I thank the House for the opportunity to talk about this very important issue. One of the very first conversations I had when I was appointed was with a person working in the educational space about the difficult situations the person was encountering with children who were in emergency accommodation in terms of their development, learning and growing. From that very first induction into my job I was conscious of the need to place priority on the issue of children in emergency accommodation and making sure we were bringing in appropriate supports to help those children in all the needs a child will have in growing up, not only with regard to the crisis their family is experiencing at the time.
We last had statements on this issue on 21 December last, the day before the Christmas break. It is timely for us to debate it again and keep it on the agenda in order that we might keep coming back to the different measures we are introducing to make sure that they are both robust and bringing about solutions.
Earlier today, I published the latest figures collected from local authorities and released by the Department. The May figures show an increase of 57 adults, 12 families and 137 children and other dependants in emergency accommodation nationally over the past month. However, these numbers do not present a single picture or upward trend for the entire country. As we do more work and pull away more layers from the raw top-line numbers, we see that there was no increase in the number of adults accessing emergency accommodation outside of Dublin. In Dublin, there was an increase of 57 adults accessing emergency accommodation. This was a 1% increase on the figure for the previous month. The number of families accessing emergency accommodation in Dublin fell by 13 and, significantly, presentations were also down, with 79 families presenting in May compared with 90 in April. However, we again saw an increase in the figure for children and other dependants. This was due to a small number of new families with a large number of children accessing emergency accommodation. This is the second month in a row that this has happened. It is deeply worrying because exit pathways for larger families can be more difficult to secure. The figure for families outside of Dublin presenting seems to have stabilised, apart from an increase in the south-west region of 14. The specific reasons for this need to be examined further.
As Deputies are aware, I recently published two reports in this area. One was from the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, which I had requested and which examined trends evident since the beginning of the year. The other report was from the homeless inter-agency group I established after the first housing summit last September in order to ensure a more co-ordinated and effective response from the Departments and agencies involved in the delivery of services to the homeless. I requested these two reports because I understand that the area is incredibly complex. It presents us with challenges that cannot always be solved simply by providing accommodation or homes. I sought recommendations and new solutions in order that we might continue to deliver on the progress being made under Rebuilding Ireland. Solutions such as Housing First have helped us achieve a 40% reduction in the number of people sleeping rough and a 90% retention rate for people housed through Housing First. A new national director was appointed earlier this year. We are rolling out Housing First tenancies across the country and a national plan is being drafted and will come to me next month. There are more solutions coming on foot of these reports. Some have been explored with the housing committee. This will continue at the third housing summit which is happening next Tuesday at the Custom House.
I will look more specifically now at the situation facing children in homelessness. As of May, we have 1,724 families, with 3,826 children and other dependants, in emergency accommodation. We thought the figure was higher but work undertaken earlier in the year discovered that a number of families were not in emergency accommodation at all but were in homes with no risk of entering emergency accommodation and had incorrectly been counted as part of the monthly reports. Work continues to identify further families and individuals who may have been inappropriately included in these numbers. It is important that we do this work for accuracy but our focus must always be on individuals and the supports they need. Of the approximately 1,700 families recorded as being in emergency accommodation, less than half are in hotels. This is still a sizeable number and, as we all agree, one family in a hotel is one too many. Finding solutions for these families in particular is a top priority for me and my Department. In 2017, more than 2,000 families left hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation and the majority went into homes. We know there are solutions that work; we just need to drive them harder.
The recently published reports tell us some distressing things, such as the fact that 65% of families in emergency accommodation in Dublin are headed by lone parents and one in five of these families is headed by a parent under the age of 24. They also tell us that a significant number of families have refused the housing assistance payment, HAP, instead choosing to go into or stay in emergency accommodation. Whatever preconceptions people may have about HAP or the private rental market, a home is far superior to a hotel or hub. We have to work to support these families into the rental sector where it is the most immediate practical response to their housing needs. If that means reforming HAP in some way, then we will do that. HAP is working for tens of thousands of people, just as the rental market, despite rent inflation, which is slowing down dramatically, is working for hundreds of thousands of people. Deputies in the House should take care that neither their words nor their actions put people off HAP and see them entering into hotels or bed and breakfasts instead.
Earlier this year, my Department made the HAP place finder service available to all local authorities. This provides that the local authority can pay a rental deposit and up to two months’ rent for individuals experiencing or at risk of homelessness. It also provides that my Department will fund 90% of the cost of a dedicated place finder officer to work with families to source suitable properties. Funding for a place finder officer has been approved in 17 local authorities that have requested this support. We also have seen that a significant number of families have refused a permanent social housing home in their area of choice and have remained in a hotel, hub or bed and breakfast. The reasons for this require further examination. It is very difficult for the general public to understand why this may be the case.
The reports also tells us a number of positive things, like the fact that the rate of increase of families accessing emergency accommodation slowed in 2017 in comparison with previous years. We saw dramatic increases in 2015 and 2016. This has slowed quite dramatically, particularly in Dublin. The trend in Dublin appears to be one of stabilisation with another fall in families accessing emergency accommodation in May and a decrease in presentations. This trend may be developing outside of Dublin too, with the exception of one outlier region that recorded a significant increase of 14 new families accessing emergency accommodation in the May report.
Families who presented to homeless services in 2016 spent an average of ten months in emergency accommodation before departing to a tenancy. In 2017, this time was reduced with families who presented to homeless services spending an average of four months in emergency accommodation before departing to a tenancy. In a one-year period, that is significant progress for the families experiencing this crisis in their lives through no fault of their own.
Importantly, the report also highlights that families staying in hubs typically exit emergency accommodation into an independent tenancy within a shorter timeframe than families staying in hotels or bed and breakfast accommodation. This highlights the need for the delivery of additional family hub spaces. Over 530 families are accommodated in hubs and we expect to introduce an additional 400 such spaces for family accommodation in the next six to eight months which will help us to reduce our reliance on hotels for emergency accommodation. We never wanted to have to accommodate families in hotels and bed and breakfasts but we obviously could not allow families to sleep rough on our streets. As the crisis worsened, more families were accommodated in this way. No family need ever sleep rough because we have contingency rooms in place every night of the week. No family has to spend the night in a Garda station because we have contingency rooms in place every night of the week and we are developing more.
The reason the family hub is the more appropriate first response - I stress it is only a first response - is because it allows us to wrap all of the support services that are needed around the family in their time of crisis. As soon as the family go into the hub they are immediately met by a support team whose main aim is to exit them from homelessness. Supporting an exit from homelessness sometimes requires more than a house. Sometimes it requires broader social and welfare supports. Family hubs allow for a much more co-ordinated needs assessment and support planning for the family. Supports include appropriate play space, cooking and laundry facilities and communal recreation space while move-on options to long-term independent living are identified and secured. Supports also include on-site access to welfare, health, housing services and other appropriate supports and free childcare. A special emphasis is placed on children from homeless families through the school completion programme. Schools with home-school community liaison co-ordinators are proactively engaging with parents from homeless families to assist access to any other supports that may be of assistance. Children in homeless accommodation are also being prioritised within the school completion programme for services such as breakfast and homework clubs. Leap cards are available to assist families in accessing transport links, thus minimising the risk of missing school days. This is much more stable and suitable than a hotel and the statistics tell us it is working. It is critical that best practice regarding child protection, child welfare and child development is at the forefront of our mind in every facility where there are children present. I speak on a regular basis with my colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, and with the Dublin Region Homeless Executive to ensure that robust child protection measures, inspection arrangements and health supports are in place in emergency accommodation for families. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, has a strong commitment to the protection of families and children experiencing homelessness and I want to acknowledge that in the Chamber.
I have also met the Ombudsman for Children and the commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission to discuss issues on homeless families. I have assured the Ombudsman we are doing everything possible to ensure the needs of children are foremost in the policies we implement and the services we deliver. I have visited many of the family hubs and met the service providers and many of the families and children staying in the hubs. The feedback from the families has been positive. While I would rather not have any families in emergency accommodation, the hubs certainly offer a significantly better and more child-friendly approach for short-term emergency accommodation than hotels and bed and breakfasts.
The Dublin Region Homeless Executive has an inspection regime in place for the family hubs to deal with complaints and to ensure targets are met and that accommodation is appropriate and safe. The inspection team has a work programme, which includes site visits and interaction with homeless families and individuals on issues arising in their accommodation. Separate to the existing inspection regime, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive has been overseeing the development of a quality standards framework with a view to having the finalised standards introduced on a national basis by all local authorities.
I understand that the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive will formally submit the framework to me shortly for approval. I look forward to receiving its submission and working with local authorities to further enhance and strengthen the arrangements in place across the country.
Finally, I pay tribute to all of the work being undertaken by the local authorities and the NGO service providers in this area. All these individuals face a difficult job and work tirelessly to provide supports to the individuals and families who are experiencing homelessness. Supporting these efforts is a priority for my Department.