The committee will be aware there are in excess of 6,000 people in homelessness across Ireland, of whom 2,000 are children. In addition to the family homeless emergency, there are more than 3,000 adults with no dependants in homeless services nationally. Individuals and, indeed, couples face enormous challenges in accessing housing. The people Peter McVerry Trust supports can often be excluded by mainstream social housing providers. Inadequate housing provision and housing supports mean that it is single individuals who face the longest wait for housing and the greatest risk of damage and institutionalisation by the system. Despite the deepening emergency across Ireland, there are only five counties where there are more than 100 people in homelessness. However, the situation is shifting dramatically. For example, in Kildare, the number in homelessness has doubled since 1 January and, in Tipperary, the figure has gone from four individuals to 54 individuals in just three months. In Dublin there are, on average, eight new adult presentations per day.
What must be done? First, there must be an emphasis on prevention. An obvious point that needs to be stressed is that the turning point in the fight against homelessness arrives when the number exiting homelessness exceeds the number entering homelessness. Without radical and robust interventions to fix our broken housing system and improve our child, health, education and social protection supports, we will not move towards eliminating homelessness. Over the course of the next 12 to 18 months, prevention measures must take on huge additional importance and a dramatic increase in prevention funding is required.
I turn now to youth homelessness and the question of children leaving care.
An issue of particular importance is young people exiting care settings. An analysis of the 4,705 unique individuals supported by Peter McVerry Trust in 2015 shows that at least 20% of these had a history of under-18s residential care. A specific example of the impact the inadequate aftercare supports for young people leaving care can have on homeless figures is our service at St. Catherine's Foyer in Dublin. This is a supported temporary accommodation service providing homeless accommodation for young people aged 18 to 26. It accommodated 70 young people in 2015 and of those 70 young people, 37, or 52%, had a history of under-18s care. Those 37 young people should never end up in adult homeless services. The solution is a robust and effective aftercare programme with ring-fenced, step-down and independent living units for young people exiting care.
Another cohort of people who end up accessing homeless services are those who are engaging in drug treatment programmes, be they stabilisation projects or the completion of residential drug treatment programmes. Individuals who have successfully detoxed or stabilised their drug use find themselves re-entering homelessness and more often than not are offered emergency accommodation with active drug users. The creation of health-funded stabilisation beds and aftercare beds for these individuals would ensure that they receive appropriate accommodation outside of mainstream homeless services.
One further group becoming homeless as a result of the failings of another Government Department are those exiting prisons. The committee has heard of persons with acute and terminal illnesses being discharged into homelessness from hospital settings. Similarly, far too often people are freed from prison to go directly into our homeless services. These are further examples of one Department wiping its hands of the vulnerable and expecting the Minister with responsibility for housing to deal with the consequences. The solution is for the responsible Departments to fund alternative programmes. For example, the Department of Justice should fund a Housing First model for ex-offenders at risk of homelessness. This programme would provide multidisciplinary supports to ex-prisoners so they can secure accommodation and reintegrate into community and society. Peter McVerry Trust currently runs a small-scale and very successful programme of this nature.
Rent supplements must be increased as a measure to prevent those in private rental accommodation from becoming homeless. To prevent landlords simply increasing the rents even further, it should be accompanied by legislation linking rents to the consumer price index. An increase in rent supplement is not designed to free up more rental properties. It is designed to keep those on rent supplement in their current accommodation and out of homelessness. Rent supplement has been reduced by an average of 28% since 2007 but rents are now back to or beyond their 2007 levels. Peter McVerry Trust believes that rent supplements must be increased by at least 28%. The Department must ask itself whether it will choose to raise rent supplement or watch the numbers in homelessness spiral upwards.
The problem of mortgage arrears is a ticking time bomb. There are currently about 33,000 residential mortgages and about 15,000 buy-to-lets in mortgage arrears of more than two years. The vast majority of these are irrecoverable. Currently, 18,200 repossession cases are going through the courts. The Government needs to agree a programme whereby the most distressed mortgages would be purchased by approved housing bodies, AHBs. The households would then pay what rent they can realistically afford to the AHB. The balance between the rent paid and the costs being borne by the AHB would be paid by the State in the form of a HAP payment. The tenants would have a buy-back option. The approved housing body would commit to housing the existing household. The Government should also introduce legislation preventing the financial institutions - and in the case of Travellers, preventing the local authorities - from evicting families and individuals into homelessness.
Peter McVerry Trust believes that in order to address the housing emergency, it is imperative that a single overarching national housing policy is developed. The action plan for housing should include recognition of the right to adequate housing and be centred on the principles of affordability, equality and social inclusion. The action plan for housing should also recognise that we have a housing system and not just a housing market. There must be a targeted, evidence-led supply of housing. Supply alone will not deliver reductions in homelessness or help to address failures in housing policy. Supply must be designed to meet housing needs of those across society. Housing delivery must be State-led. We believe that the current social housing strategy, by which three out of four households on the social housing waiting lists are to be provided with accommodation in the private rented sector through the HAP scheme, is both unrealistic and undesirable.
Two decades of trying to accommodate low-income families primarily in the private rented sector has been a major contributor to the current crisis. Trying to get out of the crisis by accommodating even more households in the private rented sector seems illogical and, given the dire shortage of available private rented accommodation, unrealistic. Furthermore, under the existing loosely regulated private rented sector, households have no security of tenure and, for families with children, security of tenure while the children are of school-going age is a prime consideration.
With regard to the delivery of new supply, the Peter McVerry Trust makes a number of recommendations. To maximise the use of existing building stock, an urgent audit and compulsory purchase programme of empty private buildings should be initiated. This would allow these units to be returned to active residential use. There must be continuous real-time monitoring and management of our building stock and sites. An example of an empty building in Dublin is No. 31 Mountjoy Square, which is two doors away from the Peter McVerry Trust’s head office. It is an empty building containing nine one-bedroom apartments. In April 2012, a receiver was appointed to the property. Since then, and more than likely for a period before that date, the property has remained vacant with the exception of a brief period during which people squatted in it. This is a prime example of a perfectly good building being held from the market, thereby restricting supply and, ultimately, increasing homelessness.
Modular housing can play a crucial role in the delivery of new supply. Local authorities need to deliver an additional 1,000 units of modular housing for individuals, couples and families who are homeless, low-income households, those in student accommodation - to provide some level of integrated housing - and people on the social housing waiting list. A separate relatively small-scale fund for approved housing bodies to build 500 units of modular housing in the greater Dublin region would fast-track the delivery of these units and create greater breathing space for local authorities. Any remaining voids should be turned around by approved housing bodies. In the context of a housing emergency, the question arises as to whether local authorities are best placed to use their limited resources to return voids to use or would they be better off focusing their attention on new build projects. Peter McVerry Trust believes approved housing bodies can quickly and effectively return voids to use, allowing local authorities to get on with the job of building new social and affordable housing. An intensive programme of renovation and restoration should have all appropriate voids inhabited within 12 months.
There also needs to be major investment in student housing. A rapid building programme involving 3,000 to 5,000 units of student accommodation in Dublin, Cork and Galway would immediately lessen pressures on the rental market, freeing up houses and apartments across those cities. Local authorities and third-level institutions must immediately meet in order to begin drafting plans for large-scale modular student accommodation on campuses or public lands. Removing students from urban rental markets would significantly lessen pressure on supply and free up housing options.
The Housing First model, which focuses on the rapid rehousing of homeless individuals and the provision of intensive wraparound supports, must be rolled out nationally. A rapid rehousing approach must become the standard approach to homelessness across Ireland. In those counties with fewer than 100 homeless individuals, Housing First is a much more logical and cost-effective response, rather than opening any further homeless shelters. In those 21 counties, a rapid rehousing programme could eliminate homelessness quickly. In the larger centres of homelessness, Housing First can play a critical role in tackling rough sleeping and long-term homelessness now and in the months and years to come.
Any decommissioned and currently unoccupied bedsits should be listed and analysed by the local authorities, together with approved housing bodies. Any units that can be renovated and reconfigured to deliver high-quality units of accommodation for single people should be compulsorily purchased or leased on a long-term basis. A programme of works, to be delivered either by the local authority or approved housing bodies, should be instigated and the resulting units used to alleviate the social housing crisis.
A major investment programme is required in the area of cost rental. As a critical development to achieve a functioning rental system, a cost-rental model must be fast-tracked. The cost-rental pilot earmarked for 2016 must be ramped up, with investment rising from €10 million to €100 million, and be led by non-profit housing associations, either local authorities or approved housing bodies. The cost-rental model should not be reliant on private developers.