Thursday, 28 March 2019

Questions (4)

Ruth Coppinger


4. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the measures being taken to protect the welfare of homeless children by her Department and agencies reporting to her; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [14604/19]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Children)

It is the morning after we learned that more than 10,000 men, women and children are now homeless in this country. Nearly 4,000 children are homeless in this country. What measures are being taken by the Minister's Department and the agencies reporting to her to protect the welfare of homeless children and will she make a statement on the matter?

We have a very serious problem concerning homeless children and families in our country. Where children are homeless as part of a family experiencing homelessness, my Department works closely with Tusla to provide supports to help them with the challenges they face. It is worth remembering that Tusla only intervenes in family life in exceptional circumstances. Children who are with their families in emergency accommodation remain in the care of their parents or guardians. Where Tusla has concerns regarding the welfare and development of any child, it will provide family supports to assist that family and child.

We now provide free childcare for the children of families experiencing homelessness, including a daily meal for each child. That is one thing my Department has done. Some 310 children have been registered under this scheme in the current programme year. Tusla also supports homeless families experiencing problems with school attendance through the school completion programme. Children whose families are homeless are prioritised for services such as homework clubs and breakfast clubs.

Tusla and the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive, DRHE, have agreed a joint protocol to facilitate an interagency response to the many challenges posed by homelessness. As part of the protocol, Tusla provides support to the DHRE’s "one-stop shop" assessment centres. Here, Tusla staff deal with matters of child protection and welfare, educational welfare and domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services. Tusla’s homelessness liaison officer also supports these centres. Family resource centres provide facilities where homeless children and families can avail of a safe, warm environment for homework, relaxation and nutritious food. Tusla is engaging with the centres to offer further enhanced services across the greater Dublin area in 2019.

A minority of young people leaving care can have particularly complex needs. Following a suggestion from Fr. Peter McVerry I have succeeded in having them included for the first time as a separate category for funding under the capital assistance scheme.

That provides targeted assistance to the most vulnerable care leavers by enabling approved housing bodies to acquire residential units to accommodate them. I may come back to that.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

It has been a complex and arduous process to initiate. My Department and Tusla have developed principles and criteria relating to funding proposals under CAS. Where accommodation is provided under CAS, Tusla will provide and where necessary advocate for additional independent living supports, in particular for the most vulnerable care leavers, in accordance with the individual’s pre-agreed aftercare plan.

I am pleased to be able to confirm that as of 31 December 2018 ten care leavers were in occupancy of secure accommodation under the scheme while an additional 40 units, consisting of a mix of one and two bed units across the State, have been purchased or are sale agreed. These should be available for other young people leaving care in the near future. The security provided by a tenancy in CAS accommodation, combined with the aftercare supports identified by Tusla as part of the aftercare planning process, can help ensure that these young people have a safe base from which to begin their transition to independent adult life.

Our response to homelessness overall is a test of our compassion as a society. We need to eliminate child and family homelessness. While we work towards this we must provide the supports necessary to help them live in a way that goes some way to addressing the challenges of the situation.

I put it to the Minister that a Government that allows 3,784 children to be homeless and allows more than 10,000 men, women and children to be homeless overall, does not deserve to remain in power. I put it to the Minster that the Government parties, and Fianna Fáil which props it up, deserve to be hammered at the ballot box in May for failures in housing and homelessness. The Minister stated she thinks marches are great. I put it to her that the "Raise the Roof" national housing demonstration on 18 May should now be built into a massive anti-Government protest. I also put it to the Minister that the Government now has no excuse not to allow Solidarity's Anti-Evictions Bill 2018 pass all Stages in the Oireachtas and become part of the law of the land.

I am aware of the numbers. I find it distressing that there has been such a rise in homelessness and especially that it includes more than 160 children. I am certainly with the Deputy in respect of that. In light of the changes in the numbers, and the increase in numbers that we have in the headlines of the front pages of the newspapers today, a rethink on some of the things the Government is doing is required. We need to do more. Having reflected on this, and also on the recent report from the United Nations special rapporteur, that is particularly the case in respect of the private rental sector. There is a need to examine this issue again in the context of some of the legislation currently going through this House, such as the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2018. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is doing that.

I refer to examining what else can be done to ensure security of tenure for those who in the private rental sector and especially those most vulnerable. I have been raising my own concerns and questions in respect of that debate and I will continue to do so. It is also true, however, that some of the things the Government has been doing appear to be working on the basis of evidence and numbers. I refer to the example of the rent pressure zones, RPZs, that from December of 2017 have been having a positive effect. That is shown in the data presented by the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, today. We do, however, as I have indicated, need to tighten up the regulations further in that sector. I expect the Minster for Housing, Planning and Local Government will be making further changes in that regard in the coming week.

Some 18 months ago, in September 2017, we woke up to find that there were 2,432 children living in emergency accommodation. The Minister, Deputy Zappone, was asked for a comment. She stated that should be a "wake up call". We found out yesterday that the numbers are 50% higher than that. Has she woken up yet? Has the Government woken up yet? We all know the number one cause of homelessness in this country is eviction from the private rental sector. Solidarity's Anti-Evictions Bill 2018 provides a number of practical remedies for staunching the flow. It aims to ban the sale of property as grounds for eviction. That is law in the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden. It is supported by Threshold.

Does the Minister, Deputy Zappone, support that? I am asking her a direct question. The Bill would also ban renovation as grounds for eviction. I refer to so-called "renovictions". If these measures had been implemented when the Minister stated we needed to wake up, a year and a half ago, then we would be nowhere near 10,000 homeless at this stage. That is because many of those evictions would have been banned. Does the Minister support this Bill and does she support the practical remedies, such as banning the sale of property as grounds for eviction as supported by Threshold?

I support the objective and the ambition contained in the context of the Bill. My view as an Independent Member of Government is that it is very helpful to have the Anti-Evictions Bill 2018. It adds to the debate in respect of what is required in order to ensure we have additional security of tenure in our private rental sector. That is what I will support. Deputy Barry quoted me and, yes, it was a wake up call. It is exceptionally distressing to know today that even with that wake up call the numbers of people in homelessness are continuing to rise. I am also stating, therefore, that we need to do more and perhaps to do some things differently.

I refer to the rental issue in the private sector especially. One of the things the Government has pursued, however, is to develop a new model of cost rental options for low income families. That is on the basis of my commitment to it and putting it into A Programme for a Partnership Government. In the Land Development Agency scheme in the Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown area, which was announced yesterday, half of the 600 units will be rented at a substantially discounted price. That is one action that will make a difference in that area and that action is ongoing.