I am pleased to have an opportunity to express my concern about the area of homelessness covered by this Bill. A tribute is due to Senator Brendan Ryan who has brought his concern about this matter before all of us. I accept that there are areas in this Bill which are defective and would make it extremely difficult from a legislative point of view to implement it. It is very important and significant that we are enabled to express our concern about what is a very painful issue, an issue of human degradation, a very unattractive issue and one which does not immediately bring about a ground swell of support and sympathy because it is so unattractive and because it reminds us of the depths to which humanity can sink.
While much is heard about the existence of social problems, it is rare to find a definition of what exactly constitutes a social problem. The most generally accepted definition defines a social problem as arising from any behaviour that is in conflict with the established norms and values of society. The family is charged with instilling these norms and values, as also are schools and churches. Many social problems can be seen to have their genesis in the breakdown of the family situation and in the breakdown of the relationship with the individual in the family context, in the educational context and in the church context. This breakdown is most apparent in the area of the deserted aged and children sleeping rough, which is a new phenomenon in Irish society and one which is extremely poignant.
Once a problem is defined as a social problem rather than accepted as personal misfortune, society is bound to intervene in some manner to alleviate the problem. This intervention may take the form of legislation. It may take the form of a therapeutic service. It is impossible to legislate away such problems as homelessness, and no amount of legislation will effectively reduce the incidence of children sleeping rough. These problems originate in something other than a legislative situation. State provided therapeutic services fare little better and are generally accepted as being inadequate to deal with the problem.
Therefore, I see the growth of volunteer organisations such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the Simon Community, Hope, Alone and bodies such as these, acting as honest brokers, mediating between the State and the individual in situations such as homelessness. The problem of homelessness is nationwide. I will have more to say at a later date about the problem as I perceive it in Waterford where I live, and in the south east region on whose health board I sit. We all know that one-third of the population lives in and around Dublin and its environs. One must expect to find, therefore, the majority of the nation's deprived citizens in that area. Social pressure and economic need will attract or force people to find refuge where shelter, but more importantly anonymity is more readily attainable. This explains the reason why the problem is particularly apparent in the Dublin area.
When people like Willie Birmingham, to whom I pay sincere tribute, and organisations such as Simon or Hope, which are to be commended, take the lid off these dustbins of human degradation and legitimately cry aloud with horror at what they see, our response is often one of sympathy and concern that somebody else is not doing something about it. When one looks around, it seems that more and more social emergencies are being identified and are being dealt with by still more voluntary agencies, resulting in calls for still more social legislation and still more social benefits to deal with these problems.
The increasing and very welcome voice of women is adding to the din. We have Aim, Cherish, Contact, Hope, Care, Ally, Shelter Referral and in Waterford we have Oasis and Respond to take but two examples. These are some of the names which have been added to those of the long established bodies such as the Legion of Mary, the Salvation Army, the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Samaritans. One wonders if the multitude of organisations sprouting up could not be co-ordinated in some way. Equally one wonders if they have the expertise and professional know-how to deal with some of the problems which they set out to tackle. Their compassion, idealism, commitment and capacity for hard work are never in question. I should like to see that on the record of this House.
Health boards should, and in most cases do, provide back up and support for voluntary agencies such as these and other groups. To my mind the best recipe in society, the best way for tackling problems of this nature, is for the statutory and voluntary bodies to work together in these areas. In most parts of the country the health boards offer to provide capital and revenue grants towards the provision and operation of suitable premises. It sometimes happens that the initial good will generated by voluntary bodies can be dampened by slow-moving, unresponsive statutory agencies. It is important that health boards give voluntary agencies a very clear-cut idea of the scale, the nature and the continuity of the financial assistance which they are going to provide. Otherwise the voluntary bodies could find themselves with major financial burdens such as an expensive premises or, indeed, salaries to pay to which they are committed. They can also have rapidly evaporating public support if they get into difficulties no matter how high minded the cause or how necessary it is to garner support for the particular social problem which they are tackling — in this case, of course, we speak of homelessness.
After doing a little research on this it seems that the St. Vincent de Paul Society seem to have a very well thought out and planned approach which takes care of the eventualities of which I speak. The general position in relation to the St. Vincent de Paul is that a separate conference of the St. Vincent de Paul Society must be set up to run a hostel for the homeless. In other words, they do not tack it on to their existing programme in an area. This special conference must be approved in advance by the area and regional presidents and sanctioned by the national committee of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. A capital project for the purpose must be approved in advance by regional committees, 25 per cent of the capital cost of the approved project is met by the national body of St. Vincent de Paul and an interest free loan towards the remaining cost is met, maybe given, by the national committee. That sounds planned and co-ordinated and is a system of going about subventing a project which avoids the pitfalls to which I have already alluded and takes care of a danger of evaporating goodwill and major financial implications which a voluntary body may find itself in.
As a member of the South-Eastern Health Board I have been interested in this area for a number of years and I have been concerned about the lack of shelter facilities for single homeless people. When visiting geriatric hospitals, or what were called the county homes, members of the South Eastern Health Board were invariably given a run-down on what was called the casual situation. It became apparent from listening to staff in county homes that they were hard-pressed and over-worked — speaking about the generality of their work. When it came to the casual members of health boards, and I speak in particular of the health board of which I am a member, they felt that these hard-pressed over-worked staff could not cope with the nature and extent of the problem which was now manifesting itself in the casual situation. Over and over again problems of abuse, drunkeness and drug addiction were related to health board members. These staff were trained and appointed to deal with the care of the geriatric patient and they found themselves unable, compassionate though they were, to cope with what had become a deteriorating situation and they were at a loss to know what they could do. The elderly patients, those who were ambulant, became fearful. Perhaps the anxieties of the staff in some way were transmitted to them or they became aware of a rumpus very late at night and in some instances there were cases of theft. The risk of fire hazards, of course, increased and rows broke out. Altogether there was a very much deteriorated situation.
All the staff were agreed that the familiar knight of the road type image which one generally had when speaking of single homeless people had been replaced by a younger, more aggressive hostile client. It must be stated that these unfortunate people who have suffered so many of the burdens of life have an understandable grievance and, indeed, a very high level of anger. It came about that there was a change of policy in regard to the functions and roles of county homes and it was decided on the South-Eastern Health Board — I am given to understand on other health boards throughout the country — that county homes were no place for casuals. It now appears that about 53 per cent of the county homes have either closed or drastically reduced their provisions for single homeless people since 1969. Twenty-seven per cent have closed entirely and this change in policy caused hardship initially. So great was the hardship caused that it was raised in this House and Members were given an opportunity to speak about homelessness in their areas. There was a growth in the area of hostel accommodation backed up by the voluntary agencies. In some cases there was an existing facility which picked up the slack created by the closure of county homes immediately. In other areas there was a hiatus which puzzled the homeless, caused distress and, indeed, I feel very strongly, caused hardship, but one hopes that the situation is getting under way.
I would like to speak about the south-eastern region because it is the one with which I am most familiar and to outline the provisions made for the homeless in that area. Indeed, I want to pay tribute to the many members of voluntary organisations who so willingly and in such a dedicated fashion have given themselves specially to this work which is unglamorous, unattractive, hard but, I understand, extremely rewarding. It is certainly a most pressing and urgent need.
There is a hostel in Clonmel, the most recent project to be undertaken in the south-east. The capital costs involved were £21,000. The South-Eastern Health Board made a capital grant of £5,000 and £8,700 was raised locally by voluntary effort, which is a great tribute to the townspeople of Clonmel and, indeed, to the members of the voluntary organisation. The agreed deficit on running costs is met jointly by the board and the St. Vincent de Paul Society. The health board's contribution in 1983 was £6,000 and this at a time when we are severely constrained in the South-Eastern Health Board region and are applying our minds as to how savings can be made. Nevertheless, we recognise that this is an area which demands our concern and financial input. In this hostel in Clonmel there is a full-time caretaker employed who sleeps in and is on duty from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m.
There is accommodation for eight casuals but more may be accommodated if the need arises. It is important that all of these hostels have that kind of flexibility, that they can unfold a bed or set up some accommodation if it is required. These hostels must be well run with rules and regulations which are suitable to the clients they serve and they should have flexibility which will allow extra accommodation if it is necessary. There is almost a 100 per cent occupancy of that hostel, which is a tribute to those who run it. Volunteers, who are mainly the wives of St. Vincent de Paul members, and a number of young people, come in at 7 o'clock every evening to cook the evening meal. Casuals must present themselves before 7 o'clock each evening and they are routinely searched. This may surprise some people but it has been found that in order to effect a smooth-running hostel it has been necessary to do this, and of course it is done with the agreement and compliance of those who wish to avail of the facilities of the hostel. Admission is normally done by the members of St. Vincent de Paul on duty but if there is a problem the President, Mr. Brian Mordaunt is consulted. Initially there was slight opposition from some residents in Anglesea Street where the hostel is situated. This was because when the hostel was opened and it became known that such a facility existed, the tougher elements of casuals tried to gain admission late at night and when they were refused they caused disturbance. This no longer holds as word has got around that the rules of Mulcahy House must be adhered to — that is, early admission and compliance with regulations. There is a grapevine in the area of the homeless which is second to none, and word travels very fast about particular hostels and institutions, rules and regulations.
I will now turn my attention to Waterford and the hostel provision there. This is the longest running St. Vincent de Paul hostel in the region and was considerably extended and refurbished in 1981, towards which the South Eastern Health Board gave a capital grant of £30,000. The board has only given £1,000, approximately, over the last number of years towards the running costs, though £3,500 was given in 1983. There is sleeping accommodation for 38 people, ten of whom are permanent residents who contribute £14 per week. The permanent residents are very well integrated into Waterford and very many of them do odd jobs or help out in situations and have made the hostel their own home.
There is a proposal to increase the number of permanent beds by 18 by adaptation of the top floor of the building. A room in the basement where only beds are provided is used to accommodate the sort of client who might cause a distrubance or arrive in very intoxicated state. There is almost full occupancy and, especially for the last couple of months, the increased accommodation has started to be used by casuals who normally sought accommodation in St. Joseph's in Dungarvan. A caretaker and his wife live on the premises and voluntary staff help out. Breakfast is provided, and a full evening meal. The kitchen is manned on a rota basis by members of St. Vincent de Paul and volunteers. The catering and domestic staff from Ardkeen Hospital or, as it is now called, Waterford Regional Hospital, are particularly helpful and their input is considerable and is welcome. A feature of this hostel, and one which is to be commended, is that it has a number of mature committed men in the St. Vincent de Paul conference which runs the hostel. It is the dedication of these men which make the facility such a fine one and one of which we in Waterford are considerably proud.
There is a hostel also in Wexford. It is run mainly by Mr. Horan of St. Vincent de Paul with limited input from other members of the St. Vincent de Paul conference and the Garda. There is a full-time caretaker living in. It has accommodation for 24 people. Twelve elderly men are accommodated on a permanent basis and they give £15 per week. The criteria for admission are that the person must be male and over 30 years of age and be present before 7 p.m. There is a limit on the number of nights per month that a casual can be accommodated. Casuals contribute a nominal sum. Referrals are from Garda, health boards and from St. Vincent de Paul members. The South-Eastern Health Board contributed £20,000 in 1979 and £28,616 in 1980. The main portion of these grants was capital. In 1981 a running cost of £7,384 was paid and in 1982, £7,500, and £7,000 was paid in 1983. In the South-Eastern Health Board we are attempting to make up for the situation which arose when the county homes were closed and when a change of policy occurred.
In Carlow a volunteer group are anxious to establish a facility and discussions have taken place about this. It is understood that suitable premises are being sought, and when located the capital funding will be made available. In Kilkenny the purchase of a premises suitable for a hostel is currently under negotiation and capital and revenue funding will be made available. In Tipperary discussions are continuing with St. Vincent de Paul about getting involved in the provision of hostel accommodation. In New Ross the St. Vincent de Paul have a night shelter for destitute males. There is accommodation for six. They are seeking new premises and will apply for capital funding. A revenue grant of £1,000 was paid to them by the health board in 1984.
It can be said generally in that region that the problem is being sympathetically and intelligently addressed. All is not perfect or ideal — it never is. There are probably many areas in which we could effect improvement. We have a very sound basis on which to build.
I have generally covered the area of the single homeless male who is a poignant figure, one demanding our concern and consideration, but it is necessary to allude to what is a modern phenomenon of children sleeping rough. This is mainly a Dublin problem but it is surfacing in other large urban areas. It has arisen in Waterford lately along the dock area where youngsters have been found bedded down in containers.
We have a project in Waterford called the OASIS Project which is attempting to look at the situation of battered wives who find themselves homeless, and we are indebted to the Good Shepherd Sisters who have indicated a willingness to step in and run such a facility when we gather together sufficient money to get it off the ground. We have negotiated the purchase of premises with the Legion of Mary and an energetic committee of OASIS, backed by Waterford Rotary Club and other voluntary agencies, are busily setting about establishing this facility. In addition to taking care of temporary homeless people, such as battered wives, it is also envisaged that it would be possible to give temporary accommodation to single young women.
It is a feature of our times that young girls, for a variety of reasons, leave their family homes and drift towards cities. In Waterford, because we are a port city, we are very aware that there is a real problem that these young girls will be drawn towards prostitution. All the evidence suggests that this is a problem already in Waterford. Hence we are extremely anxious to get the OASIS project under way so that a facility can be given to these young women. It is hoped that the social services and the professionals who work in the field will have an opportunity to help these people untangle their problems and encourage them to get their lives together and embark on some clearly defined path in life for themselves.
As a member of a local authority, Waterford County Council, the problem of houselessness as opposed to homelessness is one with which I am familiar. I have seen some very distressing sights in my time. I was fortunate enough to put down a motion at a meeting of Waterford County Council looking for crisis accommodation to be made available to people who found themselves in a particularly bad position. I am happy to say that the council passed this motion. The only trouble is that all we are able to offer, given our difficulty with funding, is some sort of demountable accommodation, more commonly called a mobile home. We have, on occasion, when a situation was really catastrophic been able to come to the rescue with a mobile home and help people out in the short term. It must be said that a great number of young couples embark on marriage with very little thought for their future housing and this leads to enormous problems. One is hardly surprised when marriages which start off on such a basis become unstuck and add to the statistics of marital breakdown which are so revealing in this country.
The updating of legislation relative to the welfare of children and the establishment of a central council for homeless children were among the major recommendations of a special committee which reported some time ago. This committee was made up of members of the Eastern Health Board and Dublin Corporation. The committee were of the opinion that the problem of children sleeping rough could not be separated from itinerant children found uncared for and begging in the city or from children who did not attend school. This is largely a Dublin-urban problem. Of course, in most areas of the country it is well known that the itinerant children largely have this particular difficulty.
The committee came to a number of conclusions. The first one was that there are a number of children sleeping rough in the city. The statistics on the exact number of children sleeping rough were not accurate. It was noted that HOPE were engaged on a survey which would provide this information. The number of children who sleep rough on a regular basis is believed to be limited. There are a greater number of children who occasionally sleep rough and they do not really fall into the ambit of a statistic.
Boys and girls sleep rough and in the case of girls the problem is more acute. There is a very real risk of prostitution, although it must be said today that the risk of male prostitution is equally a problem. If it were not for the voluntary agencies, such as HOPE, and for the hostels, this problem would be far greater. There will be continuing need for such hostels providing a range of facilities to meet the varying needs of all children who, for one reason or another, must be accommodated outside their homes. There is a need to stress that parents have a responsibility to ensure that children have no need or desire to leave home and sleep rough. The problem of children roaming the city by day or begging in the streets and apparently neglected is a matter of concern.
There is difficulty in deciding where responsibility for dealing with this problem lies. There is a mass of legislation and rules and regulations between the local authority and the health board. It is time that this problem was tackled and that the boundaries of responsibility were clearly defined so that the homeless people who are marginal people in our society and who have as many rights as those of us who are housed, are dealt with sympathetically and intelligently and that we do all in our power to minimise this problem which is disturbing and distressing and crying out for remedial action.