"That Seanad Éireann:
notes the call of the MakeRoom campaign that homelessness in Ireland should be ended by 2010;
recognises that this campaign is supported by Focus Ireland, the Simon Communities of Ireland, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Threshold;
acknowledges the commitment of these organisations to the care of homeless people in Ireland;
supports the call of the MakeRoom campaign for action in the following areas;
service provision based on the multiple needs of homeless people;
the provision of more and better housing;
the provision of support for those who wish to leave homelessness;
a guarantee of the availability of affordable rented accommodation;
the enforcement of proper standards in private rented accommodation;
a strategy to tackle poverty and thereby prevent homelessness; and
calls on the Government to respond quickly to each of these six demands so that the Government's own target of ending homelessness by 2010 can be achieved".
I wish to commence by stating that by a process of omission on someone's part, the name of Senator Henry is missing from the motion. That may well be my fault because I may have omitted to contact the Senator. However, I took for granted that she would support a motion of this nature. The absence of her name is not in any way to be taken as a matter of significance and resulted from an omission on my part.
There is a history to my moving this motion. In May 1984, I moved Second Stage of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Bill. It caused enormous trouble for the Government at the time because those in the Labour Party, who subsequently became my colleagues but who were then in Government, refused to support the Government which wanted to vote down the Bill. My good friend and one who is, I am glad to say, in the whole of his health, former Senator Jack Harte, was the Whip at that time. He assured me in his inimitable Dublin accent there was no way he would whip the Labour Party to vote against a Bill to support the homeless.
I deliberately chose the language in this motion to try to create a consensus. Whatever about my party affiliations, throughout my career I have tried to deal with issues — the Minister of State, Deputy Tim O'Malley, can confirm this — such as the care of the mentally ill and those concerning specific aspects of disability, however naive that may appear to the hard men and women of Fianna Fáil — they are not all hard but the ultimate core is very hard. I would prefer to be in politics to try to make progress on these issues rather than simply to launch into a wonderful rhetorical flourish about the heartlessness of the Government, as I am more than capable of doing.
The motion is inspired by the MakeRoom campaign, which was developed by Focus Ireland, the Simon Community, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Threshold. That campaign is based on and grows from the progress that has been achieved. I am more than happy to accept progress has been achieved, given the evidence in Dublin and Cork that the number of people sleeping on the streets is not growing and may be stabilising or declining, which is no small achievement.
The fact it is 22 years since I first raised the issue in the House is no great compliment to a succession of Governments, including some of which my party was a member. However, although we are again discussing homelessness, any feelings of déjà vu are not appropriate. When we dealt with the issue more than 20 years ago, we first had to convince a sceptical State, including the local authorities, that there was a problem. The view then was that the only people who were homeless were those who chose to be homeless or who were not housable. We have moved on from that position and we no longer hear that argument.
When we made progress in that regard, the next problem was to sort out who was responsible for dealing with homelessness. The litany of buck-passing between Government, health boards and local authorities was one of my most significant political educations. We got beyond that phase and we now know who is responsible. Local authorities are the lead service providers in dealing with homelessness, although they are not and should not be the only service providers. It took blood, sweat and tears to achieve that but it has been achieved.
We have made progress and I will not pretend otherwise. Nevertheless, the people sleeping on the streets were an affront to us. They are still there. One can go out the front gate of Leinster House at 11 p.m. any night of the week, turn right, go less than 100 metres, look right into a doorway, and one will find a man sleeping there. One can go to the bottom of Kildare Street and turn left down Nassau Street in the direction of Grafton Street, and one will find a person sleeping in a doorway there also. There is something particularly symbolic in people having to sleep on the streets within 200 metres of the governing Parliament of the State. However, I accept we are making progress.
If we moved every homeless person off the streets and into hostels and shelters, we would not end homelessness, although we would make homelessness less visible or perhaps invisible. My Bill of 22 years ago stated that a person forced to live in a night shelter or hostel was homeless. A shelter or hostel is not a home for anybody. The MakeRoom campaign recognises that to end homelessness, provide for homeless people and ensure that homelessness is a problem of the past it is not sufficient to provide night shelters and hostels, however good they are. I accept shelters and hostels are better than they used to be but they are a step on the road to ending homelessness, not the solution.
The MakeRoom campaign emphasises the need to recognise that nobody ends up homeless simply by accident. There is a process that happens to people. The first indicator of a likelihood of becoming homeless is poverty. There is a tendency for everybody in church and State to say: "It could happen to anybody." The church person will come up with a story of the member of the clergy who descended into homelessness while the State person will come up with a similar story. They are seen as sad and tragic stories but as exceptions. It must be remembered that homeless people are poor people who have fallen through the limited nets available for them. Therefore, any way of dealing with homelessness involves dealing with poverty.
The consequences and, less often, the causes of homelessness are considerable social and personal distress which can manifest itself in psychological and mental disorders, serious ill health and serious and sometimes scary anti-social behaviour. I speak having had a few interesting experiences in my time with the Simon Community. Most of this is a consequence of homelessness or is the reason people became homeless. Therefore, the motion recognises the need for integrated services.
I thought there was an agreed position in this regard. I thought, because I had read references to this in Cork, where I am still involved slightly with the Simon Community, that the Health Service Executive and the local authorities had accepted that one cannot simply deal with homelessness as a housing issue alone. In the old scholastic logic tradition, housing is a necessary but not a sufficient remedy for homelessness. One cannot solve homelessness without housing provision but one will not solve it by housing provision alone.
I thought we had reached that stage until I read the most ungracious Government amendment. I am astonished that the line in the motion "acknowledges the commitment of these [four] organisations to the care of homeless people in Ireland", which is recognised by every citizen, was left out of the Government amendment by choice. Whoever drafted the amendment, could the Government not at least have had the grace to recognise the commitment and extraordinary service of the four organisations?
Unfortunately, the amendment does not respond to the complexity of homelessness and it only recites Government achievements relating to housing. Housing is a necessary condition to deal with homelessness but there is not sufficient availability nor does it address the entire problem. The Government raised the housing issue in this debate but if it is going to deal with homelessness, it must support the homeless and others who are threatened with homelessness. If I had time, I could go through the multiple steps of alienation.
The Government claims to have taken action regarding housing but it has not done so, particularly in the private rented accommodation sector where the absence of standards is a scandal. The PRTB, the Revenue, local authorities and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government do not share their data so that everybody knows what everybody else is doing. Advertisements printed in local newspapers that state "no rent allowance" provide a signal that the owners do not pay tax on the rent. The only reason they will not take in people on rent allowance is they are afraid they will get caught for tax. Every one of those advertisements should be investigated by the Revenue. The cap on supplementary welfare allowance is causing enormous hardship. I conducted a quick check on www.daft.ie earlier. Only three apartments in inner city Dublin advertised on the website meet the rental conditions of the SWA scheme, while no accommodation is available to rent at under €500 per week in Galway city.
I am greatly disappointed the Government chose to have a confrontation rather than seeking a consensus and, instead of dealing with homelessness, it decided to table an amendment touting its own successes. In view of this I will use my reply to the debate to list the Government's failures. That is not what I intended to do, as I wanted to move the homelessness debate to a new level. However, we are back to the silly politics in regard to this issue, from which I had hoped we had moved. I am very disappointed.