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.