I welcome the members of the various groups and commend them on the report. I know some of those present at a national level and I know some of their organisations at a local level. This comes from my previous experience when I worked with the City of Cork VEC in providing education programmes to the homeless or those under threat of homelessness, particularly in trying to move people into sheltered housing situations.
The first point that struck me when I was elected to Dáil Éireann was that when I walk down Molesworth Street in the morning or late at night, there are people lying on the street. It is a daily reminder to anybody in Leinster House of the issue of homelessness because one is literally stepping over people to get in and out of this building late at night.
One of the witnesses referred to mainstreaming of the issue. This relates to two points, namely, the philosophical position regarding homelessness and who ultimately owns the problem. When I was in Cork City Council, in conjunction with the Simon Community there was a proposal to put a wet house in a particular area of Cork, which created bedlam among the business community. There was a school in the area and all the parents, teachers and principals, with local residents, shamefully campaigned against the house. What made this peculiar was that there were two lap-dancing clubs and a sex shop in the area before the idea of the wet house was suggested and not one single objection was lodged against any of those, which would point to the reading in some people's minds when it comes to considering a strategy against homelessness. I am aware these are some of the difficulties the agencies must deal with. Everybody wants to see a solution to the problem but they may not want to see that solution based in their locality.
In recent years, there has been a drift into the mainstream in the voluntary housing area, a point the various groups might need to consider. I am not sure if this is such a good idea. I operate from a philosophical position that whether one is that guy lying homeless in Molesworth Street or somebody living in a local authority house, people have an ambition to own the home in which they live. The movement of the voluntary housing sector into mainstream housing inhibits that. I wonder if it is a distraction from providing the type of services the sector should be providing.
I would like to see the homeless agencies getting back into the niche areas of the voluntary housing sector, where they would deal with tenancy sustainment, to use a current term, whether this involves the rental accommodation scheme or the voluntary housing agency taking a section and providing that type of tenancy. I do not see the role of many voluntary housing agencies as being to deal with three-bedroom houses when there is a massive shortage of sustainable tenancies. I would support the agencies in any lobbying they would undertake in this area.
If that line was pursued, there would be a clear and measurable objective. I know some agencies are touching on this area and some are more developed in this regard but, given the current circumstances, there is a niche. This could be done at a multi-agency level. Local authorities do not have the experience of dealing with the client group the agencies deal with. God knows, I dealt with them and the rules of parliamentary language would prohibit me from describing some of the clients I came across. There are psychiatric cases, alcoholic cases and many issues that require attention and a multi-agency and multidisciplinary approach. The voluntary agency approach is the best method of achieving this.
The Minister today announced improvements in standards in housing, which is welcome albeit there is a four year moratorium before we would see the existing build coming up to scratch. However, I know from my experience and the witnesses see on a daily basis that at the bottom rung of the social housing ladder — Mr. Jordan referred to this in his presentation — is the over-40 single male.
The various groups have suggested amendments to the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill and I would like to see a copy of these before the Bill comes to the Dáil. There is a requirement to loosen up the rental accommodation scheme. At present, the qualification criteria are that one must be in receipt of social welfare or rent allowance for 18 months. The scheme should be available for people who are not on rent allowance and should not be for people in receipt of social welfare. If people are on low wages, there should be mixed build development, to which Deputy O'Sullivan referred. We would not end up with homeless ghettoes, which we are trying to move people out of. Deputy O'Sullivan's point is critical. We should have a blend of housing and of clients.
Perhaps that is a bit ambitious of me but I know the various groups share that ambition. When a person comes off the street, it is not just about him having a roof for the next 24 hours but about a long-term way of getting that person back into some sort of self value, self productivity, giving him some degree of self-worth and some meaningful role in society. This can only be done with a housing strategy that incorporates such people back into society, not some unit at the end of an estate under Part V that is the "homeless house". Something more is required.
I am particularly interested in the delegates' views on the definition of homelessness. Local authorities seem uncertain in this regard. For example, Cork City Council's figures give an inaccurate reflection of the city's homeless figures because of the criteria for the regular housing assessment list. It is a distraction from the types of clients they are trying to represent. It might be helpful for the delegates to engage with the local authorities to ascertain their definitions. The figures for Cork city are skewed. There are many homeless people in the city but the figure does not run to the several hundreds suggested by the council's housing list.
I am interested to hear about what was referred to as "structural confusion". I assume this relates to local authorities, the Health Service Executive, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the relevant agencies under the Department's remit. The existing rent allowance system was originally part of a homeless strategy but evolved into a mainstream benefit which ended up serving no purpose. It created a massive distortion in the housing markets, with hundreds of millions of euro going into the private tenancy area on an annual basis, significantly inflating rents. One could argue that the rental accommodation scheme will also inflate rents. The rent allowance scheme was ineffective in several respects. There was no monitoring of property standards, landlord behaviour or tenant behaviour. There may be some scope for this in the rental accommodation scheme.
It was an obvious omission to include no direction on homelessness within the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008. Any improvement in this area will be a direct consequence of the activities of the groups represented today. What that means in bricks and mortar and in euro and cents is another day's work after the Bill is enacted. I thank the delegates for attending the meeting. They are pushing an open door on some of these issues. Government and Opposition committee members have their own roles to play but we are all interested in their views. I look forward to working with them as the Bill goes through the Oireachtas.