I am the chief executive of Focus Ireland and have been in office for just over a year. My colleague, Mr. Mike Allen, director of advocacy, will probably be much more familiar to a number of the members. I thank the members of the committee for the invitation to make a direct presentation to them on the housing and homelessness crisis that confronts us. I commend them on their work to date, the range of submissions they have heard and their close and detailed questioning around the key issues. Focus Ireland has long called for homelessness to be treated as a political priority and the hard work and diligence of this committee is a practical expression of what being treated as a political priority looks like. This work has been given added significance by the publication of the programme for Government, which includes a commitment to produce an action plan for housing within 100 days of the Government being formed. We welcome this and also the commitment to arrive at the plan through a collaborative process. We see this meeting as an important element in that collaboration.
Focus Ireland has made a comprehensive submission to the committee which covers a number of the issues that need to be addressed. As we note in the submission, a comprehensive strategy designed to bring an end to homelessness would include a wider range of measures related to general poverty, mental health, the justice system and support for young people who grew up in care.
We do not want these issues to be forgotten but we consider the approach of the committee to be reasonable in the present circumstances, that is, to concentrate on the immediate crisis which confronts us and is driven primarily by a severe shortage of affordable housing.
Focus Ireland, formed over 30 years ago by Sr. Stan, is one of the leading homeless organisations in Ireland with a presence in most parts of the country. We run a range of services from providing long-term homes for people who need ongoing support, through tenancy sustainment, training, and advice and information. The core of our work is in the areas of preventing homelessness and supporting people to exit homelessness and while we work with anyone who is homeless or at risk of homelessness, we have a particular recognised expertise in the areas of families, young people and Housing First. We are the designated housing action team for the homeless families in the four Dublin local authority areas and, on behalf of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE, we provide case management support to families across the city. Our submission is based on the front-line experience of our staff across the country, supporting over 12,500 people who were homeless or at risk of homelessness during the last year.
While we are more than happy to take any questions arising from any aspect of our submission or, indeed, any other dimension of our work or advocacy which is of interested to the committee, bearing in mind the committee has heard many submissions and covered many aspects of this issue already, we want to use our time here, if we may, to concentrate on one aspect as we thought our time would be best spent by doing that. The area we would like to concentrate on is the importance of preventing homelessness, in particular family homelessness. We want to concentrate on prevention because if we do not do something to slow down the flow of families into homelessness, the system will move from crisis point to breaking point and significant damage will be done to many lives while we wait for the longer-term solutions to kick in.
The numbers are stark. I refer the committee to the two tables in my submission. In terms of the official figures for families who are accommodated in emergency accommodation nationally, no official figures are available prior to June 2014 but from other work that Focus Ireland undertook at the time, we estimate that approximately 150 families were homeless in February 2013. One can see the movement in the figures since then, with the official figures showing 291 families in June 2014, moving through last year, with the figures rising all the time, to now over 1,000 families and, crucially, over 2,000 dependants - children - in homelessness. As I said, I joined Focus Ireland just over a year ago and shortly after I joined, the number of children topped over 1,000. At that time, there was significant commotion and media interest in it, that it had sort of magically passed this figure of 1,000, and the ISPCC, Children's Rights Alliance or others were rightly extremely vocal on the subject. I stress that the number is now twice that, at over 2,000 dependants, but comparatively, I would say there has been hardly a murmur, even though those figures have doubled in just over a year. We believe it is truly scary.
The second table shows the growth in the number of newly homeless families in Dublin over a slightly longer period, dating back to the start of 2013. Crucially, the point we would make out of the second table is that there has been a doubling in the average number of families each successive year. There were on average 15 families in 2013, 34 in 2014, 62 in 2015 and 92 in 2016 to date. The crucial question we would ask is what is fundamentally changing that will stop that continuing because we and others involved in the DRHE area are struggling so hard to contain the numbers as they stand at present. We all are having difficulty in seeing how we can cope with those increased figures.
There is an understandable temptation to focus on the emergency side of the issue in the short term. Members of the committee will be familiar with our criticisms of the quality of some emergency accommodation, the long distances from schools, the absence of cooking and washing facilities, etc. These are extremely important criticisms and much more needs to be done to ensure a consistently acceptable quality of emergency accommodation. However, it is also important to recognise the achievement of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive in rapidly scaling up its provision for homeless families and responding to a crisis that was once unpredicted by official sources, grew at an unprecedented rate and is caused by factors largely beyond its control.
I again refer to families. Organisations such as the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, Focus Ireland, Peter McVerry Trust and others are trying to budget on the basis of a figure from one year but are dealing with double that figure the next. I am not sure in what context that is possible.
We wish to signal clearly to the committee that there comes a time when a problem reaches a scale at which one simply runs out of available hotel rooms and bed and breakfast accommodation. We are approaching that point. We do not believe there are proposals to provide a significant number of new homes that will bear fruit in the next six to eight months and that, at the current rate of growth, the current rate of provision will suffice. There is nothing to indicate that it is. We need to start providing very different emergency accommodation, well below what is now considered acceptable, which clearly is not an option, or be very much better at preventing people from losing their homes.
Members will have heard earlier this week about a number of families who had to be accommodated on blow-up beds in offices or accommodation for single adults because it was past midnight and no emergency beds could be found for them. We are running out of language to describe this. If a hotel room is “emergency accommodation”, what do we call a room in an adult hostel that is used when the supply of emergency accommodation has run out? What do we call the offices we use when the “beyond emergency rooms” have run out? We tend to call them “a place of safety”. That cold, technical title does not convey the anxiety and fear children must feel late at night when they are finally offered such a place, but perhaps it does make clear the level of risk if we ever reach a night in which we have run out of places of safety. That is the reason we need members to concentrate on this issue. If I had but one message for the committee today, it would be that we have to address the prevention issue and stop the flow into homelessness in some shape or form. Otherwise, we will just keep throwing more money at bigger and bigger numbers to try to turn back a tide that must be tackled at its source.
My colleague, Mr. Allen, will now outline some of the specific measures we have outlined in the submission, although not all, members will be pleased to hear. He will pick out some that might be of relevance and note to the committee.