Seanad debates

Thursday, 1 June 2023

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Homeless Persons Supports

9:30 am

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Martin Heydon.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this important matter. I am glad to have the opportunity to talk about it today. I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for agreeing to come to the House to take this matter. I value and appreciate that. I know it is a busy day for him. As he is a key Minister of State in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, I take this opportunity to congratulate him and his Department on the collaboration with Bord Bia Bloom Festival, which kicks off today. Undoubtedly, the Minister of State would prefer to be at the festival in the sunshine meeting and greeting the farmers and those in the horticulture sector, but he will surely have an opportunity to do so. I am thankful for the collaboration between Bord Bia, the Office of Public Works, OPW, and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, which has made this a successful festival and now an international event.

I am here to talk about the Youth Homeless Strategy 2023 to 2025. I refer to the context of the recent reports published on the monthly homelessness statistics, but I am not here to comment on them in any great detail because they cover the full gamut of homelessness and the challenges around it. I do, though, welcome the openness and transparency of the Government to publish these monthly figures. This is a commitment in itself, and it is good because it allows for a greater scrutiny of homelessness on a month-by-month basis.

Turning to the youth issue, we know addressing youth homelessness is one of the key aims set out in the Housing for All policy. There has been a rise in the number of young people experiencing homelessness and this is deeply concerning. This morning, just before I came into the House, I went to the Grafton Street are to have a look around. There is evidence there of young people who are homeless and sleeping in doorways. It is clear from seeing and talking to some of those young people that the issues involved in their being homeless include drug addiction, mental health issues, exiting from prison, exiting from institutional or State care and low academic achievement because of constricted academic opportunities due to social exclusion, disadvantage and family break up. All of these elements feed into homelessness. A complex range of issues impact on young people.

I am conscious, as is the Minister of State, that the Government has signed the Lisbon Declaration of the European Platform for Combating Homelessness, which commits to working to end homelessness in 2023. We have a long and hard task ahead of us, and we must all work together to support those young people at risk of becoming homeless. The latter is key. This is about being on the same team and working to see how we can address the issue. I wish, therefore, to commend the Government's youth homeless strategy. As the Minister of State will well know, the strategy contains 27 distinct actions to prevent young people from entering homelessness and to improve the experience of young people in emergency accommodation. The latter is an issue. For many young people, it is not working out for them. For some reason, they feel they cannot operate within emergency accommodation. We must look at that aspect. It is a particular matter that we must address. We must consider whether we need to work on another range of supports in this context.

The other question, of course, is how we can assist young people to exit homelessness. I touched on the issues of people exiting the prison services, State care and being impacted by disadvantage. The Traveller community is another specific area we need to focus on in the context of homelessness, as well as those of mental health and vulnerable people.

Transitioning from institutional care into a community and life is difficult. It is one of the hardest tasks for people. For young people aged 16, 17 or 18 who are pushed out of institutional care, who are not equipped for this and who do not have emotional and educational supports, this is one of the most vulnerable times in their lives. In many cases, no one gives a damn about them. No one cares and no one supports them. They have no contacts. In many cases, their families have totally broken. Youth homelessness, therefore, is an extremely important issue. The youth homeless strategy is key in this regard and I would like to hear the Minister of State comment on how we can now work together to deliver on the 27 distinct actions in the strategy. I thank the Minister of State.

Photo of Martin HeydonMartin Heydon (Kildare South, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Boyhan for raising this important matter. Regarding his initial comments, I look forward to attending Bloom this afternoon with my ministerial colleagues. It is a great opportunity and great credit is due to Bord Bia, an organisation that we support extensively through our Department. It comes directly under my remit in the Department. Great credit is due to Bord Bia for what is a fantastic event. More than 100,000 people will visit Bloom in the coming days and get to see the best of our horticultural sector. This is a sector that is facing significant challenges. It is important that the urban-based, non-agricultural population get to understand and appreciate the quality of our Irish food and where it comes from. There is so much for us to be proud of, so I look forward to attending Bloom later today. I thank the Senator for his comments on this subject. I will pass them on to Bord Bia and to my officials in the Department as well.

Moving to the important issue of youth homelessness that the Senator raised today, I take on board his comments. I acknowledge what he said. I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, who, unfortunately, cannot be here. I do take on board the points the Senator made. It would probably be easier, we could say, for Governments not to publish these monthly figures and to perhaps hide away from such a challenging issue, but this is not the Government's approach here at all. We are determined to tackle what is a major crisis in homelessness. I refer specifically to the significant challenges of youth homelessness and to that cohort of young people who have the potential to become homeless and to trying to make interventions in this regard.

In line with commitments in the programme for Government and Housing for All, the youth homelessness strategy was published in November 2022, as the Senator is aware. The strategy aims to help young people aged 18 to 24 who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. As the Senator said, it sets out 27 distinct actions to prevent youth homelessness, improve the experiences of young people accessing emergency accommodation and assist young people in exiting homelessness. This is the first youth homelessness strategy in over 20 years and is a significant milestone in the Government's efforts to eradicate homelessness.It is important that we have a strategy like this because, as we know, homelessness is not just about the availability of property. There are always so many other underlying challenges and complications that go beyond just the provision of housing itself.

The development of the strategy was, therefore, informed by a wide range of views. A number of consultations were held by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage in the first half of 2022 with key stakeholders, including Government Departments, agencies, the NGO homeless sector and, most importantly, young people with direct experience of homelessness. In total, 29 young people aged 19 to 26 participated. The 27 actions within the strategy are concrete and deliverable, and enable a stronger, co-ordinated national approach to tackling youth homelessness. Critically, they also address the complex nature of youth homelessness.

A steering group has been established under the auspices of the national homeless action committee, NHAC, to drive the delivery of all actions within the strategy. The membership consists of representatives from relevant Government Departments and agencies, local authorities, NGO members of NHAC and a youth organisation. Two quarterly meetings of the steering group have taken place at which actions were discussed and progressed. One of the key actions in the strategy is to develop a pilot of a housing-led intervention, supported housing for youth, SHY.

SHY will be a housing-led intervention for young people who are homeless or who are identified as a vulnerable cohort within the strategy and who may be at risk of experiencing homelessness in the future. It will provide a range of accommodation options, including shared accommodation and one-bedroom units, as well as supports to build on the clients' strengths, skills and relationships to enable them to fully integrate into their community and engage with education and the marketplace. Participation in SHY will be time-limited with the end goal being that the client is in a position to live independently. That time limit is really important in terms of building people's resilience and not having to become dependent on the very supports that there are to assist them. The SHY project is progressing well, a series of meetings have already taken place with a focus on eligibility, conditions and supported transitioning.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for that very comprehensive response. I am particularly interested in his reference to the SHY pilot. It is progressive and good. I am looking forward to monitoring and keeping up to date on that. The in-person consultation with the key stakeholders will provide very valuable feedback in terms of this Commencement matter. As the Minister of State said, all those 27 key objectives in the strategy are robust, strong and achievable. That is good to hear. This collaborative approach, and working closely with our city and county councils and councillors, who are the on ground working with people, will achieve the results. I always say to city and county councillors that it is up to them to keep asking the questions and to keep pushing the agenda in their local city and county council halls and seeing them through to delivery. It is important. The needs are complex, but Tusla has a huge role in all this too. That joined-up thinking to address those complex needs will make the difference. I thank the Minister of State again very much for his time here today and for his comprehensive response.

Photo of Martin HeydonMartin Heydon (Kildare South, Fine Gael)
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Senator Boyhan is absolutely right. The major strength of the strategy is that it is more than the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, with the Department talking to NGOs, coming up with a strategy and talking to those with the lived experience, to those who work in the voluntary sector and to other Government Departments. This goes beyond housing. It deals with health and many different areas, such as employment opportunities, etc.

On the SHY pilot, an in-person consultation event with other key stakeholders to further progress this action is scheduled to be held in the next two weeks. There is real momentum here and progress is being made. That is something we can continue to discuss in this House. The Senator can raise the issue again to follow through on that. All actions in the strategy are considered on an ongoing basis. The steering group will continue to meet to ensure the actions are progressed as scheduled.

The Senator can take it as a given that the Government has this matter as a top priority. It is a big challenge for us, and the strategy acknowledges that there are multiple, inter-related causes of youth homelessness and the experiences of young people in the emergency accommodation system are distinct from those of the rest of the homeless population.

This strategy was developed with the understanding that young people should be valued in their own right, and they are key drivers in achieving their own cognitive, emotional, social and economic development. The Government recognises that by supporting young people who are at risk of becoming homeless, we can help to prevent a cycle of longer-term homelessness. That is really what we all want to achieve here in reaching our longer-term goals, as the Senator outlined. I thank him for raising this important point today.