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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 19 Feb 1991

Vol. 405 No. 3

Adjournment Debate. - Youth Homelessness.

This issue is very relevant in view of the report today. Why does a State which promises to do so much to protect the rights of its unborn children do as little as possible to protect and care for those children once they are born? It is estimated that there are at least 700 homeless children under the age of 18 in Ireland and that close to half of them are on the streets of Dublin. Existing services are grossly inadequate as is legislation and child care policy. Last year there was a monthly average of 31 callers under the age of 18 seeking accommodation at one of the centres for homeless youth in Dublin. Only 23 per cent of those seeking accommodation last year were successfully placed and the remaining 77 per cent were most likely not placed anywhere. Growing numbers of young people are seeking accommodation and these people are remaining homeless for longer periods. Young people are left in a tragic cycle of persistent and intermittent homelessness because of the lack of suitable organisations to help them. Their needs are obviously not being met through existing child care services. In the last five years the rampant growth of the problem was met by an increase of one emergency bed only while the number of non-emergency beds actually decreased. This illustrates the absence of suitable services for homeless youths in Ireland.

The lack of accommodation means that young people are exploited by the many desperate horrors of life on the streets. There is alcohol abuse, drug abuse and shoplifting. Crime and even prostitution are a means of survival for these homeless youths. Their means of survival create further problems for the Garda and for the District Court. The District Court cannot recommend suitable care for these children.

In 1990, 21 young people both male and female were sent to adult prisons where, instead of learning how to become productive members of society, they are learning how to commit crimes more successfully. Despite the passing of the Child Care Bill, 1988, through the Dáil and the 1990 declaration of the rights of the child, we still have these problems. We still have an alarmingly expanded number of poor, undernourished, exploited, unprotected youths on our streets. There is no new model of care to meet the needs of young people who can no longer remain at home. There are inadequate funds for the voluntary and statutory bodies who are trying to assist homeless youths. We have not sufficient emergency accommodation or short term, medium-term or long term accommodation. No Government Department have claimed responsibility for the care and protection of our children. The Child Care Bill, 1988, should be speedily enacted and we should ensure that it is implemented.

We need to respond immediately to young homeless people. We need emergency accommodation for them. If we could provide 100 emergency beds at a cost of £1 million in this city it would help eliminate the immediate problem. We need a secure unit for girls. We need short term, medium-term and long term care facilities and therapeutic facilities and training for child care workers. We should make provision not only to alleviate the problem but to prevent the problem occurring by providing funds for support services for troubled families strained by unemployment and poverty. It is important to have a 24-hour call service to help people.

Introducing such measures is the only way we can reduce the numbers of children in the streets. The problem is worsening. Fr. Peter McVerry faces eviction from the flat which he has made into one of the few hostels in Dublin for homeless teenage boys. Fr. McVerry has no problem with leaving the flat which he admits is grossly overcrowded, but only if he and his boys have some other place to go. There is no other place to go for either Fr. McVerry or his boys or for any other homeless youth for that matter. Caring for our homeless young people is not only a question of resources and funding, but also a primary question in relation to values and priorities in our society. The welfare of our young people must never cease to be a priority.

The Government are very conscious of the difficulties faced by young homeless persons and are taking a number of initiatives to tackle the problem. The Child Care Bill which passes all stages of the House before Christmas contains important new provisions to assist young homeless people.

The Bill, when enacted, will impose a statutory duty on the health boards to promote the welfare of children up to the age of 18 who are not receiving adequate care or protection. Of particular relevance, is an entirely new section in the Bill requiring the health boards to investigate the circumstances of homeless children and, in appropriate cases, either to receive these children into care or to take steps to make accommodation available for them.

The Bill will shortly be introduced in the Seanad and, as is indicated in the Programme for Economic and Social Progress, the Government are committed to providing the additional resources necessary to bring the legislation into operation as soon as practicable after its enactment. The Minister for Health has set aside a sum of £1 million this year to begin the implementation of the Bill.

A number of service developments aimed at meeting the needs of the young homeless have also been initiated. Particular emphasis has been placed on the problems which have arisen in the Eastern Health Board area.

Examples of these initiatives include: the assignment of a special team of social workers to deal specifically with homeless young people. This is supported by a centralised crisis accommodation unit; a new community residential project for boys which has been established in Tallaght and which provides residential care for boys between 12 and 16 years of age; a similar residential project for girls which has been set up in the Ballymun area; a new long term residential unit which has been developed in the Clontarf area by catering for boys in the 11 to 14 age group; the setting up by the Eastern Health Board of a new project called "Carers for Young People" which will cater for adolescents who have had difficulty adapting to other settings; the purchase of a premises near Blessington which will house a therapeutic unit for boys and girls with special difficulties. This facility is due to come on stream in the first half of this year and negotiations are also taking place between the Eastern Health Board and a number of organisations regarding the provision of additional emergency and long term accommodation for both boys and girls.

Outside the Eastern Health Board area a number of other initiatives for the young homeless are being supported. Approval has recently been given to the Southern Health Board to build a new group home at Shanakiel Road, Cork. Funds have also been made available to the Mid-Western Health Board to develop a new unit for adolescents near Limerick. Projects in Galway, Tullamore and Sligo for disadvantaged youth are also being supported.

Funding has also been made available by the Minister for the Environment for special projects for the young homeless. "Focus Point" has received grants amounting to £2.4 million from the Department of the Environment's voluntary housing scheme towards the provision of a new flatlet project at Stanhope Street, Dublin, and the provision of a residential facility at Arran Quay, Dublin.

It is clear from the information that I have given to the House that the Government are well aware of the problem of the young homeless and are committed to doing all we can to bring to an end the plight of young people sleeping rough on the streets of our cities and towns.

I am sure all in this House hope that the initiatives to which I have referred tonight will be successful, and will go towards clearing the young people who are sleeping rought off our streets. None of us can accept that that situation should continue.