Seanad debates

Thursday, 4 November 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Homeless Persons Supports

10:30 am

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State. This issue relates to homelessness and young people. If the various controversies relating to homelessness in the past few months - and I do not intend to go into them here - have taught us anything, it is that we need to be constantly vigilant to ensure that those experiencing homelessness are given all the supports they need, that there is no exploitation of them or their vulnerabilities and that the necessary protections, including legislative protection, Government protection and protection from the institutions of the State, are afforded to them at every level. I know there is a high-level homeless task force whose business is under way. I acknowledge the enormous amount of work of the Peter McVerry Trust, the Dublin Simon Community, Focus Ireland, Threshold, Crosscare, Depaul, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive and, for that matter, the local authorities, which do a tremendous amount of work. People are not aware of the extent of the work a lot of the local authorities do in co-ordinating homelessness initiatives, nor are they aware of the work of the Minister of State's Department. I am glad to say I have had opportunities to pick up the phone and talk directly to very senior staff in his Department with responsibility for homelessness and housing generally. They have always been responsive and have got back to me, including outside of office hours, and they have assisted these people to get into appropriate homes and care.

What am I asking in the few minutes available to me? I think we know that young people are at a crucial point in their personal, emotional, cognitive and social development. It is a difficult transitional period for many of them but it is more difficult for people coming out of direct provision, hostels, institutions or care centres, where they are meant to be cared for, protected and supported. Such people are leaving an institution or an institutional support system rather than a functional family situation. We know the huge issues facing homeless people. Their needs relate to issues ranging from childhood experiences to poor mental health and problems with drugs or alcohol, and in many cases a combination of all those issues. These are therefore vulnerable people. As I said, many of them are leaving State care, detention or direct provision and others are from migrant or ethnic groups. They need our support.

I will leave the Minister of State with this. I am deeply concerned about the practice of young people being placed in inappropriate accommodation - including emergency accommodation - with adults where they are at risk in the broadest sense of the word "risk". These are vulnerable people, with the State knowing they are vulnerable, and they are placed in situations of risk, intimidation and exploitation. If the Minister of State talks to any of the agencies I have mentioned, they will tell him the same. I am therefore trying to find out how the youth homelessness strategy is working, how it is going and when we will have a definite strategy in place to address and tackle what is a very difficult set of circumstances for young people?

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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I thank the Senator for raising this really important issue. Yesterday, I opened the Little Houses exhibition in Collins Barracks with the young people from Stoneybatter Youth Service. I urge the Senator, if he gets a chance, to go and look at that exhibition. It highlighted young people's experiences during lockdown of being at home and lots of the myriad issues they faced, in particular being restricted to home life and, perhaps, in some cases, homelessness. I thank the young people I met there. It was a wonderful collaboration with the National Museum of Ireland. It is really important to document that and it is critically important, particularly for young people who have experienced disproportionately the challenges of Covid and homelessness, that we address this. I will outline the Government's priorities in that regard.

A lot of work is already being done on service provision in this area, and I acknowledge the commitment of those involved in local authorities, as the Senator himself said, voluntary organisations and statutory bodies. Housing for All, the Government's strategic action plan, published in September, details how the Government is further approaching this challenge. It includes commitments to develop a youth homelessness strategy within quarter 1 of 2022 and to work to eradicate homelessness by 2030. Having specific policy and actions in this area is based on a fundamental understanding that supporting young people at risk of becoming homeless through strategic interventions can help avoid a cycle of longer term homelessness.

Preparing this strategy involves co-operation and co-ordination between the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman. Key operational elements in the provision of supports to young people experiencing or at risk of homelessness fall within the responsibility of a range of agencies and stakeholder bodies. Action has already commenced on the preparation of the youth homelessness strategy. The Ministers, Deputies Darragh O'Brien and Roderic O'Gorman, and their respective Departments have been engaging with one another, and work in this regard is proceeding.

On his appointment, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, also established a high-level homelessness task force to provide a forum for engagement with key organisations working to address homelessness. The task force is also inputting to the implementation of the commitments on homelessness in the programme for Government and Housing for All. The membership of the task force consists of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, Crosscare, Depaul, Focus Ireland, the Peter McVerry Trust, the Dublin Simon Community, Threshold and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The Minister has discussed the preparation of a youth homelessness strategy and sought the views of members of the task force. Work on the strategy will continue through the remainder of 2021 and into 2022, involving broader stakeholder engagement.

It is well understood that certain young people leaving residential care, foster care, prison or juvenile detention services may be at enhanced risk of homelessness. Tusla has a responsibility in this area, which it addressed through the provision of aftercare supports for such young people. Since September 2017, young people leaving care at the age of 18 have the right to an aftercare plan prepared by Tusla. Tusla can provide assistance to young people up to the age of 21 who have been in care. This can be extended until the young person reaches 23 years of age in order to facilitate the completion of an education course. The plan, which includes arrangements for accommodation, is a key response in preventing a young man or woman from falling into homelessness.

Funding for a dedicated accommodation centre for care leavers is also provided through the capital assistance scheme operated by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. The scheme funds approved housing bodies that work with local authorities in developing this accommodation. Housing for All specifically recognises the importance of this scheme.

Tackling homelessness across all ages has been a key priority of the Government. Significant progress has been made in recent times, with homelessness among children and families in particular decline. From a peak of 3,873 in September 2019, the number of children in emergency accommodation has fallen by almost 40% to 2,344. I assure Senator Boyhan and others in the House of the work being done to address homelessness among children and young people. Our commitment is to see this work enhanced over the coming years.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for that comprehensive reply. I will reflect on it and perhaps come back to the Department later. The reply has confirmed that we have 2,344 children who are homeless. That is too many. I know the Minister of State knows that. It is desperate that 2,344 of our children are in emergency accommodation. It goes back to the long-term plan and the strategies being worked on, and I acknowledge and accept that. However, we have to be continually vigilant and ensure the protection and safety of these children this very night, not in six months' time. I say that as someone who has been in contact with these agencies and who was a member of the joint committee on housing. No more reports, no more inquiries and no more discussions about the death and cruelty faced by our children. In Ireland, where the State has a responsibility, we see that these children are exposed, are experiencing homeless, are vulnerable and need our supports.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House and going through this report from his Department. I appreciate it.

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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Again, I agree with the Senator. As a statistic, 2,344 is way too high a number. We want, and the Government is committed, to end homelessness. I reiterate that addressing homelessness is a priority of the Government. Budget 2022 reflects this priority with provision of €194 million in funding for homelessness services. When account is taken of Covid-related costs, this is an increase on the baseline funding provided in 2021. Good progress continues to be made, which is shown by recent homelessness reports published by my Department on Friday, 30 October 2020. These reports show that exits from homelessness remain strong and that the number of people in emergency accommodation remains well below the numbers recorded in 2019 and 2020. While there remains a lot of work to do on this front, I recognise the progress that has been made on the ground by local authorities and our NGO service providers in changing people's lives. I appreciate the fact that the Senator has mentioned local authorities specifically. They do amazing work on the ground. I know that from my county. Significant numbers of households continue to exit homelessness into a home each month. We will continue to build on the good work already being done in this area. In the case of young people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, I reassure Senators that my colleagues in the Government and I are doing everything we can in that regard. We will continue to work towards our national goal of eradicating homelessness by 2030. We recognise the key challenges, particularly for young people, and we are deeply committed to continuing to address this issue together.

Sitting suspended at 11.21 a.m. and resumed at 11.34 a.m.