were true it would be very welcome, but unfortunately this is not the case. Last week the homeless day service, Mendicity Institution, provided concrete examples of three rough sleepers who were refused access to emergency accommodation. They were told they were ineligible for homeless accommodation simply because they had no local connection. We must remember none of us is ineligible from being homeless.
A number of times the Taoiseach has said there is plenty of capacity. While this may be true, it is of little use for those who are new to Dublin. Many people arrive in Dublin from Cork, Galway or Leitrim for complex reasons and they should not be turned away because local authorities cannot work together. It is not as if hostels are like palaces. They can be hostile places for vulnerable people. One rough sleeper told me recently that it can be like placing a lamb in a room among wolves. It is important to acknowledge that staff in the hostels do great work in difficult circumstances, but the facilities they have to work with are challenging to say the least. The State has a duty of care to our homeless whether they have a local connection or not.
I thank Deputy Ó Broin for bringing the Bill to the House and I thank the Minister for accepting it. If we are to turn the tide and end the cruelty of homelessness, we need to address the heart of the problem. We need to reform our housing market so that it is no longer designed to maximise profit for landlords and lead to ever-increasing housing prices. Deeper reforms are needed but for today we need to help people at risk of being pushed into homelessness before it happens. Many do not have the luxury of time.
The Bill seeks to amend the Housing Act 1988 to provide a legal definition of persons at risk of homelessness and to give the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the power to provide people with supports to prevent them from becoming homeless. We need to come together to pass the Bill to keep people in their homes. We have shown that this House can act decisively if there is a political will to do so. I implore all Deputies to put party politics to one side and support the Bill, which will give the Minister greater powers to help everyone across the country fighting tooth and nail to keep a roof over their heads. This is an opportunity to stand up for them and to stand with them. I urge the Minister to take this opportunity.
I commend my party colleague and Dublin Mid-West colleague, Deputy Eoin Ó Broin, for tabling the Homeless Prevention Bill 2020. Prior to becoming a public representative, I worked with those experiencing homelessness, so it was no surprise that since I became a public representative the biggest issue that I have come across is the housing crisis.
At any time of year homelessness is an emotional subject, but it always comes to the forefront at Christmas. Taking into consideration those who are homeless that the Government does not count in its official figures such as those in domestic violence accommodation and those in direct provision accommodation, over 3,000 children will be homeless this Christmas. Over 3,000 children will wake up on Christmas morning without a safe and secure roof over their head.
A report from the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, RCPI, states that children in emergency or unsafe accommodation "are more likely to be bullied and less likely to see their friends", while homeless children are "twice" as likely to require hospitalisation. Moreover, the report found that children in homelessness suffer higher rates of health issues, have less access to developmental opportunities such as play, recreation and social activities and have increased behavioural difficulties.
I attended a meeting of the Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration earlier at which we heard how the State was failing children at that level and now we are debating the issue of housing, where the State is also failing children. We need to start picking up for the most vulnerable people in society. This Homeless Prevention Bill before the Minister is a chance to put people before politics. Supporting this Bill will give the Government the chance to say to all children who will be homeless this Christmas that it hears them, that they matter and that it will do everything possible to ensure this will be the last Christmas they will experience homelessness. We also would be telling children in insecure accommodation that we will do everything possible to ensure they will not become homeless next Christmas.
One of the most heartbreaking things I have witnessed has occurred when I have allowed parents to use my mobile phone to call hotel accommodation. I have seen the look of rejection and dejection in the eyes of children as they lose hope each time their mother and father are told there is no room at the inn for the night. It is heartbreaking. As I said, enough is enough. We need to not just give these children hope this Christmas but we must also tell them that we hear them and will act in their best interests.
I thank my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, for introducing this legislation and for all the work he does in the area of housing and homelessness. We are approaching Christmas and it is a time for family and a special time for children in particular. The Peter McVerry Trust predicts that approximately 2,642 children will experience Christmas without a home. That means there will be nowhere for them to play with toys and nowhere for the family to enjoy Christmas dinner, which is a heartbreaking situation for parents. In these circumstances, parents will do their absolute best but realistically, nobody should be in this situation.
We do not only have the sadness of imagining the situation of spending Christmas in a hotel or hostel to consider but also the various health problems such as poor nutrition, developmental delays, psychological problems and educational issues, which are further enormous obstacles homeless children face. Several excellent organisations in Ireland deal with this situation daily. I pay tribute to them and all the work they do for people at risk of homelessness. They do a fantastic job but, as my colleague, Deputy Mairéad Farrell, said earlier, this is one of the issues we face in our constituencies daily. I have said this previously and I apologise for sounding like a broken record but this issue has persisted ever since I was first elected to the county council in 2009. It has been the issue with which I have had to deal consistently in those 11 years. We cannot let this situation continue and must do our best to address it. I believe that if nothing else,this is our generation's national disgrace and it is incumbent on all of us to be consistently asking what we can do to ensure every child in Ireland has enough to eat and a safe roof over his or her head.
I thank Deputy Ó Broin for bringing this Bill forward and providing us with another opportunity to discuss homelessness and, importantly, the aspect of prevention. It is correct that prevention is always better than cure. Tackling homelessness is a moral imperative for this Government and for our State.
On the point raised by Deputy Andrews regarding local connections, I clarified that aspect this week in writing to every local authority. That correspondence has been issued. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan and others have raised this issue and to them I note it may take a short time for this to bed in. I ask that they be a little bit reasonable and allow that bedding-in process to happen. I have been crystal clear, however, that local connections should be no barrier to anyone in accessing emergency accommodation and that is something we will keep under review. The letter is there and available for people.
Returning to this Bill, the stated purpose of which is "to provide a legal definition of persons at risk of homelessness and to give the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and local authorities the power to provide such persons with supports to prevent them from becoming homeless". I will not be opposing this Bill on Second Stage. The issues which it seeks to address should be considered further during pre-legislative scrutiny. The Bill cannot be directly implemented in its current form, however. It is transposed directly from UK legislation and contains several basic and fundamental drafting errors which would need to be corrected. I urge all Deputies, again, to engage with the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisers, OPLA, and the resources that the Oireachtas provides to Members, particularly in the Opposition, to ensure that Private Members' Bills are legally sound and robust. That will help all of us and, indeed Deputy Ó Broin's party, to avoid issues in future regarding the legality and drafting of some of these Bills.
I note the provisions of this Bill are the same as those contained in the Homeless Prevention Bill 2018, which lapsed with the dissolution of the last Dáil and Seanad in January 2020. The Deputy, in fairness, referred to this. When reintroducing the Bill, therefore, it is a pity that the resources of the Oireachtas were not sought or used to ensure the Bill was legally sound and drafted correctly. It proposes to insert a new section 3 into the Housing Act 1988 in respect of preventing homelessness. Presumably, it is not intended that this would replace the existing section 3 in the 1988 Act but that is not clear and that is just one example of a couple of things which we would need to work through. If it did replace the existing section 3, then provisions allowing for the payment of a subsidy for acquisition or construction of houses would be deleted from the 1988 Act. I am sure that is not something Deputy Ó Broin would want to see happening.
It is also notable that the amending provisions do not have regard to how homelessness is already defined in section 2 of the Housing Act 1988. There is a risk that section 2 and the proposed new section 3 could end up being in conflict, which is not something any of us would desire. The Bill is based, as Deputy Ó Broin said, on the provisions of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which came into force in England in 2018 and the Housing (Wales) Act 2014, on which the English legislation is based. It appears that in drawing on provisions enacted in England and Wales, that sufficient attention was not necessarily paid to how this would fit into the Housing Act 1988 and we would also need to address those issues.
One of the proposed provisions is to empower action on the basis of "any reason deemed acceptable by the local authority". This would place a responsibility on a local authority in deciding what would be considered as "acceptable". While the Bill lists reasons, and those are described, they are not meaningfully defined. We would need to be more expansive and specific in that regard. This raises questions concerning whether the Bill, as it is currently constructed, would operate effectively in the first instance. A local authority would also become responsible for the provision of services to groups, and without regard or reference to other statutory bodies that also have obligations to these groups.
I will give some examples. These will include released prisoners, care leavers, former members of the armed forces - which, by the way, we do have a definition for in the Republic of Ireland, as we do not use that term here, and it may have been a direct transposition from legislation in the UK - persons leaving hospital and persons suffering mental illness or impairment. Much work is needed on the Bill, and I just use those as examples of what would need to be done with this legislation to make it robust. The language, such as the example I gave of "armed forces", would not be appropriate to be used in legislation in the Republic of Ireland. The measures in the Bill would raise costs. While that is not something I would baulk at, we would need those costs to be quantified in some way. Those costs would fall to be met either directly by Exchequer funds or by the local authorities. It is welcome, however, that the legislation has been tabled and that we can discuss it further on Committee Stage.
I will outline some of the actions taken by the Government in tackling homelessness. It is one of our greatest challenges and one I am committed to addressing. The allocation of €218 million in budget 2021 is a case in point and is necessary funding to deal with the emergency situation. The end game and the priority, however, must be to increase supply and improve provision, and that is why €3.3 billion has been allocated to meet the housing needs of 28,500 people next year and to deliver 12,750 social homes, 9,500 of which will be built, which is the highest number constructed in any given year in the history of the State.
That is significant.
Turning to the numbers of people, during the month of October, there were 8,737 individuals, comprised of just over 6,000 adults and 2,643 dependants, using State-funded emergency accommodation nationally. This included over 1,100 families in emergency accommodation, which, incidentally, represents the lowest number of families in emergency accommodation since June 2016. If we cast our minds back 12 months to October last year, the reported homeless figure was 10,500 individuals. Progress is being made. We need more progress and for that progress to be expedited. The progress has been possible because of the emphasis placed on both preventing individuals from entering emergency accommodation in the first instance and on ensuring that those individuals experiencing homelessness are supported to exit homelessness as quickly as possible. Some 6,000 people exited homelessness this year, half of them on the basis of targeted prevention measures. That is important, but we need to do more in that regard.
I turn now to some of the claims made by Sinn Féin this week. It is important when we are debating this legislation that we do so on the basis of information that is correct. In recent days, claims have been published that the homelessness figures are under-reported. This statistical type of bingo being played by Sinn Féin in terms of fictional housing figures to inflated homeless numbers is dishonest. More important, it does not help those families and individuals whom we all seek to assist. Sinn Féin is, of course, entitled to its opinions and policy direction, but it is not entitled to use its own figures. I ask that it be responsible in its actions and, also, in calling into question how many of our homeless services are reporting homelessness. It is not correct. I publish data every month on the number of people who are homeless. These figures are fully validated and they are accurate. They provide a record of people who are being supported with emergency accommodation by each of the 31 local authorities in the Republic. They are based on a methodology that was agreed by all stakeholders across the homeless sector. These stakeholders feed into the homeless task force that I personally chair, including Threshold, Focus Ireland, DePaul Ireland, the Peter McVerry Trust and many others. This week, during my visit to Cork I met Cork Simon Community and saw the incredible work it is doing there. The reduction in Cork in homeless numbers among families and individuals is welcome. It is important that we do not disregard or disrespect those who work in this sector by misreporting and misrepresenting the figures on the ground for purely political gain.
Turning to the Bill, it is important that prevention is key to what we do. The Government is committed to ramping up Housing First, particularly for those who have complex health needs, which I have spoken about on a number of occasions in this Chamber, and to ensure it is expanded across the country. The Government's plan is to have 663 additional Housing First tenancies by the end of 2021. We will meet that target. Only today, the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, and I launched the Housing First manual for Ireland, the first in that regard. It is a priority of the Government to expand Housing First provision across the country, continue prevention and reduce homelessness through the delivery of permanent homes.
This Bill will form part of an important discussion in committee. I have highlighted this evening some of the deficiencies that I see in it and which will need to be addressed by the committee. I am open to working with colleagues in improving the lot and situation of our most vulnerable. Tomorrow, I will bring forward further rental protections by way of the third rental protection Bill that I have brought forward since July this year. I hope the Opposition will support that Bill to extend protections into April next year. Others have asked that party political differences be set aside when dealing with this crisis and in preventing homelessness. I hope that tomorrow Sinn Féin and others will support the legislation to extend the tenancy protections for those affected most by the pandemic to April 2021.
I am sharing time with Deputies Gould, Patricia Ryan and Mythen. I welcome most of the Minister's comments. As he said, it does not matter on what side of the House we are. If we can work together for the right reasons, we can improve the Bill. I see no reason that cannot be done.
The Minister also mentioned people with complex needs. I want to give an example of where, possibly, there is a failing in that regard. For people with disabilities the invalidity benefit payment is very low. As single people, even with the top-up on the housing assistance payment, it is practically impossible for them to get anywhere to live. They are left at a dead end. Before I came into the House, I did a Google search of two bedroom properties to rent in east Cork on daft.ie. There are 15 such properties in total for an average rent of €1,200 per month, which is impossible for a person on the HAP.
I had a very interesting meeting with Cork County Council last Friday. I have spoken previously to the Minister about the moneys available to him. The impression I got from Cork County Council was that it wants to build houses but it is finding it very difficult to progress many of the small developments of 50 houses because of other entities within the system. Rather than discuss the matter any further here, I will communicate with the Minister on it.
I again congratulate Deputy Ó Broin on bringing forward this Bill and I welcome the Minister's commentary that we can all work together on and improve it. That is what we are here to do. We will all work together.
I congratulate Deputy Ó Broin on bringing forward this Bill. At the end of the day, it is about protecting people in homelessness and putting in place structures and strategies such that people are not appearing in local authority offices saying that their notice to quit expires that day and they are homeless. This has been the procedure and the policy until now.
I welcome the decision of the Government and the Minister to support this Bill, but not the Minister's back-handed compliments and criticism of it. Let us be clear, Fianna Fáil caused the housing crisis. Let us call a spade a spade. The reason there are 10,000 people in homeless accommodation is that Fianna Fáil bankrupted the country, ceased the building of social housing and refused to support the local authorities to do so. I had hoped to be constructive in my remarks-----
-----but the comments he made were disrespectful. He mentioned that he met Cork Simon Community. I will give him some figures. In 2019, some 1,100 men and women availed of the services of Cork Simon Community.
It took Deputy Ó Broin to bring forward a Bill to support people in homelessness and to put a plan in place. I welcome the Minister's support. He needs to thank Deputy Ó Broin and support the work he is doing. At the end of the day, when Fine Gael was in government for four or five years, Fianna Fáil supported it and its catastrophic handling of the housing crisis.
I also thank my colleague, Teachta Ó Broin, for bringing this Bill to the House. It provides a legal definition of "persons at risk of homelessness" and gives the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the local authorities the power to provide them with supports to prevent them becoming homeless. Prevention is better than cure.
Last week, a gentleman contacted my office to say that he had been given notice to leave his accommodation by this Thursday, which is one week before Christmas. This gentleman has a serious medical condition and he is renting a property under HAP with his daughter, who is his carer. The property failed its HAP inspection and the landlord was not bothered to carry out the necessary repairs. As the Minister can imagine, this gentleman is distraught. Unfortunately, he is not alone. The Minister mentioned complex health needs earlier. To my mind, this is such a case.
I am also assisting a woman who is pregnant and her family who were given 180 days' notice that their property, also rented under HAP, is being sold. Kildare County Council, which is in my constituency, will only assist them on the day they are made homeless.
Despite having six months' notice to prepare, the woman is applying for a home through choice-based letting, which is above her requirements. However, it is only above her requirements because the baby she is carrying is not yet born. It is due next week but Kildare County Council does not consider one's housing need until one has a PPS number.
I am particularly worried about the number of single people presenting as homeless. Last month, a gentleman with a long-term illness was discharged from Naas General Hospital with nowhere to go. He resorted to setting up a tent outside Kildare County Council and thanks to the assistance of the staff there, he was placed in emergency accommodation. We need to do a lot better for these people.
I commend the work of the Community Action Tenants Union, CATU. It has been successful in assisting tenants in getting their deposits back from rogue landlords and preventing illegal evictions. I encourage tenants in precarious situations to join their local union. Ní neart go cur le chéile.
I thank my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, for introducing this Bill, which is both timely and necessary and must be welcomed by all civic-minded citizens. The basis of this Bill is to empower the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and local authorities to provide persons at risk of homelessness with necessary supports to prevent them from becoming homeless. In County Wexford, the council employees who deal with the homeless are under severe pressure, with 547 presentations so far this year. An added pressure is that there is no female supported accommodation in my county, while the women's refuge and the men's equivalent, Ozanam House, are full to capacity most times of the year. To fully address and find solutions to homelessness, we must have the true empirical data so we know exactly what resources are needed and where to deploy them. The National Homelessness Consultative Committee and its data subgroup must be reconvened.
We are considered a wealthy country, yet 8,737 of our fellow citizens are in emergency accommodation, as well as 599 in funded domestic violence accommodation, 1,020 asylum seekers, 92 rough sleepers, and 104 in hostels without Government funding. That is 10,552 in total. This is a sad reflection on the State's duty of care and the premise of cherishing all the children of the nation equally.
This Bill, with the support of the Government and the Opposition, will give a legal definition of a person at risk of homelessness and such people will be provided with services and supports to prevent them from becoming homeless. I have no doubt that it will save lives in the long run. This Bill is for the common good. It tackles the problems and failings of the current system and will assist both the Minister and local authorities to improve and adapt a better policy and do what is the sworn duty of any republic, that is, to look after the most vulnerable of our citizens. I ask the House to fully support the Bill put forward by my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin.
Once again we find ourselves in a situation of good politics, where an Opposition Bill is not being opposed by the Government. The ethic within the Bill from Deputy Ó Broin and what he is attempting to achieve are to be applauded. The Deputy accepts that the Bill is not perfect and the Minister has pointed out some of the issues he has with it. Not opposing it and allowing it to go to the next Stage allows all of us to improve the Bill. Effectively, this is an acceptance that not only do we have to discuss the issue of homelessness and debate the troubling statistics that are in front of us, but also discuss how we prevent people from going into homelessness in the first place. That is often the more challenging and difficult discussion and politics can shy away from it because it leads us to ask our society some very troubling questions that we do not like to ask ourselves or find answers to.
It was said to me a number of years ago that the issue was not as we used to find it, with those who have addiction issues ending up in homelessness, but that those in homelessness are now turning to addiction. The issue of addiction is something with which we have to come to terms in a better way.
It has been reported this week that 2,600 children will be writing letters to Santa from hotel rooms, homeless hubs and bed and breakfast accommodation. I am minded to turn to the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil. At a time when people like to turn their minds to what happened 100 years ago, sometimes we forget some of the words that were spoken at that time about the responsibilities of a republic. We turn sometimes to militaristic language, as people across in the UK are now doing as regards protecting fish, and we speak here of our own militarised past. Tom Johnson wrote this in the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil:
It shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter ...
Those words were written and spoken in 1919.
Tonight's debate gives us an opportunity to step back from the other overarching crises with which we are dealing, between Brexit and Covid, and to speak again about the issue that dominated the general election in February of this year, which was housing and homelessness. The Minister mentioned the figure of €218 million. That is to be welcomed and we want to work with him to ensure that money is well spent. Inner City Helping Homeless reported in October that 50 homeless deaths had occurred this year, compared with 37 at the same point in 2019. There are many agencies, as well as Opposition parties in this Chamber and the Seanad, where our housing spokesperson is Senator Rebecca Moynihan, dealing with this issue. The Lord Mayor of Dublin presented a homeless strategy to the Minister recently with a wish list of issues she and the city council feel need to be addressed, including the ban on evictions. I trust the Minister will take that document from the Lord Mayor in good faith.
The Minister knows from a Dublin perspective about the issue of a number of generations living in one home. That happens elsewhere in the country as well. The impact on children's education was mentioned earlier and these children are trying to break out of that cycle and fulfil their potential. I often sound like a broken record when I speak of this following statistic. The difference between the oral language capacity of a three-year-old child from a welfare dependent or disadvantaged family and a three-year-old in a more comfortable setting can be as much as two-thirds. One three-year-old will have 400 words and the other will have 1,200. That is compounded by housing issues because as these children enter school, their ability to read, to have space to do any homework, and the capacity of parents to spend time and to read with them is curtailed because of the cramped housing conditions. How can we improve on that statistic and afford children the opportunity to reach their potential? The Minister knows this to be a problem so I am aware that I am preaching to the converted.
A little over a year ago, the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, and Focus Ireland launched a document on homelessness in the classroom. They never thought they would be in a position where they needed to produce a document like that to help teachers deal with the issue of homelessness in their classrooms. We are dealing with a profound ill and if this Bill can turn our eyes to the causes of homelessness in order to root them out and place a statutory obligation on all agencies, including local authorities, to have a homelessness prevention plan or take preventative measures, that will be a positive step. On that basis, I am glad the Minister is not opposing the Bill, notwithstanding the issues he has pointed out within in. This matter is not going away. I spoke of the sentiments of Tom Johnson. When one thinks of childhood and the chances children have, they only get one shot at it and it should not be a failure of ours that curtails their chance to fulfil their potential.
I ask the Minister to stay for a couple of minutes as I want to address the local connection rule. I thank Deputy Ó Broin for bringing this Bill before the House. It is positive that the Government is dealing with this and taking a constructive approach.
On the local connection rule, the Minister was very clear in media comments some weeks ago that no one was being turned away. The Minister now acknowledges that there has been an issue on the area. He has written to local authorities about it. People were being turned away from emergency accommodation in significant numbers until recently. The letter could be stronger. It does remind local authorities that they have discretion in the area. It also refers to winter and I am concerned about what happens after winter.
That is good. I acknowledge the changes that are happening on the ground as a result of the letter. It is too soon to say for certain what will happen but those who have been refused emergency accommodation are now being engaged with and dealt with, which is very positive. The Minister's actions on this are making a difference, but more clarity would be useful.
When we are given information from official sources, it is important that we question it as much as possible. There is often a difference between what people on the ground say and what those further up the chain report to us. It is as true in this sector as any. Some years ago, I spoke to a retired senior civil servant who strongly advised me to always talk to people at different layers in order to get the full picture. That was the view of someone who himself had been high up in the chain and it is relevant here.
I have written to the Minister about the use of private emergency accommodation. There have been cases where people in vulnerable situations have been refused admission to private emergency accommodation after they have been discharged from hospital. That is very serious. They have nowhere else to go in those situations because private operators do not want to take on the risk. Serious issues have arisen from the implementation of very strict rules, including no chatting rules, which has been documented and I have written to the Minister on this, some of which have led to evictions. There is a problem in the entire sector where those who are best placed to help homeless people in moving on and prevention is in the not-for-profit sector rather than the private sector. All that needs to be examined.
I wish to ask the Minister about the youth homeless strategy. Is it being worked on? When will it be published? The Dublin Region Homeless Executive does not publish the numbers who present to it as homeless but are turned away. Will the Minister ask them to publish those statistics? The end of the use of one-night-only beds has had profound consequences, both positive and negative, related to the problems around the local connections rule for those who have been refused access to accommodation. Has there been any analysis of this?
I welcome the inspections into homeless services but none reports have been published, which is good practice. Will they be published? How can the private providers of emergency accommodation be measured against the national quality standards framework when many do not provide support services?
The Minister spoke of the homeless task force, which he chairs. Its meetings have gone from weekly to monthly.
Good, I am glad. In fairness, I do think that the Government is taking a constructive approach this evening and everyone welcomes that. The subject goes way above party politics and that is how we all approach it.
We all agree that it is much more cost effective to prevent homelessness. It spares families and children the trauma of losing their home and all the stress and negative consequences that go with that. As Deputy Ó Broin says, what we want to do is shift resources away from emergency responses and into prevention and long-term secure accommodation. That comes with its challenges. It cannot be done over night. One cannot simply withdraw emergency supports but that is where we all want to work towards. It is important that we invest more in tenancy protection services which have been found to be very effective and in mediation support, debt resolution and payment plans, which have proved very effective in other jurisdictions. I am concerned that while homeless expenditure is very high now, the percentage going on prevention has dropped in recent years. That needs to be addressed. Other factors in prevention include improving the rights of renters. We need to remove no fault evictions from the tenancy Acts. There are seven different no-fault ways for a landlord to end a tenancy in Ireland. That is out of line with EU norms. This Bill seeks to lay the groundwork for preventing evictions into homelessness, which is something we should work towards. In countries such as Poland, landlords may not evict tenants into nowhere, alternative housing must be arranged in all evictions. In Germany, statutory housing support services are notified when someone is being evicted. There are similar obligations in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia and Finland has measures around bailiffs in cases where children are at risk while France and Scotland have some measures in place around lenders. I ask the Minister to consider all these and introduce something similar.
This has been a very useful debate. I thank Sinn Féin for bringing forward the Bill.
I will begin by responding on some of the issues raised by Deputy Cian O'Callaghan. The local connection rule has been comprehensively dealt with. I was present when Deputy Joan Collins raised it last week during the Topical Issue debate. She played an audio clip of services trying to access beds for the night for a number of rough sleepers. It was very distressing and must be very distressing. I welcome the swift action taken by the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, in addressing this. We will respond in due course to the Deputy's questions on the youth homelessness strategy, the end of the use of one-night-only homeless beds, and reports of inspections on accommodation.
As the Minister, outlined, the Government's commitment to preventing homelessness is, and will continue to be, strong. Preventing homelessness remains an unwavering task of the Government. Policies and funding are in place to help individuals remain in their homes. We are preventing, and will continue to prevent, homelessness from happening in the first instance. That is our priority. In the coming year, we expect to target a figure of 3,000 people being prevented from becoming homeless and 3,000 exits from homelessness. Preventing homelessness should be a priority and is something on which we all can agree. Therefore, the Government will not oppose this Bill.
No party or Deputy has a monopoly on wisdom when it comes to addressing our toughest of challenges. We welcome all proposals as to how we can improve our response in dealing with the particular needs of those facing homelessness. That is why we welcome this debate. However, in enacting legislation, we must make sure it is fit for purpose and will be effective. The stated purpose of the Homeless Prevention Bill 2020 is to provide a legal definition of persons at risk of homelessness and to give my Department and local authorities the power to provide such persons with supports and prevent them from becoming homeless. As has been noted, this Bill and many of the provisions in it are inspired by the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which came into force in England in 2018, and the Housing (Wales) Act 2014, on which the English legislation is based. Those Acts placed duties on housing associations and social services to co-operate with local authority housing services in carrying out their homelessness duties. The legislation created more flexibility in a range of local authority interventions and expanded the definition of "threatened with homelessness" in order that people would be assisted when they are within 56 days of losing their homes.
In considering the Bill before the House, it is important to consider whether the provisions set out in the legislation to which I refer has been effective in the jurisdictions in which they apply. The indications in this regard appear to be mixed. Work on examining the legislation's effectiveness indicates that improvements have occurred in some areas but not in others. One concern has been apparent in the increased use of temporary accommodation since the introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. There seem to be more households living in temporary accommodation for longer periods at increasing cost to local authorities. While it is clear that the Act in question has helped some individuals at risk of homelessness, it is not the silver bullet that was hoped for. Homelessness continues to be a pressing issue in the UK. I hope the pre-legislative scrutiny process for the Bill we are discussing this evening can be used to further explore the experience in England and Wales.
I will now outline the actions we are undertaking to address homelessness. To continue the significant reductions in homelessness we have seen in the past 12 months and finally resolve the issue of homelessness in Ireland will require, above all else, a significant increase in output in the housing construction sector. This is one of the key commitments in the programme for Government, which will see an increase in the social housing stock by more than 50,000 units, with an emphasis on new builds. Next year's housing budget of €3.3 billion will see the largest amount spent on housing in the history of the State. It is right and proper that we do so. The available funding will deliver 12,750 homes through build, acquisition and leasing. A major focus of this investment is to deliver new builds, with an overall target of 9,500 new homes. The build target includes the delivery of 5,250 new homes by local authorities, 2,950 by approved housing bodies and 1,300 through Part V provisions.
These are ambitious targets and they are testament to the work ongoing in the Department, local authorities and approved housing bodies. Work is also under way with the housing delivery co-ordination office and the local authorities on the implementation of measures to deliver housing solutions for households on the social housing waiting list. A high-level housing delivery group has been established which includes representatives from the City and County Management Association, the housing delivery co-ordination office, approved housing bodies and the Irish Council for Social Housing. The delivery group provides a forum for engagement with key housing delivery partners to support the implementation of the commitments on housing delivery in the programme for Government.
As part of the July stimulus programme, more than €40 million was set aside for the refurbishment of voids, the largest single amount announced under the programme. This funding will support the return of 2,500 units to use and the Department is liaising with local authorities to reach this overall target. By the end of quarter 3 of this year, more than 8,500 social housing homes were under construction or on site, with 9,084 at various stages of the approval process. Furthermore, 9,665 social housing supports were delivered, which is notable given the seven-week cessation of construction activity due to the Covid-19 restrictions earlier this year.
While it is undoubtedly the most crucial part of the jigsaw, the provision of housing on its own will not be sufficient to help all individuals exit homelessness or be prevented from entering it in the first place. For this reason, other programmes to address homelessness are predicated on the understanding that many households experiencing homelessness have additional support needs. Specific measures are required to address those needs. They include measures to help rough sleepers into sustainable accommodation, the continued expansion of Housing First, with a focus on the construction and acquisition of one-bedroom homes and, in another important consideration, ensuring there are dedicated funding and resources to deliver the health, mental health and community-based supports required to assist homeless people with complex needs. Housing First currently supports more than 450 former rough sleepers and long-term users of emergency accommodation with significant health, mental health and addiction issues to remain in their own homes.
In line with the commitment in the programme for Government, we are planning to expand the targets set out under the national implementation plan 2018-2021 in the early part of 2021. The programme for Government makes clear that reducing and preventing homelessness is a major priority for Government. It sets out a number of commitments that will build upon the comprehensive prevention mechanisms that are already in place and delivering results. If those prevention mechanisms need to be improved, we are open to considering new ideas. That is why we want to see this legislation being scrutinised further.
I thank the House for providing the opportunity to discuss the Bill. It has given us an opportunity to talk about preventative measures to tackle homelessness as well as the actions needed to increase housing supply, the delivery of social housing supports and initiatives to address homelessness. We can never debate these issues enough and it is really important that we are having this discussion. Measures must be put in place that have an effect in reducing the number of individuals needing access to emergency accommodation. In spite of our efforts in this regard, the number of individuals experiencing homelessness remains far too high. The commitments outlined in the programme for Government and the continued interagency co-operation between different Departments, local authorities and partners in the voluntary and NGO sectors will be of vital importance as we continue to try to address this issue.
The Bill should go forward to pre-legislative scrutiny, where its deficiencies can be addressed and its potential for effectiveness be assessed. I hope the proposers of the Bill will consider the costs arising out of its provisions. The Government of which I am a member has not been shy about committing money to address homelessness, but we need to make sure that proposed policy which requires the allocation of more resources will be effective. In the meantime, progress has been made, and will continue to be made, in this crucial area. We have an ambitious programme of work that will be intensified and accelerated over the coming months and years. We look forward to working with Members on all sides of the House to achieve those targets.
The debate has moved quickly and, through no fault of their own, speakers from the Rural Independent Group and the Independent Group were not in the Chamber earlier to contribute. If it is acceptable to the House, I will allow those speakers in now. There are four speakers from the Rural Independent Group proposing to share time, beginning with Deputy Danny Healy-Rae.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for giving us the opportunity to talk about this Bill. We really wish to do so. I thank the Sinn Féin Party for bringing the Bill before us. Speaking honestly, it deals with one of the biggest problems any elected public representative has, whether a Member of Dáil Éireann, a county councillor or whatever. Housing is the big issue of the day and ensuring people have a roof over their head is a very laudable aspiration.
One of the issues I have been raising for quite a while is the social housing income cap which is responsible for people not getting on the housing list or being thrown off the list because they are above it. I do not know whether the caps are the same in different local authority areas. In Kerry, a couple with three children who go over €33,600 will be thrown off the list or cannot get on it. It is very unfortunate. I have found that, in many instances, what puts a couple over the cap is family income supplement. If people are in need of family income supplement, they surely are in need of a local authority house because they are not in a position to build a house or get a loan. That issue needs to be addressed.
I asked the previous Government to rectify this and I am asking the same of the current Government.
The Government says that it is reducing housing lists, but they are being reduced unfairly. Some 33,600 people cannot get loans from any of the financial institutions. Different types of homeless people seem to be put into the same place. They may be suffering from addiction. That is not acceptable.
In Kerry, we seem to be going backwards. The homes of farmers and rural people fall into disrepair and they cannot live in them. Sometimes the houses fall down. We used to be able to provide demountable dwellings for those people, but that does not happen any more. Not enough rural cottages are being built.
I welcome the introduction of this legislation by Sinn Féin. That party is trying to give dignity to those who are about to be evicted through no fault of their own. The Bill highlights the crisis that happens before a person is made homeless. While I acknowledge the noble sentiment behind it, the problem is bigger than provisions to safeguard people before they are made homeless. There is a great need for support from county councils for those who are about to be evicted.
I am sure that homelessness is at the top of the agenda in the constituency office of every Deputy. Deputies need to be able to talk to the housing officers of county councils about homelessness in our constituencies. This is a national crisis. We totally lack strategy. The Engineers Ireland State of Ireland 2020 report states that 52% of the cost of building houses goes to the Government in the form of taxes. This is not economically viable and cannot be sustained. Why not look at models like that proposed under the Limerick 2030 plan and waive taxes on the construction of affordable houses? The Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, predicts that just to stand still we will need to build 28,000 houses per annum for the next 20 years.
We need to step outside the box here and look at this from the point of view of providing houses for people who are homeless. At a meeting of the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage earlier, I stated that my own son is seeking to rent a house because he has a child, my grandchild. No rental property that is affordable for a young couple is available in County Limerick. He also tried County Cork. We need to look at a business model because the Government's model is not working.
Homelessness is a blight on our society. I know the difficulties that people are experiencing. I know people in Clonakilty who are sleeping in cars and vans. I am not singling out Clonakilty, because the same is happening in other places. My constituency office is always working with people who are on the verge of homelessness. It is difficult for people to access the property market because they cannot afford houses. Planning permission is a major issue in my constituency. Young people who want to start off in life might have plans with perfect architecture that are perfectly compliant with environmental regulations. The planning laws stop them from getting off the ground and catch them under the seven-year rule.
Many people are living in dreadful conditions outside my constituency while looking for homes in County Cork. Such homes are not available. They they cannot get accommodation and they are sleeping in the streets. It does not matter whether they can afford it; they simply cannot get it. It is simply not available. Qualifying for the HAP is very difficult. People in that situation are not treated fairly. A lot of young couples' expenses are not taken into account, but every bit of both of their incomes certainly is. Such people are often refused the HAP.
I also refer to the people who have homes and are fighting to keep them. Vulture funds are on their backs. We will see quite a lot of that in the next 12 months. I have been talking to many publicans whose businesses have closed. The banks have returned to their normal ruthlessness. Banks tried to play the sympathy game when the public eye was on them, but now it has moved on and the Government has walked away from any negotiations with them. A large number of publicans and businesspeople will be thrown out onto the street next year.
I want to compliment Deputy Ó Broin for introducing legislation on this very complex issue. I worked with the Deputy on the Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government, as it was then called, and I know how dedicated he is to this area. Deputy O'Donoghue is a member of the current version of that committee.
We have talked and talked about this issue and published report after report. As Deputy O'Donoghue stated, even as we try to deal with the housing crisis, the Government levies enormous taxation in respect of the building of a house. We have to reduce that burden. It must be profitable for a builder to build a house. There is no point in blaming and demonising builders. County councils must get back to building houses. They have lost the wherewithal to do so. They built them in the 1940s, the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s and the 1990s. I remember seeing 30 or 40 men getting into the back of Hally and Sons' truck in Ardfinnan to travel to Kilkenny, the Minister of State's city, and build a house. They would be arrested if that happened today. However, they built those houses.
I want to pay tribute to the staff in my office. They do their best for the people, as I am sure the staff in all constituency offices do. The work done by Kathy, who will shortly take maternity leave from my office, is very difficult. The same applies to county council housing staffs. As we approach Nollag I want to thank them for their efforts. This area is very fraught and very difficult. I also pay tribute to Fr. Peter McVerry and Brother Kevin Crowley for the work they do, and all the people who get involved in feeding and looking after the homeless. However, our efforts are disjointed and we are pulling against each other. "Ní neart go cur le chéile" is my favourite slogan. A lot more could be done.
Bureaucracy has to be taken out of the situation. It is too hard to get planning permission to build a house in a rural area. I am in contact with at least ten couples who could build a house for themselves. They have jobs. Before Covid-19 they could get mortgages, but now the banks are not playing their part. They cannot get planning permission. Herding them all into towns is not working. Villages do not have the infrastructure. We need a multifaceted approach. We must allow the people who can build their own houses to do so.
Let us deal with the people who are about to be turfed out into the street, the shopkeepers, publicans and so on who have been hit hard by Covid-19. We must support them as well as we can. It will be difficult and challenging, but we need more focus and less red tape. The red tape involved would stretch from here to Doonbeg, across to Kilkenny, down to Wexford and back to the city again. It could wrap us all up and smother us. We have to cut that with a hacksaw, a chainsaw or whatever is needed, take that frustration out of the business and get back to building houses.
There are currently more than 2,600 children in homelessness. This figure does not include the children in direct provision centres or domestic violence refuges. We know that the true figure is much higher. In 2015, there were 880 children in homelessness. That is an increase of 200% in just five years. The Minister will note my language. I did not say "homeless children", I referred to "children in homelessness". Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, the Greens and successive Governments since the 1990s have forced these children into homelessness. The Minister of State has accepted this Bill. We will see how it works out. Unfortunately, however, he has responsibility at the moment. This Government's policies have taken away these children's childhoods, with untold long-term impacts on their development, mental health and later life outcomes.
It is the greatest shame of our country in modern days.
Last week the book Homeless Storieswas published by Emu Ink. The book contains the accounts of 20 children, aged between five and 13 years, who have been in homeless accommodation, including in direct provision, during the Covid pandemic. Proceeds from the sales will go to Depaul's families and young people support services. The book is available for €12 at emucourses.ie. I have taken some of the excerpts published in the Irish Examinerlast week to read into the Dáil record. I strongly encourage all Ministers to go out and buy the book. Eight-year-old Charley from Dublin said:
Once back in our room, I had no space to play or have any fun and even when I tried to play with my toys my little brother would wreck them. This made my heart very sad. My teacher sent me some ... books. This cheered me up because I love to read.
Ten-year-old Kasey said:
I loved having a friend in the hotel because it made the time go quickly and I didn't feel alone. I've had three birthdays and two Christmases living in the hotel now but this Christmas could be our first in a new home. I wanted to tell my story because if there's another family who move into our hotel room when we finally get to move out, I wanted them to know that they're not alone.
I wish to mention also the #DontForgetMecampaign, which is highlighting the shockingly high numbers of deaths of people in homelessness this year. Some 56 lives have been tragically lost on our streets and in our emergency accommodation this year. Any needless death, such as that of Jonathan Corrie across the road in 2014, is a disgrace to our nation, and these figures are completely unacceptable.
This Bill seeks to amend the Housing Act 1988 in order to provide a legal definition of "persons at risk of homelessness". This is vitally important. I am glad there is support for the Bill and that the Government has taken it on board and will make sure it is implemented. We will measure the Government's performance in that regard in the coming period.
I support the Bill and thank Deputy Ó Broin for bringing it forward. I salute the Government for taking it on board and, I hope, implementing it.
The recent rise in the number of adults and children in homelessness is a worrying trend. We all know that. The latest figures in October showed an increase over September, with 8,737, including 2,642 children, in emergency accommodation, compared with 8,656, including 2,583 children, in September. A particular problem is the number of homeless single adults, which has surpassed 3,000 in Dublin and 4,495 countrywide for the first time since records began in their current format in 2015. Their number has gone up by 93%, an incredible figure, since 2015, and the number of families in homelessness has gone up by a staggering 230% since July 2014. These figures, as others have pointed out, do not include rough sleepers, women and children in domestic violence refuges, those trapped in direct provision who cannot access housing or those young people sleeping on sofas in friends' homes, sleeping in squats or in other insecure situations. We also have the scandal whereby the number of deaths of homeless people in the past year is now moving up to 60.
This Bill seeks to address one aspect of this crisis by putting an emphasis on prevention of homelessness by keeping people in their homes. The current situation is such that one has to be homeless before one may access assistance from the local authority. This Bill will place a legal obligation on the Minister and local authorities to intervene with a homeless prevention plan within 60 days if someone receives a legal notice to quit or if the local authority makes an assessment that a person is in danger of becoming homeless. For example, a young adult leaving care is almost certain to become homeless if he or she does not have family support. This also applies to people leaving prisons.
This is not a silver bullet. It must be seen as part of an overall emergency response to the housing and homelessness crisis. The key element of this must be a commitment to build public housing, both traditional local authority housing and cost-rental with affordable rent. The refusal of this Government, the previous Government and the Government before that to reverse their ideological stance on public housing is at the core of this crisis. This has to change because it will continue to be a crisis unless we deal with this. Unfortunately, it will only change when we have a Government that puts the right to a home before the interests of speculators, vulture funds and landlords.
Last week I raised a Topical Issue matter with the Minister of State concerning people who are homeless in Dublin but not habitually resident here being refused overnight emergency accommodation. It is still happening. I know that the Minister has written to local authorities. This morning Louisa Santoro said on RTÉ radio that the Mendicity Institution had in a guy from Wicklow who was refused accommodation last night by the central placement service. This has to stop tonight. No one should be out on the streets tonight, unable to access emergency accommodation, when there are beds lying empty. It just cannot happen.
I thank Sinn Féin for bringing this Bill before the House and for putting the focus on homelessness. The Bill seeks to provide a legal definition of "persons at risk of homelessness", as has been set out. I will not repeat what has been said. I support the Bill notwithstanding the deficits in it. It sets out to provide a definition, to put the focus on homelessness and to ensure that supports will be given.
I also welcome the fact that the Minister has said the collection of data has much improved and that he stands over the figures. I note that he did not refer to the 2019 report commissioned by the European Commission which spoke of "statistical obfuscation if not 'corruption'" in respect of official departmental monthly homeless figures in Ireland. If that has changed, I welcome that with open arms, but I did not hear the Minister refer to an updated report. Of course, we know that so many people are not included in the homeless figures. The figure of 700 has been used for asylum seekers, or people who have received their status. We know from the recent Day report that the figure is 1,000, and they cannot move out of direct provision. This is not to mention people living in domestic violence refuges or rough sleepers who are not included in the figures at all. I welcome the fact that the figure has gone down from 10,500 - one could not but welcome that - but the figures as at 25 October showed 8,737 people of all ages. Of those, 2,642 were children. Almost one third of people in emergency accommodation are children. Time prevents me from going into this in more depth.
The main point I wish to make is that I imagine we will be talking about homelessness again next year and the year after. Why? It is because homelessness is a symptom of a dysfunctional housing market and housing policy. It is absolutely dysfunctional, and I do not think the Minister of State would disagree with me if we were to have a private conversation. It is utterly dysfunctional, and it is dysfunctional because of Government policy. I am sick and tired of being told I am trying to score political points on this. I will use Galway as an example. Through the crisis, construction stopped in Galway. No public house was constructed from 2009 onwards. That is the first policy. As for the second policy, Fine Gael and the Labour Party introduced the HAP, not as a temporary measure but as a permanent way of sorting out the housing crisis, leading to rent inflation and a massive crisis. The figures for Galway are stark. We have more than 3,000 households on the waiting list. They go back 15 and 16 years. I have made representations on their behalf and raised this in the Dáil. People's cases go to the manager and then they go back down. The manager answers and the case goes back up. In desperation I went to the Minister in the case of one person. We still have not housed that person. In 15 years we were never once offered a house.
The figures speak for themselves. At some stage some intelligence has to be brought to bear on this and we must agree that this is the wrong policy. We are inflating the prices in the market. We are actually causing homelessness because we are not looking at the policy. Any sustainable policy must have the Government i lár an aonaigh, in the middle of the debate and in the middle of provision of public housing on public land. There is no other way. We have to stop using the term "social housing", stop the distinction, provide public housing on public land and give people choices. Without that, we will be standing here, to my shame, next year and the year after talking about homelessness. When I go to my hotel tonight I will see people on the street. I do not know what that is doing to me, not to mention those on the street, as a human being who walks by and tolerates it, knowing well that it is a symptom of a seriously ill housing policy. Despite the briathra milse, the sweet words, housing policy has not changed.
I understand that, but this practice has been repeated by Governments and Ministers regularly. At the start of this Dáil the Government introduced a process whereby Opposition Deputies were made to slide down the pecking order when it came to an opportunity to speak in order that the Government could put its Deputies up first. That means that the Minister is not around to listen to other views in this Chamber. He listens only to the views he can already hear in the parliamentary party meetings.
It is a sign of arrogance that the Minister would ignore so many Deputies on the Opposition side who represent tens of thousands of people in distress and difficulty as a result of this issue. I ask the Minister of State to relay that to the Minister.
I appreciate that, but there is nothing better than listening to the remarks as they are made, as the Minister of State well knows. Deputy Mattie McGrath stated, "Ní neart go cur le chéile". We in Aontú have a similar saying, namely, that we all live under the same sky and we are all responsible for each other. During this pandemic and during the recession, we have an obligation as politicians, but also as human beings, to look out for the most vulnerable, identify the groups that are at risk of homelessness or extreme poverty and do everything we can to protect them.
We in Aontú have been very carefully monitoring the situation with regard to homeless deaths in the past month. It is incredible. More people have died in homelessness in Dublin city so far this year than died in all of last year or the year before, in spite of the fact that December and January are among the toughest months for people who are homeless. The week before last, Inner City Helping Homeless held an event outside Leinster House to commemorate the homeless people who have died so far this year in Dublin. Fifty-six black balloons were tied to the railings of Leinster House, each one representing a person who has died in homelessness in the city so far this year. It is an indictment of Government policy and inaction that that is the case. When I raised this issue in the Chamber some weeks ago when the spike in homelessness was at its height, the Minister was asked about it in front of a camera and a microphone. He was asked would he hold an investigation into the matter and he stated that he would. I tabled a parliamentary question ten days later to ask whether any update was forthcoming on that investigation. So far, no such information is forthcoming. I do not even know whether there is an investigation into this matter. Is there an investigation into it?
Okay. Would it be possible to share with the rest of the Chamber any findings of the study or even the timetable for when it is to be completed?
I believe that three actions are necessary in this situation. First, we need to be able to collect information from counties other than Dublin. We need to know how many people are dying in homelessness in each of those counties. If we do not know what is happening elsewhere, how are we meant to develop a policy to ameliorate that situation?
Second, we need standardisation of homeless accommodation. Right now, many homeless service providers are unregulated and the standards within homeless accommodation can be very poor. Some homeless accommodation facilities are very good, but some others are very poor. We need this area to be regulated. HIQA needs to be responsible for it and there is a need for regular and routine inspections.
Third, I have been made aware of an incredible situation. If a person who is not from Dublin goes to seek assistance in Dublin, that person is told to go back to his or her own county to get assistance. In level 5, and even under the current level of restrictions, one is not meant to cross a county border. One arm of the State is telling people to go back to their own county to receive assistance, while another is telling them they may not do so. As a result, there are people on the streets without assistance. Nobody should be turned away from assistance, especially in the run-up to Christmas.
Obviously, there are many hard-working charities and individuals doing phenomenal work to help people who are in homelessness. I am thinking of Br. Kevin of the Capuchin Day Centre here in Dublin and Councillor Anthony Flynn of Inner City Helping Homeless. These people deserve enormous credit for the work they are doing on the ground. However, it should not be up to charities to do this work. The fact that charities have to be involved in this area shows the gaping chasm left by Government inaction in this particular space. I believe the Government has constantly fallen short in helping vulnerable people during this pandemic, be it those in nursing homes or direct provision, members of the Traveller community, workers in meat factories, people with disabilities or mental illnesses and people who are homeless. Those are the people who have suffered by far the most in recent years and especially in this pandemic. I am calling on the Government to show real compassion in the run-up to Christmas., compassion not just in terms of words, but in terms of actions for these people.
The Dublin Regional Homeless Executive has furnished me with a significant amount of information relating to homeless deaths. It is heartbreaking stuff when one reads the detail of it. Many of the deaths were as a result of suicide or overdose. One man was discharged from hospital, walked around the corner and hung himself from a railing. Another man was found dead the day after he was released from prison. Many of the 56 people who have died were young men or young women. God rest them all. Departments need to work together on this issue. We need prison reform and concrete plans to tackle drug and alcohol abuse, especially among people who are leaving prison, homeless shelters, etc., as well as potentially those who are leaving hospital.
In recent times, I have submitted freedom of information requests on housing issues to local authorities. The information I have received shows that throughout the country there are several people and families who are in need of social housing but who are being turned away despite the fact that there are vacant properties. In my constituency in the great county of Meath, the council told me that it owns 3,546 properties. It received 1,168 applications for housing in the first half of this year. That shows the disproportionate demand as compared with supply. It granted only 440 housing applications and currently has 130 vacant properties. That is startling. There are 130 vacant properties in the ownership of Meath County Council. Only 127 properties are under construction. Why are people being turned away? That is a really important question to which we must find the answer.
Another significant and scandalous issue is the fact that Traveller accommodation is not being built. Local authorities receive departmental funding that is specifically earmarked for accommodation for the Traveller community. The subject of Traveller accommodation is seen by many political representatives as politically toxic and, as a result, local authorities are handing that money back wholesale to central government. They are handing money for housing for homeless people back to the Government during a housing crisis. That is unbelievable. In Galway some months ago, a house that was built and ready for a Traveller family was burned to the ground. I welcome the fact that Deputy Ó Cuív was one of the few elected representatives who stood up against that action. I commend him on that.
I have previously raised the issue of housing for people with disabilities. One in four people who are homeless has a disability. That is way out of kilter with the proportion of people with disabilities in the general population. In some cases, people with disabilities have been waiting far longer than a decade for appropriate housing. The Disability Federation of Ireland stated that there is a significant lack of appropriate housing for people with disabilities, be it social housing, private rental or privately purchased housing. There is an especially acute crisis in housing for people with disability. Meath County Council has 173 people with physical disabilities on the housing list, with 26 new applications this year. Many houses need adaptations. Some €70 million is provided annually for such adaptations and I welcome that, but there are 31 local authorities in the State and, unfortunately, that money does not end up doing a whole heap of work once it is shared among that number of local authorities. What we need are quotas in the housing sector for people with disabilities. That is the subject of one of the Bills on which Aontú is currently working.
Single people are being stuffed when it comes to housing. For the past 13, 14 or 15 years, very few units have been provided to house single people.
To put the issue of homelessness into context, during a debate in the House last week, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, told Members about the need to put €500 million every year into a rainy day fund. It is lashing rain on people who are in homelessness now, yet the Government has had a policy of putting money into the rainy day fund. Permanent TSB will not pay tax on its profits until 2038. AIB will not pay tax on its profits until 2037. Is it any wonder we have a problem?
Homelessness is something that happens. People find themselves in homelessness. However, when there is mass homelessness, as evident in the figures that were cited in the House tonight, there is a systemic problem. There is a variety of reasons for homelessness, and people recognise that, but some things done by the Government make it more likely that homelessness will occur and that homelessness figures will increase. Homelessness will increase when there is no proper mental health strategy in place, no proper investment in addiction services and the education sector from preschool through to third level is not properly resourced. Crucially, when houses are not built, homelessness will increase.
This State has done many things wrong since its foundation, but one of the things it got right sporadically has been the delivery of public housing for the people. Many of us in the House are beneficiaries of that system. The reason we are in the current crisis is an ideologically-driven approach that was about removing the building of houses from the public sector, particularly the local authorities, and outsourcing and privatising it. That is why we now have a situation where almost no local authority has the resources and capacity to do something that was its basic and most important role for several generations, the provision of homes for the people who lived in the local authority area.
Hundreds of millions of euro are being paid annually to subsidise private and corporate landlords. If one couples that with the tax breaks that are given to vulture funds, the banks and the cuckoo funds, the amount of money the State spends on housing every year is astronomical. The Government will, in some instances, try to applaud itself for that investment, but it is sending money down the drain. Hundreds of millions of euro are being spent on housing annually, yet there is no housing at the end of it. That is not only a ludicrous policy but also an inhumane one, which is being overseen by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Governments.
The answer is multifaceted. It requires investment in public services such as education and addiction and mental health services. Crucially, however, it requires the building of houses and doing what we have done right in the past. We must get back to that.
On Monday of this week, I launched "What is the True Level of Homelessness?", a short report of which the Minister was highly critical before he departed the Chamber earlier. It is clear that he has not read the report, so I will summarise it for the Minister of State. A monthly report is produced by the Department of Housing, Heritage and Local Government and it reports the number of adults and children in emergency accommodation funded by that Department under section 10 of the Housing Acts. The most recent figure is 8,737 people, which includes 2,600 children.
However, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth also funds emergency accommodation through Tusla for adults, predominantly women, and children fleeing domestic violence. Those figures are not published by the Department of Housing, Heritage and Local Government, but on any given night, according to Tusla, there are approximately 600 adults and children in that accommodation. Those people are also homeless, but are not counted in the report of the Department of Housing, Heritage and Local Government. In addition, a new situation has emerged in recent years. There are currently 1,020 adults and children who have secured their leave to remain and received international protection. They were formerly asylum seekers, but they cannot get out of direct provision because of the crisis in the rental sector. In fact, those people are eligible for homeless HAP through the local authorities. Clearly, they are also homeless, but they are not included in the Department's report. On any given night, there are approximately 100 men and women in two hostels in Dublin which are not funded by any Department and, therefore, not counted in official statistics. There are also between 90 and over 100 rough sleepers.
The point of producing my report was not to criticise the Department, but to state that the old methodology is out of date and there must be a new one. At least quarterly, if not monthly, there should be a report that details all the adults and children who are in emergency accommodation funded by Departments or rough sleeping. The Minister is wrong to say that these are false figures. They are from Government agencies and the parliamentary questions are in the back of the report. Why do we focus on figures? If one wishes to fix a problem, one must be able to quantify it. If we want to know the level of support that is required to get these adults and children out of homelessness, we must know how many of them are in emergency accommodation. These figures do not even include those who are sofa surfing or living in inadequate or inappropriate accommodation. Not only do I stand by the report, but I assume the Departments that gave us these figures will also stand over their figures. I urge the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, who is a great deal more reasonable on these matters than some of his ministerial colleagues, to read the report and consider the data in it.
On the Bill, the sole purpose of putting forward this Bill is to put forward the issue of homelessness prevention and the need for a focus on defining people at risk of homelessness, and place a legal obligation on local authorities to put in place a homelessness prevention plan for those families. That should become Government policy. Of course the Government would draft this legislation better than us, if it chose to do so, because it has the experience of its civil servants and the Attorney General. I would happily throw this Bill in the bin if the Government said it would produce its own Bill to do the same thing. In fact, if the Government wishes to take all the credit for it, I do not mind. I care about preventing homelessness. Whatever the deficiencies in the Bill, and I was up-front earlier when I said there are a number of them, I am more than happy to work constructively with the officials, as we did under the previous Government, to produce good quality legislation.
The Minister of State rightly raised the issue of cost. I am acutely aware of the cost. However, it costs €100 per night to have a family in emergency accommodation. That is over €35,000 per year, and some families are spending their fourth year in emergency accommodation this year. The cost of the emergency response is always exponentially more expensive than the cost of prevention. If the Government were smart and said that for every person moved out of emergency accommodation for a set period of time, it would ring-fence the emergency funding and redirect it into prevention, it probably would not need any additional funding. It would simply recycle an emergency budget, which in and of itself would increasingly diminish. While it is important to raise the cost issue, it further emphasises the value of the central proposition we are making.
Ultimately, this Bill is about saving lives. That is not hyperbole, but a fact. This year there has been a significant increase, not just in Dublin but also in Galway, Cork and Waterford, in the number of people who died when they were either rough sleeping or engaged with homelessness services. They died from a range of causes. In some cases it was overdose, in others it was suicide and in some cases they were brutally murdered or there were other more complex situations. What has been happening this year is that the interaction of mental ill health, addiction and emergency accommodation is putting increasing numbers of people at risk. If we wish to talk about the costs, what greater cost is there than somebody at the age of 30 or 40 years dying because of inadequate provision of mental health, addiction and housing supports?
To conclude, I welcome the fact that the Government is not opposing the Bill. However, I hope it is not doing so to save itself the embarrassment of voting against a Bill which is focused on homelessness prevention. The test of the Government's commitment is how quickly we get this Bill to the housing committee, which is a matter for the committee, not the Government, and how willing the Government is to devote the time of its civil servants and the Attorney General to improve it. If we do that and we work collectively in the housing committee to make this the best Bill possible, we will see it have a positive impact on people's lives, ensuring that fewer people become homeless in the first place and that they either remain in the properties in which they lived previously or get alternative, affordable and appropriate accommodation, and therefore never have to spend a month, let alone a year or up to four years, in inappropriate emergency accommodation.
Of course, the solution to this is to build more homes. The capital budget for social and affordable housing is inadequate. It is more than it was last year, but it started at such a low base in 2016 that we must move towards doubling the capital investment in social and affordable homes to meet the social and affordable housing need and to tackle this crisis.
While the Minister's announcement earlier this week of 350 affordable cost rental units by the end of the year is welcome, the ESRI, the NESC and the Housing Agency are telling us that we need thousands of such units, not hundreds. Let us take those units and welcome them, but when I see the Government investing in thousands of affordable cost rental units and there is a substantial increase in social and affordable purchase homes then we will start to see the real commitment to tackle the housing crisis. I commend the Bill to the House.