That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to make provision in relation to requests for accommodation by homeless families, for that purpose to amend the Housing Act 1988 and to provide for related matters.
On the night of 23 May 2017, 12 families with 30 children among them could not be accommodated by homeless services in Dublin and were sent to Garda stations because there was nowhere else for them to go. It has been reported that at least one of these families slept in a public park. These 30 children had no rights to protection, safety or a roof over their heads except as dependants of their parents. The rights of the child have been written into the Constitution following a referendum, but in the crucial area of homelessness, children have no individual rights and there is no statutory recognition of the needs of a homeless family as a family unit. The Bill I introduce today will change that if enacted. It will require housing authorities to regard the best interests of the child as paramount and to protect and assist families, including by providing them with safe accommodation.
According to the most recent figures, homelessness is rising month by month with 7,699 people now homeless in Ireland, of whom more than one third, or 2,777, are children. We can only imagine the fear and anxiety these children face daily, not to mention losing contact with communities, friends and the familiar patterns that are so important to a child's sense of security. The focus of the Bill is the perspective of the children. Statistics published in TCD research today show that 42% of homeless adults are women, many of whom have dependent children in lone parent households. It is clear from the research that there are not enough services to cater for the needs of those families. This underlines all the more the need for specific protection for the children as well as their mothers. Homeless charities, including Focus Ireland, have told us it is important the law is strengthened to support families in crisis.
The Bill will also ensure there is a holistic response to the support of families in hotels and hubs, not only with a roof over their heads but with wider supports for the effective functioning of families and the development, welfare and protection of children within the family home. Currently, the Housing Acts refer to a person as homeless where there is no accommodation available which the person together with any other person who normally resides with him or her or who might reasonably be expected to reside with him or her can reasonably be expected to occupy. While such a homeless person is entitled to apply to a housing authority for accommodation or other assistance, there is no explicit recognition in our current legislative scheme of those other persons as persons in their own right with entitlements under law. Specifically, there is no statutory recognition of the need of a homeless family as a family unit. It is also the case that notwithstanding the passing of the constitutional amendment on the rights of the child, there is no statutory recognition of the constitutional rights of homeless children. The purpose of the Bill is to impose an obligation on housing authorities to recognise these persons as a family unit and to have specific regard to the best interests of the children of homeless families in crisis accommodation situations.
I seek leave to introduce the Bill which I hope will have the support of colleagues right across the House.