Family and Child Homelessness: Discussion

Before we begin, the broadcasting and recording service has requested of members and visitors in the Public Gallery that for the duration of the meeting, they ensure their mobile telephones are turned off completely or switched to airplane, safe or flight mode, depending on their device. It is not sufficient to put telephones on silent mode as they will maintain a level of interference with the broadcasting system. Next on the agenda is No. 6, concerning child and family homelessness. I welcome Mr. Mike Allen and Ms Niamh Lambe from Focus Ireland, Ms Saoirse Brady and Ms Edel Quinn from the Children's Rights Alliance, Dr. Niall Muldoon and Dr. Karen McAuley from the Office of the Ombudsman for Children and Ms Rebecca Keatinge and Mr. Paul Dornan from the Mercy Law Centre.

I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I invite Mr. Allen to make his opening statement.

Mr. Mike Allen

I thank the Chair and the committee for the invitation to address this important issue. Much of what we are going to be talking about involves the report from the Office of the Ombudsman for Children on family hubs. We welcome the report and think it is a substantive and wise contribution to the debate. It mixes the voices of the children experiencing homelessness with questions on policy, or the absence of it. It is important for the committee to remember that the report is looking at the very best of what we offer for families who are homeless. The family hubs are a specific outcome of policy. The vast majority of homeless families experience a much lower level of accommodation and support. We really have to keep our attention on that aspect of the situation. It brings us to a point where we must not be spending all of our time thinking about what is the best form of hub and emergency accommodation. This committee, more than any other, needs to be addressing the real answer to homelessness, which is getting an adequate supply of homes.

The discussion on the hubs, and the way in which the report from the Office of the Ombudsman for Children highlights the absence of policy behind it, emphasises something which has been evident all of the way through the homelessness crisis. Every stage of the way, these problems have been addressed by simply stating that one form of intervention is better than another. Let us take the case of someone lying on the side of the street with no food and no cover. It is better in that instance if someone comes along and gives that person some soup. Once that soup has been provided, it would be better again if somebody else then came along and gave that person a free sleeping bag. Once that person has the sleeping bag, it would in turn be better if he or she had some form of accommodation, even if that was a dormitory with ten other people, some of whom were on drugs. Each of those scenarios is, arguably, better than the other.

Similarly, having families living in single hotel rooms is unacceptable and hubs are better than that. Better than, however, is not a policy. If a voluntary organisation states that handing someone a sandwich is better than that person going hungry, that is fine. It is a voluntary activity and a humanitarian response. Quite reasonably, we expect "better than" that in respect of policy from the State and the way that it addresses this issue. Regarding hubs, we have to ask what is the analysis of the problem which has informed the proposal to put hubs in place. In what sense is a hub a response? How will we know if that policy works? There is a complete vacuum in that respect.

We have highlighted two issues in the report. What impact is a hub meant to have on the duration for which families are homeless? We all agree that we would like to live in a world where no family was homeless. We are, however, in the middle of a crisis and the type of question we need to ask includes asking how long we are willing to put up with certain families remaining homeless. The most recent figures published were from March this year. Those figures showed that 167 families were homeless for more than two years.

A number of questions arise. Is it policy that those families should be in hubs because they provide a better form of accommodation or is it policy that they should be in hotel rooms because of some other reason? Do we expect the families in hubs to move on more quickly? Alternatively, do we expect them to move on more slowly because they have more problems? These are not complicated questions. These are the basic questions that anybody addressing the issue of homelessness should have asked on day one. We do not know the answer. What are we doing about the fact that those families are homeless for so long? We know the utter destruction homelessness causes to the lives of the people in that family unit, which is protected in our Constitution, and especially to the children in that family, who are also protected by our Constitution. We have allowed homelessness to grow, however. It has been detailed in the reports year after year for some time now. What is our policy to address that, how do the hubs, and everything else we do, fit in with that policy?

We have also had an absolute concentration from Government, and elsewhere, just on the numbers. I acknowledge that we have played our part in that as well. Every time the homeless figures come out, and mostly they go upwards, the Government states that X numbers of families have moved out of homelessness. If we concentrate only on getting the maximum number of families out of homelessness every month, so that we can have a press release on that achievement, the inevitable result is that the families with the highest degree of social problems will become the ones that remain in that situation the longest. They are the families that it is the hardest to support sustainably out of homelessness. When we finally reach the end of this crisis and we have enough homes, we will then be in a situation where there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of families whose capacity to operate independently has been entirely undermined by years spent living in institutions.

Even aside from the housing, that is a problem we can address. It is shocking that there is an absolute absence of any Government policy to even acknowledge that as an issue or to state how it is to be addressed. It has to remain shocking and be as solvable as the whole problem. Similarly, Focus Ireland has been recognised for more than 30 years as having expertise in dealing with family homelessness. The details of what we have done are in the report so I will not go through all of it. We are, however, recognised by every local authority and by the Government as having that expertise. We have argued consistently that there needs to be a case manager and a child support worker for every family in need of such support.

The Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE, is responding to that need in a way that may be positive. It is recruiting up to 25 case managers to be employed by the DRHE and to work directly with homeless families. Those case managers will be paid at a higher wage level than the DRHE is willing to pay us to employ staff to do the same thing. It is not explained anywhere, that I have seen, why this is a good shift to make. It has been the policy of Government and local authorities for the past ten years, at least, that specialised groups are better at delivering these services. That is why organisations such as Focus Ireland, as well the Peter McVerry Trust, the Simon communities, Depaul and others, has been subcontracted to work with homeless people. We have that expertise.

There is a very substantial shift, involving a budget of over €1 million, from doing that directly. I am not criticising it. Let us be absolutely clear, I am criticising that I have not seen a single piece of paper which explains why that is a better use of public money and what benefits it will provide to the families, their children or to the homeless social taxation issue. It is yet another area where policy is being developed. We call it policy but there is not policy behind it.

The last point I will make since this is the housing committee is that concentration will be obviously on this issue of managing homelessness but it is housing that is the solution. There is a figure that surprised me in the fiscal report that came out yesterday. The Government is projecting that by 2023 there will be 48,000 housing completions. Completions will reach this sort of peak. I am sure the members of the committee will have views as to where the 48,000 figure came from and the realism of it - it came from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. If it is the Government's aspiration that we will reach 48,000 new completions in 2023, at that point the problem of homelessness will stop getting worse. We can assume that the problem of homelessness, that is, there are too few homes for the people who need them, will continue to get worse even on the Government's most optimistic statement. It will not stop getting worse until 2023. That is a very serious situation in terms of the pressure that is on homeless services, and particularly on homeless families, and the total absence of any coherent policy to deal with family homelessness is a distinct problem from the general one of homelessness.

I thank Mr. Allen. I now call Ms Saoirse Brady from the Children's Rights Alliance.

Ms Saoirse Brady

I will split my time with my colleague, Edel Quinn. She will start and I will finish.

Ms Edel Quinn

I wish the committee a good morning and thank the members for the opportunity to present to the committee here today. I will say a quick word about the alliance. We unite over 100 member organisations working to make Ireland one of the best places in the world to be a child.

Children under the age of 18 experienced the steepest rise in homelessness of any age group over the past five years, with children under four making up the largest cohort living in emergency accommodation. As a society, I think we can agree that this is unacceptable.

Young parents aged 18 to 24 years make up almost one-in-four of families in Dublin experiencing homelessness. We often think of this as a Dublin problem but outside of Dublin, the problem of child and family homelessness has also increased. We had almost 500 families with over 1,000 children in emergency accommodation only two months ago - those figures are from April 2019.

The Report Card is a Children's Rights Alliance annual flagship publication. It is our tool for identifying serious issues for children. It examines the Government's commitments to children in its programme for government. This year, in our report card, the Government received an F, or a fail, for child and family homelessness. This is due to the ongoing phenomenon of child and family homelessness and the failure of Government to embrace strategies that will reduce the number of children living in emergency accommodation.

I briefly want to paint a picture of what living in emergency accommodation is like for children today. First of all, what is a home? A home should be a warm, secure and safe place for children. We released a report last year entitled Home Works on the educational needs of children experiencing homelessness. What that study showed us was that these children wake up in the morning, often really early, for instance, at 5.30 a.m., so that they can make a long journey to school because they are often in emergency accommodation that is further away from their schools. They wake up in one room, which they share with family, with their parents and siblings. Since there is a lack of storage and cooking facilities in the room, often the parents struggle to find breakfast for their children. What we have found in our reports and what we hear through our members and through our Access to Justice information line is that the parents are going to an Esso station to try to find a roll or something to give these children for breakfast, and often they make a choice between paying expensive transport charges for the bus journey to school and breakfast.

The education of these children is severely disrupted. They have inadequate rest because of the conditions that they are sleeping in. Homeless accommodation can be noisy, with discos or merely other residents in emergency accommodation making noise. They are falling asleep at school. They are falling behind in their education.

When they come back to the emergency accommodation in the evening, they have no place to do their homework. They have no place for normal things that children do, such as play dates, and to rest and relax. We are finding that their friendships are strained. Older children do not want to tell their friends - they are embarrassed to tell their friends where they are staying - and they experience anxiety, low self-esteem and feelings of isolation where these friendships breakdown.

The cycle continues. We believe that the system needs to be redesigned in order to change this. I will hand over to my colleague, Saoirse Brady, who will set out some of those solutions.

Ms Saoirse Brady

We all know that there is no constitutional right to housing, but the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Ireland has ratified, affords children the right to an adequate standard of living, including the provision of quality housing for those children. While the convention does not apply directly in Irish law, the courts can exercise discretion in how much weight they give international law in their decisions.

In 2016, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child examined Ireland. It expressed concern "at reports of families affected by homelessness facing significant delays in accessing social housing and frequently living in inappropriate, temporary or emergency accommodation on a long-term basis". The UN committee called on the State "to undertake measures to increase the availability of social housing and emergency housing support".

I think we can all agree that the face of homelessness in Ireland has changed. When the existing legislation was put in place, it was to support single adult males. Nowadays, lone parent families with children make up the biggest cohort in the homeless population. It is not right that when local authorities decide where families with children will be accommodated, they do not have to take the children's best interests into account. This is why, as part of our No Child 2020 campaign, which is focused on child poverty and looks to the aims of the Democratic Programme of 1919, we are calling on the Government to put in place progressive legislate that would recognise the best interests of children and would mean that decision-makers, when deciding where those children should be placed, should take their best interests into account and ensure that their needs are met. This would mean that they would have to consider such matters, as Ms Quinn stated, as to whether or not children would have to get up at 5.30 a.m. to make a two and a half hour journey to school, whether babies and toddlers would have the room to learn to crawl and learn to walk and whether teenagers would have enough privacy from their parents and siblings.

Furthermore, the amended legislation should clearly time-limit the use of emergency accommodation for families with children. Some families are locked into homelessness for years, as Mr. Allen said. He gave the figure of 167, or 13%, of families who are living in homeless accommodation for more than two years. Both the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the Ombudsman for Children, from whom the committee will hear this morning, have called for time limits on how long a family should spend in temporary accommodation. This is to avoid the risk of institutionalisation and the normalisation of homelessness.

In July 2017, the Government began to roll-out family hubs after it did not meet its own target to use emergency accommodation only in limited circumstances and at the beginning of 2019, there were 26 hubs nationwide with capacity to accommodate 600 families. When we were producing the Report Card last year and asked the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, we found that up to the third quarter in 2018 the Department had put €45 million into those family hubs. While the hubs are more suitable, they do not represent a long-term or child-appropriate solution. Children themselves, as I am sure the committee will hear from Dr. Muldoon shortly, do not see family hubs as a solution.

What is the long-term solution? If we want to realise the right of children to a home, we need to provide quality public housing. We would hope to see a move away from a reliance on the private rented sector and instead provide families with suitable, adequate and affordable accommodation where they feel security and where children feel that they have a place that they can truly call home.

I now call on Dr. Niall Muldoon from the Ombudsman for Children's Office to make his opening statement.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I thank the Chairman and the members for the invitation to appear before the committee today. As members of the committee will be aware, the Ombudsman for Children's Office, OCO, is an independent statutory body which was established under the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002, as amended. We have two core statutory functions: to promote the rights and welfare of children under 18 years of age; and to examine and investigate complaints made by or on behalf of children about the administrative actions of public bodies, schools or voluntary hospitals that may have had an adverse effect on children.

Since I came into the office, the strategic priority for my office has included the crisis in homelessness, including family homelessness.

In light of the ongoing crisis in homelessness, including family homelessness, the circumstances of children experiencing homelessness will remain a priority for my office as part of our new strategic plan for the period 2019 to 2021. I will take this opportunity to highlight to the committee issues and recommendations contained in No Place Like Home, a report published by my office in April 2019. Its main purpose is to highlight the views and experiences of children living in family hubs.

As members of the committee know, the development of family hubs emerged in 2017. As has been highlighted by Mr. Mike Allen of Focus Ireland, they were introduced as an alternative to hotels and bed and breakfasts in the provision of the emergency temporary accommodation needs of homeless families. Family hubs have proliferated in the absence of an evidence base and an initial pilot phase and there were no clear public policy objectives set out for their use. As the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government indicated on 29 May, 27 hubs are in operation nationally, providing 650 units of accommodation.

In light of how family hubs emerged, we wanted to learn more about what it is like for children to live in them, and we have had a taste of it in the presentation made by the Children's Rights Alliance. This focus is not to distract or detract in any way from the very challenging circumstances faced by many other families being provided with emergency accommodation in hotels and bed and breakfasts, families who are self-accommodating by finding their own emergency accommodation or families in the hidden homelessness sector. The consultation we undertook was between October 2018 and January 2019. It involved engaging directly with 37 children between the ages of five and 17 years and 33 parents of 43 children under five years of age who were living in a family hub at the time.

We went to eight family hubs, comprising five in the Dublin area, two in Limerick and one in Cork. They varied in terms of whether they were operated by an NGO or a private body, their location and size, and the facilities and supports provided. This variation is reflected in the perspectives shared by the children, young people and parents who participated in our consultation and told us what they liked about living in a family hub, what they found challenging and what changes they would like to see in the hubs.

The positives spoken about by younger children were making and having friends in the family hub and the importance of outdoor play space and equipment where available. Children living in family hubs with child support workers on site spoke positively about the activities organised by them and the support they provided. It is important to note that several younger children could not identify anything positive about living in a family hub, with some children responding simply with the word "nothing".

Children aged between 13 and 17 years also identified positives, including the support provided by staff in the family hub where they lived and the food they received. Where facilities such as computers, a TV room and study room were provided, older children identified these as positives. Some older children identified living in a family hub as comparatively better than what they had previously, for example, some of them had been living with extended family in overcrowded housing. They also said the hubs offered more stability than living in a hotel or bed and breakfast. Parents of children under five years of age welcomed the relative security and stability provided by hubs when compared with more precarious living arrangements, including hotels. They also spoke about the support and helpfulness of staff working in the family hub. Parents living with their children in family hubs that had good facilities, activities for their children or access to a child support worker or both highlighted these as positive features.

No Place Like Home points to the real difficulties that living in family hubs presents for the children, notwithstanding the efforts and kindness of staff working in the hubs. In brief, the children highlight the negative impact that living in this type of environment is having on family life, parenting, individual and family privacy, children’s ability to get adequate rest and sleep, children’s health, well-being and development, children’s ability to learn and study, children’s opportunities for play and recreation, children’s exposure to aggression and fighting, children’s freedom of movement and children’s ability to maintain relationships with extended family and friends. Compounding these challenges were the feelings of shame expressed by the children about being homeless and the feelings of failure that parents expressed about their situation.

As regards changes that could improve family hubs, children and parents spoke about needing more and better space, the provision of more open communal areas for families to use, providing a separate study space for children, providing space for families to meet visitors and providing outdoor play spaces in hubs that do not already have them. They also spoke about the need for better facilities, including cooking facilities, and about reducing rules and restrictions insofar as possible. Several older children spoke about the need to combat the stigma associated with family homelessness, while a number of parents expressed the view that regular reviews of family hubs should be undertaken. The recommendation that was made most frequently was that families should have long-term, secure housing and should receive all the support they need to access it. As one parent observed:

If you change small things ... the bigger problems are still there. This is emergency accommodation, the emergency is the problem.

Arising from the experiences and perspectives shared by children and parents and having regard to international standards and developments, we set out a number of priorities for action in the report. With regard to policy and provision we believe timelines need to be put in place, as was mentioned earlier, to end to the practices of self-accommodation and providing emergency accommodation to families in hotels and bed and breakfasts. An independent, formal evaluation of the suitability of family hubs is needed. Additional measures are needed to combat the stigma associated with family homelessness and to support the dignity, self-worth and resilience of children and parents experiencing homelessness. Practical measures in this regard that need to be seriously considered include increasing the number of child support workers, therapeutic supports and family support services available to children and parents.

We need to look at the national implementation of the national quality standards framework, NQSF, for homeless services in Ireland. We were delighted by the recent indication by the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government that the framework will be introduced nationally over a 12-month period from 1 July 2019. To ensure appropriate monitoring, oversight and accountability, a mechanism for independent, statutory inspection of homelessness services needs to be put in place. We are concerned they do not appear to be in the offing at any time in the near future.

Data are a problem and prompt progress needs to be made with regard to developing and implementing improved practices for data collection and disaggregation. This is vital to provide for an evidence-informed approach to legislation, public policy and provision in this area.

Existing legislation needs to be amended and strengthened to make children visible and to require housing authorities to provide appropriate accommodation and supports to homeless families with children. The issue of enumerating the right to housing in the Constitution needs to be progressed as a matter of priority. We would like the Oireachtas to proceed with a detailed examination of the recommendations contained in the 2014 report of the eighth Constitutional Convention on economic, social and cultural rights.

I am pleased to inform the committee that following the publication of No Place Like Home, I had a constructive meeting with the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government in May. I look forward to engaging further with him and the Department on the proposed evaluation of family hubs.

In light of the roles that the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Tusla have under Rebuilding Ireland with regard to supporting families experiencing homelessness, I have also written to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to ask her to give serious consideration to increasing the practical supports, including child support workers and family support services, that are available to children and parents living in emergency accommodation, including family hubs.

My office fully appreciates that the crisis in family homelessness in Ireland is multifaceted and complex and that family hubs are only one aspect of the current response to it. I hope our No Place Like Home report is a constructive contribution and I assure the committee that we will build on it over the coming years.

I thank Dr. Muldoon. I now call Ms Rebecca Keatinge from the Mercy Law Resource Centre to make her opening statement.

Ms Rebecca Keatinge

I thank the committee for the invitation to present today. We warmly welcome the focus of the committee on child and family homelessness. Mercy Law Resource Centre, MLRC, is an independent law centre and registered charity. Our principal focus is the provision of free legal advice and representation to individuals and families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Since 2015, an increasing number of vulnerable families have accessed our services. Overall in 2018, Mercy Law advised more than 720 individuals and families, of whom 244 were experiencing homelessness. At present, 57% of our clients are families with minor children who are homeless and 77% of our clients are of ethnic minorities.

Building on our substantive submission and other Mercy Law reports before the committee, I will highlight a number of key concerns and related recommendations. Since 2015, Mercy Law has frequently engaged with families who were refused emergency accommodation, with their only options then being to sleep in parks, cars, uninhabitable caravans, chronically overcrowded or unsafe conditions or in Garda stations. Mercy Law sees at first hand the devastating impact on families and their children of improper refusals of emergency accommodation.

At present, there is no strict legal obligation on housing authorities to provide emergency accommodation. There is a discretion but no duty. Recent High Court decisions have afforded broad discretion to housing authorities with respect to the homeless assessment. It is our position that the wide margin of discretion afforded to housing authorities in the current legal framework does not adequately protect homeless families with minor children. Mercy Law continues to call for protection of the right to housing in the Constitution. Specifically as part of a shift to a legal rights-based approach, we recommend tightening the statutory provisions contained in the Housing Act 1988 to eliminate the statutory discretion and impose a duty on the housing authority to provide such emergency accommodation.

We also raise a most urgent concern in respect of the provision of one-night-only emergency accommodation. MLRC frequently assists families placed in one-night-only emergency accommodation, including those with very young children, children with special needs, new mothers and their newborn babies discharged from maternity hospitals and victims of domestic violence. On numerous occasions MLRC experiences first hand the deep distress and chaos of families placed in chronically unstable emergency accommodation. Families must move every day. They frequently cannot access their accommodation until 8 p.m. and must leave by 9.30 a.m. Families have no secure place to go during the day and spend prolonged periods in shopping centres, in parks, on the streets or on buses. Families of no access to cooking or laundry facilities. They ordinarily cannot register their children for school or access primary healthcare because they do not have a fixed address or stable accommodation.

As of 1 June, MLRC understands that 80 families were in one-night-only accommodation, an increase on the figure we understood to be 50 as of December last. MLRC has, without success, sought information on the legal basis and reasons that some families are placed in accommodation of this kind while others have rolling placements in more stable accommodation. This affects families that are on the housing list and those that are not. In our experience it affects minority families disproportionately. A family in this type of accommodation cannot meet its basic needs let alone resolve its long-term housing issues. It compounds the chaos and distress of homelessness. This type of accommodation provision is not fit for purpose. MLRC believes that it may expose families and their children to inhuman and degrading treatment of such severity as to engage Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is also observed that there may be discriminatory practice such that ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected.

Our strong and unqualified recommendation to the committee is for a cessation of the provision of one-night-only emergency accommodation to homeless families and provision of stable placements in suitable temporary accommodation for such families. We also call for transparency as to why families are placed in such chronically unstable accommodation and also call for an equality review to be carried out by Dublin Regional Homeless Executive and housing authorities to identify and address any potentially discriminatory practices.

We concur with the committee's other guests in respect of self-accommodation provision, which we see as failing the most vulnerable families. This type of provision is made to families across the board with little or no regard to their individual needs or vulnerabilities. Vulnerable families, including, in particular, ethnic minority, non-Irish national and larger families, face insurmountable barriers to accessing self-accommodation. They do not have the language skills or resources to identify potential hotel or bed and breakfast accommodation bookings and-or the size of their families mean that hotels and bed and breakfast establishments are not a feasible option. Bookings, if achieved, are insecure and unstable and families must frequently move, which interferes with access to education, healthcare and social and family stability. MLRC agree with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission that families should not have to source their own emergency accommodation. We support the call by Dr. Muldoon for an end to self-accommodation. We also recommend the issuing of regulations by the Minister to specify and restrict the type of emergency accommodation provision in which families may be place, therefore ensuring its suitability and adequacy.

It is stated in Rebuilding Ireland that by the middle of 2017 hotels would be used for emergency accommodation purposes in very limited circumstances. Yet, as of February last, over half of homeless families in Dublin remain in commercial hotels. We regularly engage with families that have been in inappropriate emergency accommodations for excessive periods. Very recently we engaged with a family that had been in a hotel for 28 months. Last week we had a call from a family that had been in hotel accommodation for three and a half years. That hotel and bed and breakfast accommodation, even for short periods, is unacceptable and inflicts damage on families has been established and is widely accepted. We need to see the end of reliance on commercial hotels and bed and breakfast establishments as a form of emergency accommodation for families. As previous speakers have done, we call for a limit on the time that families spend in unsuitable emergency accommodation such as commercial hotels.

We share the concern that hubs present a risk of the institutionalisation and normalising of family homelessness. We would like to add, on the basis of our casework experience, specific concerns about family hubs that are additional to those already articulated.. There is a clear lack of transparency regarding access to family hubs and transitional accommodation. MLRC has been informed by two housing authorities that there are no published criteria or process for accessing family hubs. As one housing officer indicated, identification of a family for placement in a hub will depend on that family being in the mind of the housing officer. Our clients are rarely in the position to put themselves in the minds of housing officers. We question the equality of access to family hubs. With a relatively low number of spaces - as already stated, the vast majority of families, well over half, are in commercial hotels - there are substantial delays in any placement in such family hubs. Hubs are generally not configured to accommodate larger families. We have concerns, these are reflected in the report from the Office of the Ombudsman for Children, regarding the variation in standards in family hubs. We have particular concerns about the fact that several former commercial hotels that have been effectively rebranded as family hubs. We call for a shift away from family hubs to the provision of transitional, own-door accommodation. We recommend the publication of accessibility criteria and procedures for accessing family hubs and transitional accommodation placements. We share the call for the creation of an independent body to conduct regular inspections of homeless services.

MLRC welcomes the recognition in Rebuilding Ireland that families with children presenting as homeless require a separate and distinct response. Yet a common theme in our concerns, as presented here, is the failure of housing authorities to recognise and meet the particular needs and take account of the vulnerabilities of homeless families. MLRC has previously received assurances from the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive that mechanisms are in place to identify and provide supports to vulnerable families. However, it is our experience that these mechanisms are failing those families. To remedy this, we support the proposed amendment to the Housing Act to place a statutory obligation on housing authorities to regard the best interests of children as paramount, have regard to the needs of the family unit and to make provision of suitable accommodation to that family unit to ensure its effective functioning.

MLRC believes in the inherent dignity of each human person and sees such dignity frequently violated in the deep trauma and distress of homeless families. This crisis calls for urgent and progressive measures to meaningfully address such trauma, restore dignity to those impacted upon by this housing crisis and minimise the harm currently being inflicted on homeless families.

I thank the committee and we look forward to engaging with members.

I thank Ms Keating and call Deputy Ó Broin.

I think all of our guests for their presentations. I acknowledge the work their organisations are doing to highlight the issues raised. I refer, in particular, to the reports they have been publishing. It is important not to underestimate their value. Our guests spend a great deal of time researching, publishing and launching such reports and then they are left to wonder what happens to them. Those reports are a vital resource, especially for a committee such as this, in order to fully understand the issues involved. Those reports that give a voice to children in the context of outlining their experiences are particularly valuable. I want our guests to know that their in this regard work is in no way wasted.

Two significant items of research have been published this week. The first of these is a report from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, one aspect of which is an examination of accommodation and homelessness. One of the most stinging sentences in the report is where the commission outlines its belief that the rise in homelessness has been "significantly exacerbated by Government policy choices". On the same day, a very important paper by three academics was published in the The Geographical Journal. This paper looks at the experience and the negative physical and emotional impact of hotel accommodation on children. It would be worthwhile if the committee secretariat could circulate both publications to the members of the committee because they make for very stark reading.

It is important to acknowledge that the voices raising these concerns are not just those in the traditional NGO sector. I am not disparaging the NGO sector in any way, particularly as I worked it in for a time, but it is important for members to understand that when NGOs are joined by statutory organisations such as the Office of the Ombudsman for Children and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, it is a significant development because the latter are funded by the Government and they play a very different role.

We have heard very strong, independent, academic research emphasising that the depth of this problem is far greater than many people fully appreciate. The Department publishes a range of monthly reports on homelessness numbers, and quarterly reports on performance and financial indicators. Committee members will know Professor Eoin O'Sullivan from Trinity College Dublin who has been in to this committee. Professor O'Sullivan produces an explanatory guide to those because the reports are quite difficult for us to digest and he has circulated the most recent summary. From the Government's information, Professor O'Sullivan has concluded that in the past quarter and to year end, entries into homelessness are up, repeat entries into homelessness are up and exits from homelessness are down, the length of stay that families and individuals are spending in emergency accommodation is up, and more than 80% of the homelessness budget is going on emergency responses with less than 5% spent on prevention. Again, it is not just the statutory sector saying this. The NGO sector, the academic sector and even the Government's own figures as presented by Professor O'Sullivan show that we have a significant problem.

Given the strength of what we are hearing I would like the committee to consider not just taking the submissions today but also contemplating seriously the compilation of a report to the Minister outlining the kinds of policy changes we believe he needs to consider. This could include some or many of the options that have been put on the table, so that the good people here are not just making a presentation to us but that the committee is also considering which of the recommendations we support or want to prioritise. We could then forward that to the Minister.

I have four straightforward questions for all the witnesses. There are a lot of recommendations and clearly many of us would like to see all of them implemented. We also, however, live in the real world. If the committee was to do a report and try to identify some priority recommendations for each of the organisations and alliances, what would be the one or two significant recommendations they would like the committee to make? We could possibly stretch it to three recommendations but it is important that we are focused on what we should call on the Government to do.

If the Minister or the Department were at the committee, he or his officials would remind us of the increase in social housing output. We have to acknowledge that there is an increase in social housing output, but many of us are critical that it is nowhere near enough. I would like to hear the views of each of the organisations and alliances on the current and proposed output of real social housing owned by approved housing bodies and local authorities. Do the witnesses believe it is enough to meet the demand that they know is there? If not, what do the representatives think should be the output? The debate is not whether houses are being produced but whether the number being produced is enough. I would like to hear the views of the witnesses on this.

The quality standards framework produced by the Dublin Region Homeless Executive is very good. I have met its representatives and I have seen it. If I understood the Minister correctly when he presented to this committee recently, those standards will now apply to the voluntary sector and private sector emergency accommodation, which I welcome as this was not the case originally. I am greatly concerned, however, that the inspections will not be independent. I am not questioning the people in the Dublin Region Homeless Executive or in the local authorities, but if one is funding that emergency accommodation, there is clearly a conflict of interest if one is then inspecting it for the standards. What are each of the organisations' views on the importance of independent inspections and where do they think the inspection role should be located?

My final question relates to the right to housing. We held an Oireachtas debate on this matter. Not everybody in this committee is on the same page in this regard. Some Members of the Oireachtas have said they are open to the idea but that they are yet to be convinced. I am aware that each of the organisations here today have advocated for this. In as plain a set of arguments as they can make, will the witnesses tell the committee what they believe would be the difference of having a constitutional right to housing? I am already convinced but I ask the witnesses to direct their responses to other members of the committee who are genuinely open to considering it but who have yet to be convinced of it. What will the witnesses say to members of this committee who have yet fully to appreciate the value of that? What difference would a constitutional right to housing make, and why is it something the Government should support?

Mr. Mike Allen

I will take questions, some in reverse order. I will also ask Ms Lambe to comment on the specific things we would like to see, which was the first question.

On the question around the constitutional right to housing, Focus Ireland has made a contribution to that debate. The number of times I have heard Ministers say that things they would otherwise wish to do cannot be done because the Attorney General has said it would be against the Constitution proves to me that the Constitution, as interpreted, presents a genuine barrier to some of the solutions that Ministers while in office claim they would wish otherwise to take. This goes right back. There are very positive reasons for changing the Constitution but I would ask the committee to consider one. Repeated Ministers cite the Constitution and the current balance between the public good and the right to property. It is being interpreted in such a way that the individual right to property is trumping the desire of committees, the Dáil and Ministers to make changes in areas such as tenancy rights and the taking of property that is not being developed and so on. The Constitution is supposed to represent our will, but if the Constitution is presenting that sort of barrier against the people's will, then we should change it, if there are positive reasons for it.

Focus Ireland does not have a formal position on how we think independent inspections should be done. We do agree that it should be independent. As an organisation we are reluctant to see the creation of more long-term institutions that assume homelessness will always be with us. We believe that the inspection role should probably be attached to an existing institution that is able to do that. The Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, is the obvious one, but it would require some significant changes in what HIQA does because the facilities to be inspected are not clinical and so on. We want high standards set for independent accommodation, but not clinical standards. That would be one way to go.

On the question of the output, as Deputy Ó Broin has identified, it is quite clear that the number of people exiting homelessness is going down and the number of people becoming homelessness is going up. Quite clearly, the supply of social and affordable housing is totally inadequate. While it is arguable whether the targets are being met as intended in the plan, we believe that the targets are not high enough for the scale of the problem we have. A consistent underestimation of the scale of the issue by successive Governments has bedevilled the entire response to homelessness from the beginning of this crisis in 2014, and therefore the scale of the housing that is required. The single player who is refusing to come onto the pitch and who is essential to this is the local authority. This is not an ideological position. Families do not care if their house is built by the private sector, an approved housing body or a local authority. People care about the quality of it, the tenure they have and the rent they will pay. Historically, the player that delivered a quarter of the housing in which people in Ireland live was the local authority. If local authorities refuse or fail to play a role, which is happening in the delivery of social housing generally, we will suffer from that. The local authorities have to be there but they are not. That needs to be changed.

There is always the question of what our single demand would be. If there was to be one thing, I would say that we need a strategy. I know this does not answer it, but one particular response is not going to solve the issue. I will ask Ms Lambe to address specific elements, but unless there is some sort of plan to deal with it, to lay out what we understand the problem to be, the sorts of things we are going to do to resolve it, and the expected solutions, then any individual request one throws into that is just going to get lost in the mix.

Ms Niamh Lambe

I will address some of the specifics. The family home section team in Focus Ireland works with the majority of homeless families in Dublin. Last month we worked with 1,074 children in homelessness. Every one of those is a child who is struggling, who is in trauma and in accommodation. I am struck by Ms Quinn's comment that many of these children are under the age of five. Some of them are born into homelessness. Our child support workers and our team are seeing this week in and week out. I welcome the report from the Ombudsman for Children's Office and the recommendations for more child support workers in hubs. Family hubs are not the ideal, but while children are in hubs, we need to have a better support mechanism in place for them such as child support workers allocated to families. My team has children linked to our services in 24 locations all over Dublin. Only 9% of those children have child support workers. I would suggest an increase in those supports.

On the standards of accommodation, the hubs are not ideal, but while they are in hubs, we are all agreeing to improve that. For the move-on options for families, last year the family homeless action team moved on most families to housing assistance payment, HAP, accommodation. This year it is the same. The majority of move-on options are with HAP. We are all too aware that the private rented sector is not the ideal move-on option for families. There is a good possibility that many families are returning back into homelessness from HAP accommodation.

It is about having better and more long-term sustainable accommodation for families with an increase in social and affordable housing.

I echo what Ms Keatinge said about bringing an end to self-accommodating families. These families are the most traumatised. There are layers of trauma in homeless families. Each night these families do not know where they will stay the next night so they pack their belongings on a nightly basis. They must also tell their children they may be unable to bring them to school in the morning and that they are not sure where they will stay the next night. These families walk the streets by day with nowhere to go. To hear 80 families are self-accommodating is quite stark. We should never forget these figures represent many children and their parents.

Finally, I agree with the stance by Focus Ireland on independent inspections, and that HIQA is best placed to do the work.

Deputy Pat Casey took the Chair.

Ms Edel Quinn

My colleague and I will share the four questions. Our No Child 2020 campaign outlines priorities. Our short-term recommendations are to amend the legislation to ensure that the best interests of the child is part of the Housing Acts and to put a time limit on stays in emergency accommodation. The long-term recommendation is to redirect EU investment away from short-term solutions to long-term public housing.

A right to housing would mean enforceable rights for children. It would mean they could go before the courts where their rights have been denied and try to have them enforced. The measure could be a game changer for children who find themselves in these situations.

Ms Saoirse Brady

Mr. Allen has covered output quite well and we agree with what he said. There is a commitment to provide rapid build houses in the programme for Government, which we consider when compiling our annual report card. We asked the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government about the commitment but it switched tack and told us that there is now a focus on putting that investment into family hubs. Since the rapid build programme was introduced in 2016, only 350 houses have been built. so it has not delivered. The answer is that local authorities need to invest and build more housing.

Regarding quality standards, we have been quite clear about our position and stated our choice is HIQA. We advocate for the authority to take on independent inspections of both direct provision accommodation as well as emergency homelessness accommodation. HIQA has standards and a good track record in carrying out inspections. It inspects places where children live such as Oberstown children detention school and residential units where children are in care. Recently we worked with the Department of Justice and Equality to produce the national standards for direct provision accommodation and we drew very heavily on HIQA standards. The authority would be the most cost-effective option because a new framework would not be needed to be put in place and the public has confidence in the authority We strongly advocate for HIQA to take over inspections. We have spoken to the authority's officials about such a role. They would have to expand their team and the Health Act would have to be amended. Amending the Health Act would probably be more time effective. It is not that big a change. We have drafted some provisions and I know Deputy Ó Broin has done so as well.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

On priorities, we can quickly get child support workers into every family home. We can provide significant support in this regard. We have also mentioned the possibility of therapeutic support in that situation. We are talking about adverse childhood experiences and these children will come back to us in ten or 15 years to say they have been traumatised by the State's inability to find them a home. It would be good if we intervened now and provided them and all of their family members, including parents, with therapeutic support. That could be a quick intervention for three or four years, depending on when the Government feels they should will moved out.

We are also considering, whether it is medium-term or short-term, primary legislation changes. They have been highlighted by the Mercy Law Resource Centre and all of my colleagues here. The changes would get the voice of the child into legislation so they have to be adhered to by local authorities. Our children are not part of what they need to follow. As has been said many times previously, legislation creates behaviour and legislation is what local authorities must follow. If legislation does not mention children, they will not be of interest to local authorities and officials who have to make decisions in this regard. We need to change that as quickly as possible but whether that is short or medium-term is up to legislators. From our point of view, the long-term change is the constitutional change so that we acknowledge, as a society, that we will set a floor below which we will not allow any child to fall. We are talking about 4,000 children currently but three years ago there were only 2,000 children. We are not getting away from the problem. As Mr. Allen has said, it will be 2023. That is a significant number of children who need to know that they will get a safe, dignified and peaceful place to spend their childhood.

According to the hierarchy of needs, if one does not have shelter, one cannot provide for oneself and reach one's potential in any other area such as education, health and relationships. I agree with Mr. Allen that we need to challenge the constitutional amendment in some way whether that is through a referendum or the courts. We need to find out what the real parameters are and what society wants. My understanding is that if the correct options are put to the people, they would see the benefit of creating a constitutional right to housing. The UN special rapporteur on housing said that homelessness is an assault on human dignity. We need to accept that this is happening continuously on our watch and there is a need for change. A constitutional change would be a long-term intervention.

We are not experts on housing output but I listen to everything that is said in this regard. There has been a lot of cheerleading about co-location or co-living, student accommodation and different types of rental accommodation. I do not hear an awful lot about family accommodation and where children will grow up. We have heard about where we will move independent, well-financed young people to and different options such as that. However, one-third of rental accommodation is now buy-to-rent accommodation. If they are the right size and space for families to grow up in over the next 25 to 30 years, that is fine, but that has not been part of the core discussion. The discussion is about bodies and not about children and their families, and the growth that they deserve into the future. When we talk about the output of housing, it is about making sure that the families of these children and our future generations have somewhere where they can grow, thrive and survive, which is what the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child offers them.

Dr. McAuley will refer to the framework and the national qualifications or standards.

Dr. Karen McAuley

Ws we highlighted in our report, the key issue for us is statutory independent inspection. One can look at different mechanisms. As others have highlighted, we do not suggest that a new body should be established. There are risks associated with that not only in respect of costs but institutionalising our thinking on all of this further. As others said, and as the Ombudsman for Children has said, HIQA may be an obvious candidate for such work given its standing and experience. The authority has extensive experience of inspecting different types of accommodation for children, which are there for different purposes, and of engaging with children in the context of conducting independent statutory inspections. HIQA is a clear and obvious candidate for that work. We are concerned that there is no plan right now to move towards a model of independent statutory inspection and ensuring oversight and accountability.

Ms Rebecca Keatinge

I thank members for their questions. With respect to the right of housing, we have published a trilogy of reports on the right to housing and have consistently advocated for a constitutional protection on the right to housing. I concur with the points made by colleagues in respect of why it would make a meaningful difference in this time of housing crisis. Mercy Law Resource Centre views it from a future-proofing approach as well. We are trying to safeguard against a recurrence of this crisis in the future. We believe such an amendment would provide a long-standing floor of protection for homeless individuals, families facing housing difficulties and influence on a much broader scale by way of policy-making and law-making in respect of housing. I agree with the comments about policy measures and legislation being brought forward, which have essentially been blocked on the basis of a constitutional barrier.

We see a need for a rebalancing of the constitutional provisions that prevent this from being a repeated block on measures coming in to address meaningfully the serious crisis we face. We have heard a great deal today about Rebuilding Ireland. Those commitments were made in 2017. We are here two years later with the same issues and the same statistics. The figures are going up. We need to look at bigger-picture measures that will address meaningfully the crisis we are facing. I acknowledge that the constitutional amendment is not a silver bullet. It has to be accompanied by political will and meaningful resources to change policy properly. Our second report, which was a comparative analysis looking at other jurisdictions, may be of interest to the committee. It established that the protection of this right is common in well-functioning democracies. Everybody has a different model. There is no one-size-fits-all model. This model exists elsewhere and has had a meaningful impact.

I am going backwards. I am taking Mr. Allen's approach as well. While the national standards framework is welcome, in our experience there is a low level of awareness of these standards, and of the complaints mechanism, among homeless people and families. We frequently engage with families that are having issues with their emergency accommodation which might not yet be legal issues. They might not have their hands on the substantial standards document. They might not be engaged with key workers. The reality is that key workers are generally allocated to those in the most stable forms of emergency accommodation. At the early stages, families in one-night-only arrangements or in self-accommodation do not necessarily have a key worker who can direct them to the standards and the complaints mechanism. We agree that a statutory independent inspection regime is needed. We do not have a formal position on the appropriate body to undertake that role.

I have to say categorically in response to the question about whether the level of output of real social housing is enough that the current level is completely inadequate. That is why the statistics are continuing to increase and why we are all here today to discuss the issue of child and family homelessness. The HAP scheme, which is the default option presented by housing authorities to our clients, is part of the social housing framework. The legislation has been amended to make HAP the new form of social housing support. It is clearly unsuitable for many families and inaccessible to many families. We deal with ethnic minorities with large family sizes. When they are unable to source tenancies in the private rental market, the housing authorities assume they are not looking hard enough despite clear evidence to the contrary. The HAP scheme is not the solution to this crisis. The solution is to build more housing, including public and social housing.

We have a number of clients who move into the approved housing body sector, where the standard is excellent. It seems that the vast majority of social housing is coming from that sector. It is important to note there is less security of tenure in an approved housing body dwelling than in a social housing dwelling. That should be noted because the approved housing bodies come under the residential tenancies legislation. We work with clients whose tenancies have been lawfully terminated in the first six months after being transferred from social housing to approved housing bodies. A client may have had a secure tenancy for 25 years, or 40 years as was the case in one instance, only to have it terminated in the first week after it came under the new legislation. That is a deficiency in the legislation. It is quite a niche area, but it can cause huge suffering. That would be a concern arising from our case work.

I was asked whether we have two or three priority recommendations. I will mention three priorities for us. First, we are calling for section 10 to be examined as a matter of urgency to facilitate a shift from a discretionary power to provide emergency accommodation to a duty to make such provision. We believe that in the absence of such a duty, there is considerable confusion and obfuscation, which is leading to improper refusals of emergency accommodation.

Second, we are calling for the cessation of one-night-only arrangements. I would like to make a distinction between such arrangements and self-accommodation, which arises when a family can book its own hotel. If one is on a one-night-only arrangement, one is not permitted to make such a booking. Instead, one is placed somewhere for a single night. Self-accommodation families are sometimes unable to find bookings so they revert to the one-night-only system. Such families are vulnerable because they are in the most precarious, distressing and chaotic circumstances. They are not in a position to articulate the nature of their plight because they are too busy packing their bags, getting on the bus and trying to figure out how to feed their children and get them to the doctor. We would really like some attention to be paid to that issue.

Third, we are calling for regulations to impose a limit on the amount of time a family can spend in inappropriate accommodation and to oblige housing authorities to assess the suitability of emergency accommodation. We need to stop putting families in hotels. There should be a statutory obligation on housing authorities to assess whether hotel accommodation is appropriate for a family. That does not happen at the moment. There is a blanket use of hotel accommodation. We see very little assessment of actual needs. We believe such regulations would go some way towards putting an obligation of this nature in place and bringing vulnerability assessments into the legal framework.

Deputy Maria Bailey resumed the Chair.

I thank Ms Keatinge. We normally go way over time in the first round to give members an opportunity to air many of their questions.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations. During my three years as a Deputy, the issue that has come back to haunt us has been the complete failure to get to grips with this country's child homelessness problem. There has been a 90% increase in family homelessness and a 102% increase in child homelessness over that time.

As I have said previously, I have witnessed child homelessness in my own hotel, which is located in a very remote part of County Wicklow. I have seen families arriving late at night and getting up exceptionally early the following morning so that the children can go back to school in Dublin city. In many cases, I have received a phone call later that day to say the same family is coming back that night even though they packed up their bags that morning. I have witnessed the horrendous experiences that such families are going through. The effect of child homelessness on children is the greatest scar on this country at the moment.

I do not want to get into the figures with Mr. Allen because I agree that we need to move beyond them. I was concerned to read in the Focus Ireland report that 94 families and 137 children presented as homeless in April of this year. According to the Department, the homelessness figures decreased by 13 families and 37 children in the same month. If both figures are accurate, there were substantial new child and family homelessness presentations in the month of April. This shows that we are nowhere close to getting on top of the crisis that exists.

We know that the long-term solution is to build more houses, but we do not seem to be able to get there at the moment. Mr. Allen mentioned this week's Irish Fiscal Advisory Council report and the target of 48,000 housing completions by 2023. Is 48,000 the magic figure we need to reach to prevent child and family homelessness? Do we need to go beyond that? What happens with the historical stuff? We are failing to reach the targets we have set for the delivery of social housing. Is there a historical build-up? Would the provision of 48,000 houses deal with the historical build-up as well?

Ms Quinn spoke about the impact of homelessness on schools. It was suggested in a recent debate - I do not know whether it was at this committee - that schools with DEIS status are better able to deal with these problems than schools without such status. Schools with DEIS status probably have more funding to deal with child homelessness from an educational perspective and to put in place measures to help their pupils to deal with the crisis of homelessness.

I have mentioned that I have witnessed child homelessness. My heart goes out to people who have to find accommodation on a night-to-night basis. I cannot understand the simple logic that treats a pregnant woman, whose child is due imminently, on a night-to-night basis. I cannot fathom how this can happen in today's society. It is horrendous and completely unacceptable that such a woman does not know where she will be going that night, regardless of whether it would be a hotel room, a hub or some other type of accommodation.

The delegates referred to refusals of emergency accommodation. I ask them to expand a little to enable us to gain a better understanding of the cohort who are being refused emergency accommodation. I also ask them to explain what "own-door accommodation" actually means. They are anxious that a figure be identified for it.

As we are all aware, there is no immediate solution to the problem. Everyone in this room wants to see the crisis resolved. In the absence of a significant amount of social housing being delivered, we must consider the solutions that are before us. There is no other solution of which I am aware. Is there something we are missing that is better than what is being offered? Reference was made to a constitutional right to housing. I am open to any solution. I do not really care how it arrives, but if there is the political will, we can find a solution. We must take the risk, make the tough decisions and implement the legislation required. I do not think we need to provide for a constitutional right to housing, but in the absence of political will, children and mothers need such a right. What is needed more than anything is the political will to resolve the crisis.

I have ended up making statements rather than asking questions because Deputy Ó Broin has asked most of the relevant questions. What can we do in the next six months to address the problem? We all know the long-term solution, but how can we improve hubs and hotels? What could we do differently tomorrow morning that would improve quality of life for the almost 4,000 children and 1,700 families in emergency accommodation?

To make the more efficient use of the time remaining, I will call Deputy O'Dowd before reverting to the delegates. Is that all right with Deputy O'Dowd?

Yes.

I welcome our guests and agree with everything they have said. There is nothing that they have either written or said with which I disagree.

I wish to take up the last point made by Deputy Casey. There is a lot more that we could do. One thing that struck me during the recent election campaign was the number of empty houses that I came across. There are many reasons those houses are empty. Some have trees growing out through the front door and are obviously derelict, but a significant number are occupiable. I do not know why they are empty, but it would not take a lot of money to put them right because they are in newer housing estates. I am not criticising anybody, but local authorities are supposed to have officers in charge of sourcing empty homes. In County Louth approximately 100 homes which were empty were brought back into use for less than €100,000, including all legal fees. We need to drive that agenda with renewed energy. It must be driven in areas where the homelessness problem is most acute, namely, the bigger towns and cities.

Some homes are empty because the owner is in a nursing home. While I absolutely respect the right to integrity of persons vis-a-vis their property, I do not see why a local authority, in conjunction with the HSE, cannot make appropriate and respectful communication with such owners or their families to see if there is a way of getting the property to make it available for short-term occupation. There is a lot more that we should be doing with empty properties because it is a shame. I know of at least 40 homes in Drogheda that should be occupied tonight, but they are empty because nobody is pushing that agenda locally.

I refer to the issues of town centres, population pressures and over-the-shop accommodation. In Drogheda, for example, 40 or 50 years ago there were 300 to 400 people living in the centre of the town, but now there is nobody living there. The problem is that the accommodation is old and does not necessarily meet today's standards. However, a grants scheme is available. Local authority officers should be going around to find out what is available above shops and whether it is usable. It may be suitable for use by single people or childless couples. I know and understand that in many cases it is not suitable for use by children, but there is a lack of urgency on the ground. The political system wants this to happen and money is available, but it is not happening fast enough.

On the right to a home, I agree that it should be inserted into the Constitution. It is an essential right. I am lucky to be a parent and a grandparent and would hate to think my grandchildren or anybody else would be homeless, or living in the type of accommodation to which the delegates have referred. I was a teacher for many years and worked with disadvantaged children who had educational, social and economic problems. If such children do not have their own door to close and a room to go into and are stuck with their families in one room, they have no quality of life. The crime and what is really wrong is that there are children coming to my office with their parents who will be almost ten years old before they have a home of their own. That is a decade lost to a family and unacceptable.

I am not apportioning blame, but a lot more could and must be done by local authorities and the political system. Extra energy is needed. I hope the contribution of the delegates will be an agent for change. They should not step back from what they are saying because it is hugely important. Their words do count and are having an impact. It is a shame that this is happening in Ireland today. We know the economic reasons for it - the collapse of the economy - and while things have changed, they have not changed fast enough. I laud the speakers and fully support their views

I will start with Ms Keatinge.

Ms Rebecca Keatinge

I thank Deputy Casey for sharing his first-hand experiences of families who are accessing hotel accommodation. In terms of the impact on schools, I am sure Children's Rights Alliance will speak about that issue. I note that in Rebuilding Ireland provision is made for extra supports via home-school liaison officers. While we have come across home-school liaison officers in and outside DEIS schools, according to a presentation made by Focus Ireland yesterday, 91% of families accessing its services do not have the assistance of a child support worker, which is a matter of serious concern. We are concerned that the supports available are simply not accessible to the most vulnerable families and not made available at the earliest opportunity. I will give as an example a family who were self-accommodating and who really struggled to get a booking. They got a booking after living for six months in very precarious accommodation in a hotel near the airport, but they had to make a 90 km round trip to the children's primary school. During the course of the year the two children missed 80% of their classes. While the school was very supportive, how could it address that issue? It requires an holistic, inter-agency approach. I even had difficulty in linking the family with primary health care services in the area because they were living in precarious and unstable accommodation. Their booking was simply not for long enough. The matter is not straightforward; it is complex. The wraparound supports referred to in Rebuilding Ireland have not materialised for all families.

On one-night-only accommodation, the Deputy's use of terms such as "horrendous" and "completely unacceptable" is most welcome. We encounter such cases far too frequently and they are horrendous. There seems to be no logic to it. I dealt with a number of new mothers who had been discharged from maternity hospitals into one-night-only accommodation. Just before Christmas, one mother with a baby who was four weeks premature and a 16 month old baby was discharged into one-night-only accommodation.

That mother was spending time in shopping centres trying to prepare bottles but was unable to sterilise them and unable to breastfeed her child and to be somewhere safe and secure during the winter months. We engaged and were able with legal intervention to change that but that situation should not need a legal intervention. That simply should not arise. There is a gap in picking up on such vulnerability. There is also an element of overload for the housing authorities that engage with individual families' needs, and perhaps with the resources available, such provision is not feasible. The committee's focus of attention on that area will be most welcome.

In terms of prospective solutions, we support the constitutional right to housing and consider it to be as part of a host of measures. In response to Deputy Ó Broin's question, the recommendations we have made are set out in our substantive statement and they are being prioritised. Looking forward, we support the constitutional right to housing as an enduring and overarching protection to effect a range of statutory provisions that apply with respect to housing. It is related to not only the homeless area but the private rented sector, housing assistance payment, HAP, tenancies and social housing. We believe that is a measure that would influence all those different areas.

To pick up on some of Deputy O'Dowd's points, I share the concern about the there being a lack of urgency on the ground. I am aware from frequent engagements with housing authorities of their exasperation about the bringing on stream of more suitable emergency accommodation. There is a will to do that. I have not identified the exact blockages but certainly there are some because now two years later we are in a situation where the majority of these families in the Dublin region are living in hotels. We very much focus only within the Dublin area. It has been good to hear the experiences of groups operating outside Dublin because we would have a number of contacts with people outside Dublin where there is a much more ad hoc approach to the provision of homeless accommodation and there would be broad reliance on bed and breakfast accommodation and hotels. We would have had a number of cases recently where families have had to be separated because they could not be all accommodated in one space. Obviously, that interferes with family life and compounds the chaos and distress of homelessness.

We welcome the Deputy's comments with respect to the right to housing and his support for the constitutional protection of that right. There is no quality of life when all members of a family are living in one room, be it in a stable booking or otherwise. I am working with a person currently who was in one night only accommodation and she is now living in one room with her four children, and they simply do not have a good quality of life.

The report published yesterday had some hard-hitting findings and some emotive examples of the impact of this on young children, in particular. We see that frequently in our casework. We welcome a call for extra focus and energy on this area. There is an imperative to deal with this issue. We hope recommendations can be made from this committee to influence policy in this area more broadly.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I will briefly address a number of points. Deputy Casey asked whether schools with a DEIS status could cater better for children experiencing homelessness. I attended an Irish Primary Principals Network conference in January. It had surveyed its membership of 3,000 primary school principals and 39% of them had had interaction with homelessness. That is a feature of every area of the country. Teachers are all doing a fantastic job as best they can. They are the unsung heroes who are catering for many of these children, whether it is bringing in food to help the children at breakfast time or staying on after the school day to help them with their homework. The education sector is doing a phenomenal job in circumstances where there is not the support that is needed in other areas on the ground, whether it be a childcare support worker or a home, school, community liaison officer. A great deal of work needs to be done to support these children. This does not only involve schools with DEIS status. We need to recognise that is one of the elements that clearly emerged from the report published yesterday. Dr. Nowicki said it is scary how close we all are to homelessness. We need to move from thinking that it is only happens in disadvantaged areas. It happens to people experiencing economic crisis. Family disruptions are causing people to fall into homelessness in a way that has not happened previously. Tipperary and Clare are now considering establishing family hubs and there is homelessness in those areas which we would not have associated with them previously.

Deputy Casey asked is there anything else that could be done that has not been done. I am concerned we will go through this crisis and somewhere along the line there will be enough houses but we will not have changed the system. Therefore, when the next crash comes, children and families will still not be protected. We must also examine the rental system to ensure there is more security. In that way, people can consider themselves as lifetime renters if they need to be. They can stay in the areas in which they want to be. They would have some level of security in the way that people in every other country in Europe and America have where they can sustain their lifetime living as a family. That is why I am worried about accommodation not being one of the priorities in housing. We need to show there is another way to proceed. When we speak to the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, it says the only tool it has is HAP. We know in many other parts of the country rental accommodation is not coming on stream. Rental accommodation is not available in Limerick, Cork or Galway. There must be a wider sense of what housing options are available to people. In the short term it will be about providing accommodation but we must use this crisis to make sure this never happens again. That means widening the breadth of security for families not necessarily only the owners but for those who want to rent for life, whether it be in social housing or in the rental system. The rental system has not changed that much. The biggest change has been that we now provide six months' notice to people who are have been renting for five years. That is a step forward but it does not represent security. In any other country in Europe there are people who have rented all their lives and lived in the one house. We also need to provide that option in the future.

Ms Saoirse Brady

To address Deputy's Casey's point, our Home Works report, which was written by Dr. Geraldine Scanlon and Ms Gráinne McKenna of Dublin City University, submitted independent research involving 20 families. One of the findings they made having talked to the parents about how their children experienced school was that schools are a place of sanctuary for those children. We need to do everything we can to ensure children can stay in the same school and have that routine and security that they do not have while living in emergency accommodation. As Dr. Muldoon indicated, quite a number of children in schools that do not have DEIS status do not have the same support as those in schools with DEIS status. It is not that schools with DEIS status have more resources but that they are more used to dealing with disadvantage so they know about what emerged from the research. The authors of the report interviewed principals, teachers, special needs assistants and home, school, community liaison officers and they found that those in schools with DEIS status knew where to go whereas those working in schools that did not have DEIS status might not have been as familiar with that. They found that principals were spending a great deal of time writing letters to advocate on behalf of families but that did not really make a difference and they felt frustrated by that.

The Minister, Deputy McHugh spoke about the Home Works report and its recommendations during a Dáil debate on this area earlier this year and said he would examine them and the way in which they could be implemented. In that respect he said he would extend the home, school, community liaison scheme to schools that do not have DEIS status for a limited period of perhaps three years so that all schools would have those supports they need and that children in schools that do not have DEIS status would not fall through the cracks. Some of the other recommendations in that report related to extending the July provision programme which is usually for children with special needs. That would mean children in homeless accommodation would have somewhere to go in the daytime during the summer months because that is also a major issue for them. If they live in emergency accommodation, especially in one night only accommodation, they might have to wander the streets for a period of time during the day.

Deputy Casey asked what could be done in the shorter term. Some of the proposals we have presented could help. He cited the example of families who move to live in accommodation in Wicklow who have to bring their children back to school in Dublin. It would be helpful if local authorities, when making decisions, could take account of where children are attending school. They are often operating at the mercy of where accommodation is available, but it would be helpful if a system could be put in place to consider those elements. Ultimately, if the legislation was changed to place a duty on them to have to consider these elements, that would make a major difference. Those are some elements we would find. That report has been forwarded to the committee but we can resubmit it as it contains quite a number of practical recommendations. It recommended that the Department of Education and Skills would become part of the inter-agency group that is examining these issues. We are delighted that has happened and we hope it will make a real difference in terms of children’s education.

Ms Edel Quinn

On the issue of one night only accommodation, I echo the call in that respect made by our colleagues in the Mercy Law Resource Centre. I will cite the example of one illustrative case study that has come through one of our members, Barnardos. A mother and her two small children who use our service had to travel two hours into the city every day with one child in a buggy. They had all of their families’ belongings in seven plastic bags attached to the buggy. The small child who was being potty trained was wetting herself because she could not last the entire journey. We have heard many stories.

It is not right that we are facing this. The matter has to be prioritised.

Also on Deputy O'Dowd's point on the local level, we have heard that minorities are disproportionately affected in many cases. In terms of Travellers in particular, we mentioned in our report card the fact that local authorities are not spending funding they have for Traveller accommodation. For example, in budget 2019, the allocation to local authorities increased and we are seeing that they are not spending it. In 2017, for example, only half of the budget allocation was spent by local authorities. What we would suggest there is that they would be sanctioned. If funding is there, it should be spent, particularly when children are living in really bad accommodation.

Mr. Mike Allen

I was slightly worried by Deputy Casey's question. I do not want it to be recorded that Focus Ireland said there would be 48,000 new house completions in 2023. I was quoting what the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government had told the fiscal advisory committee. Looking at what others have said in terms of the total amount of need, there is a general consensus, including ESRI and IBEC, that if we are not producing 36,000 new housing completions every year we are not meeting the new demand that is coming on. In the Government's predictions which were in the fiscal advisory committee, it states that by 2022 we would meet that target. However, the Deputy is absolutely right. We must not think of this as a case of when we meet that target the figure is gone because each year for the past decade that we failed to meet, all those households - not just families 0 who were seeking a home and could not find one have been waiting to come on to the market. Obviously, those households who are better resourced, and more wealthy, will get the first additional ones that come, all else being equal, unless we intervene in the market. If we leave this up to the market, we know who will be at the back of the queue.

Clarifying the Deputy's point, our figure, that Ms Lambe talked about yesterday and today, that only 9% of the children who are on the Focus Ireland caseload have a child support worker is worrying. One hundred per cent of the other families do not have a child support worker. The 9% is the best in the class. There are no child support workers, as far as I am aware, in the model that was rolled out in homeless hubs. Clearly, the families that do not have an adult key worker do not have a child support worker. For the vast majority of children, there is nothing. That really needs to be borne in mind. I absolutely agree with the Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Muldoon, that we can solve that more quickly in the hubs but we must not forget it would appear that the most vulnerable families are not in the hubs.

On the own-door accommodation, I will give two examples of facilities that Focus Ireland runs - a place in south Dublin that some Deputies would know well and one in Limerick in which Focus Ireland was supporting families. In one case, in south Dublin, it is a block of apartments and there are other blocks of apartments beside it which are people's homes. Physically, it is exactly the same as a nearby block of apartments, each of which is somebody's home. South Dublin County Council is using it as emergency accommodation. It is a flat or an apartment with a key in the front door, one goes in and that is the person's unit. It has a kitchen and a bathroom and it is one's own space. Similarly, the one in Limerick was actually apartments at the back of a hotel for some medium-term accommodation and Limerick County Council took it over, and we are supporting families there. The family has a key to their own door. When we started providing support in those, the families were homeless. When they change the designation they are no longer accounted as homeless but they are still paid out of the homeless budget; they still have support workers because they are homeless; and, the expectations that they need to move out of homelessness are still there. It is quite clearly a different form of accommodation and it is a better form of accommodation. We would say that we should be looking at own-door accommodation as the way of providing emergency accommodation.

Also, it is clearly homeless accommodation. If one looks at the atmosphere or the living circumstances, for example, in the block in south Dublin, between the accommodation in which everybody is a tenant, it is their home and the person knows he or she is there either permanently if the person owns it or on a security as compared to the place where it is homeless accommodation where the occupants know that they are not there for long and they must keep on looking; they are completely and utterly different places to live. No matter how much support we put in to make it a better place to live, it is still homeless emergency accommodation. I would repeat the point that if the Minister had sat down with us and said that we should be counting families in this own-door accommodation as a separate category to the others because it is different and we recognise where we are doing things better than others, we would have saved a year of rowing. We would have agreed to that. However, we did not sit down. It was not explained. It was just a change. Far more collaboration on these issues is needed rather than the current position.

On the last set of questions Deputy Casey asked which were about why the figures differ, I am not sure exactly to which figures the Deputy was referring. Ehat is at play there is flow and stock. One needs to think of homelessness - I am sorry if people will say that I have been talking about this for a long time but I always find this a useful image - as a river and not as a pond, or as people moving through a room and out of a room. The figures that we were reporting here are the number of families in Dublin who became homeless and entered formal homelessness. If a higher number of people leave, then the total number falls and it is possible in a particular month that the number of families becoming newly homeless rises while the total number of families who are currently homeless falls because we - Ms Lambe and her team and others - have been successful in moving people out.

That leads me to the Deputy's final question about what we can do better. I would say if we do not provide more homes, there is no solution. There is no solution to this problem without more homes. Some of the homes, as Deputy O'Dowd stated, can come from homes that are currently empty and unused. It is shocking that we have had this enormous figure out there for so many years that were to be a solution and it is ones and twos that have come through. We would say that the Irish property owner reacts a bit more to sticks rather than carrots and some form of taxation or pressure to make property owners explain why a place is empty rather than our having to go chasing them would be necessary there.

The question becomes how, while we are waiting for the housing should we put it that way, do we better manage the situation. If one goes back to the metaphor of the people moving through the room and the people moving out of the room, not everybody stays in the room for the same length of time. One could have exactly the same inflow and exactly the same outflow, and have a completely different mix of people in the room. What is happening at present is the most vulnerable families are being left in the room for the longest period of time. Families which are large, families which are Travellers, some families from ethnic minorities - some of them move out very quickly but some of them get trapped - and people with all sorts of vulnerabilities are the ones who get left behind. That is where one gets more than 160 families who have been left for two years. At the heart of that is not only the number of social houses we have; it is allocations. If we do not allocate the social housing to families who will not get into the private rented sector, they will remain homeless. They will suffer and their children's lives will be made an absolute misery unless we get over the view that we cannot allocate social housing to homeless families because in some way this will encourage people to become homeless. Is there anybody who could read all these reports and listen to all the examples who could genuinely believe that families are deliberately putting their children in the circumstances that are being described yet our public policy is driven by that belief?

What drives public policy on homelessness is a public and political attitude that people are making themselves homeless and we will make them less likely to be homeless if we make life more difficult for them. All the organisations here, including Focus Ireland, believe families are much more likely to move out of homelessness if they are coping with homelessness and are supported. Take the pressure off them. Allow them the right or the possibility to have options and stop treating them as if they are somehow responsible for their circumstances.

I thank all the organisations that are represented here and all their representatives who have come in to give their evidence this morning.

We have the fastest growing economy in Europe, we are told, and the scandal of growing child homelessness in our midst. It is the responsibility of the committee and of the Government to listen to the recommendations that are being made. There are many points that have been made but, clearly, the points about a constitutional right to a home and the points about a major ramping up of the provision of social housing are points that I hope will be reported on by the media in the wake of the hearings this morning.

I have been asked by Deputy Boyd Barrett to forward his apologies.

He had another commitment.

I am not going to put all of my questions together, but will ask them in shorter bursts. That is how I intend to use my time. I will start with a question for Mr. Allen.

We only have 20 minutes left, so I was going to take Deputy Barry and Senator Boyhan together. If the Deputy wants, I can take Senator Boyhan first and then he can do his bursts. I also wanted to ask questions but we are going to run out of time so I will not be able to.

I am just going to use ten minutes.

That is okay, but I need to take Senator Boyhan at the same time as well.

Does the Chairman want me to ask my questions together?

If the Deputy does not mind. When we have this volume of witnesses, by the time we get through everybody, the time will be up.

Okay, we will do that then.

I thank the Deputy.

My first question relates to the figures on housing completions for 2022 and 2023 that were released by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government yesterday, and which Mr. Allen commented on. If I understand him correctly, he is arguing that we need approximately 36,000 housing completions per annum to maintain homelessness and child homelessness at their current levels. If that figure will only be reached in 2022, that indicates that homelessness and child homelessness are set to increase in 2019, 2020, and 2021, and may be stabilised in 2022 before there is a fall in the numbers in 2023. Perhaps I have taken Mr. Allen up incorrectly in that regard, but if homelessness advocates, campaigners and experts come before the committee and say the figures the Department released yesterday indicate homelessness and child homelessness will increase year on year for the next three years, that needs to be part of the public debate that arises from this meeting. I ask him to comment on whether I have him right on that.

I address my second question to the representatives of the Mercy Law Resource Centre. If people are in family hub accommodation, and they are part of the cohort who have their own door, am I correct that they are not counted as part of the official homelessness figures released by the Department? I seek clarification on that. It was said that children who are homeless in this country are worse off than homeless children in the UK because they have fewer legal protections. Can the witnesses give us a couple of examples of what those lesser legal protections are? Where is the gap?

My next question is for the representatives of the Children's Rights Alliance. Family hubs are positive in that they are an improvement over what went before, but the speakers have clearly highlighted the potential negative effects, as well as the dangers of institutionalisation. When the committee heard about family hubs being taken out on five-year leases, we raised a warning about institutionalisation, because we have seen what that has meant for other vulnerable groups in this State in the past. Now we are hearing reports of people in accommodation for three and a half years, though that was in hotel and bed and breakfast accommodation rather than family hubs. Clearly, the danger of institutionalisation in family hubs is growing in the context of the figures we have discussed. I would like the witnesses to comment further on that.

Finally, I have a question for Mr. Muldoon. He did not make reference to it earlier but he has made a point in previous interviews that caught my attention, and I would like him to comment on it. Often, when we focus on the damage done to children by homelessness there is a focus on children of schoolgoing age and the type of scenario Deputy Casey mentioned where they are late for school, or are not able to go to school for a day or a week because of the distance and the disruption to family life. I read an interview Mr. Muldoon did where he speculated on the possibility that the damage done to very young children could be as great or even greater. I am not a child psychologist, but my understanding of what he said is that children sense what is going on around them, which causes trauma for a young child and the damage done, trauma suffered, and the consequences for both the individual and society might not be known for decades. I invite him to make further comment on that.

I am conscious of time so I am only going to ask one question and make a few comments. First, I acknowledge the witnesses' presence and thank all of them because they are advocates who have given voices to many voiceless homeless children and families. They should not be disheartened. I have heard all of them speak at different venues in the past few years, and they are constant advocates for homeless people, and children in particular. It makes a difference, as previous speakers said. It is a dripping tap, but people eventually cop on, so I salute the witnesses for their work.

I have been involved in the establishment of the institutional redress scheme and the early stages of lobbying for it, and I can see this issue becoming our next redress scheme. Children are exposed to physical, mental, emotional, and sexual abuse, and they are unsafe. A woman I have been working with for three years, whom we flagged to HIQA, Wicklow County Council, and a number of State agencies, is still in emergency accommodation in a hotel in Bray today. She rings me every day asking how she can meet someone and get assistance. She has major mental health issues, which she acknowledges and recognises. She has sat here in the hall of Leinster House with her daughter, and her daughter has taken her hand and rubbed it and said "Mummy, stop crying. I am here for you." A 14 year old girl has sat in this building crying and saying that she is there to support her mother. When I ring up the particular council, the officials tell me she has a history and is trouble. We all have a history and we all have troubles, and we need support and assistance. One thing that is clear from what the witnesses have told us, which I have always believed, is that we need joined-up thinking. We have HIQA and the Departments of Education and Skills, Children and Youth Affairs, and Health. However, every time I contact one of these Departments, I am told that it does not come under its remit, or that the officials cannot meet this particular person because she will not accept a placefinder or meet him or as she has had problems with housing assistance payment, HAP, and does not want to go into it again. It is all very sad and traumatic for people. There is not a politician or county councillor in this country who has not been touched by personal experience of people who come to their clinics. That is an important thing to say.

It is not surprising that we have a lack of child support case workers, as was the case in the childcare sector in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. We saw the redress scheme and what it dealt with - the trauma, trouble, hurt, pain, suffering, mental anguish, anxiety and torture that children are undergoing. We as a State refer to the Constitution cherishing the children of the nation equally, but it does not. This State does not cherish its children equally, and it is exceptionally disappointing. We all value our homes and they are central to our dignity as people. They are central to our dignity and needs and they define who we are, secure us and give us the capacity to integrate, mix and live in our communities. They are critically important. I fully support a constitutional right to housing, and I fully accept that the local authorities are not doing enough in delivering social housing, which is critical. We had programmes that delivered houses in this country from the 1930s through to the 1960s. There were people living in those houses who did not come into them because of social need but bought them subsequently. They are beautiful homes.

Many of them are in south County Dublin, where I live. The delegates may be aware of these difficulties. What have I learned from today? I have learned that we have neither a statutory nor a constitutional right to basic shelter or housing, as Ms Keatinge stated. There is no constitutional or statutory right to shelter for homeless children or families. That is a terrible thing. Legal aid is not available for housing or homeless matters. That is a big challenge. The ombudsman raised this issue previously. I am aware of the limitations of his office, as is he. There is a serious issue there which must be examined.

As Ms Keatinge stated, local authorities have a discretion to provide emergency accommodation for children and families but are not obliged to so do. That is a terrible indictment of our system and State. I do not need to teach the delegates. I have learned from them today. The minutes of this meeting will be important. What the committee does as a result of today's discussion and our consideration of it will be important. I ask the delegates to keep the pressure on the committee and other people, and we will keep the pressure on the political establishment in the Oireachtas.

There are 81 constitutions which provide special status and protection for children. I am particularly interested in the Scottish model, about which I have read. I ask the representatives to share with the committee their knowledge of constitutional provisions in other countries for the protection of homes for children and the constitutional right to housing which we discuss at this committee because it is a very important aspect and a matter to which we need to recommit ourselves. I ask those who are familiar with the Scottish model to share their understanding or experience in that regard.

I say "Well done" to the representatives. They are advocates who shine a light in many dark places. The committee also has that task. We can work together. We would be failing if we do not go from here, analyse what is being said, paraphrase it, bullet point it and get it to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, as well as the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government. In addition to being a housing and homelessness issue, this is about cherishing the children of our State equally, giving them opportunities and safeguards, protecting them for the future and allowing them to grow to their potential. I have no doubt that these matters will be the subject of an international investigation and that the State will be hauled up to account for its failures. They will be the subject of a very expensive redress scheme because of the damage the State is inflicting on children and families. I thank the delegates for their time and for sharing their personal experience in terms of their caseloads and work. This is a very important day's work but it will be a better day's work if we go from here committed to pulling all of this together and heaping pressure on anyone that matters in terms of Government policy.

We are somewhat pressed for time. I invite Ms Keatinge to respond.

Ms Rebecca Keatinge

I thank Deputy Barry and Senator Boyhan for their very welcome comments and questions. Deputy Barry asked whether own-door accommodation subsumed within a family hub is classified as family hub and counted in the homeless figures. I do not know the answer to that question but the representatives of Focus Ireland may be able to comment on it. I am happy to defer to Mr. Allen on that issue. I note that the report of the Dublin Region Homelessness Executive from April breaks the figure down into hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation, private emergency accommodation, supported temporary accommodation and family hubs. I do not know the answer to the question asked. We have concerns about the integrity of the data since these categories were taken out and about the categories that were never included, such as rough sleeping or refugees. That was documented in our statement. I will defer to Mr. Allen on this issue.

Senator Boyhan asked about the differences in approach to child homelessness in Scotland and Ireland. I will address the difference between the models. Homeless children in Ireland have no statutory protections. There is a discretionary obligation on the local authority to provide emergency accommodation. The local authority must assess people for homelessness. The legislation clearly states that one may be categorised as homeless if found to be such in the opinion of the local authority, which is a significant challenge. By way of example, we referred to refusals, although I did not address that full on in response to Deputy Casey. These are people who repeatedly present as homeless. Their notice of termination may not have been validated by Threshold, which is the regular agency, or they may not have provided sufficient paperwork - the paperwork that is normally associated with social housing assessment is normally extensive. They may not have stayed with every family member with whom they could possibly stay to meet their housing need. Recently, some families presenting to housing authorities have been repeatedly repelled. I am working on the case of a person who presented approximately 12 times. Now that there has been an intervention, there is a recognition that there is no alternative. That case involves young children. There is no duty on a housing authority to assess that and take into account the best interests of those children.

On the differences between the Irish, English and Scottish models, one particularly noteworthy aspect of the English model is that there is a six-week limit on the time vulnerable categories of person, including homeless families, can spend in unsuitable temporary accommodation such as hotels and bed and breakfasts. In Scotland, that time limit is seven days, reduced from 14 days. That is starkly different from the situation here for children accessing homeless services. On the legal framework, there is a best interest consideration which is completely absent here. The Scottish model is seen as one that has brought about a very different and human rights-led approach to homelessness. However, the model pertains only to homelessness and is criticised for not dealing with the broader right to housing. We would very much welcome the adoption of that model here, but we recognise its shortcomings, which highlight the need for broader protection of the right to housing.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I will address the question of Deputy Barry regarding the impact on children in the younger age group. My background is in psychology. A child's first 1,000 days is now considered far more critical than was previously thought. It relates to the plasticity of the child's brain and the impact of trauma. Such trauma may include insecurities or uncertainties. Children pick up on the tensions and fears of the parents. It is clear that trauma can have an impact on a young infant's feeding, development of potty training, physical movement, security and sense of who they are as an individual. On excessive attachment, we know from the consultation we carried out that some parents will not let their child out of their sight for fear of losing the child. In addition, the system forces them not to allow the child out of their sight, so there is no sense of allowing that independence, even if accompanied by an older brother or sister. The psychological impact of that is stark. The research shows that the 1,000 days up to a child's third birthday is the most important period in which the child gets a sense of self. Problems stemming from this period can be overcome at a later stage, but that is very difficult to achieve. Such problems have a significant impact. We are aware of children being born into that situation. One can imagine the impact on a child born four weeks premature and who is pushed around a shopping centre for that period. The child will pick up on the feelings, emotions and sense of security of the parent. There is a significant impact in that regard. As we move more towards institutional long-term stays in these emerging situations, we will see more such children being impacted on and acting out through challenging behaviours and, perhaps, criminal behaviour in the future. We do not know what the impacts may be. It is uncertain. We have been in this situation for long enough to have children who have spent three or four years in those sorts of circumstances from birth; not just as teenagers. That will have a huge impact and we, as a society, need to recognise that and change it. We need to ensure that we can protect children who have gone through such situations into the future.

Senator Boyhan raised the issue of responsibility across Departments. Our public agencies need to start looking at the child as being at the centre, which would take the focus away from the troublesome, tricky or challenging parent. Mothers have come to me who know they are defined within the public service as a "psycho mum". The problem is that the system makes it necessary for those mothers to work in that way. If we put the child at the centre of decision making, that should take away the pain and fire around those issues.

It is something we need to work towards in the long term.

Ms Saoirse Brady

Regarding the point about institutionalisation and what happens when one takes away people's autonomy, some family hubs, which are better than emergency accommodation, may not have cooking facilities or access to the range of things families need. I know that in the Ombudsman for Children's report, one little girl spoke about how she could not go downstairs to do her homework in the one room that was available to her because she would have had to bring her entire family with her, so children and teenagers are not getting independence and neither they nor their parents are feeling that autonomy, which will cause long-term damage.

I will give the committee an example of a number of stories we have heard from members and others. Our report, entitled Home Works, contained a story about a little boy in an early years setting. When they went to go for outdoor play every day, he got really upset when he had to go and put his coat on because he did not understand what was happening. He thought he had to go back to the hotel so he would throw a tantrum and get really upset and it took the childcare workers a bit of time to work out what was happening. When they got it out of him, he said it was because he was going back to the hotel and they told him he was not. That same child would not speak or eat in the hotel so, thankfully, a hot meal was provided for him in the crèche, they did great work and he was able to socialise with other children. Another member told us about a child who was having significant difficulty walking. The child was about three years old and was unable to walk. They could not understand why and had to go to physiotherapy. It became apparent that the reason the child could not walk was because the muscles in the child's legs had not developed because the child was in a buggy all day. This was because the child's mother had to push the child around all day because she had nowhere to go while she was waiting to go back into accommodation that night. A good news story from the Home Works report involved Angela, one of the mothers who spoke with the researchers. At an event in DCU, she talked about how she has now been given a home and it is great. She spoke about how on the first night the family were there, so many people called round because the children could finally say that they had a place to call home and could have their friends round so there were multiple knocks on the door and they were all stampeding towards it. One of the really heartbreaking things she spoke about was the fact that she made them dinner - mash and sausages - for the first time in two years. She broke down and started crying because she was able to cook a meal for them. She has four children, two of whom are under the age of six. They still crawl into bed with her at night because they are not used to having their own space. They share a room but their mother is not there any more. The five of them shared a room for so long that they are not used to this. She is finding that quite difficult as well. She finally has her own space and the children are coming into her room. Those are just some of the ways children and young people are being institutionalised. If members read the Ombudsman for Children's report, they will hear from children themselves about what is like being in family hubs. Some described it as a prison while others described it as being like trying to escape so we really need to look at that, listen to the voices of children and see what we can do for them.

Regarding the Scottish model, Ms Keatinge has given a very clear overview of the differences there. One of the things Scotland is looking to do at the moment is to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into its law. That would make a significant difference. We had a referendum in 2012 that came into effect in 2015 and we have incorporated some of the rights in the convention, for example, the best interests and voice of the child, into some proceedings but we need to do more if we are really to do justice to the rights of children. The committee could look at what is happening in Scotland and how it is looking to incorporate that further.

Mr. Mike Allen

In the broadest possible general terms, Deputy Barry has correctly understood me. I have never seen figures that far out with regard to the Government's predictions for how many houses will be built and the 2023 figure. Perhaps I missed something. I was just drawing people's attention to the fact that this is where the Government says it is going to go and yet we know each year where the demand is. That was the first time we got some sort of Government indication of where that might shift. There are some really serious caveats about it. The first is whether we believe we will have 48,000 by 2023. Equally as important is the fact that a mismatch in the amount of housing supply and the people who need it does not necessarily turn into homelessness in the formal measured sense. It can turn up as doubling up, overcrowding or a range of things. That is quite divided by social class and resources. For example, if we were delivering 48,000 homes by 2023 and the majority of those were affordable and social housing, we would probably see a decline in homelessness far earlier but if the majority of that housing was market led and, therefore, at the top of the market, we would probably not see a turnaround in homelessness until significantly after that, so that mix of price, tenure and where will be crucial - not just in the numbers.

Regarding the question about own-door accommodation, my understanding is that the most significant change made to the measurement of homelessness by the Department was the fact that it stopped counting within those official figures families accommodated in housing units where people had their own key to the door. These people are no longer counted in those official homelessness figures. When the committee discussed this previously, I believe Deputy Barry asked witnesses from the Dublin Region Homeless Executive whether they considered such families to be homeless and they said "Yes". The Deputy asked witnesses from the Department whether they considered these families to be homeless and they said "No". They are not homeless as far as the figures are concerned but they are homeless - even in the own-door accommodation - in terms of getting support from people like us and being paid for, so it is a complicated area. Obviously, it changes the total number but if people are not impressed by the figure being 10,000, they will not be impressed by it being 11,000, so the more significant difficulty that raises is that it makes it much harder to understand what is happening. A family becomes homeless and if living in a hotel, is counted as homeless but if it is moved into own-door accommodation, it ceases to be counted as homeless but is not counted as having out of moved out of homelessness. So it becomes very hard to track what is happening and the direction in which things are going, which makes a significant difference if we want effective policy.

I have two points to make regarding the impact on children. When we talked to families that had moved out of homelessness and asked parents about the impact of homelessness on the children, the parents tended to say that it had not affected the younger children. They said it affected the older children but not the younger ones. I do not think we should take that at face value. I think it indicates a far more serious problem, in that the parents are not positioned to address the trauma that might have been felt by the younger children because they did not notice it. Rather than it being reassuring that the parents see it in that way, it is actually a greater cause for concern in terms of the long-term implications for those families. In the report, we mentioned that we are doing some work collectively with others on the trauma suffered by children and that we are happy to share that with the committee if it is interested.

In Scotland, there is a legal rather than a constitutional right to housing as it does not have a constitution so there is nowhere to put it. That has an impact. If we look at the impact of that, we can see the importance not just of the legal right but of political leadership, and I would argue, political consensus. In the early stages of that, there was a really transformative moment where all the political parties supported it and it was led very clearly. That drifted away. There is an attempt to re-establish that with a new strategy, which will be very welcome, but the sense that there was a cross-party, left-right and nationalist-unionist consensus that one of the things they were going to do right in Scotland involved housing and homelessness was really important. A very useful piece of PhD research written by a great researcher called Beth Watts compares attitudes and responses to homelessness in Scotland and Ireland - direct response in terms of the homeless service - which is well worth working at. The situation for families in Edinburgh is very different compared to that in Glasgow. The overarching position is the same but the way it plays out in the two major cities is very different and concerns what they did with their social housing stock. One city essentially gave all its social housing stock to approved housing bodies, no longer has control over it and is trying to get it back while the other city held on to its social housing. Responses in those cities are very different so there is a lot to be learned from what Scotland has done. As it does not have the same scale of family homelessness that we have, there are limitations. The scale we are seeing here is unique in Europe. It is similar to what one might see in the US but is not comparable to anything in Europe so to some extent, we must find our own solutions.

On behalf of members, I thank the witnesses for attending. We all found it interesting and will be able to develop some recommendations from this meeting.

The joint committee adjourned at 12.10 p.m. until 11 a.m. on Tuesday, 18 June 2019.