Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Questions (46)

Eoin Ó Broin

Question:

46. Deputy Eoin Ó Broin asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the action he is taking to deal with the rise in the number of deaths of persons who were accessing homeless services and or sleeping rough. [38309/20]

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Oral answers (14 contributions) (Question to Housing)

The Minister will be aware that I have raised this issue previously and I fully accept the seriousness with which he has been responding to it but since we last raised it, we have seen a number of very significant tragic deaths of people who were either rough sleeping or engaging the homeless services in Dublin, Galway and Cork. I have heard some very concerning figures, particularly from Galway and Cork, in the past number of months. Can the Minister update the House on his discussions with the homeless service providers and what additional actions intends to take to address this very tragic set of circumstances?

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue, which we also discussed six weeks ago. There have been, as he rightly said, a number of deaths recently of people who were either rough sleeping or accessing homeless services. Every death is a tragedy. I have already and will extend again my sympathy to their families, friends and to the service providers who get to know many of their clients very well. We all know that every single death hurts in that respect.

To better understand what is happening the DRHE, along with the HSE, have jointly commissioned a time-bound detailed review of all recent deaths in homeless services. It will be authored by Dr. Jo-Hanna Ivers, who is assistant professor in addiction at the department of public health and primary care in the school of medicine, Trinity College Dublin, who is a very eminent person with experience who has done work in Britain where she published an article in the British Medical Journal on the five year standardised mortality ratios in a cohort of homeless people in Dublin. We also need to understand what is behind this.

The week before last I visited a wonderful development on Haddington Road of an old 1820s house which has been refurbished into 18 single apartments. Pat Doyle, the chief executive of the Peter McVerry Trust, explained it very well when he said that there are stories behind each of these deaths. He spoke of one gentleman who sadly passed away earlier this year who was a friend of Fr. McVerry himself. The trust had supported him for years and he died of cancer earlier this year. He passed away in his own place with his own key and with support all around him. He is included as a homeless death because he was accessing homeless services, and rightly so. It would be wrong, however, to believe that he and many others in those numbers are people who have died on the streets. Some have and that is not something that we want to see. We need to get a better picture of what is happening to see if there are any trends because there has been a marked increase. The work mentioned is a time-bound one which I will share with colleagues and with the Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

I welcome the study because we have to have an informed and evidence-based approach to this. In many cases what we are seeing is the overlap of three sets of issues - homelessness, mental health and addiction - and the lack of adequate provision of those three services at the right time and place to meet the needs of individuals ,which in many cases, unfortunately, puts them at greater risk of tragic and unnecessary death. I have argued previously that we need to increase supports for mental health and addiction services and to press ahead with the programme for Government commitments on implementing Housing First, and on decongregating emergency accommodation. We need to introduce adult safeguarding reviews, as they have in Britain, to look back at where these deaths have occurred to see what lessons can be learned.

I take issue with one thing said by the Minister and this is said with the greatest respect because we need to have this conversation in a sensible way. It is not appropriate to include people who are in tenancies in the category that we are talking about and I am aware that other homeless services have expressed this view to the Minister. We are specifically talking about people who have either died while sleeping rough or while in emergency accommodation homeless services. That is an important distinction.

No one wants to categorise people within this. All I am saying is that I used the example of that gentleman and there are others, who are people who were accessing homeless services and counted in these terrible figures and shocking statistics. That is just to simply state a fact. I chair the north Dublin regional drugs and alcohol task force and I am aware of the need to increase funding. I see the work that is done through Housing First. Up to the end of September, 459 individuals were housed through Housing First and we have committed as a Government and have secured additional funding for budget 2021 to expand Housing First further. We discussed this at the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage when I attended last week. That is something that we need to do and to also ensure that the mental health and addiction ancillary services are in place. Housing First is an excellent approach. We need to continue to expand that further and that is what we are going to do.

I again acknowledge the fact that the programme for Government has a commitment to increase this provision. The original Housing First strategy introduced by the previous Government only committed to approximately 600 Housing First tenancies up to next year. We need in the region of 3,000 to deal with the current number of individuals who need that particular support and that is where we need to get to. I press the point that it is not about categorising; it is about being evidence-based. We are talking about people who are in emergency accommodation or sleeping rough.

I understand that.

A person who has previously engaged with homeless services, and who has moved on to a stable tenancy, and, for example, as in a number of cases that have been quoted by the DRHE have died from other tragic causes need to be treated as a separate category because their vulnerability is very different. The Minister probably agrees with that point and I look forward to the report and to his engagement with the committee but we also need to see what additional interventions will be put in place so that we have a reduction next year in these very tragic and, in many cases, preventable and unnecessary deaths.

I call Deputy Cian O’Callaghan.

I welcome the review and the commitment that has been made to expand Housing First.

Will this review examine the changes that have been made in the past year or so in the increased use of private hostel operators who have been contracted to provide accommodation for people who have become homeless? These operators, in the main, do not provide support services with the accommodation. Is this aspect being examined in the review? Some private operators have rules in place, which do not allow chatting and other infringements of basic human rights. We also have reports of people who have been barred by some of these private hostel operators for minor infringements and have slept rough as a result. Is this review into tragic issue of homeless deaths considering the changes that have been made with the engagement of private operators?

We are still on the question raised by Deputy Ó Broin at the moment and I know that Deputy O’Callaghan has a question on that.

Deputy O’Callaghan came in on that question.

The Minister has a minute to conclude.

That is okay. I am just asking because the Deputy has a question on a particular issue, just a couple of questions down on the list.

Returning to Deputy Ó Broin’s point, we need to look at how these deaths are reported. I am going to do that and am giving a commitment here, as well as when the report is completed. The appropriate place for that is the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage and this would be a good thing to do. I have not asked the professor herself but if the author of the report is willing and is invited by the committee when she has concluded the report, that again is an appropriate thing to do.

As to Deputy O’Callaghan’s question on private operators, I also mentioned this at the committee meeting when I was there, the DRHE is also carrying out spot inspections. They have done 126 of these since January. I am concerned about the couple of instances raised by the Deputy. If he is aware of specific hostels where these issues are arising, I ask that he bring these to my attention and not to delay in this as I know he will not. We will look into it immediately. There are standards that even private operators must follow and they are subject to full inspection, and rightly so.