I thank the committee for the invitation to address it. At the outset, the simple and clear statement one can make is that the experience of becoming and being homeless is deeply traumatic for children and their parents and has the potential to have lifelong consequences. It is extremely important that the country addresses that issue from the perspective of children. Historically, homelessness has been seen as a problem experienced largely by adults, particularly adult men. The legislation passed by the Oireachtas to guide local authorities in responding to homelessness is blind in respect of children, and that follows through in the practice and the way the interests of families, particularly children, are addressed throughout the homelessness system. Obviously, that gap or absence could be addressed by changes in practice and in regulation, but it falls primarily to the Houses of the Oireachtas which passed the original legislation that guides the homelessness services to amend that legislation so the interests of the child can be addressed.
Focus Ireland is recognised as the homelessness and housing organisation that has the longest experience of working with homeless families. We have worked with homeless families for over 30 years. Ms Niamh Lambe is the team leader of the family homeless action team which works with the Dublin Region Homeless Executive in supporting several hundred children and their families in Dublin, helping them to cope with homelessness and, essentially, helping them to move out of homelessness. A key part of what we have come to understand, and it is crucial to how we should be responding to the homelessness problem, is that families that are coping with homelessness are more likely to move successfully out of homelessness.
There is an increasing sense that the frustration with the scale of the homelessness crisis is leading to a concentration at policy level that is concerned only with numbers. We consider the total number of children and families who are homeless and the Minister and the Department repeatedly tell us the number of families who have moved out of homelessness. We do not doubt that the total numbers are extremely important, but a concentration only on numbers overlooks the reality of life as experienced by families and children who are homeless. If we have measures of success regarding family homelessness that just count the number of families who move out of homelessness, the inevitable long-term consequences will be that the families who have the greatest vulnerabilities and who are suffering the most in homelessness will be the ones who are left behind. They will be unable to access private rented accommodation and will find themselves at the end of queue, even for social housing. We will come to the end of this homelessness crisis, and we must come to the end of it sometime no matter how many years it takes, with a residue of a large number of families who have been homeless for a very long period and a large number of families whose future lives will be destroyed because of their long period of homelessness. How we handle this issue is extremely important.
I believe the committee's invitation issued to us as a result of the excellent report from the Ombudsman for Children, No Place Like Home. Focus Ireland has welcomed the report. It is a very wise balance between listening to the voices of the children concerned and examining in forensic depth the policies, or absence of policies, in respect of family homelessness. We particularly welcome the recommendation in the report that the Houses of the Oireachtas support the Private Members' legislation from the Labour Party to amend the housing legislation to include the rights of the child. It has been supported by all parties in the House but has not been passed into law. We support that legislation. We also support the recommendation of the Oireachtas committee on the right to housing. However, the rights of children that we put in our Constitution recently do not appear to have influenced the way children are treated in the homelessness system. We must not only change our Constitution but also put into effect the changes we have already made in it.
We also support something that is at the heart of what the Ombudsman for Children's report is saying. The only part of policy in respect of families who are homeless in which the Government is proactively engaged is the introduction of family hubs.
Nobody is defending putting children into hotels and nobody is defending putting children and families into bed and breakfast accommodation. It is important to note that the Ombudsman's report looks only at hubs. The majority of children and their families are not in hubs; they are in far worse accommodation than is provided by the hubs. It is legitimate to look at the hubs, however, because the Government is standing over that, saying it is a positive intervention and that this is what the Government wants to do. The Government is putting the provision of hubs forward as good practice, and therefore it is appropriate to look at that in detail. When one looks at what is happening in the hubs - and the Ombudsman's report is excellent on this - one finds that there is no policy and it is not clear what analysis of the homelessness problem is being put forward, to which the hubs are meant to be a solution, other than that the hubs are better than hotels. We need to move away from an approach to homelessness in general which says that one type of intervention is better than people being on the street or better than being in emergency accommodation. We need to have a much more ambitious and deeper understanding of homelessness. If that statement is true of all homelessness, and the 10,000 men, women and children who are homeless in the State, it is ten times more true when we talk about children and the extent to which we as a nation are failing our children after so many generations of doing that before and thinking we have learned the lessons. We have almost 4,000 children currently in homeless accommodation, and the consequences of that experience on their lives will be devastating. It is extremely welcome that this committee is looking at that issue.
With the practice that Ms Lambe can bring and the policy and research that I can bring to the advocacy team, I hope we can help the committee to look at a way forward and find ways of addressing this problem more effectively.