Adjournment Debate. - Homeless Persons.

I do not know Mr. Tony Paget, one of 5,000 or so homeless people on our streets, who was awarded a Just in Time award by the Irish Water Safety Council yesterday. Mr. Paget, a 26 year old man, with Mr. Dimitrios Paraskevakis, a civil engineer from Scotland working in Dublin, regardless of personal risk to themselves, rescued a Bus Éireann driver from the freezing waters of the River Liffey last Sunday week after an accident sent his bus into the waters below Butt Bridge.

The Celtic tiger and the Government cannot prevent such accidents. However, the Celtic tiger could end homelessness for Mr. Paget and the 5,000 people who, like him, face wind and rain in the doorways and passageways of our towns and cities tonight, 12 December, and every night. No doubt the Minister of State will say that the Government has increased the capital funding for the provision of services for homeless people from £20 million to £40 million. However, is this being done to solve the problem or just as a politically motivated hand-out? The money is spread over five years so it will be £8 million for the coming year. Regrettably the use of the money is unlikely to be scrutinised by the House as closely as it ought to be every six months or so, as will spending on BSE, and rightly so, and many other issues. The BSE crisis was given a blank cheque in the budget, highlighting the seriousness of the issue. How bad does the problem of homelessness have to become before it is allocated a blank cheque?

From its 30 years' work, the Simon Community has stated that homelessness is worse now than ever. Is this not a national scandal? Is the situation not worse than any titillating revelations from the Flood or Moriarty tribunals or the Departments of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and Health and Children or other sources?

More people sleep rough on the streets of Dublin than in the combined cities of Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham and Oxford. The figure for homelessness in Dublin doubled between 1996 and 1999 and now involves 2,000 adults and 1,000 children. A total of 68% of those who sleep rough in Dublin have been homeless for more than a year and 30% for more than five years. When questioned by the Simon Community, 94% of them said they would take accommodation if available. Of the 12 people who did not want it, nine said they would take it if it was safe. It comes down to the fact that no one wants to sleep rough, despite the myths or ideas put out by the Government.

What is the Government's response to this situation? Hostels are important but they will not solve the problem of homelessness. We need to remove the requirement to involve the Garda, particularly in the case of minors, which leads to the criminalisation of a social tragedy. We also need a hotline for the homeless and a place which can be easily accessed for help and advice. There is a need for an advisory service for the training of the homeless so they can find accommodation and employment and rescue themselves from their plight.

There is a need to co-ordinate services for the homeless for which the Government has responsibility. In its pre-budget submission last year, the Green Party proposed Dideán, the Irish for shelter, as a co-ordinating body. I ask the Minister of State to take this idea on board so that every six months or so the House would scrutinise the progress being made to end homelessness once and for all.

The Minister of State with responsibility for housing and urban renewal, Deputy Molloy, is unable to be in the House to respond to this matter and has asked me to do so on his behalf. I wish to take this opportunity to congratulate Mr. Tony Paget and Mr. Dimitrios Paraskevakis for their bravery in assisting to rescue the bus driver last Sunday week.

The Government is totally committed to addressing the problem of homelessness and in this regard Deputy Molloy published a formal integrated strategy to tackle homelessness last May. Despite what Deputy Sargent might say, there has been a very positive reaction from the voluntary sector to the policies set out in the Government's strategy.

The situation is getting worse.

No, many more people are now seeking homes. This strategy provides for an integrated response to homelessness by all the agencies involved, both statutory and voluntary. As part of the strategy, local authorities, together with health boards and voluntary bodies, are drawing up local action plans detailing how accommodation, health, settlement and welfare services will be provided to homeless persons by all of the agencies involved in these areas. This work is ongoing and local authorities have been urged to complete these plans as a matter of urgency. The action plan for the Dublin area is very close to being finalised. While it will take some time to ensure that all these services are put in place, it is vital that services for homeless persons are improved in the meantime.

The Government is concerned that not even one person should be homeless and forced to sleep on the streets of Dublin or anywhere else. As part of the action plans, additional facilities and accommodation will be provided for people who are forced to sleep rough. However, as it will take some time for these to be put in place, the Department of the Environment and Local Government has recently asked Dublin Corporation to urgently develop proposals to provide additional night-time service facilities which would provide people on the streets with basic shelter and food at night-time as an emergency interim measure. Dublin Corporation is anxious to provide these facilities and is currently seeking suitable premises.

Another area where there has been some improvement recently is emergency bed and breakfast accommodation. The strategy calls for the use of bed and breakfast accommodation for anything other than short-term emergency accommodation of less than one month, particularly for families, to be phased out.

At the instigation of the Department, Dublin Corporation, as a first step, has carried out inspections of all such accommodation in the past year and has entered into agreements with landlords whereby many of these facilities have been converted into shared living accommodation rather than simply bed and breakfast accommodation. The residents now have free access to come and go and they do not have to vacate their accommodation during the day. In addition, there is 24-hour management and security. While this is a move in the right direction in that it resolves some of the acute difficulties, we still have a long way to go. This will take some time as alternative sources of accommodation will need to be found.

In the meantime, local authorities will need to continue to use bed and breakfast accommodation to accommodate homeless persons on an emergency basis, but the use of it will decrease as alternative accommodation becomes available. A key element of the Government's strategy is the provision of additional accommodation and a greater variety of it to cater for the varying needs of homeless persons, including homeless families. In particular, additional transitional and move-on accommodation will be provided to enable people to move out of emergency accommodation, whether in bed and breakfast accommodation or hostels, into accommodation more suitable to their needs.

As I have previously stated, the Government is committed to tackling homelessness and has made substantial additional funding available to local authorities to ensure that the measures in the strategy are implemented. Capital funding for the direct provision by local authorities of accommodation for homeless persons is being doubled from £20 million to £40 million over the next five years and current funding is being increased by £6 million per annum to increase bed-night contribution rates to voluntary bodies and other support services.

Output in the voluntary housing sector is being increased to a target of 4,000 units per year over the lifetime of the national development plan. It is expected that at least half these units will be provided under the capital assistance scheme which is used extensively to provide special needs housing for certain groups, particularly the homeless. In addition, the expanded local authority housing programme of 25,000 units over the four year period 2000-03 will also provide additional accommodation for homeless persons.

We will see real improvements in the provision of accommodation and support services for homeless people. The Government has set out a clear framework and there is a genuine willingness all round to tackle homelessness. I hope we can count on the support of the Deputy and Members for measures to be implemented in his local authority area and throughout the country.

The sooner the better.