In beginning, may I say on my own behalf, I suspect on behalf of many Members of the House, and on behalf of around 30 or 40 voluntary organisations and individuals involved in working with the homeless who have indicated very strongly their support for this Bill, particularly for the fundamental principles involved if not for all the details, my gratitude and my appreciation of the fact that the Government have decided not to pre-empt this debate by moving the amendment on the Order Paper. It is an indication of their shared concern with me on the issues in question that we can now have a broad ranging debate on this matter without the unnecessary entrammelment of it by what would have been in my view a very narrow and restrictive amendment. I am grateful to the members of the Government party, and indeed to the Minister of State, for their decision on that matter. I do appreciate it, and I would like to put my appreciation on record.
I am also grateful to the large number of voluntary organisations who have indicated their support for this Bill. It is almost unprecedented to have so many voluntary groups take a very specific stand on what was becoming a very controversial political issue, groups ranging from those directly dealing with the homeless to trade unions whose members had dealings with the homeless, to individuals who had worked with the homeless and to individuals who were prominent in the area of poverty. To all those I am very grateful. I suspect the Minister is as aware as I am of the large number of those groups who have strong views on this matter.
This Bill must rate as probably the first attempt by legislators in this country to redress the historical wrongs inflicted on homeless people in Ireland. Back in the reign of Henry VIII in 1531, 450 years ago, legislation was passed which categorised people who were abroad without any means of supporting themselves as vagabonds to be locked up at the first possible opportunity. Until quite recently that attitude persisted and was supported by most legislatures and by most State legislation.
The Bill is necessary, it is essential, it is vital, if we as a society are to make any serious attempt to come to terms with the needs of one of the most oppressed groups of our citizens. I deliberately use the word "oppressed" as distinct from the more fashionable terms like "underprivileged", "deprived", "socially disadvantaged" etc., because I think groups who are outside our society are there as a consequence of the way we as a majority choose to organise ourselves, not because of some accident of history but in many cases it is necessary to have losers if the rest of us are to feel that we are successful. Most of us would deny this, but we all like to feel we are that much better off than somebody else. Therefore, people who are on the margin are, by my definition, oppressed. They are in many cases the victims of our collective success. This Bill is not introduced lightly. Those who support me have conducted what could be legitimately described as years of research, consultation and discussion with many groups, such as the Department of the Environment, many voluntary groups, groups overseas, statutory agents overseas, etc. It was the basis on which I sought election to this House and on which I was elected.
The Bill is designed to do very definite things and to achieve very specific results. It is, criticisms to the contrary notwithstanding, a practical Bill designed to have a quantifiable effect on the situation on the ground. It is up to the Government to decide ultimately whether the homeless are to be granted this small measure of reform or indeed a similar measure of reform integrated into their own housing legislation. I am not an unreasonable man. I do not expect to take over the Government of the country. Therefore legislation from the Government side which meets the requirements of my Bill would obviously be equally welcome. It is up to the Government to decide whether the homeless are to continue to be abandoned to a limbo of confusion and indecision. Rejection of the principles in this Bill, rejection of the priorities in this Bill, and rejection of the groups referred to in this Bill, effectively amount to abandoning the people referred to in this Bill. One has to live with the consequences of rejecting a Bill like this, and I do not think anybody wants to. The large measure of support I have received from Members on all sides of this House indicates the broadly based nature of the concern. Anyone who thinks that we can help the homeless without legislation to protect and defend their marginal position is, in my view, engaging in a fundamental self-deception because all the other methods have been attempted.
I want to show in some detail why this Bill is necessary. I want to show how the failure of present policies creates a legal gap and a legal problem which can only be met by legislation. I want to talk in that context about how other countries legislate for their homeless. I will show what the effects will be if the Bill is passed and if it fails. I will isolate some of the needs of the homeless and how I believe this Bill meets those needs.
Because it is an important occasion, I will place this Bill in its historical context. Firstly, to the extent that we have at our disposal some facts about homelessness, there are about 3,000 homeless people in this country, excluding the travelling community. Nobody knows precisely, because the Central Statistics Office until recently kept no information on homeless people, though our data on cattle herds, pig output etc. are not hard to come by. This is not to criticise the areas in which there are detailed data available. It is more an indication of our social priorities that in the area of homelessness we have no data, even though the US Bureau of Census has always managed to produce data on this although I do not know how reliable it is. In that context, I would like to say that the Central Statistics Office intend to introduce a homeless category into future censuses and for that particular change I am particularly grateful to the Taoiseach, whose intervention persuaded the Central Statistics Office to take that enlightened view. I am grateful for that.
So, what do we know? We know that there are 1,646 beds for homeless people throughout the country as a whole, 1,155 of these are in Dublin and the rest are in other parts of the country. There are ten in the North-Western Health Board area and 163 in the Southern Health Board area, for example. In Dublin the beds are provided mainly in the 11 hostels and night shelters in the city. In rural areas the bulk are provided in county homes which are—and I mean no disrespect to the people who work in these places— descendants of the nineteenth century workhouses.
Some more modern hostels have been provided by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The one in Cork is a model of a hostel. I have said on occasions before that I am not sure whether it is proper to call it a hostel, because it is closer to decent accommodation than any hostel I have ever seen. Of these 1,646 beds, 116 are provided by health boards and the balance, 93 per cent, by voluntary organisations. It is an interesting model of the partnership that is supposed to exist between statutory and voluntary organisations that 93 per cent of the beds available in hostels and night shelters for homeless people are provided by voluntary organisations. Indeed, the funding in most cases would be close to 93 per cent by voluntary organisations as well.
These figures are only crude indications of the number of homeless people and they are only the statistical bedrock. Many other homeless people sleep rough. It is very difficult to provide an estimate of that. I will try later to provide what figures are available and perhaps to extrapolate them. Many are in psychiatric institutions, not because they have serious psychiatric illnesses but because quite literally there is nowhere else for them to go. Many others are in what can only be described as private rented sector dosshouses, or in a very marginal and insecure part of the private rented sector. A further group would be in prison, often as a result of problems associated and consequential on their homelessness, such as, alcoholism or pure simple petty theft.
Let us look at the data particularly in the area of the psychiatric services. In 1974 there were 489 admissions to the psychiatric services which were categorised as being persons of no fixed abode. I think 1974 is the last year for which we have data. The programme for the homeless in St. Brendan's Hospital, Dublin— which is incidentally a programme to be commended, and which has some limited statutory assistance, and is the only such specialised service in the State—had 99 admissions in 1982 and 136 people attending its day centre. That number is more an indication of the limit of capacity of the programme rather than a limit of demand.
In terms of those sleeping rough, we know that in the period from September 1982 to June 1983, 94 people were identified as sleeping rough in Dublin. That figure emerges from a survey carried out by the Dublin Simon Community in consultation with the Economic and Social Research Institute. Of the 94, 78 were male and 16 female. Most stayed in the same place all the time. Fifty-seven had slept rough for more than 12 months, seven were aged 14 to 18 and all seven under 18 were girls. Fifty were aged 18 to 40 and 37 were over 40. With respect to the Dublin Simon Community—and I know the survey is the best that has been conducted—there is some evidence to suggest that that is just the tip of the iceberg. We have evidence that, for instance in Carlow, a small town of 20,000 people, there are somewhere between eight and ten people sleeping rough on average.
If one were to extrapolate that to a city the size of Dublin, one would be talking about 500 or 600 people sleeping rough. It would not be conceivable that there were that many people sleeping rough in Dublin without anybody knowing of their existence, because Dublin is such a huge place that no survey conducted by a small voluntary organisation could claim to have identified them all. Cork Simon Community, for example, spend over £110 a week bringing food to people who do not come to their shelter, that is, about £5,500 a year to bring food to people who are sleeping rough.
The Galway Simon Community night shelter is chronically overcrowded, has 15 beds but an average nightly occupancy of 21. During the day, groups of children call looking for food and shelter. It is important to underline that. We have children calling to a night shelter for homeless men looking for food during the day in Galway in 1983. Dublin's Simon night shelter has 39 beds, but a nightly occupancy of between 55 and 81. In other words, the homeless problem is arguably far larger than the limited statistics indicate. The last year for which we have official statistics on homelessness come from the last two official reports on homelessness in Ireland. These are the 1906 Vice Regal Commission on Poor Law Reform and the Department of Health Report on Vagrancy, also of 1906. Those reports indicated that there were some 4,700 people homeless in the 32 counties — we have not made much progress in the last 75 years — plus 2,000 sleeping out and a further 1,800 demobilised soldiers needing relief.
To concentrate too much on statistics would be to fail to convey the full horror of the conditions of people, in particular of people sleeping rough, and those facing the dreary rounds of night shelters and hostels. There is a fashion to talk of the solution to homelessness in terms of hostels and night shelters for reasons that are as much historical as anything to do with proper social analysis. The literature of the homeless tells more than the figures of deprivation I have just quoted. Much of the literature on the subject is excellent because it requires writers of sense and sensitivity. I could quote from George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier or Down and Out in London and Paris, but I will not. Not because they are dated — although they are many years old they are still topical — but because more modern sources are available. The following was written by some members of the Cork Simon Community, with which I am associated, and describes the conditions of those enduring hardship. It was written in 1983. I have changed the names only for obvious reasons.
Peter is in very bad condition, he has a constant itch and tells us there are a few rats around the caravan. They get through the floor and have eaten their way through the floorboards in many places. We suspect lice but Peter is not very willing to get himself cleaned up.
Susan and Dermot live in a formal Corporation house with no cooking facility and very sparsely furnished. The chimney is blocked, the toilet is constantly out of order. The garden is overgrown. There is no ESB and no glass in the windows for the past few years.
Eddie is living in a derelict garage. There is no water, no toilet, no cooking facilities and the garage is constantly damp.
Mary lives in a derelict garage. There is no toilet, no cooking facilities and no water.
Pat and Brian live in a derelict caravan. There is no toilet, water or cooking facilities. It is rat infested and vermin infested, and they share their caravan with a dog.
Liam lives in a plastic and timber camp, has cooking facilities with an open fire, no toilet and the water is three-quarters of a mile away.
I emphasise this case:
Joe lives in a private flat with a toilet, water and cooking facilities. He is unable to eat for two to three days per week in order to pay his rent.
I emphasise that this report was not compiled initially for publication, but for an internal meeting of the Cork Simon Community. Therefore the statistics are not being overly stated; the horror is not being emphasised for publicity purposes. This is a verbatim report — except for the change of names — of what was produced at that meeting. Notwithstanding the appalling conditions there, each of those people had some form of accommodation. Therefore, if we were able and willing to provide them with proper accommodation there could be no argument that they would be unable to maintain such accommodation. Obviously if somebody is prepared to survive in the appalling conditions I have described, there is every reason to believe they would survive, and indeed flourish, if they were provided with proper and decent accommodation.
That last case I mentioned of the person who goes hungry for two or three days is worth emphasising. Many homeless people go hungry for reasons like this. We are talking about £15 to £25 a week for the rent, on average, of a small flat in either Dublin or Cork, and a maximum supplementary welfare rent allowance of £5 a week. In spite of indications to the contrary, my experience and knowledge show that people do not get in excess of £5 a week. I know there are exceptions, but in spite of the provisions people rarely get more than the official maximum of £5 per week. In Cork city charities distribute 300 free or low cost dinners each day.
The statistics still hide the human face behind the numbers. Bare categorised facts conceal the hurt feelings, the physical and mental perceptions and the anger of oppressed and deprived people. How can a person who has a home to go to and a bed to sleep in imagine what it is like for someone who has neither? I do not think we can, and I do not think there is any legislator in either House who can really claim to get inside the experience of homelessness. I would not claim to be able to share the experience of homelessness.
I remember on one occasion I was stuck when I was hitchhiking through Scotland. I had money but I had no place to stay one night. The experience of potentially sleeping one night on my own on the side of the road was quite upsetting. None of us can understand the scale of alienation in a person who is compelled to sleep on the side of the road, or in a derelict car, for limitless periods.
To attempt to get inside the mind of a homeless person I want to quote at some length from a day in the life of a homeless Dubliner, a publication compiled by the Dublin Simon Community and published in October 1983:
Imagine a cold wet morning. It is about 6 o'clock and dawn changes the black of night to a dull cloudy grey. In the Phoenix Park, John, a man who was out all night, is waking up. The rain has soaked through the few blankets and cardboard sheets covering him and the icy wind cuts through him, through his damp clothes. The hard ground provided no cushion for him but served to add to his discomfort.
John has a groggy throbbing head from drinking wine or some other stronger spirit. Knowing what he faces and unable to do so he seeks refuge in the bottle. He believes, as I believe do most homeless people, that his homelessness is temporary, still clutching to the belief that he is not entirely an outcast from society. It is an early time to awake. It was not until the early hours that sleep came to bring a bit of peace. But then there is a whole day to fill. What shall I do for the day?
I make no apologies for emphasising this because the emptiness of the life of a homeless person is one of the things that is most difficult for people who have homes to experience or to share.
Go to Simon, Basin Lane, or maybe Brother Sebastian's? I wish I had a job, but without an address and a decent set of clothes, I have little hope of getting one. Homelessness can often be caused by the loss of a job, the sudden deprivation of earnings which paid for a flat or lodgings. As the rush to work on a Monday morning begins and people are refreshed after the weekend, with a day's work ahead, I am faced with nothing to do except seek a meal with no money in my pockets.
The queues for breakfast at the eating houses can be fairly robust. The extrovert men are used to the system and shout to one another across the room. The quiet, the lost, the confused, the old, eat without speaking, perhaps only communicating with the Sister who hands out the tea. A brief smile, perhaps a bitter smile, and I remember the days when the egg and tea did not have to be sought from charity. Well, it's eight o'clock and there is nothing to do until dinner at midday, a different dinner house, different and familiar faces, but only faces. Can you imagine four-and-a-half hours of boredom, tiresome waiting, monotonous walking around the city, meaningless hours wasted away?
Some will understandably resort to begging and then to drinking wine. Others will walk for miles around the city. Many will just hang around, unless it's dole day. Then there are a few brief hours in the pub and back to the same life. There is no freedom in having no choice other than doing nothing. With no home and few friends, it is being condemned to conditions of life which society should not tolerate for any of its citizens.
Indeed, I heard a prominent member of the Nicaraguan civil service define poverty as the absence of choice. What I am saying here underlines the poverty of homelessness.
Begging is another blow to the emotional life of a person. Christian theologians are now writing that the essential dignity of each individual is important. The loss of dignity and self-esteem is at its worst when a man or woman is begging for money for drink or food. Is it any surprise that drink provides some measure of consolation, or forgetfulness, for the homeless? Dinnertime provides a brief interlude in the day. The dinners given out are good and nourishing. Some charge a few pence. There is some dignity to be gained in paying a small price for a meal. A word might be exchanged, but often many are sitting in silence, afraid to share their feelings, unable to communicate.
After lunch, John may go to the bookies but with no money to spend there, or maybe he will hunt around the convents to see if a kind heart will give a ticket to one of the hostels for a bed for the night. The cost of the Iveagh is prohibitive at £4.35. The Model, at 50p per night is full, but maybe a ticket for the Morning Star, at £1.40 per night, and the despairing search starts.
These figures sound very small to the rest of us but to somebody on £28 per week, £1.40p per night is an enormous sum of money.
It's raining all afternoon. The GPO provides shelter, under the watchful eyes of a garda. Again, it is long and monotonous. Perhaps the boredom is broken by tea at an eating house.
The churches are open, clean, dry and warm. But you may be thrown out. Many people who profess Christianity as a way of life seem to think it is their duty to protect Christ in his tabernacle from blokes like John.
Dublin is full of evening entertainment ... But when you are homeless, Dublin has no entertainment — it is drudgery and pain. The outlook is bleak and there is a despair created by hopelessness. The evening is long and boring. Boredom is one of the main characteristics of being homeless, shared with other unemployed people, but emphasised more by the lack of relationships and loss of respect, together with real and awful physical deprivation.
Imagine being faced with an evening with only a few blankets for a bed, the same clothes day in day out, with no change. The loneliness ... or can we really imagine it and do we look at our city and see these oppressed men and women, or are they just statistics to be shrugged off with trite platitudes?
I do not think that can enable anybody really to get inside the experience of the alienation of homelessness.
Being homeless is also about death. It is about people who die before their time, after years of unending struggle against the elements and against an unsympathetic society. It is about the suicide of those who can fight on no longer.
An acquaintance of mine committed suicide at 21 years of age and I would attribute the cause of the suicide unquestionably to his homelessness and to his sense of being lost.
It is about men aged 50 whose faces make them look 70 or more. It is about people dying of cold in derelict huts and alleyways in the winter wilderness.
The unpublished diary of a Dublin Simon Community worker records the following:
Richard B, slept rough from 1969 to 1982. He froze to death during the snow of January 1982 in a skipper. Age 58. Did not get public housing.
Tom P — age 60. Died January 5, 1982. Evicted the previous day by a landlord who found him troublesome. Died of cold on North Circular Road. Did not get public housing, living in insecure private rented sector.
What has been the response of our society to this catalogue of misery and isolation? As far as legislation is concerned, the dominant answer to that question is that we criminalise such people. We made being homeless a crime, and it still is. Being homeless is a crime under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act, 1824, a law which was extended to Ireland in 1871.
In 1982, 842 people were prosecuted by the Garda for vagrancy, mainly for begging and sleeping rough. That was a 100 per cent increase on the previous year. Perhaps one of the manifestations of the crime wave people are talking about, is the 100 per cent increase in the prosecutions under the Vagrancy Act. Incidentally, if this Bill ever gets beyond the Second Stage, I would be hoping to introduce an amendment to remove that provision from the Vagrancy Act. It would be entirely inconsistent to have legislation protecting the rights of homeless people, and at the same time maintain on the Statute Book a provision which made it a crime to be homeless. From my experience of the gardaí, they would dearly like to hand over vagrants, as they are called, to any caring agency they could find. Since I have often in the past been critical of the gardaí, it is proper that I should say that the forces of law and order, by taking a man in and giving him a dry cell for the night, are probably doing more for him than many of the caring agencies ever did, particularly the statutory caring agencies. I have said this often before but that is not the real point. The point is that under a statute still in force and in use, nearly three times a day:
Any person wandering abroad without visible means of support ... shall be deemed a rogue and a vagabond and imprisoned for up to three months.
Rarely are people imprisoned but often — as I said, on a frequency of three times a day — people are charged under that section of the Vagrancy Act.
The second response of society was to provide institutionalised care for the homeless. After 1837 when the Imperial Parliament took up the poor law philosophy of nineteenth century liberalism, workhouses were established. They were designed to deter, not to support. They were designed to be bad. The Victorian literature thrived, as indeed do many of our contemporary philosophers, journalists and economists, on methods to separate the deserving and unfortunate from the undeserving vagabond with a view to caring for the former and punishing the latter. By definition in those times, the homeless always fell into the latter category. Their homelessness was understood to be the product of their sinfulness, their laziness and their bad habits. Each workhouse had a casual ward and just as each county home did up to 1969, the Poor Law Board complained in 1848 that:
The roughness of the lodging and the coarseness of the fare provided are not sufficient to deter the honest vagrant.
As a result, new regulations were then issued to relieve vagrants of their possessions when they came in and to restrict their food to bread and gruel. Men were obliged to wash, which they disliked, and women were forbidden to wash because it was known that they would like to. In 1871 the rules were tightened up again and tramps who stayed in the same workhouse more than once a month got a day's hard labour.
This, then, was the traditional image of the tramp and the vagrant. Unfortunately such attitudes have not disappeared entirely, because this year the Director of the Economic and Social Research Institute who of all people, should know better, made a speech demanding that those who got the dole should be made to work for it. It might have been couched in modern sociological jargon and economic theory but it amounts to the same thing as the 19th century poor law philosophy.
But even at the turn of the century, some people suspected that some humanity could be found at the other side of the casual's ward door. James Greenwood wrote in the Pall Mall Gazette:
Eight or ten were so enjoying themselves ... tousled, dirty and villainous, they squatted up in their beds and smoked foul pipes and sang snatches of horrible songs and bandied jokes so obscene as to be absolutely appalling.
In 1909, a campaigning journalist, Everard Wyvall, stayed in some casual wards, or spikes as they were called then and are called now in some cases. In one he had to spend the day stone breaking and at night was shut up 13 hours in a small unlighted room with ten other men. From our records and our surveys some of the conditions and some of the existing casual wards in county homes are not that far from those conditions. So matters rested until 1953.
Under section 54 of the 1953 Health Act, health boards were obliged to provide institutional assistance to those unable to provide shelter for themselves. That is the present law, which until recently was one that was quoted in ministerial responses to questions about single homeless in particular. The 1953 Bill was the occasion of a lengthy debate on homelessness. Under the Bill, casuals were to be obliged to do labour in return for a night's shelter. The then Minister agreed to remove that clause after strong representations from Dr. Noel Browne. That is probably one of Dr. Browne's less well-known contributions to the alleviation of misery. The Minister for Health said that the continuation of the county home arrangement for the homeless was a temporary one. He said on 15 July, 1953 that:
the aim was to try to get the county homes divided up: to get the various categories of people taken there to separate institutions.
Mr. Kyne of Waterford supported the idea. A couple of years turned out to be 16, when a departmental report recommended a change of role for the county home. The 1969 report stated that casuals were a social problem but that
the committee did not regard it as necessary to make recommendations in regard to casuals.
As a result, Ireland's rural homeless were written out of history. That report recommended the closure of casual wards and recommended that other agencies look after the consequences of that closure. The rural homeless simply began to cease to exist. The Simon Community became very concerned about this change in policy and the consequential increase in the numbers of people demanding accommodation in the voluntary sector. A survey was conducted. This indicated that subsequent to 1969, 53 per cent of the county homes closed their casual wards or reduced their provisions for casuals. I have argued that the saving to the State resulting from that extraordinary reduction in capacity to cater for the homeless exceeds the total state assistance to voluntary organisations working for the homeless. By comparison with 1969 I would argue that the total volume of State expenditure in the area of provision for the homeless has decreased rather than increased when one considers the reduction in county home provision.
The process of closure is still going on. In 1980, as a punishment for bad behaviour, the county home in Carlow which sheltered 14 to 20 homeless each night, closed its doors for a week. I do not attribute any blame for the long term problem here to individual citizens. It was a matter of public policy. It never reopened and the men have been sleeping rough in Carlow ever since. The South Eastern Health Board and the Minister for Health have stated that these people who were made homeless by a deliberate decision of public policy are now the responsibility of voluntary organisations. Therefore, we have got ourselves into the position when homelessness which is created by a deliberate act of public policy must now be solved and remedied by voluntary organisations who discovered the problem which was caused by public policy.
I hope this underlines the fact that homelessness is not a city phenomenon alone. The extreme manifestations such as the down-and-out alcoholic in the gutter who is associated with big cities, is often proud of the fact that homelessness is not just a city phenomenon. I apologise for quoting the Simon Community so often, but it has to be acknowledged that the vast majority of the research and information and statistics that have been compiled in this area have been compiled by the community. This report showed how overcrowded the existing rural facilities were. The researcher found "seven beds in a separate building" in the small Kilkenny town of Thomastown. Some of the county homes provide a first-class service. Others, however, are still very much at one with the Victorian poor law tradition. I have here a report provided, not by a researcher or an observer, but by an articulate and literate resident of the Simon Community in Cork. He has this to say:
Some County Homes are clean and the food is good and you can stay in if you're sick. But others aren't good. One of them will only give you floor space in the day room and if you have a medical docket. In one town, you have to be in by 5 p.m. — a minute late and it's tough, even if there's empty beds. In one County Home it's unbelievably cold and they try to deter you. There are no blankets, only covers. There's no heating. Only cold water, no towels. In the day, it's so dark you can't read, though the lighting is due in this year some time. You used to be locked in at night. When one of the six beds broke it was never replaced. And when the windows were broken, no new glass appeared for 3 months. The wind just came in.
Just as in the country the homeless were institutionalised in the county homes; so too were the homeless institutionalised in the hostels. There is a tradition in Dublin of the working men's hostel going back to the turn of the century. This was designed for single working-class men dependent on casual labour in the docks and the brewery. These are not the type of people using that kind of accommodation any more, and have not been using it for at least a generation. The people using hostels and night shelters now do so because they are homeless.
In the light of questions I have been asked recently and of suggestions from the media and other sources, generally homeless people do not like hostels and night shelters. There is no reason why they should. They have to be out during the day in the vast majority of hostels and night shelters. There is no privacy. There is no place to put belongings. The conditions are often bad. In the Dublin Simon Community night shelter there are four toilets, one bath and one shower for 80 people. Some hostels are expensive. The largest one in this city charges £21 a week. This leaves a homeless man only £7 on present welfare rates for food, soap, clothes, shoes, personal hygiene and so on. I would not dare mention a pint because some of the self-righteous would object to the idea of a homeless man being entitled to a pint. That would be regarded as a disgraceful luxury, whereas I would regard a little bit of ordinary decent recreation as part of one of the necessities of life.
Most shelters are in dormitory or cubicle systems. The dormitory produces its own pressures with no privacy and obviously all sorts of other problems. The latter without giving any advantages isolates people from each other. There are not the advantages of separate rooms or anything like that. Like everything else, there are good and bad shelters. Some are strict, some are clinical and some are easy going. But survey after survey in this country and indeed in Britain have shown that the vast majority of homeless people do not like or enjoy hostel life. One such survey by the Glasgow Council for Single Homeless, a body which could well bear with comparisons in this country and with being imitated here, reached the following conclusions but to judge the success and significance of the conclusions, one must emphasise the image of Glasgow as a poverty-stricken city with poor housing, a high level of unemployment, a high level of alcoholism and high levels of many other social problems. The council concluded that:
The first choice accommodation of the overwhelming majority of respondents to be a house/flat of their own (77%), with a further 4% preferring other forms of independent accommodation, such as bedsit or lodgings. The older age group indicated least preference for a place of their own, preferring their present situation.
That of course is understandable. This presumably is an indication of an institutionalised person reflecting his aspirations rather than his capabilities. Indeed one of the objectives of this Bill is to prevent people becoming institutionalised into hostels and shelter-like accommodation and preserving the aspiration for people to have homes of their own separate from institutional protection.
The survey continues:
More than 80 per cent however, of hostel residents stated a preference for alternative independent accommodation to hostels, with only 17 per cent actually preferring hostels; 88 per cent of the 36-44 year olds preferred a house or flat of their own to hostel accommodation.
That is an area in so far as the under 50 age-group are concerned for which there is virtually no provision through public services for housing at present in this country.
The survey continued:
This situation, where the longer the period of hostel used and the more integrated the respondent becomes with hostel environment, the less desire there is to seek alternative accommodation, may be due to the fact that the majority of respondents falling into the long period of hostel-stay category are older men, who are less able to secure alternative accommodation, who are institutionalised to such an extent that they are unable to cope independently, and who are generally more apathetic or resigned to their circumstances.
My own friends in the Cork Simon Community, in association with some other groups, did a survey on a major hostel in Cork — not the Simon Community one — and found very similar conclusions, that is a vast majority expressing a strong preference for some other kind of life than hostel living, that vast majority, at some stage in their lives having lived in accommodation of their own. The UK Department of the Environment publication Single and Home-less, a publication which could well do with being copied, imitated and produced by our own Department of the Environment, indicates very similar values, attitudes and aspirations on the part of the single, homeless population in general in the United Kingdom.
The Dublin Simon survey of people sleeping rough in 1983 cited one case after another of homeless people finding shelters too strict, too violent, overcrowded and with far too many rules and regulations. The report concluded that there was a repeated reference to the hostels being strict, overcrowded and expensive and that this indicated that hostels, whatever their role in the future, are not a solution to the problem of homelessness. That is what this Bill is about. Homeless people should be entitled to public housing on the same basis as the rest of our citizens. At the moment they are not by any clear legislative definition so entitled. Present local authority policy towards the homeless and particularly the single homeless and people living in hostels is arbitrary, inconsistent and varies enormously. When one adds to that the confusion of responsibility for the single homeless as between local authorities and health boards, the sufferings of the homeless are further compounded.
I should like to read briefly the answers to a question on a survey conducted, unfortunately yet again, by the Simon Community. This was a question put to the managers of county homes around the country. The question was whether, to their knowledge, they were under any statutory obligation to provide accommodation for the single homeless. That was a good straightforward question to which there had to be a simple answer. The answers were as follows: No, Yes, Yes, No, No, Yes, Yes. The county homes, which should be the underpin of statutory provision for the homeless, were not in fact unanimous or even certain about their statutory obligation to the homeless.
Let us consider what happens when a homeless person presents himself to a local authority housing officer for housing. To do this we must contrast various local authorities on the basis of another survey conducted by the Simon Community. In respect of West Cork the reply was:
This Department does not generally rehouse single able-bodied people. These people are expected to provide their own accommodation.
Let us consider the use of the word "rehouse" which comes up regularly in local authority specifications, discussions, submissions and details about housing. They talk entirely about rehousing people. This narrows the debate to people who have some form of some obvious unsatisfactory housing and who are being rehoused. There are some extreme manifestations of how narrowly that word can be interpreted. The second point is the emphasis on single able-bodied people, which as far as I am concerned reflects nothing more than a return to a very limited poor law mentality. Compare the answer from West Cork to that of Mayo which was as follows:
When a single homeless person who is unable to provide accommodation for himself approaches the local authority we will provide him with temporary accommodation, normally in the form of a caravan.
A single person who is homeless is provided with immediate temporary accommodation.
The normal type of accommodation provided by the Council is caravans, demountable dwellings, and one-bed-room, traditional-type houses.
There we have two local authorities each operating under the same legislation producing almost contradictory housing policies as directed towards the homeless.
The policy of Dublin Corporation as outlined by them is as follows:
We distinguish between persons aged over 50 and those aged under 50. A homeless person in the former category would be treated as a senior citizen and would be eligible for the accommodation specifically provided for senior citizens. A single person under 50 may be eligible to go on the housing list if he has a medical or social problem, or if we are satisfied that he is genuinely homeless and unable to provide himself with any accommodation. If a single person under 50 in good health and with a job applied for rehousing, his application would be rejected.
I would not say that is an unreasonable criterion but to give some examples. Joe T, a resident in the Dublin Simon Community and living on disabled person's maintenance allowance, disabled with inactive TB, applied for housing on October 12, 1982. On November 11, 1982, his application was rejected. He got no points on a housing priority scheme.
Ellen K, aged 69 and a pensioner, applied for housing in 1979. By 1983 she had 22 points. The threshold for getting even low-demand housing is 50 points, and priority housing 100 to 120. She had been told that even in those circumstances she is much more likely to get even that limited form of accommodation than would be the case of a man of the same age. She is resident in the Dublin Simon Community night shelter.
In 1983 two residents applied as cohabitees and were treated as a married couple. They were given low demand housing without shower, bath or hot water. They were told, however, that if they had applied separately they would have had to wait for around 20 years, until 2003 AD. Quite clearly there is a large element of arbitrariness in local authority housing policy as directed towards the single homeless.
Some local authorities are very positive and consider that the homeless are very much their business. In the Leitrim County Council area, the homeless applicant takes his chance with everybody else, but being homeless, his chances would be good. Others are quite adamant that it is not.
The situation in Dún Laoghaire Corporation is, as outlined by them:
As you can appreciate, the Corporation's main concern as a housing authority is the provision of accommodation for families, including single parent families and elderly persons. The responsibility for providing shelter for the homeless rests with the Eastern Health Board.
In Galway Corporation the situation is as follows:
In general, the housing of single persons does not extend beyond providing for elderly people and the disabled. Other younger able applicants are expected to be able to make their own provision for accommodation. Where such persons are unable to do so, shelter and maintenance in a County Home or similar institution is provided by the health authorities, in accordance with section 54 of the Health Act, 1953.
Even if that much were true and I am not accusing them of being dishonest but of being mistaken, we would have some progress. Their reply continues:
The Corporation is most anxious that a shelter for the homeless be provided immediately. Every effort has been made to bring this about. In view, however, of legal difficulties and the fact that the Corporation has not a prime responsibility in this matter, it is considered that the only possible further action that can be taken is to urge the Western Health Board to provide the necessary accommodation immediately.
There is a history to that statement which is that Galway Corporation were prepared to play a major part in providing a hostel for the homeless in Galway until they got a directive from the Department of the Envrionment, and this was not in the present Minister's period of office I hasten to add, that they were to have no part in providing a hostel for the homeless even though the relevant section of the 1966 Housing Act authorises local authorities to build hostels. The Department of the Environment apparently took the view—I do not know if they still do—that it is no business of local housing authorities to build hostels in spite of the statutory enablement to do so.
Galway County Council on the other hand say that accommodation does allow for housing of single persons and that this has been done in a number of cases. Louth County Council state:
I regret that we do not have standing arrangements to cater for the needs of ‘such persons', and if a single homeless person is placed on the housing list, it would be extremely difficult to say when he or she could expect to be rehoused.
However, Dundalk Urban Council do accept people from Dundalk Simon Community.
Some local authorities are extremely unsympathetic to the needs of the single homeless. Waterford Corporation, for instance say:
Waterford Corporation has and always has had extensive lists of married couples, one-child and larger families (whether two or one parent) awaiting rehousing from inadequate living conditions. There is, in practical terms, no point in even considering what policy they would like to formulate in regard to single persons. Single (non-elderly) persons are not encouraged to apply for rehousing as in fact there is no prospect of local authority rehousing for them.
Again, that word "rehousing" is used twice. Donegal County Council state:
Due to the acute housing situation in this County at the present time, the Council could not entertain an application for rehousing from a single person, except where that person was at least 60 years of age.
Limerick Corporation state that ...
the corporation, as a housing authority, do not make any provision for a single person, that such persons would qualify for institutional assistance from the health board.
I do not want to allow my emphasis on single persons to be misunderstood. The problem with homelessness is that if a family are homeless for any period of time they will inevitably end up as single homeless persons because the family will inevitably be split up and divided, and the mother will live in one accommodation and the father in another. Families under such pressure rarely will survive as a unit and therefore what began as family homeless will end up as single homeless.
One local authority have a simple answer. They are Clare County Council who state that:
the council have no record of any single homeless people,
even though Simon shelters have people who can proudly trace their childhood and working life to County Clare.
Other authorities will, however, adopt a flexible and imaginative approach. Let us take Offaly County Council as an example: They say that:
Most of these cases are met by the provision of a pre-fab on a site provided through the goodwill of a local farmer. The pre-fab would consist of a small kitchen, sleeping compartment, and toilet. A cooker is provided and the pre-fab is serviced with water, sewerage and electricity. This has proved a very satisfactory arrangement in that it allows the people to remain in areas where they are known and usually neighbours will look after them. We do not operate a waiting list—i.e. an urgent case will take precedence and we are generally able to accommodate a person within about three months after application is approved. A total of 110 single people, mostly over 60, are presently accommodated in this way, approximately 35 over the past 5 years.
The policy of the Wexford County Council is that the council would endeavour to provide some form of emergency accommodation, most likely a caravan and that applicants have been rehoused from these caravans in one- to two-bed-roomed houses, which as I have said, constitute 15 to 20 per cent of the number of new houses built by the council.
Laois County Council say that:
approximately 130 single homeless persons have been rehoused in maisonettes and demountable dwellings in the past five years.
A similar approach is evident in Limerick, County Kilkenny, Wicklow, Roscommon, Longford, and Tipperary South Riding. I would like in particular to quote from the latter since, as well as other reasons it is the local authority of the Acting Leader of the House. They say that:
The Council does not consider existing hostels and shelters an adequate form of housing for single people. This council has housed four single homeless people under 60 in the past five years and three over 60. In addition, it has provided caravans in a further 5 cases. Clonmel Corporation and the three Urban District Councils in South Tipperary have housed 2 single homeless people under 60 in the past 5 years and 6 such persons over 60.
To my knowledge that particular local authority in spite of their very progressive attitude to single homeless people have not been swamped by every single homeless person in the country depending on them, looking for an enlightened attitude to housing as distinct from other local authorities. Perhaps some of the fears that people have expressed to me about the consequences of the implementation of this Bill are a little less than well-grounded though it is obvious that most local authorities are not equipped to respond to the need for emergency housing. Meath County Council, for instance are quite clear that there is no emergency accommodation available from them. I find it astonishing that local authorities can state categorically that they have no emergency accommodation available. It seems to me to show a very dim and very limited form of planning for the housing needs that are liable to arise.
Dublin County Council state that where a housing applicant has been evicted or rendered homeless through no fault of his own — again I have some doubts about that particular phrase — the council will endeavour to rehouse them. They go on to say that:
... this will be entirely dependent on the availability of suitable vacant accommodation. As the council's rented housing stock is relatively small and vacancies are infrequent, it is very often impossible to deal with requests for emergency accommodation as they arise. It is also essential by the terms of the Letting Scheme to be qualified on residential grounds. Each applicant must satisfy the council that he or his wife is a native of County Dublin or that either spouse has been residing in the County of Dublin for any continuous period of ten years, or for a continuous period of four years immediately prior to the date of allocation.
Some people are obviously very frightened that if they do not add on all these qualifications the floodgates are liable to be opened. I do not know that that is right.
Another critical area is that of hostels. Do local authorities accept on to their lists — I am not talking about housing — of people whom they deem to be eligible to be considered for housing, people who are basically homeless but who are living in hostels on a temporary basis? I must repeat again that hostels are open only at night, that there is little or no privacy in them, that living conditions in some hostels are very poor and sometimes worse than those to be found in prison.
Carlow County Council state:
I wish to inform you that in the last five years the council re-housed 16 single persons in limited accommodation dwellings and demountable dwellings. The majority of persons housed were 60 years of age and over. The council does not house persons who reside in hostels.
I do not know if there is a hostel anywhere in their area so perhaps that is why they do not house people from hostels. There is a hostel in Waterford and the corporation there say that—
hostels as such, if reasonably adequate, would seem to be suitable for single persons.
It is always invariably those who never had to live in hostels who think they are suitable for single persons.
Some local authorities have their doubts about hostels. Cork County Council say that:
With reference to hostels and night shelters, I feel that in times of crisis situations this type of accommodation provided a temporary home for such people, yet in the long run lacks the atmosphere of community integration.
Others consider that hostels are not suitable and will accept hostel residents on to their housing lists. Monaghan County Council said:
The provision of hostels or shelters is almost non-existent in this county, and the council does accept applications from persons residing in such hostels or shelters for re-housing.
Tipperary North Riding had this to say:
We have accepted applications from the Hospital of the Assumption.
— the county home in the area. Mayo County Council said that residents of hostels and shelters are accepted onto their housing lists, again, a policy that is clearly inconsistent.
Two other points should be made in this context. At times we have seen the ultimate absurdity of the Simon Community being asked by local authorities to provide people with housing.
I might quote a letter received from Dublin Corporation as follows:
I would be grateful if you would provide overnight accommodation for Miss K. D, aged 45 years. She is homeless and was just discharged from hospital today. The flat in Crumlin where she has been living is now unfit for living accommodation.
It seems that once someone strays over the no-man's-land between insecure housing and none at all, then she is doomed, One local authority will not house the homeless because — and I would like Senators to listen carefully to this — to qualify to apply you have to have your existing bad housing conditions inspected, and if you are homeless, then you do not have any conditions to be inspected and so you cannot apply. That particular case does not refer to that local authority. I will communicate with the Minister in regard to that. I do not wish to get involved in naming that one here.
One classic case, written up by the Galway Simon Community Project Leader had this to say:
Elizabeth and John C. first came in contact with us in June of this year when they were both homeless. They had returned from England in 1970. They then moved in with John's father and aunt. They had to leave this accommodation when John's father died in 1971. They subsequently moved in with John's cousin, where they remained until last June, when relationships deteriorated between themselves and the cousin. This is hardly surprising, when one considers that the house had only three bedrooms but accommodated three adults and six children.
From June until September of this year, Elizabeth and John were homeless and John stayed in the Simon night shelter and Elizabeth stayed at Bethlehem House. During this period they had no opportunity for any privacy whatsoever. John, who has always suffered from depression, became severely depressed and had to be hospitalised for a period. He still attends the out-patients clinic at the Regional Hospital. His work also suffered from the unrest and he could no longer cope with his job. Since September, they have been staying in a one-bedroomed flat. The rent is £25 per week and the landlady is threatening to increase it to £35 per week. Now that they are totally dependent on John's unemployment benefit, this, together with their admitted low coping abilities, holds out little hope for Elizabeth and John maintaining accommodation in the long-term in the private rented sector. We fear that Elizabeth and John will continually arrive back on our doorstep in need of accommodation but we do not have the facilities for married couples. They first applied for Corporation accommodation when they returned from England in 1970, but they have to date received no offer at all.
That was in 1982. Again, I feel that this couple will only survive and maintain some form of stability if they are given public accommodation.
The principle — I suppose the word "principle" is a little inadvisable, it is more a consequence of neglect than a principle — of splitting families and then declaring them ineligible for housing because they have become single is clearly obnoxious in a country claiming to uphold the sanctity of the family. There are virtually no family hostels in this State and the Dublin Simon Community is alone in having even a mixed sex night shelter. This splitting up of families is condoned by only one other State I know of and that is racist South Africa. The Galway Simon Community night shelter welcomes women and children in the afternoon. The Galway Women's Shelter does not open until 8.30 p.m. and women must mind their babies and young children on the streets every evening until then.
The record of existing local authority policy to the homeless is arbitrary, inconsistent and confused. Some operate very good schemes, others are downright inhumane. This Bill attempts to come to grips with these issues by doing three things. It introduces a definition into law for the term "homeless". It identifies and defines local authorities as being responsible for the homeless and attempts to get rid of the present extraordinary confusion. It obliges them to house homeless people, the third provision being the one that has caused most confusion in other circles. Looking at each in turn, first of all we do not have a legal definition of "homeless". The only existing definition of "homelessness" is derived from the 1824 Act and that is simply a definition to enable us to put people in jail. The census of 1986 will use the term "homeless". It is a word that, while perhaps it is lacking in legal definition is fairly well understood.
Basically this Bill has to start from scratch. The definitions here employ definitions used in the British Homeless Persons Act, 1977. I would like to emphasise that because I gather from newspaper reports that the Minister, or someone speaking for the Minister, has raised objections to the definition of "homelessness" in the Bill. It is, by and large, the definition used in the British Act. The British Act has worked. No floodgates have been opened. There have been no huge inundations of local authorities by hordes demanding immediate housing. There are differences in aspects but it is a similar definition to the British one of "homelessness". It is designed to cover such cases as people sleeping rough, people in hostels and shelters, husbands barred from their homes — and I make no apology for the fact that even if a husband is barred from his home that does not give us, in society, the right to abandon him entirely — travellers, prisoners and psychiatric patients who are discharged without the authorities having arranged accommodation for them. The number of occasions on which prisons and hospitals discharge people to nowhere — one can discuss this with any voluntary organisation one wishes — is quite astonishing — individuals barred from their homes by relatives, which would be characteristic of many of the young homeless and individuals temporarily displaced from the private rented sector.
This section may well prove to be controversial, but my contention, my starting point, would be that all these people are homeless and therefore are vulnerable to long-term homelessness. I hope to return again and again to this, that this Bill is not just a provision to cater for the existing homeless population. It is an attempt to provide a means of intervention to prevent long-term homelessness with all the consequences that has for people and for society. It is as much a preventive as a remedial measure. The inclusion of people now in hostels and night shelters in the definition of "homelessness" is in my view non-negotiable. Such people were not included in the original British Act of 1977 because of the nature of the compromises that were needed to get three-party agreement. However, I would hasten to add that even Margaret Thatcher's Tories in 1977 reckoned that it would be politically unacceptable to vote down the Homeless Persons Bill in the British Parliament, that it would provide an image of callousness and hardheartedness that even Margaret Thatcher's Tories could not face. So there had to be agreement and there was compromise during Committee Stage of that Bill.
People resident in hostels were not included in the original British Bill, but from 1982 onwards, they have been following the ruling of Regina v. Waveney District Council ex parte Bowers. Justice Stephen Brown then ruled that a shelter was and I quote:
... crisis accommodation. It is crisis accommodation for people who are homeless and offers them a basic night shelter only. In no sense could it be described as a home, and when one sees that the occupants for the night have to leave by 8 a.m. the following morning and cannot return until evening, one realises that it is not in any sense accommodation which can be equated with a home.
Therefore even though hostels and night shelters were deliberately excluded from the British Act the courts in Britain have now redefined "homelessness" in such terms that residents of night shelters and hostels are accepted as being, de facto, “homeless”.
The second aim of the Bill is to designate the local authorities as responsible for caring for the homeless. I have already detailed the confusion existing in the minds of county home authorities about their legal responsibilities. I know that there is a working party involving the Departments of the Environment, Health, local authorities and health boards attempting to grapple with this confusion of responsibility. However, I have to say that recent statements from the Minister about the brief of that working party have expanded it way beyond what the working party indicated to me they were doing. That may well have been mis-information. But I must say that my understanding of what that working party were doing and what I read in the papers this morning is very different. However, I could have been wrong. The only real choice in terms of designating responsibility is between local authorities and the health boards. A detailed examination of the medical conditions of homeless people shows that their medical conditions derive from their homelessness, not the other way round. It is one of the extraordinary aspects of the whole area of public policy with regard to the homeless that they are more or less defined as constituting a medical rather than a housing problem. All sorts of things, their drinking and other problems, are used to support that contention. Of the 600 people contacted by — I think it was the Cork Simon Community in 1975, or it may have been all the Simon Community — 21 per cent had skin disease, clearly due to inadequate personal and clothes washing, drying, or bed linen; 16 per cent had bruising, abrasions, twisted ankles and infected wounds, due to lack of first aid; 13 per cent had chronic bronchitis and emphysema, clearly due, by and large, to lack of warm, dry, ventilated accommodation or adequate footwear, while 15 per cent had nutritional deficiency.
In May 1982, Dundalk Simon Community reported that, of their residents, 18 had been hospitalised in the previous year and a further 21 had been dispatched to casualty and out-patient departments. The reasons included alcoholism, psychiatric illness, drug overdose, broken limbs, cirrhosis, pneumonia and stomach ulcers.
People get TB because they are in overcrowded night shelters. They get foot sores and chest infections from walking around in wet clothes all day. They get a drink problem because they drink alcohol to keep warm at night and to obliterate the misery of the wet, the damp and the cold because the only fellowship they have, in many cases, is that of the bottle. I repeat, alcoholism is a consequence, not a cause, of homelessness. They get infestation because there are rats where they sleep. They are dirty because there is nowhere to wash. In other words, what we have is a social problem with health manifestations. If all these homeless people had dry, public housing or indeed any other kind of housing flat, most of these problems would diminish dramatically. This is the right direction to be going in. Health boards are not housing agencies. Any of their solutions to homelessness would understandably and, by definition, be institutional hostel-orientated, the one approach that has clearly not worked. I would still see health boards as having a role to play. It would be to support existing voluntary organisations, to help in the provision of night shelter accommodation for both emergencies and for those who prefer hostels to independent housing. The minority would appear to prefer hostels to independent housing.
The Bill obliges local authorities to house homeless persons. There is no such statutory obligation at present on local authorities in any area of housing. The suggestion that there should be, I know, causes some people to freak out but there is no good reason why this should be the case. After all, health boards are obliged to provide medical services. VECs are obliged to provide educational services. This would constitute a shift of philosophy in the present housing policy and that is new. But the present discretionary system does not work and fails quite dramatically to meet the needs of the homeless category. To preserve the present system in its present form simply guarantees that these needs will go unmet indefinitely.
The Bill is a commitment to ensuring that Ireland's existing homeless population is housed. It would guarantee the option of housing for those now sleeping rough and for those in hostels and night shelters. The orderly housing, over a period of time, of the present homeless population may enable some of the existing shelters and hostels to close. It is a humanitarian measure whose objective is the reduction of human misery. It is administratively efficient, by defining one body as responsible rather than two. An inevitable result of the housing of the homeless population will be a reduction in the need of this group for medical services. Indeed some will develop a stability of lifestyle that will enable them to return to the workforce and to be producers in society once again
In that context it is worth throwing up a statistic and its consequences. Some of our surveys have indicated that, in their lifetime, about one-third of homeless people spend time in prison, usually for petty offences. If one assumes that in the lifetime of a homeless person, he spends the equivalent of a year in prison the cost to the State of that 12-month period of imprisonment at present costs is approximately £25,000. The expenditure of part of that sum on the provision of accommodation would probably guarantee that such a person would never end up in prison. Indeed one could argue therefore that the State would be the nett beneficiary in the provision of housing.
At present this country has one of the worst set of arrangements for the protection of the homeless in the whole of the developed world. In that category of the developed world I would include the United States, which sometimes I do and sometimes I do not. In this case I will include the United States, and I shall revert to that. With the exception of Greece we are the only part of the European Economic Community not to have some kind of statutory provision for homeless people. When I saw a recent newspaper headline about an alliance of the poor I began to wonder had I missed out on something new in Irish politics. But I discovered it referred to ourselves and the Greeks.
In Britain the Homeless Persons Act ensures housing for certain vulnerable categories of homeless people. In Denmark the position of the homeless is maintained by their 1966 Social Assistance Act. In France reintegration centres have been established. In The Netherlands there is a social contract with voluntary organisations to provide accommodation for the homeless. In The Netherlands a social contract with voluntary organisations does not mean getting the voluntary organisations to do the job while the State provides about 5 per cent of the cost. It means a genuine equal partnership in terms of funding, legislation and so on. In Germany 400 million deutschmarks are spent each year on building programmes for their 260,000 homeless. Nobody is pretending that homelessness is easy to dispense with, easy to get rid of. Even in an advanced, prosperous country like Germany there are homeless people but they do spend quite a substantial sum of money on them. Four hundred million deutschmarks would be of the order of £100 million.
In the socialist countries there are housing objectives laid down in their Constitutions. In two American States, New York and Virginia, there is now a constitutional right to shelter established by the State authorities. I should like here to quote from the judgment of the New York Supreme Court, in the context of this constitutional right to shelter, because it is significant both as a decision and in its detail. This was judgment 42582/79 in Robert Callaghan, Clayton W. Fox, Thomas Damien Roig, James Hayes, James Spellman and Paul E. Toole, plaintiffs versus Hugh Carey, Governor & Others, defendants; dated 26 August 1981:
It is hereby ordered, adjudged and decreed as follows:
1. The city defendants shall provide shelter and board to each homeless man who applies for it provided that (a) the man meets the standard to qualify for the home relief programme established in New York State; or (b) the man, by reason of physical, mental or social disfunction, is in need of temporary shelter.
No. 2 is a list of shelter standards specified, not by the social welfare authorities, but by the courts and reads:
2. The City defendants shall provide shelter at facilities operated in accordance with the standards set forth in this paragraph as soon as practicable and not later than September 1, 1981.
(a) Each resident shall receive a bed of a minimum of 30 inches in width, substantially constructed, in good repair, and equipped with clean springs.
(b) Each bed shall be equipped with both a clean, comfortable, well-constructed mattress, standard in size for the bed and a clean, comfortable pillow of average size.
(c) Each resident shall receive two clean sheets, a clean blanket, a clean pillow case, a clean towel, soap and toilet tissue. A complete change of bed linens and towels will be made for each new resident and at least once a week and more often, as needed on an individual basis.
(d) Each resident shall receive a lockable storage unit.
(e) Laundry service shall be available to each resident not less than twice a week.
(f) A staff attendant to resident ratio of at least 2 per cent shall be maintained in each shelter facility at all times.
(g) A staff attendant trained in first aid shall be on duty in each shelter facility at all times.
(h) A minimum of ten hours per week of group recreation shall be available for each resident at each shelter facility.
(i) Residents shall be permitted to leave and to return to shelter facilities at reasonable hours without hindrance.
(j) Residents shall be permitted to receive and send mail and other correspondence without interception or interference.
(k) The City defendants shall make a good faith effort to provide pay telephones for use by the residents at each shelter facility. The City defendants shall bear any reasonable cost for the installation and maintenance of such telephones.
On information it is said:
The City defendants shall provide applicants for shelter with clear written information concerning other public assistance benefits to which they may be entitled at the time the applicants apply for shelter.
Then there is a provision for monitoring the compliance of the City authorities with those recommendations.
I would emphasise that those are not the "pie in the sky" demands of some idealistic voluntary organisation. They are the conclusions of the New York State Supreme Court as to what would be regarded as the basic, elementary provisions for shelter for homeless people.
I should like to talk at some length about the operation of the British Homeless Persons Act. Leaving European examples aside, an examination of housing legislation in our neighbouring country repays study. I have no doubt that the British example will be used by some to argue both for and against the Bill. Therefore, I would like to set the record straight from the start. Since 1977, there has been legislation for homeless people in Britain under this Act. Until 1948, Britain's homeless were subjected to the same workhouse regime as were Ireland's homeless. This was changed in 1948 with the introduction of the National Assistance Act. It is interesting to note that pressure for the change came as a result of Luftwaffe attacks on British cities during the Second World War. Ordinary citizens who had been bombed were accommodated in the degrading workhouses which hitherto had known only the extremely poor. When ordinary citizens discovered the conditions of the workhouses an overwhelming demand developed for remedies to the workhouses mentality. They saw how dreadful they were and resolved that the homeless should not continue to suffer the same regime. Under the National Assistance Act of 1948, it was the duty of local authorities to provide temporary help for homeless people until such time as they achieved public housing—not an unreasonable viewpoint because of the postwar housing reconstruction programme.
However, the problem of homelessness did not recede. It persisted. The 1957 Rent Act, which decontrolled the private sector, gave rise to a flood of evictions and raised the rents of low-income households way beyond what they could afford. It was also clear by the late fifties that policies at local level varied enormously. In one comment on British housing policy, Marian Bowley writing in "Housing and the State" had this to say:
Local authorities have been given powers which they are only partially willing to exercise and duties which they are unwilling to perform. In the absence of any effective central control, the local authorities can and do, in practice, re-legislate as to the extent to which they will carry out or accept a national policy.
In the context of what I have just said about the behaviour of various local authorities that particular comment is extremely apposite. In practice what happened was that the local authorities designated the homeless as problem people and passed them on to the health authorities along with the sick and the aged.
The echoes on today's situation in Ireland are frighteningly similar. Janet Richards' study of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act, noted and I quote:
Many authorities declined outright to accommodate the homeless, or restricted the amount of assistance by applying residential qualifications and quotas, in which the accommodation provided was typically low-standard, half-way housing, which served as a
— and this was another poor law echo —
To house the homeless was contrary to the established principles of sound housing policy. Firstly, it was discordant with the waiting list philosophy. Secondly, the tendency to apply moral criteria in judging needs meant that the homeless, and in particular those homeless as a result of eviction, were perceived to be feckless and undeserving, and hence undesirable as council tenants.
Therefore, by 1960, it was clear that the National Assistance Act had failed because it did not ensure that local authorities housed the homeless and because, more basically, the Act of 1948 treated "homelessness" as a temporary product of the war, rather than something structural, which is what it is.
In 1960, London County Council, following a demonstration of 2,000 homeless people led by two bishops, abolished the three-month stay-time in hostels and set up a special Committee of Inquiry into the Homeless, which reported in 1962. The London County Council (Janet Richards Report) concluded that:
Welfare departments are not properly organised, staffed, or equipped to deal with what is, in the main, a housing problem and ...the responsibility of the housing department.
I hope we will never again have to fight the battle here about who should be, in principle, at least responsible for the homeless. It has been argued in every other country and the decisions have always ended up on the same lap, falling under the same heading. I hope we will not have to advance that argument again. London County Council did accept, as did other people working in the field — and as I have been arguing here today — that homelessness is the result of restricted access to housing, aggravated by housing shortage, and less a result of personal inadequacies.
The response of the British local authorities to homelessness was late, lethargic and might not have happened at all but for both the campaigning work of organisations like "Shelter", and media attention like the famous film "Cathy Come Home" which, even now — almost 20 years later — is well worth seeing again for the way it catalogues, in believable circumstances, the decline of a family under the pressures of homelessness. I should like to think the same would happen here if ever we produced a "Cathy Come Home" film. But "A Day in the Life of Martin Cluxton" did not produce any immediate response here. Hopefully when the Children's Bill finally emerges we will see some response. Reverting again to the British position, a Home Office circular was issued — No. 19 of 1967 — appealing for a consistent policy in treating the homeless, nothing disturbing numbers of local authorities not accommodating the homeless. Again, shades of Ireland in the eighties. That circular failed to achieve its purpose and the situation was unchanged seven years later. Accordingly, a new one was issued — Circular No. 18 of 1974 — which again reminded local authorities of their responsibilities. The number of homeless people still in need of public housing and not getting it continued to rise. Not until 1976 did the Secretary of State for the Environment accept what the organisations on the ground who worked with the homeless had been saying for nearly twenty years, namely, that legislation was needed. I would accept that the organisations working with the homeless in this country have been talking about legislation for three years. I sincerely hope I do not have another 17 to wait.
The same is true here, and anybody who argues to the contrary that legislation can be avoided and is unnecessary in this area would have great need to rewrite British social history. The British Act is similar but not identical to the Bill proposed here. It defines the homeless in terms of priority cases. It states that local authorities are responsible, and obliges them to house homeless people. Since 1977, over 100,000 homeless households have been provided with accommodation under that Act. It has stopped many children being separated from their parents and prevented many husbands from being separated from their wives. It has improved family life and provided assistance for those who would otherwise not have got it. It was and is, by any standard — though inadequate nevertheless — a humanitarian achievement.
There are defects in the British Act I would not wish to see included in this Bill. There are three that I will identify. First, single homeless people are not included as a priority category. As a result, unless a local authority chooses to house them, they are not housed. That is why there are still many homeless people on the streets in Britain. The idea of including single people was not acceptable to the Liberal or Conservative Parties in 1977 and, since the Labour Government was then a minority, all-party agreement was necessary.
Also under the British Act some local authorities are not obliged to house people who they feel — and as the Act would define them — are intentionally homeless. As a result, some local authorities are able to evade their responsibilities entirely. In 1980, for instance, six major British local authorities declared over 50 per cent of their applicants as having made themselves intentionally homeless. They are a small proportion. The usual number of applicants who are judged to be intentionally homeless is of the order of 3 or 4 per cent. Those authorities using the 50 per cent figure for intentional homelessness are, in fact, abusing the Act. To give an indication of the sort of abuse that has crept in, I am aware of the circumstances of a battered wife who left her house because her husband was beating her up, and the local authority said: "You left of your own free will. Therefore you are intentionally homeless. Therefore you are not entitled to be housed". That is the sort of perverse interpretation, and hence my great reservations about an intentionally homeless provision or catch provision in this Bill.
Third, local authorities need not house people who have no local connection. As a result, some local authorities have evaded their responsibilities, particularly as many homeless persons have, by definition, no fixed abode and therefore no proven record of local residence. That is why this Bill includes single homeless people, and does not have these clauses that in some areas ensure that the intentions of the British Parliament are frustrated. The British Act has been warmly applauded by all organisations working with the homeless as being of great benefit to families, but generally it has been of little use to single people.
There were many criticisms of the British Bill as it went through Parliament and I would like to anticipate some of these here today. It was alleged that councils were forced to house the homeless at the expense of local people. The contrast between homeless and local people escapes me but it is one that was made fairly vigorously, and vast numbers of amendments were proposed and agreed on that Bill as it went through the British Parliament. Not true. Only 4 per cent of applicants have, since 1977, no connection with the area in which they applied. Even in London, supposedly a major centre of transient population, that figure is 6 per cent.
It was alleged that people deliberately made themselves homeless in order to get public housing. This is not true on the basis of the evidence available. Leaving aside those local authorities who abuse the intentionality escape clause, the intentional rate is less than 3 per cent nationally. Psychologically, I think this criticism is on very shaky ground. I know some local authority members here would take issue with me on this one. Hopefully on Committee Stage we can discuss that particular clause in some detail.
People do not give up any sort of homes to throw themselves on the cold and wet of the streets and the tender mercies of local authorities. Perhaps we can discuss this again: I would have great reservations about it. There were stories in Britain of people flying into Heathrow Airport, declaring themselves homeless at the expense of Hillingdon Borough Council. It was true. There have been two such cases since 1977. Two in six years — hardly a valid criticism, but the two of them did make the headlines. I am reminded of the various interpretations put by the British newspapers on the way the Nielsen case highlighted the problem of the homeless in London. Many of the more liberal papers identified the problem with the lack of provision of proper accommodation for homeless people. The Daily Express identified the problem as being related to the fact that welfare rates for homeless people in London were too high. They were attracting a huge flood of homeless people, and the solution was to reduce welfare rates and they would not turn up any more. You can argue for ever but some people will never believe you. In 1979 alone, by comparison, 57,200 people applied for housing under the British Homeless Persons Act. I do not take the intentionality argument too seriously, but I am prepared to listen to people with experience in this area on local authorities. Perhaps the Irish are a bit different. Perhaps we have an affection for fidding the State that other countries do not have.
It has been said that this Bill will enable single people to jump the queue over our needy families. This is an issue which will require much discussion. It is regrettable that we act on the assumption that we will never be able to provide housing for our people. In terms of where this country stood 50 or 60 years ago, our record in housing is exceptionally good. It would be a pity, after the achievements we have actually had over 50 years with limited resources, and as a relatively poor country, if we were now to give in and admit defeat in the face of our housing problem.
If you begin to shout too loudly that this Bill would enable some group to jump the queue, you are assuming that there will always be a queue, and there will always be a housing problem. Do we have to accept that assumption? Even if there is such an assumption, we could talk about it at length. I do not like the approach or the philosophy. It is false and faulty. If there are waiting lists as they stand with families as the priority and the homeless the lowest priority — if they are homeless for any length of time, or if they are young by and large they will be single — then the homeless will never be housed. Our largest local authority, Dublin Corporation, have been frank enough to admit in discussions with the Simon Community that they do not ever envisage themselves as being able to accommodate the residents of hostels and night shelters who are, by and large, the single homeless.
There are a few things I would like to say about that criticism. First, housing has progressed beyond the stage of simply being about families on the waiting list in the conventional definition of a family. It is not that simple any more, and the Department of Environment have said as much in the past year. The present policies do not cater for significant neglected categories and minorities. In Britain, for instance, only 75 per cent of public housing is with traditional family units and 25 per cent is about minorities based around single people. There are suggestions that up to a quarter of the units of housing in Britain in a few years' time will be occupied by single person families. We cannot ignore the social trend which is a product of urban and social change and we cannot have a housing policy which says we will cater for 75 per cent of our client group, and ignore the other 25 per cent.
Secondly, I would argue that both groups — the family unit and other categories — must be catered for. It is not an either/or situation. It is both. As it is, many local authorities do have special categories. Some make special provision for single mothers, the disabled, the elderly and the in firm, so the principle of special categories is not unusual. In one sense this Bill adds one more category to those special categories. Therefore it is less revolutionary than it may look, and it is not my habit to preach that I am less revolutionary than I look.
Thirdly, I would accept that the question of families and single people takes us into moral areas of judgment. I am saying that both classes of applicant are needy and worthy of housing: the family group because they are in poor or overcrowded conditions, and because their children will be suffering with them; and the latter group because of their total destitution, their total lack of any accommodation. Both have good claims, and if we say it is families first and the homeless can wait for ever, then homelessness will always be with us, and the homeless are condemned to perpetual isolation.
I do not think anybody who supports this Bill will allow this spurious distinction between the homeless and other needy categories to deflect us too much. To produce conflicts between the poor of various categories is as old a policy as was ever conceived in politics. If there is a need, it is our responsibility as a community to meet that need, not to redefine that need in order to exclude certain categories so as to provide for other categories. If there are serious needs in our society, it is our obligation to meet them, not to ignore them and pretend they do not exist.
Homeless people are ordinary people with a severe accommodation problem. It is time we got away from the sterotype of the wino, the dirty unshaven alcoholic, the madman, because all that conceals an ordinary human being with needs, aspirations, hopes, feelings and capabilities. It needs to be repeated again and again that they are ordinary people with ordinary needs. Questions are raised regularly about the capacity of homeless people to house themselves and to cater for themselves. In this regard I should like to quote just one very important example of the capacity of people who are traditionally regarded as homeless to cater for themselves.
In 1978, Glasgow—a city of 3,000,000 people with appalling problems of housing, poverty and oppression: Glasgow is almost a synonym for problems of poverty, housing and alcoholism, and so on—began a programme for the housing of its single homeless population. From November 1978 to November 1982, 110 women and 462 men were rehoused. Only 14 women and 20 men ever returned to the hostel circuit. The success rate is, therefore, 94.1 per cent. These were people taken from hostels and doss houses and similar places. They had a success rate of 94.1 per cent. Those people who had come from doss houses and hostels and places like that had a better record in maintaining their rent than the traditional population of such local authority accommodation. They proved to be better tenants than the average local authority tenant.
One of this programme's positive results has been the closure of one of the oldest lodging houses in the city of Glasgow. It is the intention of the programme to clear the present number of single homeless, about 2,500 in Glasgow alone, and rehouse them in public housing over a finite period of years. The evidence is that the vast majority of the single homeless in Glasgow will be more than capable of maintaining themselves in accommodation. Of course, there are social workers and other supports available to these people, and nobody would argue with the fact that they are needed. It is recognised in the case of families of travelling people that various supports and assistance are needed. The facts speak for themselves.
What this Bill is about effectively, therefore, is the elimination of avoidable homelessness in this country. It would mean that the single homeless who wish to opt from sleeping rough, or the poverty trap of hostel life, could do so, and opt for public housing. To achieve this would be a social triumph for this country and its people. It is a worthy goal, a challenge well within the abilities of our people. We should not allow ourselves to be intimidated by images of hordes of homeless people descending on poor innocent housing officers with limitless demands. It is a limited problem. It is a serious problem. It is a problem within our capabilities to solve. It can be done and for the sake of the homeless it must be done.
To pass this Bill is to write success on the social record of this nation. The practical effect of the Bill on the ground will be nil in the case of those local authorities who already care well for the homeless. For those who do not, and either make them a low priority or ignore them altogether, it will mean changes, and changes for the better. For the homeless themselves, this Bill will be signalling to an historically oppressed group that this House does care, and will do something practical and useful and valuable to recognise their worth as human beings.
It is worth recording yet again that, at this stage, if one does not have an address one cannot qualify for social welfare and therefore one cannot qualify for many other things as well. There is a practice in the Department of social Welfare, and among some community welfare officers, that if people cannot give an address they are not eligible for social welfare benefit, supplementary welfare, and so on. The Minister responsible explained it to me here in the House, and it is worth repeating. There is not a policy of refusing such benefits to people who have no address, but it is administratively necessary that they have an address so that the application can be dealt with. Perhaps this could be referred to the Ombudsman.
The converse is also true. To say no, to equivocate, to delay, to say this is not the time, to vote this Bill down for reasons of principle or prejudice, out of pique or out of prejudice, is to take away from the homeless one small hope on their horizon. It is to deny them their intrinsic worth as human beings. It is to say, effectively, that their sufferings must go on. It is to abandon the poor to their fate in the jungle of the market economy and of the streets. It is to flout the words of the United Nations Charter which nobly states that "everyone has a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and family, including food, clothing and housing."
I have spent ten years working for and with the homeless. I have spent ten years fighting for and indeed, on occasions with the homeless. I have spent ten years watching people declining and dying because there was nowhere for them to go. I have seen people go blind from shingles because they lived in a night shelter which you could not get a doctor to visit with regularity. I have seen people decline from reasonable health into the sort of position I have described of people who were 50 and looked like 70. I have had ten years experience of confusion and procrastination and downright stupidity on the part of local authorities and health boards in their dealing with the homeless with a Victorian mentality, obscurantism, delays, reclassification and general ill-will and confusion. I have had ten years of anger and frustration which eventually motivated me to do either of two things a person who is angry and frustrated can do — either take up a gun or get into politics. Otherwise the anger and the frustration would be too much entirely.
The homeless have waited 450 years since Henry VIII first defined them as vagabonds to be locked up at the first possible opportunity, 450 years of isolation, of alienation, of illness and, indeed, in many cases of the one refuge they had from their problems, of alcohol. No one can survive without a home. No one is entitled to be defined by some arbitrary stroke of official policy as unhousable. No one can suggest to me that marginal groups will get their share of the nation's resources or indeed the preferential share of the nation's resources without legislation in the form I have suggested.
This Bill is a response to a need. It is a response to the need that I have experienced over ten years. It is a response to the need that the homeless have articulated to me and to every voluntary organisation dealing with the homeless in this country. It is a Bill which I am sure has defects. I am sure that in a very few minutes I will hear at length about those defects. I will say this. I and the people who work with me have done something that the Department of the Environment have failed to do in 60 years. We have produced a Bill to liberate the homeless from their oppression. Let me hear about the defects, but we did it. We did it without the resources of a Government Department, without the resources of the parliamentary draftsman, without the resources of the civil service. That is the measure of the achievement.
I want a response in positive terms to this Bill, not a catalogue of the limitations of this Bill which quite obviously are there. I am prepared to listen to them, discuss them and consider them at length and in detail. We produced this Bill and the statutory services with 60 years of experience in this area failed to do so. We have the experience. We are neither fools nor idealists. Nobody who is a foolish idealist would survive very long in a Simon Community night shelter. It is no place for foolish idealists. We are very practical realists, dealing with a very practical problem on a very practical day to day basis.
The homeless are simply no more and no less than equal partners in the family of the Irish people. That is what this Bill says for them. That is what this Bill hopes for them — that they will be treated as equal partners in the family of the Irish people. As far as I am concerned, and as far as many people working with the homeless in this country are concerned, this Bill is their moment. I commend the Bill to the House.