I thank the committee for the invitation. Some members may be familiar with the Simon Community but for anybody who is not, we are a network of communities providing local responses to local needs and issues of homelessness all around the country. We are based in Cork, Dublin, Dundalk, Galway, the midlands, the mid-west, the north west and the south east. I will focus on some issues, pulling out some of the main points from our submission. I am conscious of the similarity with some of what others have said and I will try not to overlap.
People who are homelessness and at risk are among the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in society. It is important to highlight that we are speaking of a diverse group of people. People might speak about the "homeless" but we are talking about women, men, young people, families, those with complex needs, both mental and physical, and people with problematic drug and alcohol use. It is important to look at those diverse needs in trying to respond effectively. According to the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, approximately 10,000 people were trapped in emergency accommodation in March 2018. There is controversy about those figures and I will not get into that. However, those figures include those in section 10-funded accommodation. It is a particular funding stream and it does not include the hidden homeless, including those who are doubling or tripling up, staying with friends and relatives, those who are sleeping rough and a range of other people.
Every day in the Simon Community we can see that educational issues contribute to the causes of homelessness and they can also be a consequence of homelessness.
Clearly, education is a protective factor which can offer a pathway out, along with other supports, including stable and secure housing. Research shows clear links between educational attainment and homelessness. According to the 2016 census, 38% of those enumerated as homeless had ceased full-time education and did not have an educational qualification beyond lower second level, with 26% of this cohort educated to primary level only. The impact of such low levels of educational attainment is captured by the 2016 CSO Survey on Income and Living Conditions, SILC, data which show that individuals with lower levels of educational attainment had progressively lower incomes across the eight income categories analysed and ranked highest in terms of the three primary poverty indices. There are strong links between poverty, homelessness and low educational attainment. A study by the Partnership for Health Equity, entitled Homelessness: An Unhealthy State, illustrates the lack of educational supports for people experiencing homelessness, with only 1% of 570 study participants in receipt of a BTEA payment. A 2012 study by Cork Simon Community entitled, Working it Out – Barriers to Education and Employment, involved 91 Cork Simon Community residents found that 65% of respondents had left school before completing the leaving certificate, with 13% attaining only primary education or below. The study also found that 35% of respondents had low literacy levels with 85% of this cohort being early school leavers. The strong links are again clear.
What we see across Government strategies is fragmentation. Departments are not all working together and the strategies are not interconnected. The FET strategy does not explicitly include people who are experiencing homelessness as a named target group, for example. The strategy considers homelessness as a dispositional or individual barrier rather than a structural one. However, homelessness is about structural poverty and disadvantage. Rebuilding Ireland, the action plan for housing and homelessness, contains a number of actions relating to the educational needs of children trapped in emergency accommodation, including access to early years services and school completion programmes as well as access to public transport. While these are important, are they enough? Given the 55% increase in childhood homelessness since the launch of Rebuilding Ireland, questions must be asked about the availability and staffing of these vital support services.
The national policy framework for children and young people, Better Outcomes Brighter Futures, broadly recognises the challenges facing early school leavers, a cohort that is over-represented among the homeless population. This recognition is matched with appropriate commitments but does not name young people experiencing homelessness as a target group. The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government made homelessness its cross sectoral priority for 2016, following discussion with the Better Outcomes Brighter Futures advisory council but additional education-focused commitments have not been named in the context of Rebuilding Ireland.
People experiencing homelessness face multiple barriers to educational attainment. These structural barriers serve to compound the experience of homelessness and prevent access to a vital pathway and transition out of homelessness. These barriers include, but are not limited to learning difficulties and limited basic literacy and numeracy skills; high rates of early school-leaving and low levels of qualifications; a lack of active mentoring for FET participants; having to abandon educational goals to receive better financial and welfare supports, which leads to poverty and unemployment traps; and a lack of affordable childcare services for parents. Participants in the Living in Limbo study, which examined youth homelessness, also cited having no fixed address or stable accommodation at various times, including unstable returns to the family home, diminished their ability to engage or re-engage with education and training programmes. A further barrier is the chaotic, unsettling and transient nature of hostel environments.
Simon Communities in Ireland have a number of clear priority recommendations for this committee. Access to education provides multifaceted protection. It prevents housing instability and homelessness while also being an important element in supporting people to leave homelessness and housing instability behind. Educational attainment is a necessary pathway to transition to employment, financial independence and housing security. In our work we find that housing security is critical and in this regard, we make a number of specific recommendations, the first of which is an expansion of the Housing First targets. The Housing First model involves the provision of a stable, secure home for the homeless person as quickly as possible, followed by the provision of other appropriate supports for the person within that home. It is an effective model with an 85% success rate. It must be ensured that person-centred education and employment supports are part of the supports provided to those in housing.
There needs to be a reassessment of Rebuilding Ireland's educational and school supports and targets aimed at children and families in emergency accommodation. Educational supports must be provided to young people between the ages of 18 to 26 who are experiencing homelessness, given the impact of early school leaving on this cohort. Consideration must be given to ways to make access to the BTEA scheme as easy as possible for adults experiencing homelessness in order that they can return to education and training. We must increase childcare supports for all parents seeking to return to education and training. There must be active inclusion of people experiencing homelessness in existing back to work and education and training programmes. Increased access to secure, quality employment on completion of study or training programmes is needed. What underpins all of this is access to affordable and secure housing. It is almost impossible for people to access training and education or to take up employment if they do not have a secure place to call home.