Plight of the Homeless: Statements.

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a statement on the issue of homelessness. A person who becomes homeless experiences deprivation and social exclusion in their most extreme forms. As the exceptional levels of growth continue in our economy, the needs of those on the margins of Irish society are rightfully at the centre of Government policy. Provision for homelessness has improved greatly over recent years and there is greater co-operation than ever before between all of the agencies that deliver services to homeless people. However, more needs to be done. People still become homeless notwithstanding that there has been a consistent and long standing effort to respond to the difficulties of homelessness on the part of the voluntary agencies. There are people who, for a variety of reasons, keep themselves apart from the assistance available to them and these we see sleeping rough, the most visible symbol of their vulnerability.

It is now widely accepted that homelessness is not simply about the absence of accommodation. The causes of homelessness are complex and require complex responses. I propose to outline the measures which my Department has put in place to address homelessness and which provide a framework for extending and deepening the response to homelessness as the need arises. I will refer to the importance of co-ordinating the resources of the statutory and voluntary sectors. Senators will appreciate that my comments relate to adult homeless people. The very specific needs of homeless children and young people under the age of 18 are the responsibility of the Department of Health and Children.

The factors which give rise to homelessness are many and varied. Some people may still have an old style image of the homeless person as one who moves from place to place building contacts within various communities and receiving support from them. This assessment of a homeless person is no longer valid. There is no simple description of a person living outside the home. Young adults with difficulties at home, women and children escaping from domestic violence, single or separated men, families in acute financial difficulties; can all become homeless. In some cases the abuse of alcohol or drugs can be the trigger which leaves somebody without a roof over their heads. Very often there is a combination of factors at work which combine to push the vulnerable person or family over the brink into homelessness.

It is at this stage that the responses to homelessness, whether provided by a State agency or a voluntary body, must come into play. The longer a person is homeless the more difficult it is to break that cycle. The intervention must focus on providing the supports which are needed to make the period of homelessness as short as possible and must involve the combined efforts of the various agencies and bodies in providing a full range of services. The supports may take the form of a hostel space for a short time, transitional accommodation while a person is helped to move back into society or longer term sheltered accommodation for those who may need such support. Shelter is a most basic requirement but alongside shelter will be the need for other services, such as training, health, psychological and other supports which will be needed to facilitate a homeless person's return to a more normal type of living.

It is essential, therefore, that all the resources of the various State bodies and voluntary groups be maximised; that there is a commitment to co-ordinate the efforts not only of the statutory agencies but also of the voluntary agencies and to combine the efforts of the statutory and voluntary agencies. No one agency is the sole provider of services to homeless persons nor can this ever be the case. While local authorities have overall responsibility for accommodation, other services to homeless people, such as health and welfare, provided by other statutory agencies are equally important. At the point where services are delivered, therefore, it is essential that there are no gaps and that no duplication of effort takes place.

I am satisfied that, as far as accommodation is concerned, there is a good and flexible framework in place to provide a service to homeless people both directly though local authorities and indirectly through the voluntary bodies. The voluntary sector in the form of individual local groups and the more well known bodies working throughout the country, such as the Simon Community, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Salvation Army and Focus, provides a reservoir of expertise and commitment which makes a huge contribution to providing services for homeless persons.

The local authorities' powers to counter homelessness are broad and varied. The most significant development for many homeless people, especially families, has been the expanded local authority and social housing programme of recent years. The Government has made a commitment to maintain the programme at a high level. Many homeless families have benefited directly through first time lettings in new houses or casual vacancies in existing houses. For 1998, provision has been made for a programme of 3,900 new houses and the capital provision for the programme has again been significantly increased.

The various social housing measures also play an important part in meeting housing needs, including those of homeless people. The voluntary housing capital assistance scheme, in particular, is used to provide accommodation of a high standard for homeless people as well as for other categories, such as the elderly and the disabled. Since the scheme was introduced in 1988, £37 million has been paid in respect of projects for homeless people. The Simon Communities in Cork, Dublin and Dundalk have made use of the scheme to provide 150 units of accommodation in these areas; Focus has provided a total of 100 units of accommodation under the scheme in Dublin, Limerick and Waterford; the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has provided 71 units of accommodation in Dublin; the Salvation Army has provided 107 units of accommodation in its flagship hostel at Granby Row in Dublin and 38 units of accommodation for homeless persons have been provided by Respond in Waterford. Some of these bodies have also provided accommodation for homeless persons under the separate rental subsidy scheme funded by my Department.

While the level of provision has been satisfactory, I would like to see activity expanded and I considered that there was scope to improve the terms and conditions of this and other voluntary housing measures to achieve this. Last November, at the Irish Council for Social Housing Conference in Galway, I announced a comprehensive package of improvements, including improvements to the capital assistance scheme, with a view to making the scheme as attractive as possible to voluntary bodies providing accommodation for homeless people and other groups. The scheme has focused on special housing needs and the improvements will, I hope, result in an increased uptake of funding under the scheme and the provision of more accommodation suitable for homeless persons.

In addition to the availability of capital funding to provide accommodation, the need exists to provide more direct assistance to homeless people and the bodies working on their behalf. Funding is needed to allow voluntary bodies to run their organisations and, in this regard, my Department makes an annual grant to a number of voluntary bodies, including Focus and the Simon Community National Office, who work on behalf of homeless persons. Funding is needed to help run hostels and provide emergency accommodation and to support the provision of accommodation referral services which are directly availed of by homeless persons. The mechanism used for these purposes is section 10 of the Housing Act, 1988.

Local authorities have extensive powers under the Act to provide assistance to homeless persons and to the bodies working on their behalf, outside the traditional response of local authority housing. This can take the form of funding emergency bed and breakfast accommodation, funding the provision by voluntary bodies of accommodation and resettlement services for homeless persons and, in the Dublin region, funding homeless persons, the refugee units and the homeless initiative which I will mention later. In practice, health boards, which provide income support for homeless persons, are often involved in arranging accommodation for homeless persons so that in many areas combined arrangements involving the local authorities, health boards and voluntary bodies are in operation.

The powers of local authorities of which I have spoken are very extensive in nature and my Department has consistently stressed to authorities that they must use these powers to the fullest extent possible. Their use in a flexible way by authorities has increased over the years. Under the terms of the Act, 90 per cent of expenditure by local authorities in relation to homelessness can be recouped from my Department. As an indication of the extent to which authorities use their powers, the level of recoupment payable by my Department has increased significantly since the first years of operation of the provisions, from £7,000 in 1989 to £6 million in 1997.

While a proportion of the 1997 funding relates to emergency accommodation for asylum seekers in the Dublin area, the level of increase in the provision for homelessness is still striking. In 1997, for example, my Department recouped to various local authorities £307,000 in respect of payments to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, £145,000 in respect of payments to the Simon Community, £163,000 in respect of payments to Focus and £500,000 in respect of payments to the Salvation Army. These payments to voluntary bodies are a crucial contribution to their capacity to respond effectively to the accommodation needs of homeless people.

I wish to turn now to Dublin where the incidence of homelessness is different to the rest of the country. Dublin has about two-thirds of the national homeless population. As the largest urban centre in the country, it will naturally have a greater number of homeless persons and, as the capital, it may attract vulnerable people from other areas, especially the surrounding counties, who will see some hope of a better life in the city.

Specific aspects of homelessness in Dublin are putting pressure on available emergency and hostel accommodation. Drug addicts are making use of shelters and hostels. These can be a disruptive influence in hostels, discouraging other homeless people from using them. Another significant pressure on emergency bed and breakfast accommodation, and, indeed, on the lowest end of the private rented sector, is the large number of asylum seekers in the Dublin area. These are classified as homeless and are placed in emergency accommodation until they move into rented accommodation. Dublin Corporation and the health board are monitoring this situation closely to ensure that there is always some form of accommodation available to homeless people who need it and are developing proposals to upgrade homeless services and to increase accommodation in the city.

As a consequence of the greater incidence of homelessness, the Dublin local authorities and the Eastern Health Board have special arrangements in place to ensure that services are accessible to homeless persons. These include the operation of a drop-in daytime accommodation referral service and a 'phone-in referral service at night and at weekends. Dublin Corporation provides transitional and emergency accommodation at their premises at Mapel House on the North Circular Road and Marlborough Place and are upgrading their existing hostel at the Model Lodging House.

Capital funding for this is being provided by my Department. We know that the demand for emergency accommodation increases when the weather disimproves and, for this reason, Dublin Corporation has put in place a "cold weather strategy" which aims to increase the numbers of short-term emergency beds available in hostels throughout the city and which monitors the numbers of people sleeping rough to ensure that no one who wants one is without a bed for the night. There are, of course, a small number of homeless persons who do not wish to avail of any such services and continue to sleep rough. This does not mean that they can be lost sight of. Efforts must be made to keep options open to them and this is what the corporation and other bodies are doing.

In recognition of the scale of homelessness in the Dublin area compared to other regions, the Dublin homeless initiative was established in late 1996 to secure better co-ordination and delivery of services for homeless people in the Eastern Health Board region covering Dublin, Kildare and Wicklow. It has a particular role in ensuring the development of responses which will enable homeless people to become settled and move out of the cycle of homelessness. The aim is to achieve this through the development of an effective partnership between all the agencies involved in service provision for homeless people, both statutory and voluntary. A separate administrative structure has been established jointly between Dublin Corporation and the Eastern Health Board to oversee and co-ordinate the provision of services. There is a management group comprising senior officials of Dublin Corporation and the Eastern Health Board, a consultative board comprising representatives of the housing authorities in the region, the Eastern Health Board and the voluntary bodies in the region who provide services for the homeless. An administrative director has been appointed by the management group to co-ordinate the work of the initiative. The initiative receives its funding from Dublin Corporation which, in turn, is recouped by my Department and the Department of Health and Children. Its total expenditure in 1997 was £600,000.

I am satisfied that the initiative is making an important contribution to the provision of homeless services in the Dublin area by building links and co-operation between all of the bodies involved, by defining the needs of homeless people and by taking a strategic view of how services should develop. It has taken a particular interest in resettlement issues and is ensuring that the funding available to it is effectively channelled.

The concept of partnership is, I believe, the main strength of the Dublin homeless initiative. It is a feature of the delivery of homeless services which underlines the value of a properly co-ordinated response. I am not yet sure that the full administrative arrangements of the Dublin initiative would be warranted across other health board areas because the incidence of homelessness is so much less than in the Dublin area. All local authorities have been asked to develop strong links at local level with the health board and voluntary bodies working in their areas. Co-ordination is already a feature of the services delivered locally to homeless people. Nevertheless, there is scope for enhanced co-operation between the statutory and voluntary sectors in some other areas, more particularly in the major cities, to ensure that the needs of homeless people are recognised and tackled in a co-ordinated way. I am arranging to have this aspect pursued with the authorities concerned.

I would like to touch briefly on the question of the numbers of homeless persons, an aspect of homelessness which is the subject of much discussion among the bodies providing services. Local authorities carry out assessments of homelessness alongside their periodic assessments of housing need. Three such assessments have taken place and the next assessment is due in March 1999. There has been some criticism in the past that the method of assessing homelessness, that is, by way of a count on a specific day, understates the extent of the problem and that the situation would be more accurately reflected by quantifying the flow of homeless persons seeking accommodation over a period of time.

The Economic and Social Research Institute considered this matter in its analysis of the results of the 1993 housing needs assessment. It concluded that a method other than a count would be elaborate, expensive and statistically uncertain. However, it suggested certain improvements in the existing procedures which were carried into the 1996 assessment and which resulted in a more accurate picture of the extent of homelessness in each local authority area. I am, however, conscious of the need to further improve the reliability of the local authority assessments on homelessness. This is among the aspects to which I shall be giving special attention in the preparation of guidelines and so on for local authorities on the next assessment.

In view of the greater scale of homelessness which exists in the Dublin region, I am considering, in conjunction with Dublin Corporation and the Dublin homeless initiative, whether a separate assessment of homelessness, making use of different assessment techniques, is warranted in the Dublin area.

There is a much greater and more well informed response to homelessness now than ever before. Very often there is no quick or easy solution. As I said earlier, accommodation, while meeting an immediate need, will not, in every case, deal with the overall problem. Other factors such as unemployment, family breakdown, alcohol or drug addiction are often involved. The Government's Action Programme for the Millennium includes a commitment to assessing the accommodation needs of people suffering from mental disability and autism. While this is largely met through the State and voluntary care services, there may be instances where the accommodation needs of some people with less severe mental disability may not be recognised as, for example, in the case of adult children being cared for by elderly parents. This will require an integrated approach by the local authority and the health board to provide specially adapted facilities where necessary and to facilitate community services involvement. I am, therefore, arranging for discussions with the Department of Health and Children to ensure that these accommodation needs are adequately assessed and provision made to meet them.

I have referred to the involvement of voluntary bodies in providing and operating accommodation and services for homeless people. We are very fortunate, in this country, to have so many voluntary bodies dedicated to improving the living conditions of less well off people. The development of the social housing programmes in recent years has increased the importance and significance of the voluntary sector contribution. Last year I visited a number of hostels in the Dublin area to see the accommodation for myself and to discuss the position with personnel running the hostels. I have also met many of the voluntary bodies separately and officially opened, in my home town last November, the Conference of the Irish Council for Social Housing, the representative body to which individual voluntary bodies are affiliated. I have also visited many other places throughout the country. On all these occasions I was very impressed not only by the whole range of involvement but also by the dedication of the personnel, voluntary or otherwise. This is something which cannot be taken for granted. It is very important that adequate and proper support be available to sustain this involvement. This is the basis of the social housing scheme and of the funding, capital and current, available through my Department to sustain the effort to deal with homelessness.

I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for his statement on homelessness. When preparing notes on the new planning legislation, I compared the year 1963 with the present. Most of us have lived through the past 35 years but it can be startling to remind ourselves how different Ireland was then to the Ireland of today. The population of the State in 1963 was 2.5 million compared with 3.6 million today. In 1963, 46 per cent of the population lived in urban areas compared to almost 60 per cent today.

This is a universal problem. Cities worldwide are growing at the rate of one million people per week. By 2025, more than two-thirds of the world's population will be living in urban areas. Many will suffer as a result of poverty, poor housing, crime, ill health and homelessness. The threat of massive homelessness is greatest in Asia, Africa and Latin America where the population is growing fastest. Homelessness is also a problem in developed countries. In London, for example, life expectancy among homeless people is a mere 25 years. The most pressing environmental, economic and social problems which we will face in the next century will occur in our cities. Housing conditions are the root cause of homelessness and poverty. As a capital city, Dublin is no exception to that.

The Department of the Environment and Local Government's policy document entitled "Social Housing: The Way Ahead" outlines a vision for housing provision with which most people would concur. It states that the overall policy is to enable every household to have available an affordable dwelling of good quality which is suitable for its needs, in a good environment and, as far as possible, with tenure of its choice.

I had difficulty in establishing the actual number of homeless people. There are different Government assessments of the number but these figures have been challenged by many voluntary groups which deal with housing issues. The Simon Community argues that official Government assessments have seriously underestimated the extent of homelessness because of a limited definition of the term, a flawed methodology and a lack of consultation with voluntary bodies. I am pleased the Minister of State addressed that point in his statement, that he is conscious of the need to improve the reliability of local authority assessments of homelessness and that he is preparing guidelines for the next assessment. That is very important.

In October 1996 the Minister of State with responsibility for urban affairs introduced an initiative to combat homelessness in the Dublin region. It aimed to put in place new arrangements for a unified approach by the statutory authorities and voluntary sector to developing services for the homeless.

The homeless initiative was established as a result of a review of the services for homeless people carried out by the Eastern Health Board and Dublin Corporation, in consultation with the voluntary bodies. The review found there was a high level of service provision, ranging from emergency accommodation to food and drop-in centres, medical care and limited outreach and settlement services. However, the provision was fragmented with no overall framework for the planning and delivery of services, leading to inefficient and non-effective delivery.

As I said, it is not possible to estimate the extent of homelessness in Dublin because the information is not readily available due to the lack of overall co-ordination of service delivery. This matter has been assessed at a number of levels by the homeless initiative to allow for the provision of more information in a systematic and ongoing way in future.

Last year, Dublin Corporation assisted 1,575 homeless cases, including 800 involving women and children, at a cost of £600,000. Under the plan, a management group of senior officials in Dublin Corporation and the Eastern Health Board has been established to co-ordinate and deliver services to the homeless. A consultant group has been formed representing the various authorities concerned and the various voluntary organisations. Dublin Corporation is very aware of the need for short-term and medium term accommodation for women and families. It is actively examining the issue with the Eastern Health Board in consultation with the voluntary bodies.

Until recently hostel provision in Dublin city was considered to offer emergency accommodation for homeless people, but in practice a high proportion of the residents were permanent or semi-permanent. In the past few years, the age group has changed from mainly 45 to 50 year olds to younger people. Many of these people have drug problems and related health and social concerns.

In recent years there has been evidence of excessive demand over supply of hospital places in Dublin. While this may appear to indicate an increase in homelessness that is not the only reason for the excessive demand. There is a tendency now for people to stay longer in hospital, some out of preference and some because their choice of housing options has been reduced as they can no longer rent in the private sector. The problem of excessive demand for hospital places applies equally to men, women and children. The initiative has given priority to settlement services to address this situation.

Recurring homelessness is often characterised by family breakdown, drug use, long-term psychiatric problems, lack of family support and people who are marginalised with few coping skills and who wish to live in solitariness. There has been a recent increase in the number of people sleeping rough in Dublin.

The Minister of State said his responsibility was for adult homelessness and that homeless children under the age of 18 years are the responsibility of the Department of Health and Children. However, we must deal with teenage homelessness, an area about which I am very concerned. Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy, the president of Focus Ireland, stated that children as young as ten and 11 years are presenting to the agency for emergency services. There is no doubt that more teenagers and children under the age of 12 years are becoming homeless. The number of homeless children between the ages of 12 and 16 years is increasing at a frightening rate.

Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy also commented that the statistics on the number of children under 12 years and those between the ages of 12 and 18 years presenting themselves to Focus Ireland were not easily available. She added that the exact number of homeless teenagers was likely to be higher than that shown in the statistics because many slip through the net and live rough on the streets.

According to the Eastern Health Board, there are more than 40 emergency residential places, including the Focus Ireland emergency service, which are either directly managed or funded by the Eastern Health Board. However, on any given night, there are only a few places available for emergency cases because many of them are filled for several nights at a time. This results in children and adults being turned away and having to sleep rough. At least 30 children have difficulty being placed and at least 160 people sleep rough on the streets of Dublin every night, a large number of whom have drug related problems, mental health problems and a large range of social and family problems which have led to their being homeless.

A recent survey by the Merchant's Quay project found that 40 per cent of those sleeping rough are young women, many of whom are drug addicts. Specific services are urgently needed to deal with this age group.

A report published by Focus Ireland this year cited family violence, abuse and disputes as a significant cause of homelessness among the 18 to 25 year age group. These statistics are a cause of concern because the report shows the number of homeless 18 year olds in Dublin increased from 362 in 1994 to 599 in 1995 and to 824 in 1996. The report also indicated that family abuse and disputes were the main reasons for young people leaving home. In the past if a child had a problem at home he or she would usually go to an aunt or uncle. However, that is no longer the case due to the breakdown of family traditions and neighbourhoods.

If the Government is committed to a just society, and it is extraordinary that we are talking about the need for a just society at a time of substantial economic growth, it is obliged to provide substantial funding to eliminate the problem of homelessness. If we fail to break the cycle of homelessness we will end up with the social problems which are rampant in other British and European major cities.

I pay tribute to the voluntary organisations which provide services for the homeless. I wish to put on record my appreciation of the Salvation Army, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Simon Community, Focus Point, the Iveagh Trust, the Legion of Mary and many other organisations that provide a large range of services for the homeless. Some organisations provide accommodation with varying degrees of support while others offer other services. While I acknowledge the voluntary services receive public funding from one or more sources or State agencies, there is an obligation on the Government to be more generous in providing voluntary organisations with the funding necessary for their excellent work.

In acknowledging the work of the housing initiative, especially the work and dedication of senior officials of Dublin Corporation and the Eastern Health Board, in endeavouring to deliver these services to the homeless, I believe a more comprehensive method should be found. I support the Simon Community in its efforts to convince the Government to appoint a commission on homelessness. If anything is to happen as a result of this debate, this is one principle the Minister should accept. The purpose of setting up such a commission would be to address all the issues in a comprehensive way. Such a commission would produce a realistic assessment of the number of homeless people, where and how they live and under what conditions. It would also examine how homelessness is linked to other poverty indicators such as unemployment, poor education, bad housing, inadequate health services and segregation. It should also consult with the voluntary bodies and statutory organisations involved in the area, and it should especially consult with the homeless themselves. They are a group of people who should be listened to. This would then put in place a co-ordinated strategy for the elimination of homelessness by a set date.

If this is to be achieved, the State must have the will to make it happen. I believe that, in a time of economic prosperity, if we are to avoid the danger of establishing a two tier society with a drift towards social exclusion, there is a responsibility on Government to act quickly in support of such a measure. This is the very least we can offer the homeless people in this time of unprecedented growth.

I echo the sentiments of my colleague, Senator Doyle. I welcome the Minister of State to the House and commend him on his comprehensive approach to what is an emotive as well as a practical problem facing society.

The sight of a heavily pregnant woman huddling with her husband in a dark corner of a city centre store in Dublin at Christmas brought home the reality of homelessness in the Ireland of today to many who saw those pitiful scenes on RTÉ television. Only the most hard hearted would not have been moved by the plight of this young woman and her husband in the week we were celebrating the birth of Jesus. It was that poignant scene, coupled with growing reports of the extent of homelessness in our affluent society, which prompted me, along with others, to call for this debate. It is also an opportunity to commend those working to alleviate, and it is hoped eliminate, homelessness which is a blight on our society. As regards those vivid pictures on television, I never saw any follow-up as to what happened. Given the many measures the Minister of State outlined to address problems such as those we saw on television, one wonders if the various agencies involved were approached and if they were able to respond adequately. I hope the young couple eventually got a house, as promised by Dublin Corporation, and that a new life has now begun in our society.

Senator Doyle finished his contribution by referring to the various agencies involved. I reiterate his comments. The Minister pointed out that it is the work of the voluntary agencies, in association with Government and State agencies, which is addressing this problem and helping to alleviate it in some way. Father Peter McVerry has been a voice crying in the wilderness for many years and is now in the mainstream of providing shelter, accommodation and encouragement not only for homeless young people but also for those suffering social problems such as child abuse and drug taking. Other groups include the Simon Community, Focus, St. Vincent de Paul, the Salvation Army and the local voluntary housing groups to which the Minister referred and for which increased funding has come on stream over the past number of years. It is to be hoped that will continue.

I could not help but reflect on the involvement of the Simon Community and on our colleague, Senator Brendan Ryan, whose political consciousness was raised to such an extent in his early involvement with Simon that he embarked on a political career which brought him to this House. It is obvious from listening to Senator Ryan's contributions in the Seanad down the years that his early experiences of dealing with the homeless problem in Cork strongly influenced, and continues to influence, his political philosophy, and this is as it should be.

We should be angry about homeless children and homelessness, especially in this affluent society as Senator Doyle correctly stated. All of us who profess to be Christians in a Christian society should be outraged by scenes such as those to which I referred earlier, especially at Christmas if not at any other time of the year. These scenes can be witnessed practically every day of the week in certain parts of our cities. It is unacceptable in a democratic society, especially in this land of plenty, that people should be without a roof over their heads. There are those who do not wish to be housed, as the Minister pointed out, and who, for a variety of reasons, have rejected society through alcohol problems, marriage problems or simply a collapse in selfesteem. We have all seen the image of the bag lady, irrespective of what city we have been in. This is not to trivialise these unfortunate people, but if a citizen of this country desires accommodation and wishes to be part of society, there is an obligation on Government and the statutory agencies to ensure they respond adequately. Searing criticism of successive Governments' abdication in this regard runs throughout all reports from Simon and other agencies dealing with the homeless. I commend the library service of the House for providing much of the information I and, I assume, Senator Doyle have received in this regard.

Part of the problem relates to the overlap between various Departments which are responsible for homeless people at different ages. As the Minister pointed out, he is present to specifically address the problem of adult homelessness, those who are defined as adult by being 18 and older. The Department of Health and Children is responsible for homeless children, while the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs is also responsible for some elements of homelessness. The Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, is present because he is responsible for homeless people over 18. There should be a clear and focused approach to the homelessness problem and it would be better served by ensuring that, if there is not one single Department under a Minister responsible for homelessness, there is at least co-ordination across the relevant Departments. The Minister of State touched on this in his wide-ranging address. Perception is all in politics and it seems as if these Departments are operating either unilaterally, independently or are addressing problems on a fire brigade basis rather than in an overall co-ordinated and strategic way. I stand to be corrected on that.

I support the view of Simon that the Government should, as a matter of urgency, establish a commission on homelessness to address the problem in a comprehensive and strategic way. One way of addressing this overlap across the various Departments is to have a clearly focused group identifying and addressing the problem of homelessness nationally. The terms of reference of the commission could include an investigation into the extent of homelessness, because despite the evidence before our eyes, over 50 per cent of local authorities in Ireland in 1996 declared themselves completely free of homelessness.

Senator Doyle touched on this and the Minister of State referred to the reports of various commissions on housing needs assessments established over the past number of years. From his remarks, the Minister is obviously not satisfied with the level of information in these reports and he stated that he believes there is a need to further improve the reliability of local authority assessments on homelessness. I welcome that as well as the Minister of State's further statements in this regard. It is obvious that, if we do not know the extent of a problem, we cannot adequately address it. Some 50 per cent of local authorities said they were completely free of homelessness, but how can this statistic be reconciled with the existence in some of the areas mentioned of county homes and other facilities providing shelter to homeless people?

There should be an examination of how homelessness is linked to other poverty indicators such as unemployment, poor education, bad housing, inadequate health care and community segregation. I referred earlier to those who had opted out of society. It is not too difficult to understand why. If one is unemployed and middle aged with poor education and from an impoverished background, one is already operating with very severe handicaps.

It is not only those in the categories I mentioned who are opting out. Decisions taken in recent years to move long stay psychiatric patients out of hospitals to live in communities are another problem. While this is desirable in itself, it has been grossly under-resourced, and some of the most vulnerable people in the State are now homeless. We are often happy to point the finger at more prosperous societies such as the United States, where images of mentally handicapped patients wandering aimlessly around the streets of New York are interpreted as an object lesson in an uncaring society. We should look at the mote in our own eye.

The commission on homelessness should, among its other terms of reference, seek a response from the voluntary and statutory agencies working with homeless people and from the homeless in order to establish how their needs could be met. That would not be an easy task, as all Members agree that the reasons for homelessness are complex, leading to complexity in the attitudes of homeless people. Whether one can get a co-ordinated response from the homeless is a moot point, but it is worth pursuing.

The Government is to be complimented on its £45 million increase for local authority and social housing in the budget. However, we have a long way to go, as the Minister of State acknowledged. At last count there were 27,427 households still on local authority housing waiting lists, while some 3,900 houses will be completed this year, according to the Minister of State. Consequently, housing provision continues to be inadequate, despite the Government's best efforts.

Recent statistics state that owner-occupation in Ireland comprises 80 per cent of permanent and private households. We still have an adherence to land and property. For most of the remaining 20 per cent, ownership is not an option due to rising house prices and the consequent vulnerability of new purchasers to variations in interest rates. I am aware that the Government is attempting to address the staggering inflationary spiral that has gripped the housing market, especially in Dublin. Figures from this year show that an average semi-detached three bedroom house in Dublin has increased in price from £60,000 in 1996 to £105,000 in 1998, a staggering increase by any standards. While I favour the free market, this current cycle of huge increases in house prices will have to be addressed urgently. How the Government, as the regulatory body, can do so is another question.

I remember a similar cycle of house increases in London in the late 1980s. My sister was a beneficiary of that cycle when she sold a flat in North London for almost double what she had paid for it three years before. However, boom leads to bust in the best managed societies. We saw negative equity emerge in London and other British cities after the cycle of house price increases. It is inevitable that a similar cycle of boom and bust will happen to the housing market here. Homelessness will then be an even greater social problem than it is today.

I referred to the social housing schemes operated by local authorities, but I also compliment the voluntary agencies that have provided voluntary non-profit and co-operative housing. This sector currently provides 25 per cent of all new rented social housing in addition to the national housing stock each year. I compliment the Minister of State on his initiatives in this area. The recent increases in the capital assistance and rental subsidy schemes are also welcome, but it is obvious there is a need for a mechanism to fund the ongoing management and care costs of these special needs projects.

Aspects of homelessness include low self esteem, not being part of society, not having a roof over one's head and not having a job or education. Another aspect is the growing number of young people turning to prostitution, especially male prostitution. The Eastern Health Board gay men's health project showed that over one third of those surveyed were homeless at the time of research, while the majority had experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. Drug addiction is also linked to homelessness. The Merchant's Quay project in Dublin reported that 35 per cent of 252 drug addicts surveyed were homelessness, which is a 5 per cent increase in less than a year.

Leading Irish writers were recently invited to contribute to a book published by Focus titled "Home". Nothing could be more poignant or relevant than Paul Durcan's contribution. He identified what home meant to a group of women who did not have homes:

They said being without a home meant being without safety and security, being without dignity and respect. They were saying very clearly that a home is a place where one can feel safe and secure, warm and dry and protected, where one can be oneself, where one can rest and eat, sleep and be entertained, love and laugh, argue and cry, read a book, share a meal, watch a television programme, play an instrument, do a bit of gardening, play with the kids, have a drink, get the housework done and the bills paid, where one is at ease with oneself and with one's family and friends, without fear of intrusion or interference: "I closed my eyes and breathed in and breathed out, It is ecstasy to breathe if you are at home in the world. What a windfall! A home of our own!"

I cannot speak about homelessness without a sense of déja vu. I keep wishing that sometime it will no longer be an issue, and we can move on. I read the Minister of State's speech, and he has shown a grasp of the complexities of homelessness that is to his credit. He should not sit back too much because I will not be totally complimentary, but the range of options and issues he has identified in his speech is like reading a briefing document from the Simon Community. He has attempted to respond to all of these matters.

The problem of homelessness is first of all a human problem that the homeless must live with. Everybody is now well informed about the multiplicity of factors that contribute to somebody being homeless. The insight into homelessness among politicians is different from 15 years ago. It is also true that a consensus has been reached on the responses that would be needed when it was, at worse, a slightly growing problem in an era of affluence. However, the tragedy now is that this is no longer a residual issue but a growing problem. This will have to be accepted by the political process. The number of people sleeping on the streets is increasing again. It had stabilised and the quality of housing and shelter was improving, to which speakers have referred. The quality of accommodation available to homeless people in Dublin and other urban areas has improved out of all recognition in the past 15 years. That would be wonderful if there was enough space for those living on the streets. The fundamental problem is now quite different.

When I started in the Simon Community 25 years ago, the standard of accommodation would make one cringe with embarrassment now. The redeeming characteristic was the quality of human care. The other providers of shelter in those days would similarly recognise that what they were doing at that time was abysmal in terms of standards. This has changed and it is to the credit of successive Governments, the voluntary sector and the many initiatives that have been undertaken.

Other things have changed, and we are beginning to create a new cycle of homelessness. It is difficult to explain this to the Government, particularly at a time of growing affluence when more units of accommodation are being built then ever before, as happened last year. I am speaking about the total number of units of accommodation built and not only local authority housing. I understand local authorities provide accommodation through acquisition as well as building. The record level of building should be beneficial, but this is where the problem arises and why a speech which I would like to have been entirely positive must include a very rancorous note.

Half the large number of accommodation units provided last year were built by what are euphemistically referred to as speculators and investors. It is clear that half the units were not bought directly by couples or individuals who needed accommodation, but by people who needed or wanted to make money. It is out of fashion, and perhaps not a good idea, to criticise people who want to make money. However, the effect of large scale speculative investment in the housing market is beginning to cause the crisis of people living on the streets. Increasing numbers of people are living on the streets because they cannot get accommodation. These people move into what are meant to be temporary emergency shelters because they cannot find alternative accommodation. We are spending increasing amounts of money on resettlement and other programmes, but people cannot be resettled if there is no accommodation available. This is what is happening. People will not be resettled because of the rapidly diminishing supply of affordable accommodation.

The vast bulk of speculative investment in the housing market is not being geared towards the bottom of the market or low cost housing. The fundamental thrust of public housing policy ought to be to maximise the development of low cost, affordable housing. It is a matter of indifference as to whether this is provided in the private or public sector once it is low cost, secure and good quality housing in which people have secure tenancy.

It is astonishing that a tenant who meets the conditions of tenancy can be ejected at a month's notice for no reason other than the inconvenience of a landlord. This is outrageous and flies in the face of any attempt to draw up a coherent housing policy. The tragedy for homeless people and the State is that, because of the way in which the housing market is loaded, low cost housing is becoming a thing of the past. Unavailability of low cost housing will result in the unemployed, the disadvantaged and the handicapped scrabbling for a limited amount of housing provided by well intentioned voluntary organisations, such as that with which I am associated. They cannot beat the market. The tragedy is that the Government, in the last budget, did the opposite of what was required in terms of ensuring the market is geared towards the provision of cheaper housing.

The halving of capital gains tax was the most scandalous decision of a Government in recent years. It guaranteed a flood of speculative money into the housing market. People now pay less capital gains on outrageous profits than the average working person pays on his or her income. I have no reason to believe there was any economic logic or human compassion behind that decision which amounted to a speculator's pay off. There will be no substantial reduction in the terrifying growth in house prices as long as it is possible to make huge capital gains from speculative investment in housing at minimal tax rates. This is the real issue which should be addressed by the Government.

We remember the variety of responses to the budget, one organisation describing it as the worst in ten years. Other voluntary organisations dealing with poor people described it as an outrage. I do not believe that all the initiatives listed by the Minister in his speech, worthy though they are, will be any more than a straw in the wind if the housing market is pushed in the opposite way to which it must go if accommodation is to be provided for people with limited means.

Society must be suffering from collective insanity if it allows a situation to develop in which a young couple with a combined income of £100,000 have difficulty finding accommodation which they can afford, as was reported in The Irish Times during the week. It was extraordinarily unjust in a social context and economically insane to introduce a budget which made that situation worse. This is the wrong time to reduce capital gains tax in the property market. Perhaps there would be a case for doing so at the height of a recession. However, to hand over 20 per cent of the speculative gains, with no contribution to society whatsoever, at the height of the biggest house price boom in the history of the State, was the most economically irresponsible decision a Government took since the splurge of borrowing in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It would not matter if I was only talking about economic policy. However, the consequence of this decision, which can be seen on the streets of Dublin, is that there is nowhere for poor people to go. Local authority housing is limited and often not accessible to homeless people. Low cost rented accommodation is becoming a thing of the past. Where are the people going to go? We can build wonderful hostels and have all the projects we want, and we can spend money on funding resettlement officers in every voluntary organisation in the State, but we will have spiralling homelessness if a place is not provided for people on low incomes.

The phenomenon of people at work being homeless, already common in the US, will become evident here because they will not be able to afford accommodation. This is the core of the issue. Many wonderful things have been done in response to the problem of homelessness but they will count for nought if the present daft policies on the funding of housing and the provision of tax breaks for investment in housing continue. We are moving toward a situation where nobody will be able to afford accommodation unless they have the type of affluent, well paid job which I have. This is not what society wants and I do not believe it is what the Minister wants. However, the Government of which he is a part, has taken a decision which will do this. It is a general concern among the voluntary sector that housing is becoming unaffordable for poor people. This issue needs to be tackled.

All the other measures are necessary, but without an increasing supply of affordable accommodation of reasonable quality with reasonable security of tenancy, they will be meaningless. I appeal to the Government to address this issue before it runs out of time and before we have a New York scale crisis on the streets. It should turn the market around and cause it, through a combination of incentives, taxation measures and refocused grant aid, to focus on the bottom end where the need is greatest, the supply is least and where those in the market can least afford to pay astronomical prices.

I welcome the Minister to the House. It is the second time in two months he has been here and on each occasion he has demonstrated that he has a thorough understanding of the problems in relation to housing and what needs to be done. He has an informed and conscientious approach to homelessness, which is a good starting point for this debate. When we talk about homelessness, we narrow it down to the issue of housing and specific cases.

I listened with interest to what Senator Brendan Ryan said which was valid in the wider context. However, the problem of homelessness, particularly among the young, must be analysed in more detail if we are to establish the factors which have made these young people homeless. We must first understand that none of these young people was born homeless. As we begin to investigate the problem, particularly as it pertains to young people, we must analyse the factors which have driven these people out of their homes onto the streets, into the shelters and in search of a home other than that into which they were born.

There is no more visible a manifestation of poverty than to see people sleeping rough on the streets. More than anything else, it pricks our consciousness and makes us believe there must be a greater response than that in place. It was particularly shocking at Christmas when there was so much evidence of wealth and disposable income in every city, town and village. There has never been such a spending spree. On the other side of the coin, there was the sad spectacle of people, and often very young people, sleeping rough on the streets in every city and in many towns. I have seen girls as young as nine years of age sleeping rough on the streets of my city. That is a frightening indictment of our society and it must be the dark underbelly of the Celtic tiger.

It is an issue which demands a more planned and thought out response than that which has been provided to date. That is not in any way not to acknowledge the good work done by the voluntary groups dealing with homelessness, including Focus Ireland, the Simon Community, St. Vincent de Paul, Respond and the other groups which work with might and main to try to do something to help the homeless, and the efforts being made by this and previous Ministers and the Department. Clearly, what has been done to date is not enough.

At the start of another new year and with two years to the millennium, we, as a society, must say that homelessness is not acceptable. It is a problem which can be solved and, in the case of young people, it is one which should be prevented. In the light of all the information we have, we need a new planned national strategy, a point to which I will return later. The starting point of that strategy should be the prevention of homelessness at all costs, particularly among the young.

I asked most of the groups that deal with homelessness to give me a breakdown of the age profile of homeless people. There was a time when we thought of homeless in terms of unfortunate people who had been in mental institutions and who, as a result of a policy of integration in the community, were discharged into the community. In many cases, proper provision was not made for these people and they became homeless very early on. Many of these were middle aged men, which we thought appalling.

I asked Focus Ireland for the age breakdown of people who presented and asked for assistance and services. In 1996 statistics show that of the 5,850 people who visited its services division 84.5 per cent were under 40 years of age and 50 per cent were under 26 years of age. In 1994, 352 people who presented were under 18 years of age — a statistic which terrifies me. This figure has increased to 1,362 in 1995 and to 2,070 in 1996. The number of people under 18 years of age presenting has increased sixfold between 1994 and 1996.

The Minister said he does not have responsibility for people under 18 years of age. It is a pity the Minister with responsibility for children was not present at this morning's debate. While we must be concerned about homelessness no matter what the age of the homeless person, we must be particularly concerned about the vulnerability of young people who are cast out or who cast themselves out onto the streets. These vulnerable young people are prey to every type of exploitation, whether drugs, prostitution, etc; and are exposed to the evil which stalks our streets at night. I ask the Minister to confer with the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Fahey, speak up in Government and ask specifically for a new initiative to deal with homelessness among teenagers and children.

This problem requires a different level of response to that which we give to homeless adults. These young people need a great deal more than a roof over their heads. The younger children need to be at school. They need education, training and to be nurtured and reared. They also need the services of a multiplicity of agencies to enable them to make a decent living for themselves in later years. That should be our aim. This problem calls for a different level of response and I ask the Minister to confer with the relevant Minister in respect of this part of problem and to make it a particular project. I would like us to invite the Minister with responsibility for children to come to the House to outline what he proposes to do to tackle this element of homelessness. Young people are missing school and nobody knows where they are or what is happening to them during the day. They are on the streets. There is no proper tracking system for these young people and they are the homeless who are most at risk.

Today's debate is about homeless adults.

I ask the Minister of State to discuss this issue with the Government. A tracking system is necessary for the earliest possible detection of young people who are at risk. The aim must be early intervention and prevention. Young people under 18 years of age should not be in the homeless category. That point must be emphasised, even if it is outside the parameters of this debate.

A planned national strategy to deal with homelessness is necessary. I agree with previous speakers that a commission should be established. This has also be recommended by Simon, an organisation with vast experience in dealing with this problem. Its recommendations deserve an audience and should not be taken lightly. A commission on homelessness would be a valuable starting point. We must also establish the extent of homelessness and its nature and scale. I am not satisfied that surveys carried out by local authorities give us the type of accurate information we need to enable us to tackle the problem in the correct manner.

The national strategy should have a clearly defined action programme and a timeframe whereby we would be able to make a commitment that five years hence, homelessness will no longer be a factor in society. That is not an impossible objective.

I hope the statements on homelessness, whether they are within or outside the Minister of State's remit, will be taken on board. Homelessness is a complex issue which, unfortunately, covers a broad spectrum of society. There is little disagreement among the political parties about this issue as all are concerned with trying to promote solutions to it.

When I was growing up in Dublin there was plenty of poverty but no homelessness. Now we have, to a great extent, cured the problem of poverty but we have been unable to cure other social ills. Instead, the incidence of homelessness is increasing. At this stage it is evident that our high-minded notions of community care have not worked. Indeed, community care has, in some cases, become community neglect.

There are two main categories of homeless people, those who are homeless in the strict sense of not having a house, such as those on the housing lists, and people who are homeless through choice, in so far as all other choices have been removed. With regard to people who do not have a house and do not have the income to secure one, the Minister of State should be mindful of the unrealistic number of housing starts. I am not seeking to make a party political point in this regard. The council in my area has 1,700 applicants on its housing waiting list but has permission for only 105 housing starts. That will house about 8 per cent of the applicants. The council is also constrained by the fact that applicants for local authority housing have low levels of income relative to the current cost of purchasing a house. People are given unrealistic expectations of being housed by our refusal to admit that there is a major housing crisis, particularly in the greater Dublin and other urban areas, as a result of the lack of affordable housing for young people.

The remit of the Minister of State does not extend to young homeless people but one should not categorise people who lie in doorways by age. All can be described as homeless people who have fallen through the net of normal society and apparently cannot cope with the problem of finding somewhere to live. I agree with Senator Quill that the reasons for this problem are myriad and complex. They usually arise from a lack of parenting skills. In my electoral area it is not unknown for children of six years of age to live rough, even though their parents possess a house. The lack of control is so severe that children of this age only feel obliged to come home when they are tired or hungry.

School attendance records in the same area are unbelievably dreadful. Some children have never attended school. It is a short step from truancy to homelessness when there are no supports and no need to clock in, as it were, at home or at school. That problem could be alleviated greatly by the obvious measure of appointing school attendance officers, a measure which has not been taken in the greater Dublin area.

Acting Chairman

The debate is about homeless adults, not children. Homeless children will, I hope, be debated on another occasion. The Minister of State cannot deal with the problem of homeless children as it is not within his remit.

I am sure he will undertake to convey our comments to the relevant Minister. His speech was about homelessness in general and, with respect to the Chair, if the Minister of State does not object I must refer to an issue that has great relevance.

The purpose of our statements today is to underline the gravity of this issue. We should not categorise it. I mean no disrespect to the Chair. Large urban areas with populations of up to 20,000 people never had school attendance officers because they were in the county area and were considered to be rural. Such areas had to rely on the Garda Síochána to monitor school attendance. That was a ludicrous policy because the gardaí in those areas were hard pressed to carry out their own work not to mind carry out additional tasks. We allowed many children whose parents, for whatever reason, were not fulfilling their duties to slip through the net. They are the children who are now on the streets.

I want to think positively about solving the problem. It is very distressing to see people of any age lying in a doorway, no matter what time of year it is. When I was young I read a book called Children of the Sun. It was about homeless children in Naples. At night they would lie on the gratings over the bakeries. At least during the day the sun shone, our homeless do not even have that.

I support the Simon Community's request for a commission on homelessness. That the Acting Chairman drew our attention to the division of the brief for homelessness makes the point more strongly for the need for a single Department to cope with this grave social issue. I hope the Minister will give us some direction on this in his response. It is ridiculous that there are separate Departments dealing with a problem which is growing daily.

The new docklands project will include a 20 per cent social housing concept. In view of the vast profits made by developers, if they put something back into the local authorities they should not be begrudged their profits. That is the way building developments should be conditioned in future. Instead of ghettoising people by having entire areas of local authority housing, we should have a 20 per cent social housing programme in any future developments.

I appreciate none of us have the answer to the problem but our comments are aimed solely to assist. Perhaps the Minister might take on board the majority desire for a commission on homelessness and the need for this issue to be addressed by a single Department.

I welcome the Minister to the House and I commend him on his efforts to tackle this serious problem.

Homelessness is no longer a problem which is confined to the urban areas. The sight of men, women and children wrapped in a blanket in a doorway is an ever increasing problem in our city centres. The more affluent society becomes the greater the extent of homelessness.

It appears homelessness deals specifically with people lying in doorways. How is homelessness quantified? Is it only those who have no roof over their heads who are categorised or do we include people who are no longer able to afford rent or mortgage payments who are living with family or friends? Do we consider women and children seeking refuge from domestic violence in shelters, even if it is only for a short time? There has been a 25 per cent increase in the number of women and children seeking refuge from domestic violence. When are they considered homeless? We concentrate solely on those who are on the streets. There are many more people who could be described as homeless.

Homelessness does not happen in isolation. It is the extreme form of poverty, often associated with unemployment, low pay and educational deprivation. Exorbitant prices for rented accommodation will add to this problem. There is also an association with gambling, alcoholism and drug abuse. I commend the Simon Community, St. Vincent de Paul and Focus who are so resilient in their efforts to improve the status of people who find themselves homeless. The greatest problem these organisations face is that they are no longer dealing with people on a short term basis. There are many long term homeless people in their emergency shelters and hostels. The shelters in Cavan are providing long term accommodation for those living in them. That the Simon Community and other organisations must turn people away every night is very disturbing.

The Minister of State deserves credit for his attempt to tackle this problem, particularly with the increases in capital assistance and the rent subsidy schemes announced in November. This will enable the voluntary housing movement to expand its range of sheltered housing for homeless people. The Government is committed to continuing its programme of local authority house building and improving social housing schemes by its allocation of £45 million to these areas in the recent budget. These measures will not eradicate homelessness but someone must put down a marker to try to tackle the problem.

Research indicates there are 11 homeless people in County Cavan and none in County Monaghan. I do not believe these figures. There may not be the visible signs of people lying in doorways, but there is no doubt that will happen in the future. There are people who may have a roof over their heads but who have no security. House prices are of great concern. When there is a boom it is always followed by a bust. I am concerned this will happen. This happened in England. Young couples got a mortgage and within a year and a half there was an onslaught of repossessions. There is no doubt that will happen here in the next couple of years. These people will become homeless yet they do not come into the equation at all.

My other concern is the increasing number of homeless children who find home life so intolerable that life on the street appears to be a better option. There is nothing as sad as seeing a child sitting in a doorway in Grafton Street at 11 o'clock at night. Childhood is supposed to be the happiest time of your life. Children who find themselves in this situation are in a vicious circle and it is impossible for them to escape. Children who go on the streets at ten years old are open to crime, drugs, alcoholism and child prostitution, particularly boys. The problem is how to deal with this and if the Minister had the answer we would also. There must be greater co-ordination between local authorities, health boards, teachers, schools and social workers to identify dysfunctional families and deal with the problems before children become homeless.

The Minister said the ESRI considered quantifying the flow of homeless to be too expensive and elaborate. Speaking from a rural perspective, the expense can be reduced by using the local authorities, which have the information about who is homeless. Emphasis should be placed on them and on greater co-ordination between the other bodies which are essential to assessing the number of homeless. I support the call by the Simon Community for the establishment of a commission on homelessness. If we are serious about tackling this problem we must consult knowledgeable people who can help.

This is an ever increasing problem and my greatest worry is that many young couples with mortgages are getting in over their heads and their homes will be repossessed. This happened to a friend of mine almost three years ago. One starts out happy in life with a new home but sadly, may end up almost on the roadside. I am afraid of what may occur in the coming years. I have no doubt we will be discussing this problem in a year's time.

The Minister's speech focused on his Department but the plight of the homeless is an interdepartmental matter. For that reason I will address two groups who suffer severely from homelessness, prisoners and psychiatric patients. Senator Leonard said she had not yet seen people sleeping in doorways wrapped in blankets but walking home along Baggot Street I see them all too frequently.

I was talking about Monaghan.

The plight of the homeless who go to prison is quite dreadful. They are immediately discriminated against because many judges faced with a homeless defendant deny them bail, so they are immediately committed to prison. Considering it costs £43,000 per year to keep someone in prison and how much it would cost to keep these people outside prison while awaiting trial, this is unfortunate not only from a civil liberties viewpoint but also from the taxpayers' viewpoint.

A recent survey by Dr. Paul O'Mahony of 105 prisoners in Mountjoy found that 8 per cent were homeless and 2 per cent were sleeping rough. This is a much higher percentage than one would find in the general population, mercifully, but it shows how easy it is for homeless people to end up in prison. The vast majority of those in prison who were categorised as homeless were there for minor offences and there was a strong possibility that they were going in and out of prison for such offences. One must also take into account that these offences may have been associated with homelessness.

I pay tribute, as others have done, to the great work done by numerous voluntary organisations, such as the Salvation Army, Simon, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Los Angeles, and individuals such as Sr. Caoimhín Ní Úallacháin O.P. of the Matt Talbot Community Trust, who deals mainly with people discharged from prison, many of whom are homeless. She told me that people often sleep in her house because other accommodation cannot be found. Hostels do exist but there are not enough of them and many of these people require so much support that we must consider providing sheltered private accommodation.

The probation services have great problems keeping up with these people. They may be let out of jail to allow the probation officer prepare a report but when they come back before the courts, the officer may not have been able to make a report because he or she was unable to keep in contact with the person involved. It might be a good idea if two probation officers were assigned to look after the homeless who come before the courts because at the moment assignments are made on a sectoral basis and it is extremely hard to follow people who are on a nomadic pilgrimage around Dublin if a person is transferred continually between area probation officers. We must examine this area carefully. These people need great support and they cannot get out of their predicament — they go to prison because they have no accommodation and when they get out of prison there is no accommodation for them. This is not a huge area and we should focus on it.

I also pay tribute to Eastern Health Board staff who make great efforts to get accommodation for these people. However, many organisations are reluctant to give accommodation to people who are in trouble with the law and may have been involved with drugs also, as Senator Leonard and others mentioned.

Many psychiatric patients who have been discharged from long-term institutional care have become homeless. New thinking and developments in the treatment of psychiatric illness have led to far more people being discharged from mental institutions than would have been in the past. I can do no better than quote from the Report of the Inspector of Mental Hospitals for the year ending 31st December, 1995, the most recent report available. These reports are excellent but are rarely, if ever, quoted in the Houses of the Oireachtas, so I will do the inspector, Mr. Dermot Walsh, the compliment of reading his words. On community services, he writes:

The decline in numbers of new long-stay patients does not necessarily reflect a decline in the incidence and prevalence of psychiatric illness as a whole. However, it is clear that hospitalised prevalence of serious psychiatric illness has declined greatly in recent years. Patients are increasingly being cared for in settings other than in-patient care. The growth of alternatives to hospitalisation has been referred to in previous reports. These include an increase in the number of community-based residences and day facilities. Nevertheless there is always the apprehension that the rate of provision may not keep pace with the decline in in-patient facilities, particularly with the phasing out of the former large mental hospitals and their replacement with short stay acute psychiatric units of small size. By virtue of the perceived increased level of violence in our society, the rise in the number of homeless, the increasing problem of marriage breakdown and the undoubted increase in suicide rates in recent years, it becomes extremely important that alternatives to in-patient care are quantitatively and qualitative adequate so that patients do not become homeless, do not suffer social or economic deprivation and are adequately housed and fed. The Inspectorate visits every health board community based facility at least once every two years and reports on the condition of such premises and the quality of care delivered therein.

The book contains reports on the various health board areas.

This is the most vulnerable group of people and I ask the Minister to urge his Government colleagues to ensure that adequate facilities are available for patients who are discharged from psychiatric hospitals and who may all too easily, as the report shows, due to lack of quantitative and qualitative facilities become homeless.

I welcome this debate on the plight of the homeless. I, too compliment the Minister of State on the measures he has taken to combat this serious problem. The perception of homelessness in larger areas vis-á-vis cardboard cities might not apply in all towns. However, problems exist and, as the Minister of State pointed out, they are many and varied.

I spoke to the Minister of State on a personal basis about this matter and I have raised it at meetings of Westmeath County Council. Homeless people include those who do not fall into the OPD category. Usually they are confirmed bachelors or spinsters but local authorities, in the main, do not cater for them. Something should be done about this aspect. Perhaps the Minister of State could liaise with local authorities and consider making an allocation. I acknowledge that he has been very generous.

This problem involves single men and women who live with their brothers or sisters. The brother or sister gets married and the cuckoo solution comes into play. The new in-law soon decides there is no room for the single brother or sister and he or she must move out of the house. He or she is then placed on the housing list of the local authority. This is a problem. It is also reflected in rural areas where farms are willed to a brother or sister. If he or she gets married, the single brother or sister often finds himself or herself without a home.

A small number of people choose to be homeless. They do not want to be housed and there is a famous example of this in Mullingar. In the past, under the Mental Treatment Act, the community welfare officer or the local sergeant would pick up an individuals hanging about and commit them for treatment. That day is long gone but it was one of the cures for homelessness. Thank goodness that no longer happens.

I support the comments of Senator Henry who referred to the report of the inspector of mental hospitals. I have worked in the psychiatric service for many years and people who have spent a long time in psychiatric institutions are taken through rehabilitation and resocialisation processes and deemed suitable for housing in community residences. However, it must be borne in mind that this is a short term measure. It is part of the process of ultimately placing individuals back in the community. The homeless also include individuals who travel round the country. They are often chronic schizophrenics and some fall into the psychopathic category. They are admitted regularly to psychiatric hospitals. It is difficult to deal with this category of homeless people.

The Minister of State referred to the role of local authorities and health boards in combating homelessness. I offer my praise to community welfare officers, who help through providing supplementary welfare allowance and housing and rent supplements, and housing officers. They do their best with limited resources to combat this problem. We are not making enough use of the voluntary housing groups. I was involved in a couple of groups in the early part of my membership of Westmeath County Council. They played a major role in ensuring that people who were homeless got houses. Some of them were on very low incomes but they were told that if they achieved a certain level of savings each week and could prove a capacity to repay a financial institution, they would be deemed eligible for a loan to buy a house. This proved most useful.

I am from a rural part of Ireland and there is a small number of homeless people in rural areas. We should bear in mind the flight from the land and that everybody cannot live in town, cities and villages. Many people want to live in rural areas rather than towns and this should be taken on board by local authorities. There is a reticence on the part of managers to construct single dwellings in rural areas. They articulate many reasons such dwellings should not be built. They say that if there are two or three houses together, the people will soon seek lights, footpaths and other services. However, people must live in rural areas as well as towns.

Senator Leonard referred to the serious problem of marital breakdown which lengthens housing lists. Regrettably, marriage breakdown occurs all too often. This means that one of the spouses will be back on the housing list seeking accommodation. This difficulty always existed but it has increased dramatically in recent years.

Most of my points have already been made by other speakers. However, much must be done to tackle the problem of homelessness. Much can be done with the resources provided and I welcome the increased allocation. The voluntary organisations have a pivotal role in combating homelessness and I compliment them, especially the Society of St. Vincent de Paul for its great work in this area.

I will begin where Senator Glynn finished by complimenting the statutory and voluntary organisations which have attempted to address the growing problem of homelessness. Many of the Simon Community's operations are in my constituency at Seán McDermott Street, Usher's Island and previously at the fire station on Buckingham Street. I also compliment Focus Point and Sr. Stanislaus who have a large operation in George's Hill; the Salvation Army which has 107 units for homeless men in Granby Row; Threshold which has its offices in my constituency and all the emergency shelters run by the homeless section of the Eastern Health Board. There is a great concentration of services in my constituency and I am well acquainted with the extent of the problem.

Homelessness is a worsening problem and child homelessness is the most serious element of all. The indications are that child homelessness is increasing rapidly. The Simon Community has given us figures which indicate that between 1995 and 1996 there was an increase of 100 per cent in the numbers of people in their teens presenting at Garda stations seeking a bed for the night. In June 1997, a time of year when the mild weather increases the incidence of people sleeping rough, 30 per cent of the children who presented themselves for emergency accommodation were unable to find it because the health board was unable to cope. Those children had to spend the night in Garda stations or hospitals. That is a scandal.

A survey conducted by the Merchant's Quay Project in Dublin in May last year of 252 drug addicts showed that 35 per cent of them were homeless. Undoubtedly the sudden arrival of approximately 4,000 refugees and asylum seekers in the 1990s has put enormous strain on the emergency services and available shelter. There is a shortage of space and that shortage has reached crisis proportions. Senator Henry referred to the policy of moving long-stay psychiatric patients into the community without adequate support services which has created a new category of homeless.

These factors combine with the difficulty faced by local authorities in the economic boom of finding suitable sites for building and the escalating cost of private rented accommodation. So many of the marginalised and vulnerable in the community find it impossible to get reasonable accommodation and end up on the streets. The benefits of the booming economy are not being distributed equally and it would seem that with regard to shelter the nation's children are the least cherished.

At present it is estimated that there are 75,000 to 100,000 people waiting for proper housing from the local authority or the health board or social housing. Dublin Corporation estimates that it will have about 20,000 people awaiting adequate housing in 1998; its estimate for the number of homeless is 800. The last assessment of the number of homeless carried out by Dublin Corporation was in March 1996. At that time there were 600 counted but that was a snapshot, so to speak, on a given day which did not take into account the longer term picture and the numbers vary from time to time. Between 1996 and 1998 it is estimated that there has been an increase of 25 per cent in the numbers seeking housing with Dublin Corporation and a one-third increase in those seeking shelter, in other words, the homeless.

The Government must recognise that there is a housing and homelessness crisis at present. It took us a long time to address the drugs crisis and two years ago the previous Government set up a task force which produced the present blueprint to tackle the drug problem which is being successfully implemented. A task force on homelessness must be established and we need a strategy to deal with social and local authority housing and emergency accommodation. The Simon Community has proposed the setting up of a Government commission or task force on homelessness. The purpose of such a task force would be to determine the extent of the problem nationally.

We do not know the extent of the problem because we do not have a proper definition of what constitutes homelessness. We have not determined the various categories of people who are homeless per se. The Minister of State acknowledged this problem. He said:

[The] assessment of a homeless person is no longer valid. There is no simple description of a person living outside the home. Young adults with difficulties at home, women and children escaping from domestic violence, single or separated men or families in acute financial difficulties can all become homeless.

One could add to this list asylum seekers because they seek emergency accommodation. We must have a clear assessment of the problem and the numbers involved.

That done, we must identify the factors giving rise to the various categories of homelessness. This is where a multi-agency approach may be adopted, involving the various statutory and other agencies other than the local authorities. The local authorities will always be primary in dealing with adult homelessness and the health boards will be primary in dealing with children. However, once the factors behind homelessness have been identified the services required to combat the problem can be put in place. It will require a multifaceted approach.

A phased plan must be adopted based on a determined time schedule. On the one hand, we have a booming economy from which some people derive an inordinately high level of prosperity while, on the other, another part of the population is being lost to the system. The nation must decide whether it will eliminate homelessness. Any task force in this regard must have as its objective the phased elimination of homelessness. That is the only way to tackle the problem.

We could talk forever about various problems which exist, how sad the situation is, what wonderful charity work is being done by the various organisations and so on. An ideal response would be a Government task force similar to that set up to combat drug abuse with the implementation of its findings subject to a Cabinet committee. A Cabinet committee is making the decisions on the amount of money to be spent on combating the drugs problem. As a result of the clout given to the implementation strategy and the personnel we saw that it was possible to increase last year's budget of £1.25 million for the youth services development fund to £30 million. The communities ravaged by the drugs problem made it clear that £1.25 million was peanuts and was making no inroads on the problem.

We have a serious problem. I recognise the importance which the Minister has attached to it and the extra money he is making available. However, there must be a single objective focus through a phased plan. This could be achieved by establishing a commission or task force, followed by an implementation strategy to ensure that results are produced.

I wish to share my time with Senator Ormonde.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire toisc an ráiteas a chur sé os ár gcomhair inniu. Bhí sé soiléir go raibh damhoin tuiscint aige ar an gcruachás a bhaineann le daoine atá gan dídean. Tá sé soiléir freisin go bhfuil ar a chumas agus go bhfuil sé i gceist aige cabhrú leis na daoine seo tré polasaí dearfa an Rialtais a mhúnlú agus a dhíreadh ina dtreo.

I thank the Minister for his informative statement. It was underpinned by a deep sense of humanity which one would expect from him. It was reassuring to hear the Minister's comments on his first hand experience of seeing the difficulties which the homeless face. Senators of a particular age can recollect reciting a poem about the old woman of the roads. We can also remember the hunger of spirit she experienced at not having a home and what it would mean for her to have one. It would mean an end to isolation and deprivation. She would no longer be a non-person subjected to the rigours of climate.

Homelessness is a part of our folk memory. We all have vivid images of the eviction times and how people, through no fault of their own, found themselves going from security to virtual helplessness. We are also inspired by the many stories of people who, through tenacity and determination, succeeded in overcoming those terrible difficulties and re-establishing security for themselves. We are inspired by historical figures who helped others at a time when they had so little resources of their own.

Serving on a local authority in Tipperary 20 years ago, I recall that the perception of a priority list for housing was that one was assured of salvation once one was on such a list. We also knew that one would serve a very long purgatory before one go a house. One could wait for three or four terms before a house would come one's way.

There has been a vast improvement in the meantime. Three days ago I had a meeting with a delegation of diplomats from an affluent country which I will not name. Their first impression of Ireland was that they could not understand how so many people had their own houses, whether from a local authority or in private ownership. That is not the case in their country even though it is wealthy.

We are a society of contradictions. We have achieved great affluence but we have also developed a pseudo-sophistication. To some extent we wish to keep problems at a distance. It is not that we will not provide money or support agencies willing to help others. However, we do not get to know people or what causes their problems. We do not help them to make the transition from homelessness to security. This may be a result of embarrassment.

The Minister stated that, for one reason of another, a minority of homeless people do not wish to be housed. Last night I came across two homeless people wrapped in a blanket begging for money. There was a terrible sense of frustration at how little one could do. One could give them some money but not help them to become part of the community. One sensed that but for voluntary organisations who are prepared to experience the harrowing incidents and despondency of the homeless on a day to day basis, we would have an exceptionally serious situation. I compliment those bodies. In particular I compliment the Simon Community which supplied a considerable amount of literature to Members in preparation for this debate. However, no matter whatever affluence we achieve, so long as there is one homeless person in our midst, for whatever reason, we are not achieving our full potential as a developed society.

As I travel through rural Ireland I always find it difficult to understand the number of unoccupied houses. These houses are of all sizes, some in exceptionally good condition, but they are allowed to become dilapidated. There is no doubt that they would be suitable to house the homeless. I am not suggesting that we take them from their owners but there should be some method of acquiring them to house the homeless. A similar situation may apply in the city but not to the same extent.

I am glad that we have had this debate. We are dealing with the most vulnerable and marginalised section of society who require a prop, assistance, confidence and resources. We have to contend with the perception that the homeless are also lawless. This is not correct. One could say the same about any section of society. We must correct that image.

On my way home last night I spotted homeless old gentlemen around Nassau Street. What is homelessness in that light? There are teenage homeless. Are they being driven out of home? If so, why? Is it because of the breakdown of traditional family life, violence in the home, major disputes or inadequate housing? Education is an important factor in addressing this aspect. The Department of Education and Science, the Department of Health and Children and the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs have big roles to play. A co-ordinated effort is required.

Teenage homelessness is associated with drugs, crime and being outside the mainstream of society and the normal routines enjoyed by boys and girls. We should attempt to move the teenage homeless into sheltered hostel accommodation where they would get one to one caring and local schooling. I speak from experience here because of the nature of my other work. I have dealt with the matter at the coalface and have considered how best we can attract young people back into society. They may have psychological problems in which case they will always be homeless until these problems are tackled from another angle.

The other category of homeless are those who cannot live under a roof. No matter what we do we will never include them because of an inadequacy in their makeup; many of them suffer from claustrophobia. These people must be cared for and we need to reach out to them at a different level. If they want open space we must ensure that it is comfortable because they may never settle under a roof, otherwise they may become involved in dangerous activities.

A co-ordinated effort between local authorities, voluntary agencies, the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Health and Children is required. Many good people want to help but we work in our domains without being aware of how others view matters.

I wish to share my time with Senator O'Dowd.

Acting Chairman

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome this debate. The Minister of State has vast experience with housing and social issues. If one was to walk down a county lane or look over a wall one would never find a body under plastic bags or living in cardboard boxes. However, they are always found in the city. Why do they orientate towards the city? They are found in substantial numbers in larger cities, a trend that has developed at an extraordinary rate with the growth of the economy.

Growth in the economy appears to be parallelled by the growth of the numbers who are homeless. Why? It should be the other way around. I agree with Senator Ormonde in this respect. I do not see the problem being solved in a single generation. The roots of the difficulty reach back into the family and it is very difficult to change families and get them to be more at ease and supportive. People from broken homes are likely to continue the cycle when they set up their own homes. Similarly, those from violent backgrounds are likely to solve their future problems through the use of violence. It becomes a recurring pattern. The solution is more complex than simply providing accommodation. Other facilities must also be provided, including education and support.

In discussing this issue with others I was told that many of those who become homeless are sheltered or housed and they must depend on themselves. However, they do not have the necessary basic skills to do this. For example, they are unable to undertake culinary or household duties, are unable to feed themselves properly and have no sense of nutritional values. They need the kind of support which is provided on a one to one basis.

The first thing we must do is assess the numbers involved. There is a huge disagreement about this. According to the ESRI report "An Analysis of Social Housing Need", two different figures are given for the homeless. A figure of 2,667 was enumerated in 1993 while another figure of up to 5,000 was reported by Daly in 1994. Something is wrong with these.

One approach to assessment is to appoint a time examination assessment. Those involved in the issue, such as the Simon Community, maintain it is inadequate and that a flow chart measurement of the number of homeless is required, which can only be undertaken over time. If the problem is to be resolved there is a need to assess exactly how large it is. The Minister of State indicated that the programme for Government includes an undertaking to carry out such an assessment. This must done on a scientific basis and over a long period to enable us assess the actual numbers as distinct from the speculative figures which some organisations proffer. For example, those involved on a voluntary basis tend to overstate the numbers to ensure that all are included. By contrast, those involved in providing local authority housing will reduce the numbers and advise that they are minimal.

I once discussed the provision of a shelter in a town with an elected member of a political group who said that we should never provide shelters because they only encourage people to be homeless. It was an extraordinary statement, but it is true. We are inclined to reject remarks like that.

The Dublin homeless initiative has been effective. Dublin Corporation and the Eastern Health Board got together with voluntary groups under the auspices of the former Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Deputy McManus, in 1996. They had a multifaceted solution to the problem which included an area response. They say it has been extremely effective. Will the Minister of State consider using a similar initiative in other areas, such as Cork, Galway and Limerick? If it has been so effective it may be one form of help. I also ask him to be conscious of the need for assessment.

I thank the Minister of State for attending the House and providing us with the opportunity to debate an issue that is so central and important. Will he consider the establishment of a commission on homelessness?

I compliment the Minister of State on his thoughtful and detailed assessment. We have come a long way since the time of the workhouses, especially the 1830s when there was great poverty and hundreds of thousands of people were homeless.

If one asked for a definition of homelessness, there would be as many definitions given as there are Senators in the House. We have a caring community and society. The Department of the Environment and Local Government, which is responsible for housing and urban renewal, is obviously doing its best to tackle the problem. I compliment the voluntary organisations such as the Simon Community, St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Salvation Army for their involvement in this area. The health boards are also very important.

The North-Eastern Health Board caters for young mothers up to 18 years of age and provides sheltered accommodation for them. However, some young mothers between the ages of 18 and 20 years, with whom I come in contact, also need temporary and semi-permanent accommodation. The North-Eastern Health Board is not in a position to provide this statutorily. Many single parents are at risk in our community and are living in accommodation which is not suitable to their needs or those of their children. People end up living in very poor accommodation which, in may cases, may be subsidised by the health boards. These are often disgraceful, rat infested hovels which would not even have been acceptable in the last century. I have brought this issue to the attention of the local authority and the health board in my area. There should be a basic minimum requirement for accommodation before the State will pay a subsidy in respect of it. It should be necessary for accommodation to have hot and cold water, proper ventilation, a decent toilet and basic cooking facilities. The health boards are subsidising landlords to the tune of millions of pounds for providing no more than a roof over people's heads. This is an area which should be addressed urgently.

I welcome the Minister's comments on the excellent organisation which deals with homelessness in the Dublin region. In the North-Eastern Health Board area no such service exists for people who find themselves homeless at weekends. There is no 1800 number for them to contact. There is nowhere they can go and they must resort to knocking on the doors of local clergy or councillors. Perhaps the Minister would consult with the health boards on the provision of a 1800 number in all health board areas which homeless people could contact in the evenings and at weekends as they cannot gain access to statutory help at those times.

People might be homeless as a result of having been put out of their home. There may be room in the house but because of interpersonal problems, a young mother and child, for example, might find themselves on the street. In order to get bed and breakfast accommodation, they must go through a procedure whereby they must consult with the housing officer of the local authority who, in turn, consults with the relevant community welfare office in the health board to decide whether a person is deemed to be homeless under the conditions which they must apply. I am not suggesting that anyone who has a row with their parents should have access to bed and breakfast accommodation but, where young children whose parents have been put out of the family home are involved, there should be simple, clear and concise rules for getting them into bed and breakfast accommodation.

Difficulties arise in that bed and breakfast accommodation is not always available to homeless people. I know of cases in County Louth where homeless people, who had letters from the health board saying it would pay for their accommodation, were refused by the owners of the accommodation who felt homeless people would demean their reputation.

The Minister has agreed to forego his right to reply as Senator Hayes and Senator Norris still wish to contribute. There are fifteen minutes remaining.

I understood we had agreed to continue this debate after the debate on the death penalty.

Acting Chairman

I will seek clarification on that matter for the Senator.

I will forego my contribution rather than put the Minister to the trouble of coming back to the House after the debate on the death penalty.

Acting Chairman

The Minister would be quite happy to hear the Senator's contribution. He simply wanted to make it clear he was not being discourteous to the House by not replying as he would rather facilitate the Senators to speak.

I thank the Minister for his patience in sitting through a long debate on this issue in which he will have detected a great deal of unanimity on the part of Senators. I do not intend to break that unanimity. I welcome the Minister's address and appreciate his grasp of the complexity and range of issues involved. I join with him in paying tribute to the voluntary bodies in this area. From my own experience in another jurisdiction, I am amazed that the same names turn up here namely, the Simon Community, Salvation Army and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

The Minister's speech underlined the complexity of this issue and the fact that homelessness is a product of complex changes in society. It is difficult to understand the issue of homelessness if one takes a narrow focus and I believe it is impossible to solve or ameliorate the problem if we content ourselves with such a focus. The very economic growth and conditions which have made life better for 80 per cent of the population have made it worse for the other 20 per cent, the homeless. The conditions which make it possible for us to dream of a society in which people will own their own houses can only be realised by 80 per cent of people. Those are the issues with which we must grapple and with which the Minister must be concerned.

As other Senators pointed out, we must first seek to get a grip on the size of the problem and carry out an assessment of the extent of homelessness. Figures were quoted in the range of 2,500 to 5,000 in 1993 which display a significant difference of opinion. My own subjective impression is that those figures were an underestimate at that stage and are highly likely to be a gross underestimate now. I am glad to hear that the Minister is proposing to commission a survey to establish figures in this area. Such a survey should also probe into the extent of hidden homelessness. It must seek to identify the number of people who would not be homeless if they were not in jails, psychiatric hospitals or other institutions or, conversely, the number of people who would not be in those institutions if they had a place to go.

In an era of increased standards of living and affluence, it is morally indefensible that we should allow a substantial segment of the population to sink into a pit from which it becomes increasingly difficult to rescue them. It is also politically unwise and economically inefficient. It would be much cheaper to keep people in their own homes than in any other type of institution. The situation is clearly worsening. My own travels around Dublin at night are limited but I have noticed the numbers of people, particularly young people, who are sleeping rough. A co-ordinated approach must be adopted to deal with the problem. It is not simply a housing problem, although that is an important part of it. That is why I add my voice to those of other Senators who have commended the idea of a commission, on which I hope the Minister will look kindly.

The main argument for a commission is that the problem crosses departmental and functional boundaries. It has large health and education components and there are also issues in the juvenile justice field. There is a need to look at the impact of some fiscal or social policies which may be very beneficial in their own fields but often have untoward knock-on consequences for the poor, deprived and homeless. There must a capacity to look at the interaction of those policies and to lift them above one departmental responsibility. I hope a wide-ranging commission will be set up which could report authoritatively and quickly on the matter.

In the meantime, the co-ordination which has been effected in the Dublin housing initiative is to be commended. As other Senators have suggested, that could be replicated in other cities. We must examine ways to stop the flow of people into Dublin. We must ask how the large number of homeless young Irish people on the streets of London and other British cities came to be there. The division which makes children under 18 years the responsibility of a health regime rather than a housing or social regime is artificial in a society in which children have babies at 13 years of age. We must provide variety in the range of housing. There must be a range of choice which will buttress the work of the voluntary bodies, in particular. In each area outside Dublin which does not warrant a project the size of the Dublin housing initiative, a local official should be given responsibility for co-ordinating policies on homelessness in the area.

The Minister would be wise to rely on the advice of people working in this field, particularly those in the voluntary organisations. They sometimes have a different perspective as they are not as caught up in professional and other orthodoxies as local authorities and health board officers. There is a wealth of experience, compassion and knowledge in bodies such as the Salvation Army, the Simon Community and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul on which I hope the Minister will draw.

This is the first time I have seen you, Sir, in the Chair of this august body and I cannot think of a more appropriate debate for you to preside over. I know of your continuing interest in the question of homelessness and your work with the Simon Community. I am relying in what I am about to say on very valuable briefing documents produced by the Simon Community and also by GLEN, the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, and NEXUS because that area of homelessness has been largely concealed, although some references were made to it.

I agree with several previous speakers who said there is a clear need for a full commission of inquiry into homelessness. We do not have the full facts, although we appear to be provided with them by various voluntary organisations and local authorities. However, when one probes local authority figures one finds they are not accurate. For example, the Simon Community report stated that in Tullamore, County Offaly, the local authority reported zero homelessness but a survey carried out by a local group in December 1996 and January 1997 found between 25 and 40 people sleeping rough in the town. How is it possible that a local authority can report zero homelessness when there are simultaneously between 25 and 40 people sleeping rough in the area?

It is perfectly clear the method of assessment of the level of homelessness is inadequate. We must accept we do not have the facts. We have a purchase on them, in a sense, by our observations and contact with voluntary organisations but we do not know the actual situation. Even our best efforts have not resulted in a realistic figure. There is also a limited definition of homelessness, so we are not quite sure we are looking at the real notion of homelessness. We must have proper assessments carried out in a fully scientific manner, perhaps with the assistance of groups such as the Combat Poverty Agency or university departments.

There are a number of factors involved in homelessness. The "Pat Kenny Show" came from Limerick this morning where he spoke to young people from Moyross and other areas. People were talking about being able to predict which four year olds in primary school would drop out of the system. In many circumstances they drop out because there is no direct intervention.

The show compared the different school drop out rates for different districts in Limerick. There are massive drop out rates from secondary schools in some areas for a number of reasons, one of which is the lack of facilities in the evenings. Far fewer dropped out in Moyross, which has a boxing club, a social club, a library and so on, than in some other areas.

There is also the question of the engagement of teachers. One of the teachers involved, who sounded like a very fine man, made an excellent point. He said it was no good to have teachers with a disinterested academic view of life who leave the community at 5 p.m. and take no further interest. It struck me he was talking about a wonderful idea which was fashionable in the Roman Catholic church in the 1960s, which was worker priests who can still be seen in the Jesuit community in Ballymun. They are committed to living the full experience and know what happens when the lights go out in the school at 4.30 p.m. They know that children will become hopeless, hang around street corners and get involved with drugs if their imaginations are not engaged. For example, can we not use the public pool of land for people in Ballymun with horses?

There is also the question of moving of people from psychiatric hospitals into the main community. We got a warning signal when this policy began in the US. Those of us who travel to the US frequently know there is large number of homeless, visibly disturbed people on the streets because of the lack of a proper transitional phase, monitoring and half way houses. We must look at that.

Professor Anthony Clare wrote in the Sunday Independent on 1 February 1998 that:

The current situation is a shambles. We have children who are not sick staying in hospital wards because the State cannot provide anything else. We have children homeless at night and referred to the Eastern Health Board ending up in bed and breakfast facilities or Garda stations overnight because we have no appropriate child residential facilities. We have children who have committed no offence held in St. Patrick's Detention Centre because there is nowhere else for them to go.

He went on to state:

My own hospital — St. Patrick's, a psychiatric hospital for adults — has been asked on occasions to help provide accommodation for psychiatrically sick children and young adolescents because virtually no residential provision has been made for the number of disturbed children requiring help.

We are not talking just about adults in regard to homelessness as even children, for whom there should be special care, are homeless.

Some of my colleagues referred to male prostitution. I direct the Minister's attention to an excellent book, which I hope will be discussed in full by the House, called Poverty, Lesbians and Gay Men: the Economic and Social Effects of Discrimination. This book should be discussed in a much broader context than just the question of homelessness.

Acting Chairman

As it is now 2 p.m. I call on the Leader of the House.

As there is such an interest in this debate and we are nearly at its conclusion, I propose we sit until 2.20 p.m. and extend the other debate until 4.20 p.m.

Acting Chairman

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I am grateful to the Leader for making this arrangement. I will summarise the arguments in this book. Gay people are often subject to pressures at home when they come out. They may be flung out of home which means they are on the street. There is a higher rate of homelessness among young gay people, men in particular, and this leads to prostitution. It is something which must be examined.

There is a lack of emergency "move on" accommodation, especially in Dublin, which causes a crisis in emergency centres and hostels because people are forced to stay in these facilities on a long-term basis. As a result, people in an emergency on a specific evening find the hostels provided by groups such as Simon are already full. There is Outreach which is frequently the primary source of contact for people living on the streets or in insecure accommodation. We see people around Kingsbridge Station being visited by soup runs.

I know the Government is doing something in this area. I noted already that there is a £45 million increase for local authority social housing in the last budget. However, when some 30,000 people are homeless and only 3,000 houses are being completed each year, a serious gap exists. As I had my lunch I read the property supplement of The Irish Times in which there was an article on starter homes. People were trying to find a house under £100,000. That suggests we are creating a two tier society in Ireland: the men of property and the men of no property. The latter will never get a foot on the ladder because the gap is so enormous. In 1968 I sold our old family home, a five bedroomed detached house in a good part of Ballsbridge, for less than £8,000. I bought a four bedroomed semi-detached house in Dundrum for just under £4,000. That would be a couple of months' rent in an apartment in Dublin now. The situation is impossible for people trying to get into this market.

I mentioned "men" and I realise that might have sounded almost like a sexist comment. However, another document has been produced by the Simon Community, Still Waiting for the Future, which on page 17 deals with “Demographic Characteristics, Life Experiences, Indicators of Health Needs and Usage of Health Services”. It showed the majority were male, middle aged, from lower socio-economic backgrounds and had few education training qualifications. The majority were either single — 59 per cent, or living as single people — 32 per cent. Family or marital breakdown was a frequent feature in many of their lives. About 10 per cent were reared in health care institutions. It seems to me that this is overwhelmingly a problem for a group which is already marginalised, single, male and with low education experience, disruptive family background and various other experiences. If one refers again to the report by GLEN and NEXUS, one finds within it an especially troubled group of people who, because of historic discrimination, have been fired out on the streets, often as young people.

I remember many years ago when I ran a gay community centre in the middle of Dublin seeing 11 and 12 year old kids sitting on top of the Thomas Moore statue. There was nothing I could do for them and it broke my heart because I would love to have been able to do something for them. What would have been said had I brought them into the Hirschfeld Centre? What would be said today with all the scandal stories of swimming coaches, priests, etc. ? It is an extremely delicate area for anyone to enter. Anyone intervening needs to do so in the best possible and most professional way. These are people with glaring needs, but there are grave risks for the adult world trying to intervene unless it is done properly and professionally. However, we should not be deterred from trying to intervene. It is intolerable that we should wring our hands over the problems of people interfered with by swimming coaches while we know well there is a significant problem on the streets.

I thank the Leader for extending what has been a useful debate. I have a certain knowledge of the problem, as do those who have served on local authorities, although that knowledge varies depending on what part of the country one comes from and the extent of the problem there. I appreciate the contribution of the various groups involved in helping the problem of homelessness, especially the Salvation Army, Simon, Focus Point, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and others, and especially the officials and volunteers who work in these organisations.

There is no doubt we are not fully aware of the extent of the problem of homelessness. We do not have sufficient up to date figures or records on it. I support the call made by the Simon Community to establish a commission on homelessness. Task forces have at times been set up as a quick response, but as regards homelessness, this commission would be more meritorious than many task forces established before. Its basic terms of reference would include the extent of homelessness, an examination of how it is linked to other poverty indicators such as unemployment, lack of education, bad housing, inadequate health care and community segregation. The links between child care provision and follow-up support and the response of both voluntary and statutory organisations should also be investigated with a view to reducing, if not eliminating, homelessness by a set date.

It is obvious much work needs to be done. It is a problem about which successive Governments have not done enough and we all stand guilty on that score. There are many reasons people become homeless: financial problems, problems in the home or problems which evolve in a community. All these matters must be examined with a view to arriving at solutions.

Because of the property market, home ownership is not now an option for many people. Senator Norris asked where one could buy a property in Dublin. If a property is on sale for less than £100,000 in Dublin one asks what problems are associated with it. Such house prices were the original target of the property tax, which will have to be examined. Local authorities have faced problems with this issue, and there is greater pressure on those authorities because people are staying too long in emergency housing.

I welcome this debate. Much remains to be done, and the Government must produce a greater response to the matter. Communication between the organisations must improve, and the Minister of State must note what has been said. Many Members are barely aware of some of the problems of the homeless.

People can become homeless because of family difficulties. Senator Doyle said that long ago one could perhaps go to one's grandmother's house. That is not an option in the modern era. There can also be problems when family members look for their entitlements under wills or settlements. Family members who are less well off or less well educated may find themselves the side of the road.

The Minister of State should take on board the points made in the debate. I thank the Simon Community for sending me and other Members data on this matter.

I thank the Minister of State for attending this debate which and was requested by many Members. Many good ideas have come from the suggestions of Members who draw on their experiences in the cities and larger towns.

Homelessness seems a far greater problem in the urban community than in rural areas. The debate has shown how well those in rural communities care for their neighbours. That example should be followed by those in urban areas who must take part in and contribute to their communities. It is a sad reflection on urban areas that their doors are closed to community participation. One need only listen to the contributions made by Members who work with the less fortunate, day in day out.

Senator Norris put his finger on the problem when pointing out that long ago teachers taught until 4 p.m. or 4.30 p.m., and were then involved in sports clubs, the ICA and other community organisations. Now they drive 20 or 30 miles home after school, which happens in rural areas also. Those who sit on interview boards to appoint people to positions in which they will participate in the community must bear this in mind. Those who give a commitment to participate in the community after the classroom door is closed should be given preferential treatment. I favour this approach having seen the changes of the last 25 years.

This is not a proposition for Government alone or for any particular Minister. It is a challenge to the community and to all in public life. We must try to encourage those who do not participate. I call on the media, particularly people such as Gay Byrne and Pat Kenny, to encourage people to get involved in their communities. Their mothers and fathers were probably involved, but nowadays television takes up all people's leisure time. People do not know their neighbours, and, even worse, they do not seem to want to know them. I call on all those in the media, the Oireachtas and the churches to get people involved in their communities.