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 This assessment of a homeless person is no longer valid.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.