Good afternoon. I am Dr. Una Burns. We would like to begin by thanking members for the opportunity to present to the committee. We welcome its focused approach to the housing and homelessness crisis. As we contributed to the Dublin and Limerick network presentation, we will try to avoid duplicating those points and concentrate on our own experiences.
Novas is a national organisation providing services to families and individuals who are homeless or at risk of homelessness throughout Ireland. We are a tier 2 organisation providing 217 units of accommodation. Our output is focused in the mid-west, Kerry and Dublin. We are the largest providers of homeless accommodation in the mid-west region. Last year, we worked with approximately 2,200 people. We play a vital national role in supporting some of Irish society's most vulnerable households by providing a range of preventative services, tenancy sustainment services, supported temporary accommodation, long-term housing and drug, mental health and disability services to marginalised persons. Many of our clients are particularly marginalised and are not served by mainstream services or existing voluntary organisations. We support our clients around the pillars of housing, health and recovery. Our clients are vulnerable and present with increasingly complex needs, including entrenched drug use, intergenerational poverty, poor education, family breakdown, experience of trauma, enduring mental health issues, dual diagnoses and repeated experiences of the criminal justice system.
Our presentation will highlight the obstacles and provide specific actions that can immediately address the crisis. It will encompass both elements of our organisation in terms of our homeless and ancillary services and our ability as an approved housing body, AHB, to provide long-term housing for the most marginalised.
Since 2012, we have delivered approximately 170 units to formerly homeless individuals. More than 50% of this was new stock, with the rest being refurbishments. The majority of our clients now have their own rooms in supported temporary accommodation.
On prevention, we recommend that the rent limits available under the HAP homeless pilot, which are 50% above rent supplement levels, be maintained. We support the extension of the HAP homeless pilot to all urban centres given homelessness is now a national crisis.
We believe the housing assistance payment, in terms of implementation, should be revised. The experience in Limerick is that there is a significant time lapse between a household securing a home and the commencement of HAP payments. In some cases, this timeframe is approximately three weeks, with no reimbursement system in place in respect of payments for the intervening period. This means a vulnerable household commences its new tenancy in arrears. We believe that where this happens there must be a reimbursement of households to ensure they can properly engage in the process. We believe that for households in receipt of rent supplement the rates should be increased and that increases will not be sufficient if not accompanied by rent controls linked to the consumer price index. We believe that nobody should become homeless because of the gap between a household's income and rent demands. We know that in some cases community welfare officers are exercising discretion and increasing payments where there is a risk of homelessness but this is not happening across the board. Our intensive family support service in Limerick has dealt with cases involving people at risk of homelessness because they had been denied an increase in payment from a community welfare officer. Through our intervention many people have managed to secure an increased payment but we believe this discretion should be applied in all cases where there is a risk of homelessness, particularly when the risk is driven by economic reasons.
On the tenancy protection service, this service is doing immense work in Dublin and Cork and, in our view, should be extended nationally. We have been campaigning for a long time for the reversal of the reduced social welfare payment for those under 25. We believe this reversal is paramount and that in its current state it is discrimination. In terms of overall prevention, we believe that the redirection of resources to preventive measures will reduce the number of households entering temporary and emergency accommodation, which is expensive and has poor outcomes for everybody, particularly families.
We support the development of new housing but we believe that such developments must be of mixed stock and include, in particular, one-bedroom units, which any search of Daft.ie will show are nigh impossible to find for people on rent supplement or in receipt of HAP. Currently, 75% of households in Ireland comprise three individuals or less and this should be reflected in any new developments. We advocate the speedier turnaround of vacant social housing units and voids, the number of which we acknowledge is reducing. In terms of other stock that is not social housing as identified in the Housing Agency's report of 2011 the focus must be on refurbishment of units in areas of most need as this will have a quicker turnaround than new developments.
At a local level, Mr. Stephen Kinsella, senior lecturer of economics in the University of Limerick, UL, recently reported that 30% of stock in Limerick is vacant. We need to examine what can be done at local level to improve the situation there. We support the provision of more social housing for Housing First and other tenancy sustainment projects. In Limerick, there is no social housing available for these projects and we are entirely dependent on the private rented market, which does not make it easy. In this regard it would help if local authorities had discretion around the provision of market rent for single individuals in two-bedroom apartments. Two-bedroom units are often a better option for single individuals, particularly single individuals with complex needs. The provision of such independent units rather than accommodation in a complex would result in better outcomes for those people. Availability of these properties is better than that of one-bedroom units and provides for potential access that such clients might have to their children. This reassurance would allow approved housing bodies like Novas, Clúid and so on to purchase two-bedroom units for single occupancy use.
Another important point not included in our earlier submission to the committee is that the State's 2014 action plan to address homelessness recommends that the Department of Social Protection review the current scheme of accommodation to provide that rent supports would be attached to the person rather than the property and that, given the support needs of such individuals, maximum rent limits may be exceeded where there is special housing needs, including homelessness. Unfortunately, this recommendation was never acted on at local level. We urge the committee to revisit recommendation 5.6 of the plan and to ensure that it is enforced on the ground. This would make the development of long-term housing for people with particularly special and complex needs more economically viable.
With that money we could also provide wrap-around services for such people to ensure that they are successful in living independently.
We call for no reductions in funding for emergency accommodation. While we are completely committed to housing-led approaches, we must acknowledge that demand is exceeding capacity in all our supported temporary accommodation, STA. In Limerick in April, for example, only 25% of those who presented to Novas's STA service could be accommodated.
The cyclical nature of the housing crisis is exacerbating the situation in emergency accommodation services. Clients are bed-blocking because of the lack of move-on accommodation and therefore very vulnerable individuals are not able to access the service at all. We have been providing low-threshold accommodation services in Limerick for 14 years and already a very clear pattern of intergenerational poverty and neglect has emerged. While this is not unique to Limerick, compared to our services in other regions of the country it does appear more intrinsically ingrained. We recommend interagency research in this area so that we can start providing very focused, evidence-based solutions.
We encourage the recognition of, and the development of targeted solutions to, rural homelessness. To give the committee an example of this, in Thurles last year just 4% of those who were referred to our accommodation services actually accessed accommodation. In other words, 96% were turned away and the figure for this year is 94%. We need to look at this issue. On the night of 24 May, there were 17 adults and 13 children in bed and breakfast accommodation in north Tipperary alone. While the homelessness problem is certainly concentrated in urban areas, there must be a recognition of the situation in the rural environment too. Very often local opposition to social housing projects can be more intense in rural areas. This must be recognised and the support of local councillors is fundamental to getting social housing projects across the line in such areas.
The capital advanced leasing facility, known as CALF, gives homeless charities such as Novas the ability to develop new stock in the form of long-term housing for homeless people and a number of small structural changes to the current facility would enhance our ability to do that. We recommend front-loading the accelerated CALF payments of 30% and reducing the timeline in the delivery process. The streamlining of the administration of the CALF system would also reduce the timelines involved. We have experienced some difficulty in accessing CALF for group homes and would recommend that the facility is extended to such housing. These changes could be easily made and would make a big difference to the provision of accommodation by approved housing bodies.
The delivery of new builds outside of the major urban centres is challenging due to the revenue available to service debt and the overall cost of development. Development costs include VAT and, where applicable, site acquisition and measures that would reduce such costs, such as providing increased access to State-owned lands, would assist significantly in increasing output and the potential to deliver housing in locations where rental income does not currently make it viable.
The final point, which we consider vital in terms of an integrated approach to supporting homeless people, is the provision of additional supports. We would encourage the development of integrated and on-site mental health services for homeless people. The report of the Partnership for Health Equity, which was published in September 2015, highlighted the significantly poorer state of the health of homeless people when compared to the general population. The development of more on-site supports would improve people's chances of moving out of homelessness on a long-term basis. HSE budgets must be returned to 2010 levels to provide these vital supports. Wrap-around and general mental health services should be provided to Housing First clients seeking to live independently in areas outside Dublin. We are finding this particularly difficult at a regional level. We also support the provision of a dedicated community midwife in the mid-west region for those pregnant women who are using our services, some of whom are entrenched in drug use. Many of these women return to our STA service the day after giving birth with no specialised support. I cannot overemphasise the importance of support services in terms of underpinning exit strategies out of homelessness.