Novas Initiatives

I draw the witnesses' attention to the fact that, by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

The opening statements submitted to the committee will be published on the committee website after the meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I am pleased to welcome the representatives of Novas Initiatives - Dr. Una Burns, Ms Anne Cronin and Mr. John Rogers. The opening statement has been submitted to members. If Dr. Burns would like to make an opening statement, my colleagues will have a number of questions for her.

Dr. Una Burns

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 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.

I thank Dr. Burns for her presentation. A number of members of the committee would like to ask questions. We will start with Deputy Butler.

I thank the representatives of Novas for attending this meeting and making a presentation. This is the fifth presentation we have heard today. There are underlying trends in everything we have heard. Even though the worst problem is definitely focused in Dublin, I was glad to hear Dr. Burns recognise that this is "a national crisis". This point was also made in our discussion with the Simon Community. The problem seems to be getting worse everywhere. I am pleased that Novas, which is based in the mid-west, provides services in the Kerry and Dublin areas. This is also a rural problem. I represent the Waterford constituency, which has urban and rural areas. I am aware that people who live in rural areas sometimes find it difficult to access supports because they do not want to move their children from the particular schools they attend. They might not have transport, which means in most cases that they have to move into the city if they want to access supports. This is causing a huge problem. I assume the witnesses see this regularly.

Dr. Burns mentioned that the preference of the agency is for a two-bedroom approach. Many of the agencies that have addressed this committee and many of the people I have met are floating the idea of a return to the one-room bedsit. Many of those who are homeless are single people who do not have children. I would like to hear the witnesses' thoughts on this aspect of the matter. Do they think there is merit in properly functioning bedsits that are up to standard?

Novas seems to place a significant emphasis on the housing assistance payment scheme. I have seen the scheme work and I have seen it not work. When it works properly, with a co-operating landlord who is paid directly, it is a very good system. I know it has been rolled out in Waterford, Kilkenny and a number of other areas. While it can work well, there are faults with it. Dr. Burns spoke about CALF payments. Perhaps the witnesses might explain what CALF is. Is it a governing body for approved housing bodies?

Mr. John Rogers

CALF, which stands for capital advanced leasing facility, is one of the two primary funding schemes. It involves, in effect, an element of subsidised loan from the Housing Agency. The bulk of it is private finance via the approved housing bodies.

Is Deputy Butler finished?

Yes, thank you.

Do the witnesses wish to address Deputy Butler's questions?

Ms Anne Cronin

I agree with the Deputy that the issue of children in schools is one of the biggest difficulties experienced by families in rural areas when they try to access services. We have a couple of tenancy sustainment services. We have one in west Cork and one in Limerick. This issue comes up quite frequently when offers of housing are made. It is a legitimate concern for families. Our services certainly support families when they make the point that offers of housing need to facilitate children in staying in their existing schools. We often support families when they are making decisions in this regard. When family life is in a state of flux, it is important to maintain constant things like being able to go to the same school with the same group of friends and the same teachers. Such vital things keep families together and give children a sense of security. The Deputy has made a valid point. Our tenancy sustainment services often encounter this issue when they are trying to support families.

I would be concerned about a return to bedsits. There is an idea that by their very nature, they tend to offer a small and very inappropriate type of accommodation. Across our urban centres, there are many old and run-down pockets of accommodation which were formerly offered to people as bedsits. I do not think it would be ideal to go back to that model. We certainly need something to replace this form of accommodation, however. We have an absolute dearth of one-bedroom units because the bedsits were put out of action. We absolutely need one-bedroom units so that we can make them available to single people. Like other organisations, in the meantime we are asking for two-bedroom units to be used. We want it to be possible for single people to be placed in two-bedroom units, with the gap in the market rent being supported by the local authority. It is one of the most feasible solutions we can come up with. There seems to be some availability of two-bedroom houses and other two-bedroom units. It depends on the urban centre in which one is working.

If such accommodation is available and given that we tend to place single people, it is obvious that we will avail of two-bedroom units and somehow make up the shortfall.

On the housing assistance payment, HAP, the position varies from area to area. In west Cork, for example, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find landlords who are willing to engage with the scheme, regardless of the type of incentive they are offered. In Limerick more than 1,000 people are in receipt of a housing assistance payment. The rent supplement scheme is no longer available to new applicants in the city who are directed instead towards the HAP scheme. While the housing assistance payment is welcome, the issue is the availability of private rented accommodation because the scheme will only work if such accommodation is available and recipients are able to access it.

Members also find that many landlords are not interested in accepting tenants who are in receipt of a housing assistance payment. Significant issues arise with the scheme which needs to be rejigged, although I have seen it work well on some occasions. Under the HAP scheme, the landlord is guaranteed a rental income, which means that tenants are more secure. However, the cap on the payment is often raised as an issue with us because, as Ms Cronin stated, people are being directed towards the HAP as opposed to the rent supplement scheme.

The housing assistance payment scheme operates in Limerick and while it works well in some areas, it does not work very well in the city because rent limits are set much too low. According to the submission, raising the rent supplement limit by 15% would not be sufficient. What figure would Novas propose?

Accommodating one person in a two-bedroom unit is of crucial importance. In some cases, a person will need support and have someone stay in the accommodation now and again for that reason. Others living alone may have a child who stays with them on occasion. The rent limit of €375 means that such persons will not be able to rent a two-bedroom unit.

Reference was made to the Housing First policy in Limerick and the lack of social housing for use as part of the policy. Does Novas intend to deliver houses under the policy or is it hoping local authority houses will come on stream?

While I know exactly what the intensive family support service is because my constituency office deals with it almost daily, I ask the delegates to describe the service to other members. It is a fantastic facility. Most members are concerned not so much with the number of people who are homeless but the number who may become homeless. The intensive family support service provided by Novas in Limerick and elsewhere prevents a great deal of homelessness by heading it off at the pass, as it were. I ask the delegates to clarify the matter a little.

Dr. Una Burns

In terms of increasing the housing assistance payment, HAP, the pilot scheme provides for limits of up to 50% more than the rent supplement. Novas believes having this flexibility would work. Based on a search of the website, a one-bedroom apartment in Limerick costs between €550 and €850. If the HAP payment is capped at €375 for a single person, a top-up payment of 15% will not work. For this reason, we recommend increasing the limit by 50%.

On the social housing required for the Housing First policy, we would like to secure units from local authority housing stock. However, we are also interested in purchasing homes. We need a guarantee that if we were to buy two-bedroom units, we would be able to use them to accommodate single persons. We would then engage in the process of acquiring properties immediately.

Ms Anne Cronin

The intensive family support service has been up and running for 11 years. It plays a preventive role as a tenancy sustainment service for families who may be at risk of homelessness or who are homeless. We work with families, many of whom are at crisis point, in their homes or private rented accommodation and try to put in place a preventive plan to ensure they will not become homeless and can stay in their current accommodation. This often involves working with parents to address issues they have and linking in with social workers. We advocate on behalf of parents if they are already engaged with social workers and assist them in attending conferences with them or on access visits if they are estranged from their children.

We also support Mum or Dad in all the different life skills needed to maintain their accommodation. We would link them in with addiction services, treatment services and MABS. It depends on the complex issues that any family is facing. We provide an individual package of supports tailored to that family to help its members remain in their accommodation or, if at that crisis point where they have lost their accommodation, to access further accommodation be it private rented accommodation or social housing. More often than not it is private rented. It is becoming increasingly hard to respond in the preventative area as more often than not we have moved towards crisis management in that we have a long list of families who are waiting to receive a service from us. That is a new departure for us and it is not an issue we faced even three or four years ago. We now have a list of more than 30 families waiting at any one time to engage with our service. It is a powerful service in terms of the tenancy sustainment and the homeless prevention part but it needs to be well resourced in terms of the numbers coming to the service seeking support. There is a huge issue in terms of the increasing number of families who are becoming homeless and it is also an issue outside of Dublin. We have seen a rapid increase in Limerick. Also it is the only out-of-hours service in the city. When the homeless action team office closes in the evening we provide an out-of-hours service. If a family or a single person becomes homeless in the city at night or needs to access information or accommodation our family support service is an out-of-hours service that can be accessed. It tries to be as wrap-around as possible in that if one finds oneself homeless during the day or the night and needs to access bed and breakfast accommodation it is done through that out-of-hours service.

I wish to ask Dr. Una Burns one particular question. One of the areas of concern to the committee is how to prevent people becoming homeless. In her opening statement she made a comment that she might explain a little more. We had representatives of the Department of Social Protection here recently and they indicated community welfare officers were supporting uplifts in rent. They gave a figure of maybe 8,000 cases last year and the number will be higher this year. The community welfare officers understood the risk of homelessness and were acting responsibly in terms of requests from people who were finding themselves in this situation. We referred to people paying top-up payments and so on. If I understand the witness correctly, she is saying some community welfare officers are not doing that. Will she explain that a little more? That creates a real risk.

We actually raised that issue at that meeting. Our concern was that HAP payments were not adequate and there was a facility to increase them. It was confirmed that had only been done seven times in Limerick. In our experience, no one gets a top-up.

Dr. Una Burns

Regionally, it was Limerick we were referring to in respect of this issue. Our intensive family support service, in its response to the crisis, has divided its team to deal with prevention and crisis management, tenancy sustainment and life skills. On the prevention side, they are meeting people who say they are at risk of homelessness due to economic reasons because their income does not meet rent demand criteria. They have approached their CWO but a HAP uplift has been denied. In all instances in which this has happened, our team has approached the CWO of the homeless action team attached to Limerick City and County Council and the uplift has been provided at that level. Through our intervention, families have not become homeless.

Are there families who have become homeless as a result of not pursuing this with yourselves?

Dr. Una Burns

There may well be but I am not aware of them. There is a risk that families may not know we exist or may not have presented to us having been denied an uplift. They may subsequently present as homeless instead of as a prevention case. It makes sense if one can get the HAP uplifted to keep them in their homes rather than put them into emergency accommodation.

Is that a significant number of cases?

Dr. Una Burns

Deputy Quinlivan probably knows more about this. If only seven have been uplifted, there must be a significant number.

Seven is the number we were given by the community welfare office when its representatives were here. I was concerned that the officer was saying uplifts were freely available and that if people came to the clinic, the issue would be sorted out because that was not the experience any of us had. Everyone agreed there was not much of an uplift. I asked about this twice and she confirmed there had been seven uplifts in Limerick. I have never managed to get an uplift for anybody who went to the CWO. In Limerick, the CWO does not allow a Deputy or a public representative to accompany a person to the office. Most of those visiting the office are vulnerable and should be accompanied by somebody.

I am not anticipating our report but it is important we are not blind to the preventative measures that should operate.

That is why I raised the question about the intensive family support because it is an excellent service and prevents people becoming homeless. It is important it is funded. It is a concern that Novas has a waiting list of 30. I understand why there is a waiting list but it is an issue Novas needs to be helped with.

Dr. Una Burns

As well as that, the service is designed to support 40 families a month but since January, it has been supporting 50. It is operating at 125% capacity and there is a waiting list of between 25 to 30. Now, by dividing the team over the past few weeks, we have been giving people some kind of service immediately, even if it is just a phone call. If all they need is intervention with the CWO, we can do that with a phone call and in that way are preventing the problem from becoming more serious. However, even through the depression, our service has never been as in demand as it is now.

Mr. John Rogers

On a related issue, there is a format in regard to housing for a small cohort of our service users. Having gone through short stay accommodation in a group setting, that might be the preferred and appropriate form of accommodation for those residents. There can be issues in that regard as there is a gradation of support. The first tenant will get a certain level of allowance but that diminishes for the second and third residents. This puts pressure on funding for us because our ability to provide enhanced estate management and support services in those settings is compromised. The amounts of money involved are relatively small amounts but we can find ourselves in a situation where the resourcing to support a tenant is under pressure. In many cases, residents are leading that desire to live in a grouped accommodation setting.

Dr. Burns referred to the capital advance leasing facility, CALF, system. This is a system we have used quite effectively to develop new stock but currently it is difficult, if not impossible, to apply the CALF system to group housing accommodation. If CALF was available in specific circumstances, it would be of particular benefit to groups we deal with for the type of accommodation appropriate to long-term needs for residents.

We have been considering very vulnerable groups today, for example, people coming out of prison and people in addiction. I would like the group to fill us in further on its work in regard to another group mentioned in the report, those in crisis pregnancy, women who are pregnant and homeless, but who do not necessarily have an addiction issue. What supports are provided for them?

Ms Anne Cronin

We do not have a dedicated crisis pregnancy service. However, there has been an increasing number of women in our emergency supported temporary accommodation who are at various stages of pregnancy. There are risks in regard to accommodation for them and their support needs. Often the highest risks are when women have an active addiction. This is the most complex challenge we face. We included this issue in our submission because we wanted to highlight the issue as a serious challenge but we do not see it as an all-time prominent issue. However, when it has spiked, it has proved challenging. For that reason, we have asked for a dedicated crisis midwife to be available with the specific set of skills required to support us. We have a skilled staff but like many of our colleagues in other voluntary community groups, our staff are not necessarily clinical staff.

We will certainly look for a dedicated midwife in the region to support us and other service providers in working with females with a crisis pregnancy who are active in their addiction or have an enduring mental health need. Very often there might be a learning disability or another issue that might reduce capacity. This is key in their transition through the accommodation and homeless services. What we do not want to see happen is women having their babies and then returning to supported temporary or emergency accommodation. That is such an awful outcome which is detrimental to the woman concerned, her baby and the staff who are trying to support her. It is a unique challenge which needs attention.

That concludes questions. I thank the delegates for their attendance, presentation and responses to the questions asked. As I mentioned to the previous group, from my point of view and perhaps that of Deputies Maureen O'Sullivan and Ruth Coppinger, there has been a lot of emphasis on Dublin issues. Particularly when we are talking about community welfare officers, hearing about how issues are being dealt with in other parts of the country is important.

The committee adjourned at 4.45 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Tuesday, 31 May 2016.