Gabhaim buíochas leis an gcoiste as ucht an deis teacht chun labhairt leis. I appreciate the opportunity to contribute on behalf of the Cork Social Housing Forum, CSHF. I am assistant director of Cork Simon Community. The forum comprises 19 organisations in the voluntary sector. Groups in the statutory sector have recently sought membership, which is indicative of the challenges staff in mental health services and so forth face in trying to decant people from acute hospitals and other facilities into housing. We believe access to housing is a basic human right, as well as a human need. There is quite a mix in the spectrum of politicians before us. We all agree that the most vulnerable citizens in society find themselves in difficult circumstances. There are single people and families comprising women and children. There is huge motivation to drive this process forward to come up with a strategy to deal with all of their needs and ensure nobody will be left behind.
My colleagues from Dublin have mentioned many of the issues involved. Therefore, I will not go through my full submission. We are faced with a huge crisis and the human cost to the most vulnerable of citizens is inestimable. In many respects, as a society, we will pay a price for this long into the future as we will have to continue to deal with it. There is a major imperative on us to find solutions to problems that have their roots in the lack of a social housing programme for many years. We are paying a price for this every day. Coupled with this, we have experienced the economic collapse. When the issue is examined from the perspective of those providing homeless services and attempting to provide move-on accommodation for people, every system is under huge pressure, with some bursting at the seams. Since 2011 Cork Simon Community has experienced a ninefold increase in the number of people sleeping rough.
That is from 38 people who slept rough one night or more in 2011 to 345 in 2015. That is indicative of the change that has come about in the intervening period.
This needs to be about solutions and we need to find immediate wins to deal with some of the issues that exist. One of those, which was outlined earlier, is to prevent people from falling into the system as it is. We must do everything we can in terms of bank foreclosures and people who find themselves unable to pay the rent because it has gone beyond their ability to pay. Those issues need to be dealt with. No one should be allowed to become homeless simply because of the gap between their income and what is requested from the landlords. It simply should not happen. It is a false economy not to pay it in the short term. By doing that, we are pushing more people into services that already cannot cope with what they are dealing with. We need to get a bit real about what we are doing here and how we do it. When we deal with the issues here, we need to deal not only with the immediate issues but ensure whatever we do makes a huge positive contribution to the long-term solutions we need to find. They need to be sustainable because it is about building communities as much as it is about building houses.
One of the things we need to do in terms of any housing strategy in future is to avoid the mistakes of the past. That should be a principle that underpins any housing strategy in future. We can no longer depend on the market to provide. The solution to homelessness and housing is about looking at a suite of different responses. The market has proven that it cannot provide and we need to look at other solutions. The idea that we can depend on the private market to solve these problems is long past its sell-by date.
In terms of some of the more short-term responses, rental properties are just out of the range of people who are on low incomes, so rents need to be capped. It is important to have some independent and external objective criteria, for example, to link it to the consumer price index, in order that at least people's incomes would match what is expected in terms of what they pay in the rental market. The most immediate thing that can be done is to increase rent caps to stem the flow into homelessness in the short term. We can do that and we need to do it. We do not have a choice and doing nothing is not an option.
The most acute aspect of homelessness is sleeping rough. Those who are long-term homeless also need to be prioritised for housing. There is a really good reason for that, which is that they disproportionately hold up beds in emergency accommodation throughout the State. Moving them on will free up beds that will allow us at least to try to bring in those who are sleeping rough at present. It is not easily done because we are dealing with individuals, many of whom have very complex needs. No two needs are the same in many respects but there are commonalities. The Housing First approach has been proven internationally - by Pathways in New York, right across Europe, in Finland and other countries - to have a huge impact in terms of moving people who would previously have been thought of as very difficult to house. It has been a success in over 80% of cases in many countries. It is not just about housing but also about the supports for people with complex issues of mental health, addiction, dual diagnoses and so forth. We need to be very focused on the fact it is not just about families or single people but about both. We need to be sure nobody is left behind. That is really important.
The other quick-fix solution that could at least deal with some of the issues is to address the voids in local authorities. In some cases it is taking up to 12 months to turn a house around, which is something that needs to be looked at. New targets need to be set for the turnover of these houses and the obstacles that are faced by tearing out the insides of houses, replacing them and putting them back the way they were. These things need to be looked at and we need to be very practical in how we deal with this. We are talking about people's lives so we need to look at what we can deliver for people and we should always look for something that we would be satisfied to take for ourselves.
The other resources of the State and the local authorities also need to be marshalled, and this includes NAMA. The remit of NAMA has primarily been to deliver for the Exchequer but there are two ways in which one can deliver: one can deliver for the Exchequer in monetary terms but one can also deliver a social dividend. In our view, the social dividend has not been delivered to the extent it should have been in terms of supporting social housing provision for the State. The vulture funds are basically selling off the assets they have bought from NAMA. If necessary, the Government should seek to CPO those assets in order to stop people becoming homeless. We have to stop that flow and look at what NAMA can deliver. I believe there is much about NAMA we do not know and there is certainly more it can do in regard to becoming a greater part of the solution than it is at present.
In recent years, certainly since 2008, there has been a huge cut in supports and resources for both the voluntary and the statutory services, many of which are struggling to cope. Capacity has been lost and, in some of the local authority areas, corporate memory has been lost. The resulting deficits need to be addressed because, if we are going to deal with a house building programme, which is what we are advocating, we need the people in place who can deliver that. Those resource issues need to be dealt with.
We need to treat this as the national crisis that it is. There should be no shirking from using the mechanisms available to the Government and local authorities, such as compulsory purchase orders or Part 8 planning, to speed up the delivery of housing. There are also other resources which are within the gift of some of the local authorities. There are derelict sites and housing that are not currently being used. I am led to believe that in Cork, the local authorities know where these are and who owns them. I believe this would speed up the delivery of social housing. We should maximise the ability of the local authorities and the voluntary sector, working in consultation and conjunction with each other, to effectively and as quickly as possible deliver any of the units this might leverage.
Let us be clear: social housing is the key to solving this problem in the long term. Whatever we do in the short term, we need to provide social housing. There is an imbalance in terms of what is being provided at the moment. In 2004, 10% of the provision was by private rent and it is now 20%. The private rented sector is in difficulty and we need to deal with that end of it. However, we also need to look at provision by the local authorities and the social housing providers. We need to use the resources they currently have, so there is in-house capacity to design and develop housing within the social housing providers. If it is not there in the local authorities, then we need to lean on them. Everybody needs to be part of the solution.
In the long term, a State-sponsored house building programme needs to be led by the local authorities and, it is important to say, this needs to be done in partnership, with everybody working together. This is a shared problem and we have shared responsibilities. In the immediate term, housing acquisition is a short-term solution but the finances need to be provided to allow the local authorities to purchase units that are available and ready for immediate occupancy. This is one of the key things they can do in the short term.
The problem is huge but it is not insurmountable. It is not beyond the talents, commitment and motivation of people in this room and the services that are out there, be they statutory or voluntary. We just need the will to do it. We need to prioritise this as an issue in terms of resource provision. Co-operation is going to be one of the key issues and cross-departmental and inter-agency buy-in is critical. In some cases, those of us within the system are working against each other in many different ways and we make things very difficult in regard to HAP and all the other things we do.
We need to simplify what we do and make it easy for people to navigate the system and to know about HAP, what it is, etc. We really need to get to grips by making it simple. We are making it hard for each other and nobody has either the time or the resources to be wasting time on things that could be easily dealt with, some of which are mentioned in the full submission.
It has to be led by somebody and that person should be the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government. What is done should be planned, with clear objectives, specific targets and timeframes for delivery. Teams must be tasked to deliver and there is a need for decision makers with authority who will overcome the inevitable challenges that will emerge from many different sectors and positions. They must deliver housing as quickly as possible. We can do that but we need to do it while meeting the requisite standards and do it in a transparent and accountable way. We should all be accountable. It is public money. It belongs to the people and should be spent particularly for the most vulnerable of our citizens. We need that can-do attitude. We really must get to grips with that. We need to know that we can solve the problem. It is huge and very difficult but it can be done. Families and single people are in crisis and they are depending on us to deliver for them. That is a huge responsibility. It is a shared responsibility. It is a responsibility for all of us. We need to be very practical in what we do and how we do it. No stone should be left unturned in terms of this delivery. The time for action is now and we should not leave anyone behind.