It has been agreed, I understand, that we will conclude this business at 8.45 p.m.
Plight of Homeless: Motion.
"That Seanad Éireann deplores the Government's inactivity on the plight of the homeless.
The problem of homlessness is a grave and growing one. It can be looked at under two broad categories, homelessness of adults and homelessness of children. The adult homeless can be quantified and, indeed, were quantified in terms of surveys and experiences of the Focus Point group which are based in Dublin. The Focus Point group over the period of 1988 to June 1989 had over 1,700 people who were considered to be homeless attending their various centres and outlets. That is an enormous and shocking number of people. Roughly, they divide evenly between males and females: of the people who called there approximately 52 per cent were males and 48 per cent were females. So the problem is spread rather evenly across the sexes.
There has been a series of differing reasons these people were homeless. They range from people who had problems with their parents and family, who had problems of marital breakdown, problems relating to finance, poor living conditions in overcrowded accommodation, people who were leaving institutions which were not able to cater for them or properly to equip them for the outside world, to people who had addiction problems, returned emigrants and various other small groups, and indeed groups who were not classified at all.
When these people presented to Focus Point, 40 per cent of them were at that stage located in emergency temporary accommodation. They came from various categories and various types of other accommodation. There were people on supplementary welfare and so on and people who were classified as homeless were staying in places such as hostels, private rented accommodation, local authority accommodation. Two hundred and twenty three people were dossing, doubling up or living rough. That is an appalling and shocking statistic. That gives some dimension of the enormity of the problem, the dreadful plight of these people.
What is to be done about it? We suggest that there is a great need for more money to be invested in public housing. Adequate funds should be made available to local authorities to ensure that people who are capable of living independently would have the opportunity to do so. That is absolutely fundamental. To solve this problem or to provide any meaningful solution means that more money will have to be spent. There is no point in people talking about efficiencies and various other things. They may have a role but the fundamental problem cannot be solved without a commitment to invest more money.
There is a growing problem in the Dublin area where people simply cannot be housed. I am finding this in the constitutency of Dublin South-Central where large numbers of people come looking for housing and, no matter how hard you try, that sooner or later you are working your way back to the basic reality that the houses are not there, and that is the fundamental cause of the problem.
There are a variety of other strategies which we would like to see implemented. There are various aspects of social housing where a wide range of supportive accommodation could be made available in hostel and house residence for appropriate people. There is also a need for considerable developments in the area of administration. There is need to provide an adequate and comprehensive information service. There is also a need for awareness of what type houses are available and so on.
I fully accept that that can present great difficulties; communicating with people who are homeless is by no means easy; but, we should make a much greater effort simply because it is difficult. Many problems can arise because of ignorance and lack of awareness of the type of facilities and support that can be available.
For example, there is a need to establish a comprehensive homeless persons unit which would look after and be specially devoted to caring for people who are homeless; there is a need to develop settlement services; there is a need to develop family support services and there is a need for much more research into the nature and extent of homelessness in Ireland and to provide housing and supports for socially vulnerable groups throughout the country. There is a need for public education to make the public more aware of the problem so that they can be fully acquainted with the dimension of the difficulties.
I would like to mention the problem of young homeless people. This is an appalling and growing problem. Approximately half the homeless young people are located in the Dublin area and the remaining half are located throughout the rest of the country, mostly in big urban areas. In Dublin, most young homeless people — and in 1987 there were 386 people under the age of 18 who were considered homeless during the period of a survey — are located in seven specific areas — Finglas, Ballymun, Coolock, the inner city, Ballyfermot, Tallaght and Dún Laoghaire. Most of these people are homeless for a variety of reasons, many of them directly related to family problems. It is very important that support services be provided for these children in their own localities. It is absolutely essential that they should not be uprooted from their own communities because, of course, in many cases what is needed for these children is the ability to look after them for a relatively short period so that they can overcome whatever temporary problem they may be experiencing in their own homes, so that they can settle down and then, as it were, perhaps be reintegrated back into the family. If that cannot be done, at least they should be reintegrated into the community of which they would be part.
The situation in Dublin is particularly bad because on the one hand the problem of homelessness is increasing while the residential facilities available are declining. In the case of girls, in 1984 there were 95 residential places available and that declined to 86 in 1989; whereas the corresponding figure for boys was that in 1984 there were 342 residential places available for boys whereas in 1989 that number had declined to 226. That is a staggering decrease in the facilities available for the homeless in a situation where the problem is getting worse. That, of course, has arisen because of the closure of seven residential units during that period.
In addition, there is, of course, the extra special problem of those deeply disturbed children who find themselves homeless. That presents an appallingly difficult situation and at this stage there seems to be no proper capacity to fully cater for the requirements of these people. These people need treatment and at present the appropriate treatment facilities for them simply are not available.
All of this business is complexed further by the dissipation of the statutory responsibility for the homeless. Those who are young, under the age of 16, are the statutory responsibility of the health board. However, if they get into trouble with the law the Department of Justice has responsibility for them and in another set of circumstances the Department of Health may be responsible for them. You have an ideal environment in which the buck can be passed from one Department to another. There is no statutory body at all who has responsibility for a child once they are over the age of 16. Indeed, children over the age of 16, or coming to the age of 16, find themselves homeless then they find themselves also in an environment which is ideal to get them involved in crime. I know that the new Child Bill which is in the legislative process will increase the statutory definition of children to include people up to the age of 18 years.
The most important thing — and this is something I would greatly like to emphasise to the Minister — is that there is now a great need for the provision of adequate emergency accommodation in each urban area in Ireland so that no child has to live rough. Secondly, I would like to emphasise that there is a great need for the provision of one or two small therapeutic hostels for those particularly damaged and disturbed children with whom existing hostels are unable to cope. These hostels would have to be hostels with high levels of staffing and with expert professional staff who are properly geared up to provide a therapeutic context. In the longer term there would be need for adequate social work backup and other facilities for families under stress to try to ensure that such families do not fall apart and that their young people do not have to leave home.
But, more than this, in the case of the young the problem is related to the fact that the whole thing is dissipated — in one way it is everybody's responsibility and in another way it is nobody's responsibility. There is nobody, as I understand it, who has direct responsibility for the homeless young. There is nobody who just is responsible for that. There are people who have a responsibility but the responsibility for those homeless is part of a series of other briefs. I think the problem would be greatly alleviated if somebody or some group of people in the health boards or in the administrative system were designated as responsible for homeless children and simply and only responsible for homeless children. I think the problem would be further improved if there was a specific budget which dealt exclusively and — in the terms of some of these economic chaps who have different points of view to myself — if it was particularly earmarked as being provided for the homeless children: in other words, a special budget directed at homeless children so that each year one could see how the situation was improving or disimproving and for that matter how the levels of expenditure on the problem were increasing and decreasing.
Finally, I think that in the last analysis, if all this thing is to be coherent and to work properly, within the political system which now exists it is absolutely essential that somebody in the Government would be directly responsible for children's affairs. It is for that reason that I would be suggesting that the Taoiseach should appoint a Minister for State with specific responsibility for children's affairs. The same initiative was taken in relation to women's affairs and, while lots of people might be critical of it, I do not think that anybody would argue that no progress had been made. If you had somebody like the present Minister before us tonight who had to come into the Oireachtas and had the job of explaining specifically and was solely responsible for matters related to children, I think that that would be a great way of improving the problem of homelessness in children and indeed a great way of improving the services which are available for children. Children, after all, if I can take a fairly loose figure, must amount to perhaps 20 to 25 per cent of the population. It is a very large proportion of the total Irish population. I think that that would be a very worthwhile initiative. I would certainly hope that the Minister will take account of it perhaps, will bring it to the attention of the Taoiseach and that perhaps something can be done about it. Even if one were to be ugly and crude politically, I do not mind suggesting that there must be quite a bit of political mileage in providing such a Ministry.
Acting Chairman (Mr. Farrell)
Is the motion seconded?
I second it. My colleague, Senator Upton, has outlined the alarming extent of homelessness in Ireland and particularly the concentration of the problem in the city of Dublin and the plight of the homeless. I do not intend to address the amendment but just to state that it refers to the Homeless Bill and to what the Government are doing. Nevertheless, we have to say that there is an alarming situation at present in relation to the homeless, a situation that has not been resolved by the introduction of the long awaited 1988 Homeless Act and a situation that has not been addressed by the provision of funding for any programme of public housing.
I think the figures are very stark in that respect. Five years ago we had an expenditure by the Government of a capital budget of £215 million on housing; this year it is £51 million, which is a very small fraction of that spent five years ago and certainly the need has not diminished. Indeed, it is also rather scandalous, if I may say so, that £45 million out of that £51 million has been expropriated from the sale of local authority housing, so that there is virtually nothing put by the present Government into the construction of new public housing. That is a scandal because there are waiting lists of people looking for housing all over the country in every local authority jurisdiction, crying out for housing. It is one of the biggest scandals in the country and I would also consider that it is one of the major reasons that the local elections are not likely to take place this year.
The health board has a statutory responsibility for people under the age of 16, but there is no statutory responsibility or there is no board statutorily responsible for those over 16. Any of us here who are dealing with a local authority will find that it is impossible to find housing for anybody over the age of 16 years if he or she is a single person. There are no social services that they can avail of. That means that there is a whole generation of youngsters in their teens who are left high and dry.
This situation can be observed any day or night in the streets of Dublin. Going through the streets you can see young people wandering around. You can see old people wandering around. You have a situation where we still have the vagrancy law in operation, where people can be arrested for being drunk and disorderly, arrested for simply being drunk and they are deposited in prison. In fact, the biggest area of housing for the homeless is the prison system. Again and again we see cases in the courts when, coming up to Christmas, petty, foolish crimes have been committed by people who want to go to prison because they have nowhere to spend the wintertime. While in the summer months it is not too difficult to sleep under the stars, certainly in the cold weather there is a need for a roof. This is the incredible situation that exists, and continues to exist, and can be seen on a daily basis in the courts during wintertime. You can read about it in the papers or go down to the District Courts any day of the week and you will find such cases coming before the justices. Why is that so? The reason is that we do not simply have an adequate service for providing for the homeless.
In relation to children, my colleague dealt with that to a considerable extent, but we have a particularly growing problem. It was highlighted some years ago with the closure of the Hope hostels — the inadequacy of hostels in the city to deal with the young people coming on the streets, living rough and getting into trouble in their teens, nowhere for them to go, nowhere for the Garda to put them. Some of them had to spend the nights in Garda stations or on the streets. Obviously, in such circumstances people get into trouble, people get on to drugs, people get involved in the larceny of cars. I would quite often get up in the morning to find a youngster asleep in my car. That is a normal occurrence in Seán MacDermott Street.
There are a lot of youngsters who simply do not have a place to go. There are family problems, social problems and drug problems. All of those have a bearing on it and we do not have the services to deal with the problem. We have a situation where the Government set up a taskforce in 1970 to try to provide accommodation and care for those who get into trouble with the law as an alternative to the existing industrial and reformatory school system after the report of District Justice Kennedy. They made their interim recommendations in 1974 and no action was taken on them. They made their final recommendations in 1980 and again no action was taken on them in relation to youngsters who were getting into trouble turning up before the courts and where homelessness was a major aspect.
The recommendation then was that a single Minister would be given responsibility for dealing with the problem. That has not taken place. We saw the problem and the scandal in relation to that young girl in the District Court in Dún Laoghaire. Many people would be in the same situation. The young girl who died in Mountjoy had been in somewhat the same situation, where no Minister accepted responsibility for the care of youngsters. We do not have a statutory responsibility over the age of 16. No statutory body is responsible for the housing of youngsters. This comes up again and again for Focus Point, with people like Father Peter McVerry who is doing trojan work, with the Simon Community around the country and its numbers are increasing all the time.
People have nowhere to go. There are no hostels, there are no family support services, there is no commitment by this Government to provide the services. The Commission for Social Welfare made a minimum recommendation of what would be the proper amount for people who were long term unemployed to give them the possibility of being able to live at some form of decent level. Nothing has been done about that. We need a basic minimum wage to ensure that people are not living in poverty. It is people who are living at the low end of the scale that slip out at the end and are reduced to homelessness. But, most of all, we need a Government who have a commitment to equality and to justice in our society and who are prepared to make funding available for the establishment of the structures, the establishment of the homes. Under the 1988 legislation a voluntary body that would be involved in the construction of homes will still have to pay 20 per cent of the cost; and that is not an easy amount to put together considering the high cost of construction at present.
In relation to children, we need not just a Children's Bill — and that is badly overdue — but we need also a specific Minister who would be responsible for children's services and children's affairs. Considering the high level of problems, the high level of child abuse of which we have become aware publicly, the number of calls that have come into organisations such as Child Line, it is important that we focus on this area. Instead of going around in circles and one Minister passing the buck to the next Minister, a specific Minister — I agree with my colleague, Senator Upton — a junior Minister, should be given the specific function of dealing with child affairs. Otherwise, we will never be able to focus attention properly on the subject. It will be dealt with in a piecemeal fashion here, there and everywhere, which is the situation we are in at present.
In conclusion, there has been most inadequate funding in relation to the provision of capital for the construction of housing. There has been no attempt to deal with the complicated and complex business of child care, particularly in relation to the provision of housing for the teenage homeless. The services, such as they are, are not sufficiently attuned to the needs of youngsters and, indeed, not sufficiently attuned to the type of adult population that is becoming homeless at present. Indeed, there are many enlightened developments taking place in terms of community care and in terms of a new approach here and there to alternatives to prison. But people coming out of institutions without an after care service — and that is a very serious point — are left high and dry in the community afterwards. While on the one hand the theory is good, nevertheless unless the resources and the personnel are put in place, the practice will leave a lot to be desired and will result in many people in our society, simply because of their inadequacies to cope for themselves, being left homeless. I call on the Minister to make some specific commitment to alleviating the plight of the homeless and accepting our recommendation that there be a Minister made responsible directly for child affairs.
I formally move the amendment:
To delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" and substitute the following:
"notes with approval the measures taken by Government to alleviate homelessness, including the bringing into operation of the Housing Act, 1988 and the provision of increased resources for the accommodation of homeless persons, and urges the Government to proceed with the review already announced."
It is ironic that the Labour Party should propose a motion in these terms recalling, as I do, the little they did about it when they were in office. During the period they shared in Government from 1982 to 1987 the Labour Party just brought in the Bill and left it there. In 1988, the situation was that my party brought in this Bill and we enacted it in July 1988. After necessary preparations and consultations we had the provisions dealing with the homeless brought into force on the 1 January 1989.
Before going into detail on what we are doing to improve the lot of the homeless, perhaps I should say something on the housing position generally. Significant progress has been achieved in housing conditions over recent decades. This is not merely a question of taking my word. For example, the NESC report on housing policy, which was published in December 1988, clearly indicates the progress that has been made in the housing area and points out that we are in a relatively favourable position in comparison to many other more developed countries.
I do not want to interrupt the Minister, but is there any chance that we could get a copy of his script?
No, I am talking of the notes which I wrote out myself. I will be dealing with all the problems that have come up and dealing with them in a comprehensive way. Once the worst features of the slum clearance were eliminated it was possible to tackle the huge demand for urban housing generated by the population increases of the 1960s and 1970s and by the migration to urban centres.
The State took an active part in ensuring the success of this undertaking, firstly by an adequate and good quality supply of housing by public authorities; secondly, by ensuring that adequate mortgage finance was available at reasonable rates to those on middle and low incomes and also by a range of incentives for private housing and by influencing the policies of the private lending agencies. This success was not, as might be sometimes supposed, irrelevant to the question of homelessness as it ensured that overall housing shortages did not occur and that housing provided by housing authorities were at rents which even those on the lowest income would afford.
It is only natural that as the general housing scene improved, the position of those most in need, or those who did not share equally in the general improvement, should come more to the fore. For one thing, changing social patterns within the last decade have given rise to new and different types of housing problems
The traditional way of dealing with accommodation problems for the homeless, as for anyone else on low incomes, was by the provision of housing by local authorities. It is true that in the past when most attention was focused on providing housing for those with dependants, single people tended to be accorded a lower priority in the provision of housing. In recent years, however, waiting lists for local authority housing were reduced significantly from a total of 29,944 in 1982 to 17,685 at 31 December 1988. This, coupled with a continuing high level of local authority accommodation becoming available through new starts and casual vacancies, enabled local authorities to offer accommodation to lower priority categories, including families with one child, single parents and, of course, single homeless persons. The provision of housing for these categories made an impact on the problem of homelessness by ensuring that fewer people had to resort to hostels or overcrowded or unsuitable involuntary sharing, circumstances which could eventually force people into becoming homeless.
Many local authorities made specific efforts to accommodate the homeless. In 1989, Dublin Corporation provided dwellings for almost 700 applicants who were homeless. These efforts would have been duplicated in other areas, not on the same scale as the numbers elsewhere, not as great, but in proportional terms. I expect that a substantially increased allocation of £51 million for local authority housing will enable 1,200 new dwellings to be started as well as continuing the programme of refurbishment of substandard housing stock at the high level which has been underway for the past two years. This capital funding, by providing new houses and by preventing the dereliction and decay of existing stock, together with casual vacancies, which amounted to 5,000 in 1989, will ensure that many applicants for dwellings will have their needs met this will include persons who are homeless or who might otherwise become homeless in the future. It is nonsense to state that the local authority housing programme is not making a contribution to providing for homeless persons and the statistics I have quoted here bear this out.
The Government's approach to alleviate homelessness has been two pronged. Firstly, we have provided a new streamlined framework within which local authorities can deal with the problem. Secondly, we have provided the finances necessary both to authorities and to the voluntary bodies working in this area. Therefore, the 1988 Act was more than a mere aspiration towards resolving the problem of homeless persons. It widened significantly the powers of local authorities, gave for the first time, a definitions of "homeless persons" and set out clearly the role of local authorities in the accommodation of the homeless.
The new powers contained in the Act, represent a radical but sensible extension of local authorities' housing powers. Under the Act local authorities are no longer restricted to the use of their own housing stock in the provision of accommodation. They may combine with voluntary groups or use the private sector where this is necessary. In catering for the immediate needs of the homeless persons local authorities may now make an arrangement, including a financial arrangement, with an approved voluntary body, provide direct assistance to homeless persons, or rent accommodation, or arrange lodgings, or contribute to the cost of such accommodation. This legislation provides a flexible and sensitive framework for local authorities to assist homeless persons.
Apart from the powers conferred on local authorities in the Act, funds were made available to assist local authorities in meeting their reasonable expenses in dealing with the accommodation of the homeless. In regulations made under the Act the Minister may recoup 80 per cent of the cost reasonably incurred by local authorities in this regard. In 1989, £500,000 was made available for this purpose and in 1990 the allocation was increased to £600,000.
The Housing Act, 1988, contains other provisions which are important for homeless persons. For instance, under section 9 of the Act local authorities are required to carry out assessments of need for local authority housing. Among those which feature prominently as categories to which they are required to have regard are the homeless. These assessments are more comprehensive than previous assessments in that local authorities are obliged to give prior notice of the making of the assessment to adjoining local authorities, their corresponding health board and other various voluntary bodies in their area who provide accommodation. In this way these various organisations can make a significant input to these assessments and bring to notice needs, including those of homeless persons, known to the bodies which might otherwise be overlooked.
Another provision having a bearing on homelessness is section 13 of the Act. It clarifies the powers of local authorities to provide serviced sites for travellers, many of whom live on insanitary, unserviced roadside encampments would qualify as homeless persons. On this point my Department emphasised over the last few years the need for local authorities to give priority to providing suitable accommodation for travellers. We know the level of resistance which such projects may encounter in some areas but in spite of all these difficulties progress has been made. In the period 1985 to 1989 the number of traveller families settled has increased from 1,798 to 2,402. Over the same period the numbers living on the roadside decreased by 102, and this is in spite of an overall increase of 502 in the number of families in the traveller community. This progress is recognised as being a relative improvement. It is not a reason for complacency and I will continue to give a high priority to this issue. I am confident that I will be able to maintain capital funding at a level necessary to finance any approved projects.
The scheme of capital assistance introduced as an inducement to voluntary groups to provide sheltered accommodation for certain groups is of particular importance in the provision of accommodation for the homeless. The scheme provided initially for fully subsidised loans through local authorities which covered 80 per cent of the cost of accommodation up to a maximum of £20,000 per unit. While the scheme catered for the homeless, in addition to other categories, its contribution in relation to the provision of accommodation for the homeless was modest.
In 1988, however, the Government took steps which were both positive and significant. In the budget of that year an allocation of £3 million over the three years — 1988 to 1990 — was made specifically for housing projects for homeless persons. At the same time the recoupment limit of 80 per cent of the cost of units of accommodation provided by the approved voluntary bodies, to a maximum of £20,000 per unit, was increased to 95 per cent where these units were provided for homeless persons. In the 1989 budget an additional £1 million was made available for the homeless. Again in the 1990 budget the Government provided £1.3 million for voluntary housing associations in recognition of the valuable contribution they make in housing the homeless and other less fortunate in our community.
Since January 1988, 28 projects for homeless persons have been approved. This will provide 470 units of accommodation by the end of 1990. I would like to specifically mention the new Simon Community hostel at Usher's Island which was provided under this scheme last year and which has meant a great improvement in the living conditions for over 40 people who would otherwise be homeless. The biggest projects in progress this year are a 96 unit development at Stanhope Street promoted by Focus Point and the modernisation of the Iveagh Hostel which will contain 155 units. Projects under this scheme are not confined to Dublin. There are also developments in Cork, Galway, Limerick, Sligo, Cavan, Drogheda, Longford, Mullingar and Ennis.
The scheme shows how successful the Government are in concentrating funding on sectors of greatest need where it makes most impact. The Government place considerable importance on the role of voluntary groups in providing appropriate accommodation for homeless persons. It would be unreasonable to think that we would shortly get to the stage where the State could provide all services that need to be provided for disadvantaged groups. It is sensible, therefore, to harness the enormous goodwill, knowledge and energy of the voluntary groups who work in partnership with statutory agencies to provide the optimum possible services for homeless persons. More importantly, because voluntary bodies tend to focus their attention on well defined but small groups with special needs, they are in a better position to deliver a service to such groups than statutory agencies which tend to provide a general service to varying groups and in so doing might overlook the particular need of some people.
It would be remiss of me if at this stage I did not pay a particular tribute to the many voluntary bodies and agencies throughout the country who have played, and continue to play, a very special role, giving of their time, energy and dedication in providing the services for the homeless and other categories of need. This is very much appreciated by all of us.
In extending the new power to local authorities in relation to the accommodation of the homeless, I made arrangements to bring as much uniformity as possible in the way local authorities respond to the homeless. My Department drew up a set of comprehensive guidelines for all local authorities and held seminars for housing officials to clarify these and other changes under the 1988 Housing Act. In drafting these guidelines the Simon Community and others working with the homeless were consulted. Many of the ideas they had to offer were incorporated in the guidelines.
These guidelines emphasise several matters — that the standard response for those, including homeless persons, seeking accommodation will be local authority housing where suitable accommodation is available; that local authorities should use to the full the extensive powers which they now have under the 1988 Act to ensure that homeless persons are accommodated; that proper communications with health boards and voluntary groups are essential for the proper operation of the new powers and that local authorities must be flexible and sensitive in their treatment of homeless applicants. That is most important.
I would lay particular stress on the need for proper communication between the statutory and voluntary agencies. Local authorities have been told to nominate an officer who will be responsible for liaising between the various bodies providing accommodation for homeless persons and who would be identified as such. This ensures that homeless persons seeking accommodation, or any agency acting on their behalf, can contact that officer directly and so avoid any risk of referral of applicants from one agency to another with no one taking responsibility for constructive action. Liaison between agencies should also ensure that other support services, such as those provided by health boards, would be available particularly to first time tenants who were previously homeless.
Some categories of homeless persons, for example, children, will continue to be the responsibility of the health boards. We are all familiar with the unfortunate fact that many homeless persons are in need of services other than a roof over their heads. If such applicants require counselling, protection, medical care or care of an institutional nature the health boards must continue to cater for these persons also.
I realise that because of the range and complexity of the economic, social and personal problems that drive people into homelessness it is very difficult to define the boundaries of responsibility of health boards and local authorities. This underlines the importance of proper liaison between the local authorities, health boards and voluntary bodies and a constructive approach to solving serious individual problems.
The homelessness provision of the Housing Act, 1988, has been in operation for little over a year. In that time many of the local authorities have been using their new powers in a sensitive and helpful way and we can expect that this trend will continue as the authorities get used to their new powers. As in all new procedures, however, it is necessary to stand back and see if there is any room for improvement. The Minister has already stated, and I want to make this quite clear, that a review of the operation of the homelessness provisions of the 1988 Housing Act will be undertaken this year and the House can be assured that this will be carried out.
I want to make it very clear that many organisations looking after the homeless have done a tremendous job — and we appreciate that very much — but there have been instances where we have looked for co-operation from local authorities and others and we did not get the co-operation we would have liked to get. There are many talking today but some people, especially as regards the housing of itinerants, want the problem solved provided it is not near them. "Do not bring it near me" is their attitude. You cannot have your loaf and eat it. You cannot come in here and say one thing and say another elsewhere. We must be reasonable. I am very pleased to say that the Tullamore Urban District Council took a decision a few years back and have given a lead on this. I would advise Members of the Seanad to go down and have a look at the halting site there. It is very good. It is very well run and I am very proud of being from a county where that has been done. There is wonderful accommodation there and it is highly respected. It is a credit to the people who run it and to those who are in it as well. It was not easy. We had to bring the community along with us, but we have done that now and we have given the lead. I am glad to say that many local authorities throughout the country are coming to Tullamore town to have a look at the halting site we have there because it is excellent. Of course there is more to be done. I would like to have money to do it, but where do I get the money? There are only two ways I can get it. I can ask the taxpayer to pay it or I can borrow. There is a limit to both of them, but with the improvement in the economy now it is our intention and the intention of the Minister for the Environment to get a housing programme going. With the resources available to us now and with the improvement in the economy and the improvement of the finances of the country it will be our aim to give as much assistance as we possibly can. If I have overrun my time, I apologise.
The motion is very broad but I will address it in three different areas. First, like the speakers from the Labour Party, I would like to deal with homeless children, then homeless adults and thirdly, travellers. The problem of homeless young children will not go away. We follow Britain in many ways. Today there was reference to the breakdown of family life in a survey that was done in Britain. I would say that within the Irish context we are looking to the break-up of family. The reasons are apparent. We know it is due to chronic poverty. We know it is due to recession, obviously; unemployment, alcoholism, social problems that are evident not just in our cities and towns but also in rural areas. It stands to reason as the family comes under attack more and more because of those problems that children will drift. As a teacher I have come across quite a number of homeless children. They are opting out of family life because of insurmountable problems but also because the school curriculum does not include life and relationship skills, so they are lost to us at a very early age.
What can we as teachers do to address this problem? We cannot do anything. We are meant to be in the classroom. We cannot go out into the railway lines where they tend to congregate, particularly in the Limerick area, where they are glue sniffing and into other substance abuse. The Garda will round them up and, as we said previously, they possibly may be rehabilitated for a while but you find the same problems turning up over and over again. Even if it were just one child out of the 49 which is the statistic for the Limerick area, if it is just one homeless child within the context of our support for the family and our support for children in this country, I think we would be remiss. I have heard the Minister's statistics and he has shown progress obviously in certain areas; but statistics are very cold in relation to the problems of children and homelessness.
As regards local authorities and the allocation of houses, because the family is sacrosanct in our society it is easier for a wife and husband with a number of children to get a house. It is very difficult for a single person, whether male or female. I am not talking about old aged pensioners, but it is very difficult for any single person, male or female, to get on a housing list let alone get a house. That is particularly true in my own council area, and I can only speak for that. Priority is obviously given to old aged pensioners. I some cases it is the individual. He probably is a brother of a farmer. The farmer has got the place and in many cases he is the misfit or the outcast of the family. I have seen instances in my own area where these individuals are wandering the roads. On occasions they get a chance of getting a very meagre type of caravan accommodation. They end up drinking. You would not blame them because their life style is absolutely deplorable. They are never — and I can honestly say "never"— going to get on a housing list. It is a shame that they continue drinking possibly because it is the only solace they have under the pressure of their society. That is a rural problem. I am not talking about urban problems. These are the statistics that are never counted. This is the hidden agenda. This is the sad part of rural life. In many cases the families may have been well off. Sometimes these people are rejected by their families and they are homeless people. It appears that there are more male than female homeless adults.
In relation to travellers, unless there is a concerted effort by the Minister for the Environment and the Minister of State and the Department of the Environment to ask all local authorities to act together in the provision of halting sites or accommodation for travellers, we will never get a national solution. The Minister may say he wants devolution of powers to local authorities and ask why I am going back to the Minister for the Environment to give the example. I am saying it because there is absolutely no point in one local authority solving its traveller problem if the problem of the neighbouring local authority falls over the boundary, whether it is a corporation falling into a county council area or whether it is a neighbouring county falling into another county. The problem at this moment is, to my mind, insoluble unless a directive comes from the Minister for the Environment. I would ask the Minister of State to relay to him that all local authorities should answer their needs immediately.
We know within our own local authority that we are responsible for our indigenous families. The indigenous families are not difficult to look after. During summertime the nomadic nature of the travellers comes to the fore. They go to Kerry, probably down to Kilorglin, they go on trips to the west, they just go out into the free air. That is their culture. They spend some time between different local authorities as transients and there is little or no effort being made in local authority areas to get transient sites which, to my mind, are very important. I feel very strongly about this. I would not like to be here in ten years time still talking about travellers.
In my own area there are visits from industrialists; the Japanese come; the Americans come; they are absolutely appalled by the squatting, as it were, and the traders' caravans in the suburbs of the city. They cannot understand why we as a nation cannot resolve that problem. They find it absolutely mind-boggling. It is a deterrent to investment because it is a reflection on us as a society. If we cannot solve the problems of our dependants, how can we possibly solve the problems of unemployment? It is a very big black mark on us.
I agree with the Minister that it is a question of tolerance, it is a question of integration in the community. At the same time, with local government reform, surely just one major effort could be made to address this problem once and for all. It is not insurmountable but it is a question of asking — and this is my third time saying it — the Minister to direct the local authorities within a specific time period, whether it is three years or five years, to get to work on their travellers' problems to solve the problems of an expanding population which is not going to go away, but to work to a specific time limit set by the Department of the Environment which will show the public that there is a concerted effort and there will not be this brouhaha, this constant trauma that goes on for the settled community as well as the travellers and that once and for all we solve that problem.
Those are the three areas I would like the Minister to comment on. I will finish where I started. One person, one child homeless, is a reflection on our society. The future is bleak in the sense that we are going to follow, sadly, the decline of family life as has happened in America, as is happening in Britain. We must be preventive at this time rather than reacting when it is too late.
I wish to welcome the Minister. I listened with interest. It is important in the brief time I have to remind the House of the fact that homelessness is not just a kind of little extra social problem. Once you have not got a home you are isolated, you are cast into a sub-culture. All the literature that has been written, all of the studies that have been done, suggest that if people become homeless in any medium to longterm way it is extremely difficult for them to escape from it. All our provisions to deal with the problem of homelessness must be matters of anticipation, not just dealing with those who are currently homeless but dealing with ways of ensuring that homelessness does not happen.
I have to say that while it is probably irrelevant now, the Minister does have a point about the inactivity of the previous Government on the issue of homelessness. "Inactivity" would be a generous word, given the difficulties I had with them. Senator Harte, to his great credit, sorted out many of the difficulties I had with the previous Government in my own attempts to deal with the problem of homelessness by telling them what they could do with certain proposals they had in a characteristically polite but very definite Senator Harte style and for that I remain eternally in his debt.
The Housing Act is really now the bedrock of legislative proposals to deal with homelessness. It does need to be said. I said it at the time and I will say it again: the Housing Act contains many good things. It contains a good and generous definition of who it is that is homeless in our society. It is broadly based and meant, in my view, to be generous because of an intent to be generous. It does attempt, in ways that are a little bit ambiguous, subsequently to make some assessment of the numbers of people who are homeless. It makes statutory provision for a capital grant scheme that it would be churlish of me not to recognise as having been successful, at least in very specific terms, successful as far as the voluntary organisation that I have the closest association with is concerned. I cannot deny the evidence of the building that the Minister referred to in Dublin or indeed the evidence of a similar major project that is going on for the Cork Simon Community, which is equally well funded. I would not for one second want to get involved in a churlish refusal to acknowledge what has been done. I acknowledge that happily.
The Housing Act also has its severe limitations. Some of those are inherent in the Bill. Some of those, in as far as they have impacted on voluntary organisations, are the products of considerable confusion. I will come back to one of those. The inherent problem in the Bill is the lack of clear obligation to use the powers under section 10 and to use all of the various powers that are conferred on the local authority under section 10, the need to attempt to do the various things that the local authorities are empowered to do. What they are empowered to do is quite flexible and quite imaginative and could be very useful. The question is, can or will the Government ensure that those powers are used?
I do not want them to start telling each local authority what to do in their individual areas. What they do need to do is to make sure that the response of every local authority is a reasonable response under the powers conferred on them. In order to clarify that and because I have been interested in it, I attempted to get copies of the circulars which were sent out as guidelines to the local authorities. I have to say to my regret that the Minister's office refused to give them to me, with some sort of muttering about confidentiality.
I will give the Senator copies, or any other Senator who wants them.
I got them. I want to say that for some reason or other when my secretary contacted the Minister's office there was a considerable reluctance, there was talk about confidentiality etc. I was amazed. If I had not been able to get them another way I would have had to raise the matter tonight. I am simply making the point that maybe the Minister's office ought to be careful. These things are worth sending out immediately because, let me say, both of those circulars are excellent documents, they are a credit to the Department. That is why it was peculiar and why I was surprised. I had an awareness of them and I was not just playing a game with the Minister. I am not playing a game here now. It is important that if people ring up the Department of the Environment and actually want to see what the Department's view of the problem of homelessness is, they should be able to see it. There is nothing in those documents that is not well worth giving to anybody. I am not criticising the documents. I want to make the point because somebody somewhere was less than enthusiastic about giving them out. That is a fact.
There is not and was not a problem in regard to that. I did not know about that. If the Senator had asked me for them I would have given him all he wanted.
I am not the sort of person who goes troubling Ministers about things unless I have to.
The Senator would be very welcome.
I have them here in front of me and I am about to quote from them. Every voluntary organisation dealing with the homeless ought to have them because there are problems. There are problems with local authorities around the country. I do not want to get involved in a harangue about local authorities because it is quite early days yet, but there are problems emerging and I want to advert to a few of them. Let me say what is good about the circulars.
The interpretation of the definition of homelessness in circular 9/88 is good, imaginative and entirely in accordance with the assurances that were given both to this House and the other House when the Bill was going through. The powers available, particularly under section 10, are well and comprehensively outlined but there are considerable difficulties at local level in implementing them. For instance, section 10 empowers local authorities to make quite specific provisions to help out voluntary organisations.
Page 8 of circular 9/88 talks about financial arrangements under which an approved body agrees to provide accommodation for a homeless person nominated by the housing authority. Dublin Corporation have shown a profound reluctance to admit that they could even provide funding for, say, the management and running costs of a night shelter. This is distinct from capital funding. Cork Corporation have offered to support one voluntary organisation to the tune of £2 per week per person.
I accept that the Department are not of the view that the authorities should fund the entirety of the costs but no human being in their right mind could imagine that £2 per week is a reasonable contribution to the housing costs of an individual. I say this not as a matter of controversy, because I accept that we are in a period of implementation, but because these are important issues which I am sure the Minister will pursue. I say it simply to make sure what was intended is written down clearly.
There is another area of confusion between the two circulars, 9/88 and 6/89 about assessments of housing needs. Page 2 of circular 9/88 says that an assessment by the authority of the scale of homelessness to which they may have to respond having regard to the availability of accommodation from their own stock, voluntary organisations etc. but circular, 6/89 talks about an assessment based on those who would be looking for local authority accommodation. One is a very precise thing to do with local authority accommodation and the other is an assessment of the scale of homelessness. Nobody, particularly the Minister, would argue with the fact that there should be an assessment of the scale of homelessness. Indeed, the form that comes with circular 6/89 only refers to the number of households whose need for local authority housing was assessed in an initial assessment.
We are not just talking about need for local authority housing. We are talking about all the other things that can be done under section 10. The Minister referred to the money that is available, £500,000 last year and £600,000 this year. Was all the money allocated last year taken up by local authorities?
The answer to that is no.
That is what I thought. May I ask the Minister, who obviously is prepared to provide the money, to take up the points I raised with local authorities and remind them. If voluntary organisations I know could get 80 per cent of the costs, they would be prepared to compensate the local authorities for the 20 per cent. We are hearing excuses around the country that people cannot afford the 20 per cent and therefore cannot look for the other 80 per cent. I do not think the Minister will tolerate that. I find it ridiculous.
Under the 1953 Health Act, there is a continuing obligation on health boards to provide for homeless people. I invite the Minister to remind health boards — a number of whom have announced that they will no longer fund voluntary organisations dealing with the homeless because of the provisions of the Housing Act — that they still have obligations to provide for homeless people and that they cannot duck out from under them. Will the Minister ensure that, when the local authorities talk about liaison, they do not think it is something you do once during a housing assessment? If the broadly based, imaginative and creative response envisaged in the Act, the circular and the guidelines is to happen, it is extremely important that housing authorities develop active day-to-day liaison with the voluntary sector and with other individuals. That way it will work creatively.
I will be supporting the motion. The Government have made a start, but the extremity of the need on the issue of homelessness dictates extreme urgency in dealing with the problem. I compliment the Minister for the work that has been done. As a member of the Simon Community I could not stand up here and not recognise what has been done. It is worthwhile and it is positive, I have identified, I hope, in a constructive fashion problems of implementation of sections of the legislation that I am sure the Minister will be more than happy to deal with.
It is very likely that I will wind up, with Senator Upton's agreement. We will not be accepting the amendment but we will not put it to a vote. Let me explain this quite clearly. It might sound a little emotional in this more relaxed atmosphere but——
I hope the Senator will be relaxed with me.
—— to accept the amendment would be like accepting lynch law. If anyone comes up with an idea or suggestion or complains about something, nobody listens. The amendment contradicts the Minister's contribution. As far as I am concerned it is our duty to bring problems to the Minister's attention as they arise. Introducing legislation will not solve all the problems; sometimes legislation creates new and difficult problems. Consequently, the onus is on us to come up with solutions. We have a social duty to see where something is lacking and to make suggestions and come up with constructive ideas.
This is not a smart alec remark. I will not get into exchanges with the Minister for the very good reason that I do not think I would win them. However, during the debate on the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1985, the Fianna Fáil spokesman on the environment withdrew speakers to facilitate progress on the Second Stage and the debate collapsed. He was given an undertaking that he could put down a number of amendments. Tuesday, 11 November, was set aside to deal with the Committee Stage amendments, but the Minister said he could not take them on that day. The Fianna Fáil spokesman had withdrawn his speakers on the basis of getting an early Committee Stage debate which never took place because the House was adjourned six weeks later and then we went to the country. As Senator Ryan said we did not accept this very passively. We had a good go over it. I would like that to be understood.
With regard to the question of homeless children, it is not just a matter for the health boards; they do not have the money to deal with it. The same applies to local authorities, the money is not there. You cannot say that local authorities will deal with the problem. Perhaps in the new situation where the Minister for the Environment has embarked on something at we will see an improvement in that situation.
If we go back to the pre-budget submission by the Simon Community and look at the national opinion poll taken by Lansdowne Market Research in September 1988 we find that only 7 per cent agreed that the Government were doing all they could to help the homeless and 84 per cent thought that local authorities should be required to house the homeless. Another part of the survey showed that 84 per cent took the view that housing the homeless should be the responsibility of the Government rather than of the voluntary organisations. The point of those two observations is simply that as long as it is the Government's responsibility to deal with the homeless we will get motions of this nature put down.
It would be superfluous of me to say that a lot more needs to be done. The Minister acknowledged that in his concluding remarks. It is a national social responsibility. We cannot, even though we are co-operating with them and giving them assistance, leave it to the voluntary organisations to take on the responsibility. In Dundalk, for example, they are housing 270 people; in Dublin they are housing 389 and 260 in Galway. If one spreads it out they are doing a lot more than a voluntary organisation should be called on to do.
The Government have been very helpful in the matter but we have got to draw this to the Government's attention. Even though we give these organisations assistance, with the pace of change and the difficulties of society, unemployment, bad educational development etc., we will always have problems in this area. We cannot expect the voluntary organisations to take this on.
There is the social side of it where the people who become homeless do not all respond in the same way. Some of them can cope a little better than others. In the old tenement days the way a lot of them coped was by sleeping on the landings of the tenement houses. The people brought them out flour bags which they sewed together for sheets. They brought them out a cup of tea and a slice of bread and margarine. That was the old way. Things developed and then these organisations such as the Simon Community took over. We will now have to evolve further, and the Government will inevitably have to take full responsibility. When I say full responsibility I realise that an agency is required to work through such as voluntary organisations.
With regard to solving poverty and unemployment, which cause homelessness, they are not in the business of sorting that out. They are not in the business of trying to sort out their skills. They have not the resources available. Where there are poorly developed skills, they cannot cope with that. Central Government should do more to help these agencies to cope with the situations in which they find themselves.
I do not ever envisage the day when we will not see the voluntary agencies in action. They will always be there and they are doing a great job. They would be the first to welcome not being needed, if that ever becomes a reality. Even though it will never become a reality we must in the final analysis keep chipping away and arguing until we can make the conditions as good as possible for the voluntary organisations so that they can live with circumstances a lot better than they can at the moment.
When is it proposed to sit again?
It is proposed to sit at 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.