Homeless Prevention Bill 2020: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Housing Act 1988 to provide a legal definition of persons at risk of homelessness and to give the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and local authorities the power to provide such persons with supports to prevent them from becoming homeless.

As Deputies know, the number of adults and children in emergency accommodation and homelessness remains unacceptably high. The two bans on evictions arising out of the Covid-19 crisis have brought the numbers down but they are still at unacceptable levels. Figures released by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on Friday show that, as of that date, 8,702 adults and children were residing in Department-funded emergency accommodation, including 2,583 children. We know this is not the full picture. There are, in addition, more than 700 adults and children who were formerly asylum applicants, and now have leave to remain, who are using direct provision as a form of emergency accommodation because they cannot secure private rental accommodation. On any one night, there could be as many as 500 adults - predominantly women - and children in Tusla-funded domestic violence refuges. There are 700 adults and children residing in hostels run by religious charities in Dublin, which are not funded by any State agency. Therefore, the real figure for the number of adults and children living in emergency accommodation remains at more than 10,000.

Last Friday, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage also released the quarterly homeless report, which showed some very worrying figures in terms of family presentations, particularly since April of this year. We are now back at the same level of new family presentations in Dublin as we had prior to Covid-19. Meanwhile, the number of families leaving emergency accommodation is much lower than it was at that time.

Budget 2020 includes the largest allocation in the history of State for homelessness. However, the overwhelming majority of that allocation, at 95%, is for emergency responses, with a paltry 5% going on prevention. While emergency responses are vital, they are also ultimately an admission of Government failure in other areas. In 2021, we need to see a greater focus on prevention, a key part of which would see Government and State agencies intervening much earlier in the process, before single people and families become homeless, to ensure they have an adequate roof over their heads.

The Bill I am bringing before the House is based on legislation that was introduced in England and Wales a number of years ago. That legislation sought to place a legal obligation on local authorities and state agencies to put in place a homeless prevention plan before a family becomes homeless. We know that when somebody is due to leave care, prison or a detoxification programme, for example, or when somebody has a notice to quit, he or she is likely to become homeless further down the line. We have the very unfortunate situation at this time where the vast majority of people who are at risk of homelessness are told by local authorities and State agencies to come back at the point at which they no longer have a roof over their heads. There are some good exceptions to this practice, such as the Threshold tenancy sustainment programme introduced by the last Government, which has proved very successful, and the introduction of the homeless rate of the housing assistance payment, HAP, although that is only available four weeks before a family with a notice to quit becomes homeless.

We need to have a system in place whereby, well before people are losing the roof over their heads, the State will step in to provide the supports necessary to ensure those families do not become homeless. The Bill I am introducing imposes a 60-day obligation for a comprehensive homeless prevention plan to be put in place. This would be available not only to those with notice to quit but also to care leavers, people leaving prison, survivors of domestic abuse, people leaving hospital, people exiting psychiatric care, people with addiction problems coming out of detoxification, and so on. Unless we impose this kind of obligation, those people will, in the main, be left to their own devices. On that basis, I am recommending the Bill to the House.

On a related matter, last week it was reported that another five people who were accessing homeless services had lost their lives in very tragic circumstances throughout the State. There have been more than 50 such cases this year, compared with 30 or so last year. We could see a doubling this year of the number of tragic and unnecessary deaths of people experiencing homelessness. I have asked the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage to undertake an urgent review of this matter. We need an emergency policy response by the Government.

We need to move away from congregated settings for emergency accommodation and we need greater supports, particularly for people with mental health and addiction problems. We need an increase in the number of Housing First tenancies. We also need to introduce another good practice present in Britain, that of adult safeguarding reviews, to learn lessons from those deaths. This is a matter to which we will be returning in the House in the near future.

Is the Bill opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

As this is a Private Members' Bill, may I ask Deputy Ó Broin to move that Second Stage be taken in Private Members' time?

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.