I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, back to the House.
Homeless Persons: Statements
I thank the Cathaoirleach and Senators for providing me with the opportunity to speak on this important issue. Homelessness is a destructive social condition that can wreak havoc on human dignity and well-being. It is a complex phenomenon and solutions are about much more than simply funding and accommodation. The problems that contribute to homelessness can relate to both personal circumstances and wider social issues. Therefore, addressing homelessness requires an integrated approach across Government and across society.
Everyone here is all too aware of the tragedy which occurred earlier in the week very close to this House. Senators will join me in expressing our sincere condolences to the family, relatives and friends of the deceased, Jonathan Corrie. To die in a doorway on a winter's night is an appalling tragedy that should not happen. That Mr. Corrie's death occurred just metres from these buildings gives us all cause for reflection on this highly complex issue. I appreciate all the sincere commentary we have had in both the Dáil and the Seanad in recent days as to how we can address this at Government level and by engaging more broadly with society. There are no simple, one-off solutions and every person who finds himself or herself in the unfortunate and vulnerable situation of being homeless will face a different set of circumstances.
It is very important, especially in the run-up to Christmas, for this House to discuss issues of homelessness generally, recognise what is being done to address it, debate where more could be done and identify how we can better collaborate. It is important to acknowledge that much is being done across Government and its agencies to deal with this issue. Homelessness has always been and will remain a priority for me. It is an issue about which I have quite a lot of knowledge, for many different reasons, and a topic that is close to my heart. I am acutely aware of the challenges posed by homelessness and, since becoming Minister, I have given the highest possible priority, working with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey, to taking urgent action to tackle it. I will now outline to Senators some of the main measures already in place or about to come on stream.
First, I have made significant funding available to housing authorities for refurbishing vacant units. This is a priority because it can provide much-needed homes for homeless households in a relatively short period of time. There are 655 units in Dublin city that, with refurbishment, can be returned to productive use. Work has started on 245 of these, and a further 410 should be completed over the next four months. Although I represent Tipperary, I know this city very well, having lived and worked here for nine years. When I became Minister, I could not fathom why "voids", as we call them - that is, social housing units that are boarded up and currently unavailable for housing - were being left vacant for such lengthy periods. This was deeply frustrating. Dublin City Council has risen to the challenge of ensuring as many of these units as possible are turned around and made available to people very quickly.
Second, I have written to all housing authorities urging them to give priority to homeless households in their housing allocations schemes. Data on the actual 2014 allocations will be analysed in the new year and, if progress is not satisfactory, I will be issuing a direction that a significant proportion of housing allocations go to homeless households. I have made my position clear in this regard to all local authorities. If a substantial increase in allocations to homeless people is not achieved, I will issue a direction that it be done. My objective is that 25% of allocations should go to homeless people, particularly those in long-term homelessness. Housing authorities have the power and authority to manage allocations and it is vital that they use those powers if an end to involuntary long-term homelessness is to be achieved.
Third, I will be signing regulations shortly to provide for the housing assistance payment scheme to be rolled out in the Dublin region on a pilot basis for homeless households. Fourth, I am making an additional €10.5 million in funding available nationally in 2015 for homeless accommodation and related services, an increase of more than 20%. In addition, in recognition of the immediate pressures in the Dublin area, I provided a €4 million supplementary allocation to Dublin City Council in recent days. This was done in a context where the council had voted down an increase in its budget for homeless services. However, it is important to be aware that solving this problem is not all down to funding. I will go to the Cabinet and fight for more funding if that is needed, but it is not all that is required. It is also about processes and ensuring everybody is working together.
I hope Members will agree that the ultimate solution to ending homelessness in the long term is to increase the supply of homes. A dramatic increase in the supply of homes in the medium term is necessary. Last week I launched the Government's new six year social housing strategy which sets out to provide 35,000 new social housing units at a cost of €3.8 billion. The strategy restores the State to a central position in the provision of social housing through a resumption of direct building on a significant scale by local authorities and approved housing bodies, AHBs. This will be supplemented with the housing assistance payment and rental accommodation schemes, which aim to meet the housing needs of more than 70,000 households.
As I noted, homelessness is a complex issue and rough sleeping is its most disturbing manifestation. Some 168 individuals were identified in the count of rough sleepers in Dublin, conducted on the night of 11 November. Worryingly, this is an increase of 20% on the figure of 139 individuals recorded during November 2013, and highlights the scale of the issue.
While the factors leading to rough sleeping are complex, this does not take away from the fact that it is not acceptable that people should not sleep on the streets of our major urban centres. In response to the issue of rough sleeping, the Dublin housing authorities have established a new Housing First service which has been operational since 1 October 2014. This service is being provided through Focus Ireland and the Peter McVerry Trust and has responsibility for engaging and responding to the accommodation and support needs of people sleeping rough in the Dublin region. It is expected that this Housing First service will secure a minimum of 140 tenancies for long-term homeless individuals over a three year period.
Arrangements are also under way since the November rough sleeper count took place to increase the emergency bed capacity in Dublin. The number of emergency accommodation beds available in the Dublin region, including hotel beds, was 1,526. The Dublin housing authorities have indicated that an additional 164 emergency beds are now being added to the system; some of these are already operational and all but 20 of the 164 additional beds will be in place within the next two weeks. The remainder will come on-stream in the first week in January.
Other work that is under way is the continuation of the prevention campaign, run by Threshold in conjunction with Dublin City Council and the Department of Social Protection. The new service has played an important part in assisting in raising awareness among families and others of their tenants' rights and where to go for support. More than 2,350 calls have been made to the service to date and it is playing a really important part in helping to stem the flow of families becoming homeless. The tenancy sustainment protocol between Dublin City Council, the Department of Social Protection, the other Dublin housing authorities and Threshold as part of that prevention campaign has supported in excess 200 households to remain in rented accommodation which was under threat due to inability to pay increased rents.
All of these actions are part of the Government's wider implementation plan on the State's response to homelessness. Given the homelessness pressures in the capital, Dublin City Council also has an action plan in place as part of this wider national plan. I can assure the House that the Government is fully committed to tackling the issue of homelessness. In February 2013, we published our homelessness policy statement in which we outlined our aim to end involuntary long-term homelessness by the end of 2016. The implementation plan outlines how the 2016 objectives can be achieved. The plan contains in excess of 80 actions. It will be no small undertaking to achieve this target, but it is something that has to be achieved and it will be achieved. I am committed to doing everything I can to ensure we deliver. However, we will achieve much more for homeless people by working on a collaborative basis. That is what the summit tomorrow is all about. My priority for tomorrow is to bring everyone together to discuss this very serious issue to see how we can work better together collectively. The requirements of the State and the support of the Government will be made available. I have outlined some of the various actions we have taken, all of which are moving in the right direction. We need to ensure that working together as a Government with the local authorities, the various NGOs, the State agencies, the HSE and other agencies that we can have processes in place that ensure people are not falling between the cracks. There is no best practice way of dealing with this issue. I am sure everybody agrees with this.
All individual cases are different. We need to ensure we provide the supports and not just the accommodation. If it was a case of just providing the accommodation I am sure we could do that, but we also need to provide the accommodation with the services and supports for the people who find themselves in this situation. Everyone's situation is different, whether it is a family in a vulnerable financial situation or a person with complex issues with drug addiction, mental health issues or whatever else. We need to ensure everybody is working together to ensure the needs of all these people are met. The aim is to see if we can solidify on that and if we can plug any gaps. There may be some new ideas. I have often said nobody has a monopoly of ideas or ways of doing things.
I am going into this summit with an open mind. I intend to implement the strategy we have already designed but I also want people to work with me. I want to ensure all the accommodation services provided by the NGOs are achieving what was intended. I want to see accommodation that is available for people, which is currently not in use, being opened up. It is not something over which I have full control but it is time we tackled the issue as to why accommodation provided by some organisations is not yet open and how we can help them to do this. We need to get through that issue. There is a whole range of other issues involved.
I was very taken by the statement of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and others who will attend the summit tomorrow, on the manner in which they will help to address this issue. Everyone has a role. I will take all advice and help in the right spirit. This important issue is above the normal political debate. It is an issue of society and one that collectively we all want dealt with in the best way possible.
I thank Minister of State for coming to the House. A cross-party and a cross-sectoral approach should be adopted but that is not to say the Government cannot do more and that we should not point out to the Government where we think policies are failing and must be changed. We have a number of ideas and pictures of homelessness. There is the poor unfortunate person who has got into addiction difficulties or family troubles. We know that only too well. I express my sympathy to the friends and family of Mr. Corrie. I do not know anything about him and do not attribute those characteristics to him. That he died puts a shame on all of us here.
There is one image of the homeless. I have been informed by local authority staff in County Meath that image is not typical of the people presenting as homeless in County Meath. I was told today that long gone is the average picture of the alcoholic or the drug addict presenting in Navan for homeless accommodation. The typical client of the emergency housing services in County Meath at present is the working poor. As of last week, 560 people in my own county, presented as homeless this year. Their circumstances are all different. Many of them are the working poor who cannot afford rents and cannot afford to live in accommodation in their own county. For many of them it is not their own county as they may have moved from Dublin where rents are even more expensive. In County Meath there are only four houses available that come under any of the rental supplement thresholds - two bed apartments in a rural town in north Meath and a rural town in south Meath.
There were only two available. Out of a total of four, only two were available to recipients of rent supplement. There is nothing out there for people to rent. The average rent in County Meath is nearly 50% higher than the rent supplement threshold. It is not possible to rent a property - there is nothing available. In a town in south County Meath a man was sleeping rough last night and homeless services personnel are well aware of the situation. There was a family - thankfully it was during the summer - who were living in a tent near a town in south County Meath. The parents had to tell their child that they were on holidays. They had been put out of their house because they could not afford the rent. That is the reality.
Ideally, housing costs should equate to 30% of net income. If one wanted to rent in Ashbourne, for example, one would have to be earning €3,000 net per month. If an average family wanted to rent a three-bedroom house in Kells, they would need to be earning €2,373 per month because the average rent for one of the four properties available to rent is €712 per month. In the most expensive area for renting which is Slane, there are six properties available with an average rent of €1,125 per month. That means that one would have to be earning almost €4,000 per month for that rent to equate to 30% of income. The typical person cannot afford this. I know of a public servant who earns around €2,000 net per month who cannot afford €1,000 per month in rent. It is simply unaffordable. In the town in question, there are only two properties available to let anyway and I do not know if the landlords would accept rent supplement. That person, quite frankly, would be better off on social welfare.
There are people all over the place who are receiving notices from their landlords that their rent is increasing or that the properties they are renting are being sold. In most cases they are getting the appropriate amount of notice and the landlords are entitled, by law, to put them out. What do they do then? They ring up homeless services in County Meath and if they are from Dunboyne, Navan or Kells they often have to go elsewhere to be housed. It is very difficult to house people. I have seen families split up, with women being accommodated in women's shelters and men sleeping on the floor in their parents' houses. That is not even as bad as it gets. That is the picture now. Families are being split up because they cannot afford their rent. We must supply housing urgently, although I am not talking about a bonanza for developers. The Government must play its part and treat this issue with the urgency it deserves. This situation will get a whole lot worse before it gets better.
There is certainly a huge problem with people sleeping rough in Dublin and there is also some of it in my own county. The biggest problem in Meath, however, is the fact that ordinary working families cannot afford rental properties. On the issue of rent supplement, all of the relevant organisations are saying that it must be increased and I agree with them. Anyone in receipt of rent supplement in County Meath must be falsifying the forms and I do not blame them. They must be paying money under the counter to landlords because there are no properties available at the rent supplement caps. That must be happening wholesale. I understand that community welfare officers have discretion to increase the rent supplement but they do not do so, from what I have been told. They generally do not do it. County council staff have told me that they can always justify expenditure on emergency accommodation and the same should apply in the Department of Social Protection. Community welfare officers should be given a lot more discretion by their bosses to increase rent supplement payments. Kildare was given an increase although I am not sure if it matches the levels of rent in that county. County Meath was not given an increase for some reason.
People are being pushed to the pin of their collar financially and are being squeezed out of their homes. When people ring me and other public representatives we do not know what to say to them. We can make representations to the local authorities but if the latter do not have housing available, what can be done? That is what it comes down to in the end. We must increase the supply of housing and also make sure the relevant agencies are dealing with one another more effectively. County councils should be able to ask community welfare officers to increase the rent supplement in certain cases and the community welfare officers should do so. If it is an emergency, they must do it. As we can find money for other emergencies, we must find money for this.
I have invited a formerly homeless man to come to the House tomorrow to speak to Members. I hope it will be helpful to Members. He has been an advocate for housing for homeless people for a long time. He slept in hostels and homeless shelters for two years and has many ideas on the issue. I am sure some of the men and women on the streets now could tell us a thing or two about what should be done. They are at the coalface; we are not. We have all met them and spoken to them, but we need to hear their views on the issue.
Let us not forget the working poor. They are at the coalface of contributing to the economic recovery that we hope is coming but they cannot afford to live in a house. It is madness. If the Minister can solve that problem we will do whatever we can to support him. We really need the Minister to solve this problem.
I am delighted to be speaking on this issue. I welcome the Minister for this debate. It is a very sad day for everybody but particularly for the Corrie family. I extend my sympathy to them. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.
As the Minister has said, homelessness has many and varied facets. The Government has launched a major initiative to address it. It is tragic that just after the major initiative was launched this very sad death occurred. The 2020 construction initiative was launched last May. A lot of the 72 actions in the plan have come too late for Mr. Corrie, but I hope there will not be another Mr. Corrie on our watch.
Having been a councillor for over 20 years on South Dublin County Council I have dealt with a lot of people who were looking for homes or who were about to lose their homes. In many cases, there was nothing suitable available, particularly for single men. This is an area where prevention is always better than cure. There must be a cross-cutting theme between Departments of Health, and the Environment, Community and Local Government, and the local authorities. Tomorrow's forum, initiated by the Minister, will bring all of the relevant groups together to ensure there is a cross-cutting theme and to try to prevent and stamp it out before it gets any worse.
As Senator Thomas Byrne pointed out, there are people who are presenting as homeless now who would never have presented before because of the increases in rents. However, there is a danger in increasing the rent caps because ruthless landlords might see that as an opportunity. I commend the many voluntary groups working with the homeless, providing them with shelter and food, including the Simon Community, the Peter McVerry Trust, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Crosscare. We should be very thankful to them because without their voluntary work we would be in a far worse place. There have been cutbacks in the funding to such voluntary services and that should be looked at. We must ensure that they are able to continue to do their valuable work.
There are many reasons people such as Mr. Corrie become homeless. Not everyone is suited to the type of emergency accommodation that is offered or available and perhaps Mr. Corrie was one of those people. It is a great pity. Different types of accommodation suit different people. We do not have specialist services in this country for people who refuse accommodation, for whatever reason. Perhaps we do not have enough wet hostels. Some people may not want to go into a hostel because they cannot have a drink or if people like to drink, they may down a bottle before they go in. That is bad. We do not have enough special accommodation; nor do we have enough people with the skills and experience to understand the needs of people on the street. The problems cannot be hived off into A, B or C. There is more to homelessness than just providing housing. Services are also needed. There are many reasons people become homeless, including behavioural issues and social phobias which can prevent people from making proper use of existing services. The needs of people with mental health problems, alcohol or drug dependency and so forth are not being met effectively by the homeless, mainstream and voluntary services.
The latter have been put to the pin of their collar to provide services. I should, of course, also mention that victims of domestic violence can become homeless.
A case management approach should be taken in respect of each of the 168 people living rough on the streets of Dublin. Such an approach would ensure we would know the reason they are homeless and the nature of the problems they are experiencing. A number of key groups are potentially at risk of becoming homeless, including those leaving institutional care - whether custodial or health-related - and young people leaving care. A strategy was drawn up in this regard in 2005 or 2006. While there have been improvements, these have not reached the standard required. I heard a girl interviewed on radio last week who stated that her brother became homeless when he left a care situation. Obviously, he did not avail of follow-up supports. There are some such supports in place but they are not adequate. A system should be put in place under the auspices of the preventive strategy to monitor those who may be at risk of becoming homeless when they leave institutional or other care. This matter must be addressed, particularly in terms of the fact that one arm of the State appears to be causing trouble for another. It would be much better if State agencies and entities worked together.
Those who become homeless suffer poor health and lose contact with family and friends and often have a history of being in institutional care or of being involved in criminal or antisocial activity. Research from the United States shows that high-quality child care and early education can provide enriching experiences that promote children's positive and healthy development. I often refer to the importance of child care and will continue to do so, particularly as children can teach their parents. If families are involved in dealing with matters together, it can lead to situations being dealt with before they really develop. Work can be done with the Department of Health in respect of this issue because Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, comes within its remit. We must try to ensure that children who are living in hostels, who are in care, who are homeless or who are at risk all receive preschool education.
Mothers are often turfed out of hotels or whatever and are obliged to walk the streets with their children. Those children are as entitled to receive preschool education as any of their peers. They should not be obliged to walk the streets. For every €1,000 the State invests in making interventions in respect of children between the ages of two and five, it achieves a dividend of €100,000. I am not just saying this, evidence from the United States and elsewhere indicates that it is the case. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act in the United States requires that homeless children of preschool age have equal access to the same public preschool programmes as children who are not homeless. Under the case management system in the United States, the authorities are able to identify homeless people who have children and can make provision for them to attend preschool facilities. Such facilities might not be in the immediate vicinity but they are usually somewhere close by.
There is a need to collect better data regarding the nature and causes of homelessness and to use consistent methodologies in respect of the information gap. There is also a need to improve co-ordination of capital. The Minister outlined the new initiatives that have been introduced. In that regard, €10 million from the local authority capital assistance scheme was allocated to Dublin City Council and last month an additional €4 million was provided. The Minister referred to the length of time it takes to get void social housing units back into use. It is seven months since €35 million was made available for the refurbishment of these voids. I am concerned about this matter because the units in question do not have to be built from scratch, they merely need to be refurbished. I accept that it took some time for the capital to come on stream but only a few of the units in question have come back into use. When the Minister addressed the Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht yesterday, he emphasised the need to speed up the process relating to the refurbishment of voids.
I am sure we will revisit this matter because it cannot be dealt with in a single debate. When we do so, I hope the news relating to it will be better than is the case today. There has, however, been an element of good news in that additional money is being allocated.
I welcome the Minister. According to the Simon Community, the official count for rough sleepers last month was 168. This represents a 30% increase in the period since spring of this year. The number is double that which obtained in November 2012. This is a time of many sickening firsts and all-time highs. For example, there are now over 1,600 adults and 680 children in emergency accommodation, which has never happened before. Some 39% of those 1,600 adults are women. Again, that has never happened before. Emergency accommodation is turning into long-term accommodation with no viable options on to which people can transition. This has also never happened before. Many people have given up seeking emergency accommodation, while others believe themselves to be safer on the streets than in such accommodation. As Senator Thomas Byrne outlined, individuals and families are being evicted from private rental properties every day because they are unable to meet rent increases in an unfettered market.
We all agree that we have an emergency on our hands. The numbers of people on the streets are increasing steadily and we need to act. Any action we take must be real and must not be a knee-jerk, panicky reaction to the tragic death of Jonathan Corrie. We must put in place a dedicated and sustained response that deals with the crisis holistically. This is not just a homelessness crisis, it is a housing crisis. The housing crisis to which I refer is characterised by a shortage in the social housing sector and a serious lack of affordability in the private rental sector and is being exacerbated by an absence in rent regulation, a rent supplement scheme which is completely out of sync with actual rental prices and the absence of measures to prohibit landlords discriminating against tenants who are on rent supplement. The unprecedented crisis in the social housing and private rental sectors means that non-typical individuals are either being placed at risk of homelessness or are actually becoming homeless. For example, there are as many as 150 families in emergency hotel accommodation. The majority of these families have been pushed out of the private rental sector by spiralling rents. Aside from the massive cost to the State, this hotel and bed-and-breakfast accommodation is completely inappropriate and hugely disruptive for families and children - some of whom may be obliged to move schools as a result of being in such accommodation - and is potentially unsafe. I call on Government to family-proof all forms of emergency accommodation immediately and to co-ordinate with the Child and Family Agency and emergency accommodation staff in respect of child protection.
This crisis is putting unprecedented pressure on front-line services and pushing those more typically vulnerable to homelessness, namely, those with addiction issues and mental health difficulties, children who are becoming too old to be held in care by the State and the victims of domestic violence, further and further out onto the margins. These people only resurface to public and political attention when one of them dies sleeping rough on the doorstep of a building near the national Parliament.
A recently published report compiled by consultants for the Private Residential Tenancies Board indicates that rent control would make the housing market worse. Focus Ireland rejected this finding and maintains that rent regulation is a crucial part of a suite of measures which should include an increase in rent supplement to reflect the actual cost of rent and tax breaks for landlords to encourage them to rent their properties. I also subscribe to a measure of rent regulation against an index - as is the case in many other European countries - or in line with inflation. Many of the initiatives which have been taken are to be commended but there are nearly always caveats attached to these. For example, Housing 2020 and the recently announced social housing strategy are welcome but, realistically, meaningful delivery on these is 18 months to two years away. The new rent increase protocol agreed with the Department of Social Protection for families at imminent risk of homelessness is only available in Dublin. What is really needed is a level of flexibility throughout the system and at an earlier juncture. The housing assistance payment has received a positive response from landlords because it is a guaranteed "around rental" payment but it does not prohibit them from refusing to accept tenants who are in receipt of financial support. How are people to find suitable accommodation within the maximum rent limits? Excellent recommendations have been made in respect of these and many other matters by Focus Ireland, Threshold, Dublin Simon Community and the Peter McVerry Trust. The solutions are available, they just need to be implemented.
I wish to briefly discuss something a number of colleagues in this House said yesterday concerning Jonathan Corrie and the fact that he had declined to take up all offers of assistance and accommodation made to him during the 30 years for which he was homeless. I did not know Jonathan Corrie. I sympathise deeply with his friends and family following his death. I do not know what was his mental health status. Examples of people failing to take up an intervention and seemingly choosing to remain homeless need to be viewed in the light of the report recently compiled by the Dublin Simon Community which contains statistics indicating that 71% of its service users have mental health difficulties. Of these individuals, 63% have been diagnosed with depression, 46% have been diagnosed with anxiety, 11% have been diagnosed with schizophrenia and a further 11% have been diagnosed with psychosis. A very high proportion of people who are homeless have addiction issues.
Furthermore, a very high proportion of people who have a mental health difficulty also have an addiction issue.
I call on the Government to urgently implement the key recommendations from Mental Health Reform who are represented in the Visitors Gallery: fully staff homeless outreach mental health teams; ring-fence local authority housing for people being discharged from psychiatric hospitals; and provide on-tap, in-house mental health expertise within homeless services, for example, Merchants Quay Ireland has an in-house mental health nurse full time, to provide support to clients other staff members are concerned about. There are anecdotal reports to show this works because it has reduced the number of people having to access mental health supports through accident and emergency departments when in a crisis. We need to establish a dual diagnosis service for people with a mental health and addiction or alcohol misuse problem. This is long overdue. We have the reports, the plans and the expertise, particularly in the non-governmental organisation community. We need sustained and persistent action.
I welcome the Minister and hope he will be here again soon to discuss the social housing strategy and to have a more wide-ranging discussion on the private rental sector. We could expand the debate on homelessness into one that concerns the private rental sector. I also extend my sympathy to the family of Jonathan Corrie. No society can call itself civilised when people are sleeping on the streets. I welcome the Minister’s announcement of the special forum on homelessness to be held tomorrow. The people he is gathering together, the local authorities, the elected representatives and members of the voluntary organisations are the ones with the real capacity to provide solutions to the problems we face. It is a positive development to include Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and I welcome his commitment to bringing on stream church property to house homeless people.
It is unfortunate that Jonathan Corrie’s life has had a lot of media attention in the past three days. It has got much more attention than he got when he was alive. A certain amount of the media reporting focused on certain issues in his past and his history of substance abuse. It is important to bear in mind that we are facing a serious crisis in homelessness today. It did not start yesterday or the day before but we have to acknowledge its changing nature. The real issue we see now that we did not see five or six years ago is that people are homeless today because housing is too expensive.
I am chairperson of Threshold the national housing charity. I welcome the people in the Visitors Gallery from the Dublin Region Homeless Executive and the Peter McVerry Trust. I commend the work of other voluntary organisations, Focus Ireland, the Simon Community and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. One might get the impression because there has been so much talk about homelessness recently that frontline organisations have not been grappling seriously with this problem for a long time. We are very much ad idem about what needs to be done. Almost every voluntary organisation that I am aware of cites the significant increase in rents as a major cause of homelessness. Almost without exception every voluntary organisation that I am aware of has said that we absolutely must change the rules on rent supplement and increase the rent caps. Anybody can read the daft.ie survey and see that €950 will not secure family accommodation in the Dublin region. That is a fact. Last October, Threshold published a report which stated that 50% of social welfare tenants getting rent supplement were topping up their rental payments out of their social welfare payments. They were going without food and heat and putting their children into poverty because they could not afford to pay their rents.
We could talk for a long time about how in the past 25 years we came to depend on rent supplement and why so many people live in the private rental sector instead of social housing where they ought to be with the kind of security that would give them. The fact is they are living in the private rental sector. The State cannot pretend they are living anywhere else. The Minister cannot turn around and pretend that a real rent is €950 when actually it is €1,400. We have to step up to the plate because people are losing their homes day in and day out because they cannot afford to pay those rents.
I have heard the argument that if we pay real rents we will push the rental values up. I have looked at rental values over the past few years. There were three successive cuts in rent supplement over several years and not once did rents fall. We have to consider the evidence for saying that if we increase rent supplement we will push up overall rental values. The issue is more significant than this. It is a question of who stays in their home. Our priority has to be keeping people in their homes and preventing them from losing them. All the voluntary organisations have seen people who say they could keep the roof over their heads for €100, €150 or €200.
I was gratified to hear the Minister mention the tenancy protection service. Since it was set up in June it received 2,560 calls, of which 1,111 families were at immediate risk of losing their homes. To date 313 tenancies have been protected. They have got into the protocol. That is a little like the aeroplanes hovering over Heathrow Airport. They have to land eventually. We can say that the service has been successful in the short term in protecting people but the problem is bigger than that. While I very much admire what the Minister has done on social housing construction, with the best will in the world, we are 12 to 18 months away from providing any real new social housing construction. I respect the fact that the Minister has approximately 600 voids coming on stream and has pledged 25% of them to people who are homeless. However, 1,111 families are at immediate risk of losing their homes. That figure is escalating daily. We have to accept that if we are going to depend on the market to house people privately, we will have to pay market rents because if we do not they will be displaced by people who can afford to pay more.
I know that the Minister is concerned about constitutional issues arising from rent certainty. DKM Economic Consultants was against it but the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, has come out in favour of it. Every voluntary organisation that I am aware of has come out in favour of it. People need certainty. They need to know that their kids will be in the same school in a year’s time. Nobody is suggesting landlords should not get a fair return. That is why I do not believe there will be constitutional issues. That return, however, has to be limited by the consumer price index or some reasonable rate of return if that money was invested in Government bonds and so forth, taking the cost of providing that rental accommodation into account. I ask the Minister to consider that issue again.
We were spending €512 million on rent supplement in 2010. We are spending €344 million on it in 2014. Some of that drop is due to people returning to work, which is excellent but a significant amount of it is due to the fact that people simply cannot access housing at those rent supplement limits. I ask the Minister to ring-fence rent supplement, ensure every penny in rent supplement stays in rent supplement and does not go into anybody else’s budget.
I welcome the Minister. We all wish him every success in bringing his talents and energies to dealing with this problem. I am delighted he is tackling the slow turnover of local authority houses when they become vacant. A former Minister of State with responsibility for housing, Deputy Willie Penrose, was examining derelict sites.
I do not know whether he is any help in getting sites for housing. We heard that the refusal rate of ghost estate houses by local authorities was something like 90%. Those houses are there and it would take very little to bring many of them up to a habitable standard. As Senator Aideen Hayden said, it will take a long time to bring other new accommodation on stream.
One must admit that we have housing that is not affordable in the full sense. The construction industry must be confronted about that. We had the worst price performance in the boom. The Economist monitored house prices across all the OECD countries and Ireland had by far the highest price increase. Last week, the Governor of the Central Bank noted a 42% increase in house prices. What is wrong with the Irish construction industry? Why are its costs excessive compared to Germany, even, as people like Ronan Lyons in TCD has documented? Why has it generated no productivity performance like the rest of us, including the public sector, have in the economy in the past few years? We have houses that cost far too much to build. Brendan Burgess gave evidence to the finance committee last week that taxes, VAT, levies and planning laws add €67,000 to the price of a €200,000 house. That is worth exploring.
Why have we pushed housing out of the reach of so many people? It was a bonanza that local authorities all cashed in on with development levies and so on, but it is time to stop that because we will have a serious social problem and a serious economic problem also. High house prices push up our costs as an economy. This has become a serious issue. We need reforms on social housing. As the Minister knows, Dr. Garret FitzGerald chaired the Lord Mayor's commission on housing in Dublin in 1992 and again he pointed out that the houses were expensive to build, expensive to maintain, both on the cost side and regarding the demands of the tenants, and the rents were low. It was extremely difficult and they had to be given away virtually as gifts to the tenants. Rents should be linked to the incomes of the people in those houses. We gave away the social housing stock we had to tackle these problems in the 1990s. Those problems must be addressed - the high administration costs and also certain social aspects. We cannot see headlines describing the Minister's proposals as "a bonanza for the construction industry" any longer. We must look at people who flip houses and earn massive capital gains. The housing market is for shelter, not for capital gains acquisition and not for tax reduction purposes. That nexus between banking and building must also be examined.
In these grim times, there may be a social bonus that is not expected when the Minister tackles the housing problem. We have tended to stress the social aspect, perhaps because of the tragic events across the street, but much US research shows that keys can solve social problems. Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said: "If you move people into permanent supportive housing first, and then give them help, it seems to work better. It is intuitive, in a way. People do better when they have stability." Another study from Georgia showed that a person who stayed in an emergency shelter or transitional housing was five times as likely as someone who received a rapid rehousing to become homeless again. Perhaps our ambassador in Washington could help the Minister on the Housing First programme, which, like the Minister's speech, enjoys bipartisan support in the United States. Social problems can be solved by giving people the stability. A Colorado study found that the average homeless person cost the state $43,000 a year, while housing that person would cost just $17,000. If the Minister can solve the other problems by giving people keys, a property and a whole door for themselves, he is entitled to ask some of the other Ministers around the Cabinet table for assistance in his housing programme.
The success of the Housing First programme, on a bipartisan basis, in New York and other parts of the United States indicates that it is a model to follow. We must, however, confront what happened social housing the last time we tried it and it was so expensive that we virtually gave it away, and tackle the question of why the building industry in general in Ireland is so non-cost-competitive by international standards. I would add to that the short-term solutions I mentioned, with looking at how many social problems we could solve if the Minister had enough money in his housing budget. The keys could solve those problems. The Minister's attendance in the House is deeply appreciated.
I also welcome the Minister. This is our first opportunity to welcome him since his significant announcement last week about a multi-annual social housing programme, which is ultimately the one way of reducing homelessness. As we all know, homelessness is a very complex problem, which requires multi-agency intervention to resolve. Many homeless people unfortunately have drink problems and other addiction problems and from a health perspective we need a significant increase in the number of addiction counsellors in Dublin and other cities. The Minister is working on some practical things and the round-table meeting he has organised tomorrow involving the CEOs of the various local authorities, who have a critical role to play in this, along with the NGOs and the support services, etc., is very welcome.
One thing we could do - I suggest the Minister look into doing it - is to bring in legislation to cap rents because there is nothing in the free market to stop rents increasing. If rents go up 10%, that will affect another tranche of individuals, who will struggle to pay it. If they go up by 20%, it will hit yet another tranche of individuals and families who are not in a position to cope. We cannot have a situation where families are in hotel rooms. That is not acceptable. The free market is a great thing in some ways, but we need some sort of legislative cap on rents. We must also ensure that when people find themselves in a situation where their rents are increased, support services are there to advise them, whether it is a contact in local authorities to advise them how to deal with or negotiate with their landlords, or what their rights are, or perhaps the PRTB could facilitate advising and helping individuals who might not be able to advocate for themselves, to equip and assist them in advocating.
It is a desperate crisis and coming up to Christmas, the last thing we want to be talking about in this House is homelessness. Unfortunately, we will never eliminate it, but we must try to get it under control. Homelessness is a factor in most world cities. I would love to know where best practice is, and if there is a best practice in terms of dealing with it. The only way we can deal with it is by ensuring we put as many resources as possible into areas like addiction - in terms of drugs, alcoholism, and so on.
We had a very successful rural resettlement programme in the 1980s and early 1990s, where the depopulation of rural Ireland facilitated bringing families out of Dublin and settling them in villages. That was very successful in parts of north Clare, which the Minister would know of, in places like Moy and Mullagh in County Clare, where families are settled and have integrated completely with the community. I suggest that where there are ghost estates that are under the control of NAMA, if it were possible to make those estates homes, or at least acceptable accommodation, and to offer people on the social housing lists in Dublin, for example, the opportunity to move to a rural environment, one would be surprised by the number of people on the social housing list in Dublin who would relish the opportunity to move to a rural area. It would also help with school numbers and so on.
We must think outside the box. In fairness to this Minister, he has been in office for 16 or 17 weeks and he has already had to deal with a significant water difficulty and this homelessness issue. He is getting down and playing ground hurling to resolve it because he knows that everyone deserves to have a roof over their head. I wish him well in that endeavour and we are only too happy to do anything we can in the Seanad in fomenting debate and coming up with ideas and suggestions.
I thank the Minister for coming to the Seanad. My hope is the fruits of our exchange this evening will assist him in his preparations for the homelessness summit which has been convened for tomorrow and any work subsequent to it.
An immense ethical imperative has arisen in the wake of Jonathan Corrie's death. It obliges all those with homes to be involved in supporting a solution for those who have no homes. That is, perhaps, the best way to offer our sympathy. The Minister will be aware that homelessness and sleeping rough arises out of complex causes. As identified by him in his recently published housing strategy, the under-funding for the provision of social housing and rising rents in the private sector are the principal underlying causes of the housing crisis and the increasing number of families losing their homes.
I would like to focus on some elements of a sustainable solution that could be considered and may need to be incorporated into the Minister's ambitious and welcome plans thus far. First, in terms of the outcome of the summit, will the Minister put in place a five or ten-point plan to solve the problem of a sufficient, consistent supply of emergency accommodation and will he put in place a practical and implementable urgent timeframe within which to deliver sufficiency and consistency? Who will be charged with monitoring this? Second, is there a need for legislative changes, which was also mentioned by other Senators, in terms of the intense debate around whether rents should be controlled in order to curb unsustainable increases and to increase stability and certainty with regard to individuals and families having a home? Whereas it may not be wise to cap rents, are the Minister and the Government pursuing any type of legislative change to provide a graded-type of control to rents or to provide longer notice periods or extend the security of tenure provisions in the Residential Tenancies Act?
Another gap in our legislation not commented on as much that may require change is the fact that there is no legal obligation on local authorities to provide shelter. When an individual or family becomes homeless and presents to a local authority, as much as that local authority wants to provide shelter, it is sometimes unable to do so. If our laws included a legal obligation to provide shelter would such a catalyst spark other changes downstream in order that no one individual or family ends up living in a car or on the street if willing to accept the accommodation offered?
Third is the need to increase the rent supplement, about which others have spoken. If the Minister or the Government have ruled out any legislative changes to place restrictions on rent - I do think that is not wise - are they not then obliged to find a sustainable way to increase rent supplement? Should it not be one or the other or, perhaps, even both? Fourth, a coherence of strategies is also important. For strategies to cohere they must not contradict each other. News reports today indicate that NAMA has started paying off the second half of its €30.2 billion debt with the repayment of a €1 billion bond. We are also told that it is on track to return a modest profit to the Exchequer. In a recent article published in The Irish Times Dr. Rory Hearne makes the charge that the Minister's housing strategy failed to reform NAMA and that this leaves Government policy with a fundamental contradiction. He argues that NAMA's objective to achieve a maximum commercial return to the State is fuelling high rents by pandering to investors. For example, as part of its strategy to sell units at the highest price, NAMA recently advertised that a portfolio of properties would provide a residential rent income of €10.6 million. NAMA also has the mandate to contribute to the social and economic development of the State and does so by way of a special purpose vehicle set up to sell or lease NAMA residential properties for social housing. Dr. Hearne says that the housing strategy should have ensured that NAMA delivers far more than the 2,250 social housing units by 2020 that are incorporated into that strategy. If this means that NAMA does not make a profit those who will be most affected will be the private investors rather than the Irish people who paid for the write down of the loans, some of whom are now homeless.
We are all in agreement that emergency accommodation is required but the underlying social problems and solutions lie much deeper. Ireland needs a massive social reinvestment to tackle those problems and a comprehensive and coherent approach to our economic and social policies.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey.
I will make only a brief contribution as much has been already said. In terms of the summit to be held tomorrow, two things need to emerge. In calling a summit any Minister or body raises an enormous expectation of some solution. It is clear there are no easy solutions. People like Senator Aideen Hayden and others in the Visitors Gallery have been working for decades trying to solve the problem of housing.
In holding a summit tomorrow, at least two things need to happen. First, at the end of the summit politics must have been taken out of this. All of us in this House would like to see a roof over peoples' heads and people cared for by the State, yet there are many people who persist in playing politics with homelessness. Scaremongering and screaming do not help. If we are to have a summit it ought to be one that takes the politics out of this issue.
Second, whatever is decided there will be a cost involved. The Minister said earlier that this is not really a matter of funding. In regard to the emergency aspects of homelessness, anyone who has ever been on the street with homeless people, as I know people in the Visitors Gallery have been, as I have been, will know that many of them have extraordinary difficulties in their lives. While provision of a tent, van or caravan for a night is fine, it will not solve the problem. There is a need for outreach programmes and mental health and addiction services for the specific group of rough sleepers. That costs time and money and requires a programme. There is no point in pretending that in providing one or 20 additional beds we are going to solve the problems for this particular group of people. We know that for some people, taking up a bed is not what they know how to or want to do, or they have had it all before and do not want it anymore. They need something more. Therefore, if following the summit, 30 additional beds are provided that will not solve that problem. I do not want the end result to be 30 additional beds because 30 additional beds will only solve the problem for a week, possibly, or even one day.
For me, the emergency crisis we are in is I hope the purpose of the summit. Some of the matters outlined by the Minister in his programme announcement last week are good in terms of the need for a longer term solution to housing up to 2020 in order to address some of the problems that have arisen in the past 20 years. The proposals around investment in the construction of more houses and the restoration of void houses and so on are also welcome. However, in terms of this crisis area, without a coherent strategy - I do not know if the Minister of State with responsibility for mental health will attend the summit tomorrow - or joined-up thinking between the Departments on this issue, a coherent solution will never be found.
It is interesting perhaps to look back to 2006, when the Simon Community reported that there were 55 untimely deaths of people who were homeless that year. That is more than one death a week. This happened in 2006 when the garden appeared to be very rosy. We have not travelled far since in that we are still talking about the homeless. A summit will not solve that problem. It will crystalise it for a moment and gather people, but what is needed is a commitment to spending money seriously on the people who really need it. They need much more than a roof over their heads.
I, too, welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey. I also wish to be associated with the expressions of sympathy to the family and friends of the late Jonathan Corrie.
While the time allocated to the debate is welcome, it is tragic that it has taken the death of a citizen on our doorstep for it to be put on the agenda of both Houses this week. It is clear that the late Jonathan Corrie, like many others, has been failed by the State in myriad ways. As previous speakers said, it was not just in terms of housing, but the holistic measures needed by people who become homeless. Respected campaigners such as Fr. Peter McVerry, the Simon Community and Focus Ireland have repeatedly called for the provision of emergency accommodation to deal with the current homelessness crisis, yet the gravity of the issue has largely been ignored and there has been a refusal, for example, to introduce rent controls, to protect tenants or to take serious measures to tackle the housing issue before homelessness takes root. I very much agree with Senator Jillian van Turnhout who stated it is a housing crisis, not a homelessness crisis.
A state that cannot provide shelter and housing for its own people is by any measure a failed state. At least 2,500 adults and 800 children are in emergency accommodation currently nationally. The vast majority of them are in Dublin with the remainder primarily to be found in large urban centres such as Cork and Limerick. The reasons for people availing of emergency accommodation are not complicated. They are victims of the housing crisis and the economic collapse, which is still real for many people. As many speakers said, there are a number of issues to which a holistic response is needed across Departments and agencies. People need immediate shelter and care, but they also need a longer term plan, including a home to move into and protection from rent hikes and repossessions.
Efforts have been made to address this but the housing budget, for example, this year was €1 billion less than in 2008. Any increase in that is welcome but the additional €36 million a year that has been allocated will not solve the crisis. Efforts have also been made to massage the housing needs statistics by designating HAP recipients as appropriately housed. There are 74,000 people on rent supplement, almost all of whom are on housing waiting lists. The HAP would remove them from the lists but not house them adequately.
Private rented accommodation rates are unsustainable and many rent supplement households have lost their homes in recent times. The Government plans to continue to spend more than €500 million on private rent subsidies but nothing is being done to house the families concerned. This is a devastating crisis, which requires immediate action to keep people in their homes, to provide accommodation for those who lost theirs and to build homes to overcome the need for emergency accommodation and end long-term homelessness. We cannot continue as we have for the past three years waiting for what Fr. Peter McVerry called "a tsunami of homelessness". The Government has hinted at a greater role for voluntary bodies and while they provide a great service and have an important role to play, they cannot solve the problem and they should not be expected to.
Writing in the Irish Examiner today, Ruairi McKiernan, a social campaigner and member of the Council of State, referred to the 100,000 Homes Campaign, a winner of the 2013 World Habitat Award and the brainchild of a non-profit organisation, Community Solutions. This campaign is an ambitious, community-led movement, which has led to permanent housing for more than 105,000 chronically homeless Americans in under four years and the campaign seeks to end a reliance on hotels, bed and breakfast accommodation and homeless shelters. Instead, it advocates that the homeless should be given housing and supports without delay. It supports 186 communities to work together to end homelessness in a co-ordinated national effort. Each community signs up free and reports its housing placements each month towards meeting an ambitious, measurable and timebound goal. He mentions in the article that this idea is currently being supported by Ashoka Ireland. Is the Minster of State aware of this? Has there been any engagement with this group on the issue?
Detailed plans are needed for investment in follow-on housing for those in emergency accommodation with targets and deadlines. There is obviously an urgent need for intervention in the private housing market to ensure empty properties are occupied. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House.
I welcome the Minister of State. It is important to acknowledge the work of many groups on the housing issue, in particular the Simon Community, local authorities, the Housing First service and Threshold, and that of the people who work for them on a voluntary basis. It is not an easy issue to resolve. I recall Cork County Council trying to open a wet shelter in the city when I was a member seven or eight years ago. The reason we wanted to open it was the number of people on the street who would not or could not access the Simon Community facility because they would not comply with the rules, particularly in the context of the consumption of alcohol. We opened the wet shelter and I recall the resistance in the local area to it. However, we achieved a compromise and proceeded to open it. That was long before the current crisis when plenty of property was available.
I also recall visiting a centre in Dublin a number of years ago which was run by someone I know well. There were 18 people in it at any given time and they had all been living on the street. It was not a case of moving from the street back into permanent accommodation. They went through a rehabilitation process. Many of them were involved in drugs or serious drinking and the programme was designed to help them to get used to permanent accommodation and address the difficulties they had to go through in adjusting from the way of life they were living. It is not, therefore, a problem that can be sorted out overnight, especially for those who have lived for a long time on the streets.
On the housing issue, we need to examine how local authorities have been utilised and how the available funding has been used. I am not satisfied that money is being used well for local authority housing. There are many unanswered questions, which it appears some local authorities do not want to answer. I tabled an Adjournment debate recently about this. On the one hand, the Government provides money, but then we find a substantial delay in the spending of the money to refurbish accommodation and bring it back into use for people who badly need it. It is also strange that it took 12 weeks to restore an electricity connection to a house, which was recently refurbished by a local authority. I raised this issue at an earlier meeting. The house was vacant for those 12 weeks because the local authority and the ESB have to take ten steps to provide the connection. That is unacceptable, especially when there is such a demand for housing, and that issue needs to resolved.
Many people want to downsize from three and four bedroom houses and they are pleading with local authorities to allow them to do so. Their children have grown up and moved on and may not even be living in the country. They want to downsize to a one or two bedroom apartment because of the cost of heating and maintaining the house. Local authorities appear to be unable to deal with this serious issue.
Another issue relates to the houses of elderly people who are admitted to nursing homes which are left vacant. Once this happens, they are liable to be damaged. I have come across a number of cases where that has occurred.
The person is not going to return home from the nursing home. There is no other member of the family remaining in the house.
Another example is where someone dies. Houses might be left vacant for anything up to 18 months or two years after someone dying. He or she was the only person left in the house. The house is surrendered back to the local authority within three to four weeks of the person's death and yet 18 months or two years later the house is still vacant. Those are issues that are within our control and we could deal with them in a faster way. We need to fast-track how we deal with these issues. I am speaking about local authorities throughout the country. The lack of accountability needs to be tackled.
I wish to touch on our housing policy generally. We need to look for alternatives to what we have had for the last 50, 60 and 70 years. I have raised this issue in this House before. If one looks to Germany, a person can rent a house and the situation is somewhat permanent as the person has the property for 20 years. The person will be on a very low rent, but is responsible for the maintenance of the property. The person provides the furnishings, including a fitted kitchen and bathroom. However, it is possible to borrow the money to do these works, and at the same time the person is in the property at a low rent. We need to look seriously at alternatives that are working across the European Union. We have failed to do this. We have stuck with old policies and old ways of doing things. We have not been prepared to look at new ideas. We need to do this and we need to do it urgently.
I have a written speech with some lovely statistics in it on homelessness. However, it really does not mean a whole lot. Homelessness is about life chances. As people speak here tonight, I think back on my life and I think back to a time in 1983 when our business went bust. Lady Luck is either with you or against you. I was on the brink of handing up my house, which would have rendered me, my wife and two children homeless. I cannot say enough about my wife and how she got me through that period. Life chances changed my life. I got a break.
May Jonathan Corrie rest in peace. We would not be here tonight talking about this issue but for him. If his life is to mean anything, it has to mean a change of mindset. It has to mean that we, as legislators, stop thinking about rules and regulations and start thinking about solutions. Allocating €35 million to this or €50 million to that, for things which are going to be delivered over so many years, is not where it is all at. Where it is all at is the 168 or so people who are on the streets tonight, freezing cold. Some may die and some may not. Every one of them, at some stage, put a smile on a mother's face or had a present from a sister or brother.
We talk about alcoholism and drug abuse when we talk about homelessness. One of the great things about life is when you are really down and the world is kicking you, it is absolutely marvellous to be able to take a drink and forget about it all. The problem is whether you can get up the following morning and get on with life. That is the difference. Some people are so beaten they cannot. When we talk about people falling on hard times in this country, we are not satisfied they are on hard times and that we can intervene there and then. We wait for them to get into worse situations before we intervene. Official Ireland is the most difficult and heartless place. However, the people who work in official Ireland are not heartless people. They have sisters, brothers, mothers, and fathers. Some of them have people who are homeless.
There will always be people who will want to sleep on the streets, and there is nothing we can do about that. However, if we are serious about tackling homelessness, we have to talk about mindsets. We have to introduce an understanding of homelessness to our education system. We have to train gardaí, nurses, teachers, librarians and so forth to call for intervention there and then when they see a problem and not wait until the problem becomes so serious that we finish up with what we have seen this week.
I will be honest with the Minister of State. Every day I get off the Luas and walk to Leinster house, I pass homeless people. To my shame, my absolute shame, I turn my head the other way. I turn it the other way because they scare the living hell out of me, because one day I could have been there or I may be there at some stage in the future. None of us knows what life will bring. We have to stop the blame game, because a lot of it goes on in the world.
A task group is being put together tomorrow. I ask the Minister of State that the first thing the task group does is authorise Civil Defence to come out straight away. Homelessness is not a Christmas problem. It is a problem in society and it will go on until hell freezes over. However, we have spent millions of euro in this country building a fantastic set of equipment for situations of national catastrophe. Civil Defence co-ordinates this task. I would like it on the road tomorrow night erecting shelters, temporary as they may be. Every year for as long as I have lived, I have heard people saying we cannot ignore the homeless at Christmas. What is the difference between 25 December and 26 December? If a person is homeless, there is none.
We were recently told NAMA is going to return a profit. Do we need the profit? If there are buildings, whether residential or commercial, which can be turned into family accommodation, let us do that. Let us look at the way families can be housed. Senator Martin Conway spoke about the rural relocation scheme. If there are families homeless in Dublin or in any other city today who are willing to relocate to another part of the country and be given some form of subvention to keep them in body and soul until they get on their feet, let us look at that as a possibility. Homelessness is not a Christmas problem. It is a long-term problem and we need a long-term plan.
Langfords Hotel, in town, is locked up and has been for a number of years. Let us break down the doors, open it up, and make accommodation available. We saw this weekend how a 40-foot trailer can be turned into living accommodation over the course of a weekend at a cost of no more than €20,000. The Irish Glass Bottle site is somewhere we could put God knows how many hundred converted 40-foot trailers. Let us look at solutions such as this.
I apologise for being annoyed about this, but I cannot come to terms with it. I cannot even look at the people sitting in the Visitors Gallery because what separates them from me is they are able to look at a homeless person as another human being. To my shame, I have looked at homeless people as some lesser form of human and deeply regret it.
I welcome the Minister of State. I echo the sentiments of other speakers and extend my sincere condolences to the family of the late Jonathan Corrie. I wonder what he would have said if he was told last week that he would be the instigator of a national debate in both Houses of the Oireachtas, adjacent to where he chose to lay down every night and under the shadow of which he drew his last breath, that his name would be known the length and breadth of Ireland and that he would hit the headlines of every newspaper in this country. He would probably have laughed at the idea. However, that is exactly what has happened.
Homelessness, in particular those who sleep rough, has been the topic of much debate and conversation of late and not just because of the death of Jonathan Corrie. We are all very aware that homelessness has become an escalating problem, particularly in Dublin and other largely populated areas, which is why the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, has made constructive and very welcome moves to address the growing problem.
Homelessness is not as far away as people may think, as we found out to our detriment, literally, this week. It really can happen to anyone. It is very rarely a choice.
Can my colleagues imagine how they could end up homeless, the course their lives might take to find themselves without a roof over their heads? What if one of my colleagues lost a wife, husband or child? What if their business had to close down or they lost their job? What if their rent was increased and they could not afford to stay in their home? What if they suffered from a mental illness or an addiction? Every organisation that deals with homelessness worldwide hears stories like this on a daily basis. Focus Ireland estimates there are up to 5,000 homeless people in Ireland at any one time. By homeless, I do not just mean sleeping rough on the street; it is much wider than that. With rising rents and mortgage arrears there are now also more families at risk of losing their home than ever before.
While it appears that Jonathan Corrie was a troubled man and had many issues to deal with, he also personifies those who are homeless and, in particular, those who are sleeping rough. He is the face, the name, the man, the human being whom many of us see every day of the week as we walk though the streets of Dublin. How many of us in this room would take the time to stop and speak to the Jonathan Corries of this world? How many of us do the practical things as individuals that could help alleviate their problems in the short term, if only in a small way? I do not mean to give them money as sometimes this is only fuelling an addiction. Do we stop to buy them a hot drink, a sandwich or a hot meal? It is in these Houses that we can address the problem in the long term, but we can also help on the streets. I know that the Minister is doing his best with limited funds to alleviate the housing problem and to address the problem of homelessness and sleeping rough. For the first time in many years we have a housing strategy. This should have been done years ago, when money was not an obstacle.
We must stop scoring political points and work together as united, elected representatives to help stop the rot and do what we can together to prevent homelessness and sleeping rough. A good example of what could have been done is when the Labour Party representatives on Dublin City Council proposed a 7.5% cut to property tax instead of a 15% cut, in order to channel funding towards homelessness. It was voted down by those who hold the balance of power on the council. The records speak for themselves and I am not even going to name the parties and independents who voted this proposal down because, as I have said, it is not a time for political point-scoring.
For God's sake and the sake of those on the street who need our help, let us stop talking and do something constructive about it. Let us row in behind the Minister's plans and help the organisations that are in place to help the vulnerable people who cannot help themselves. As a Government, we have only got so much money, and every day one organisation or another is saying that we have to invest money in their particular field, be it the ambulance service, the disability service, agriculture, education, health, housing or the Garda. All of these are very worthwhile causes, but we need to have an honest conversation and admit that there is just not enough money to do everything we want to do all in one go. We cannot do the miracles of the loaves and fishes. Let us, as elected representatives, be honest and prioritise where serious funding can be directed to make realistic differences. I am calling on all parties to get our priorities right and to work together to make a difference. Let us provide single units for the Jonathan Corries of this world.
I commend the work of the Peter McVerry Trust, Focus Ireland, Threshold, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Simon Communities and indeed Archbishop Diarmuid Martin on agreeing to open up premises to help alleviate the ongoing problem of homelessness. I ask the landlords at this emotive time to make the generous gesture of lowering rents and coming halfway to meeting the Government on the caps. The Government must make the move to meet the caps aso.
Let us make a difference, in this case the difference between a night under the sky and a night in a warm bed. I commend the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey, for their work to date in tackling the problem, but I must echo the calls for an increase in the rent caps. Where I come from, to rent a house in Killarney is way more expensive than a house in Tralee. There should not just be a blanket cap across the country. I know they are different in Dublin. It should be based on the rents of the area in which we live. We are encouraging tenants to make under-the-counter payments and we are encouraging the black market. Landlords are getting tax-free top-ups under the counter because that is the only way the tenant can secure the accommodation. We need to stamp this out.
Like other Senators, I could speak for the whole night on this issue, but I can see that the Acting Chairman is calling time. There will be further debate on the issue.
I welcome the Minister of State. Unfortunately, I did not hear the speech of the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, and as I cannot seem to get a copy of it, I apologise if I go back over points that have already been covered. I welcome the forum the Minister has put together, although it is a little behind schedule. I do not know what was happening for the previous 15 or 20 years that something was not put together. I hope it will not just become a token gesture because the issue is in the media spotlight. I hope it is really followed through on and that we are updated on the outcomes and have an input as elected representatives. There is a huge disconnect.
"Teardrop John" was found dead on the steps across the road from here the other morning. It was a horrible way to die and it was certainly very poignant. It brought the issues home to everyone and asked serious questions of us, but it did so because it happened outside our door here. If we are talking about a man being found dead on the steps of the Parliament, it is bad, but I am ashamed to say all of our national monuments in the city centre have people sleeping on their steps.
I took part in the homeless count in the last fortnight, and I can assure the Minister of State it was a very sobering experience. I went with two other people who are involved in services for homeless people. We started at the corner of O'Connell Bridge and went along the north side of the river, down past Liberty Hall, up past the Custom House, around Busáras and back down Talbot Street to O'Connell Street - just that rectangle. There was a lad sleeping on the steps of Liberty Hall, there were people at the Custom House, across the road from Jimmy Connolly's monument, and at the Store Street Garda station there were about five lads inside the station. In fairness to the gardaí they had let them in because it was a cold, wet night and the gardaí kind of turned a blind eye to the people sleeping there.
When we came up onto Talbot Street, we went in the door of an Internet café owned by a Chinese gentleman. He knew what we were there for because obviously he has experienced it before. He pointed around at the people who were there and said that 80% were homeless. The place was black with people. They were stretched out on chairs at computer desks to get in out of the cold and rain. Most of the people we came across were single men and most of them were foreign nationals as well. That shocked me, to be honest, because we speak a lot about rights for our undocumented Irish in America. I met a lot of Paddies in London who were rough sleepers and had fallen on hard times, and perhaps the drink had got hold of them or whatever else. Unfortunately, that problem is reversed here, in that we have people coming from different countries with a very poor level of English and they are the lads who are huddled in threes and fours in doorways for warmth and their own protection. I put it to the Minister of State that some form of an amnesty should be given because these lads are afraid of coming forward to the services.
They are afraid to give their names and details for fear of what might happen to them given the poor experiences they have had in that respect in the countries from which they come. I ask that some form of an amnesty be given to such immigrants who find themselves in such circumstances on the streets.
Things are bad enough for a person sleeping rough on the streets and there are no facilities for them. It is not as if they can get up in the morning, brush their teeth, wash their face and go for a shower, the basic essentials that we take for granted. They do not have facilities in which to do that. I was in an organisation in Merchants Quay earlier today and know the services being provided by it. Its finances are stretched and it is doing a bloody fine job with very few resources.
I welcome what is being done and the money being spent. I take account of Senator Marie Moloney's point that when it was put to parties in Dublin City Council whether a tax should be put back into pockets of the wealthy such as those living Ailesbury Road, or the money should be used to build houses for the homeless, the so-called left-wing parties - the Fianna Fáilers, the Anti-Austerity Alliance and Sinn Féin - voted against it. It was a Labour Party proposal and I commend the Labour Party councillors for doing that in Dublin City Council, but they were not listened to in that respect. It comes down to priorities, especially political priorities from a political class. The Minister of State's Department was able to spend. I could be wrong on this, but I calculate there are approximately 200,000 houses that have a private well. Each of those households was given €100 a few weeks ago. If my maths serve me right, does that calculation work out at €20 million? I do not know if that figure is correct, having worked it out off the top of my head.
I am going to have to cut the Senator off.
I have been to Sao Paulo and have stepped over people in that city in Brazil and the scene I saw there of people stretched out all over the place was unbelievable. One sees the same in Delhi in India.
The Senator has way exceeded his time.
What is happening on the streets of Dublin is very similar.
I must call Senator Diarmuid Wilson.
I apologise, but I have a few brief questions.
I have given the Senator considerable latitude.
I acknowledge that and thank the Acting Chairman. Can the Minister of State give a breakdown of where the allocation of €50 million will be spent? How much is the Government spending on housing homeless people in hotel style and apartment style accommodation, as such money could be spent much more wisely?
I was going to mention the rural resettlement programme, but I will leave it at that. I thank the Acting Chairman for his indulgence.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey, and also thank the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, who was here before him for his contribution. I also welcome those who work on the front line of this crisis who are in the Visitors Gallery who know at first hand exactly what type of crisis we have on the streets.
We are here because of Jonathan Corrie. We are not here because he died but because of where he died, which was fewer than 50 m from the gates of the building in which we are having this debate. I hope, like everybody who made a contribution, that some good comes out of this unfortunate man's early demise.
People find themselves homeless for very many reasons, whether it be drug or alcohol-related, coming from a broken home or broken relationship or having a mental difficulty of one kind or another, but the reality of the situation, regardless of how they find themselves homeless - I accept what Senator Aideen Hayden said that the nature of homelessness has changed in recent years - is that this should be dealt with. Primarily from my experience, those we see sleeping on our streets at night, and in the middle of day because some of the them are afraid to sleep at night, unfortunately have some difficulties as I outlined. It is an indictment on all of us from all political parties and none that this situation has been tolerated and allowed to develop over the decades. While I accept that there will always be people who are going to sleep on the streets - that will be their choice - it would be the choice of the vast majority of those who are forced to sleep on the streets to have a warm bed to lie in at night.
It is also worth pointing out that the right to property is enshrined in the Constitution and I believe the right to shelter should be enshrined in it. We are here as result of Mr. Corrie's death. The Minister and the Minister of State will meet the stakeholders tomorrow and I hope something urgent and immediate will come from it.
While we have a bigger problem with people losing their homes, whether as a result of being evicted by the banks because they cannot pay their mortgages or by the landlords because they cannot pay their rents, the immediate problem we have are the Jonathan Corries of this world. That should be tackled as a matter of urgency.
I pay tribute to everybody who is involved in working with the homeless throughout the State, be it the Simon Community, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the churches, the Peter McVerry Trust, Focus Point, etc. I am aware that in naming them I may leave somebody out. There are a large number of voluntary organisations dealing with the homeless and I wish them well. I hope some good will come from this debate. I challenge each and everyone of us in this House to reconvene on this topic in the first week we resume in January to see what progress has been made in providing shelter. There is an onus on us to do that and to do it on a monthly basis until we have some type of a satisfactory outcome.
I wish the Minister of State and his colleague, the Minister, well. It is not easy. If it was easy, it would have been addressed a long time ago. The cynics say the homeless do not vote and, therefore, they are not a priority. Let us prove them wrong.
I thank all Senators from all sides of the House for their contributions. This has been a very poignant and important debate. It is only correct that the Houses of the Oireachtas should debate such important issues. It is important also - I agree with Senator Diarmuid Wilson - that we constantly evaluate progress or otherwise. That is the measure that there should be of us, as legislators, and society also. We all agree that homelessness is unacceptable in any society and a problem that we must all strive together to end and to which we must try to find solutions.
I, too, wish to be associated with the vote of sympathy on the recent and very sad and tragic passing of Jonathan Corrie not very far from here in tragic circumstances.
It is unacceptable that 168 individuals are sleeping on the streets of the capital city and over 2,500 adults, including 361 families, are in State-funded emergency accommodation across the country. As we all know, those families include children. Our level of homelessness might be very low by international comparison, but this should not make us complacent in any way. There can be no let-up in our efforts in this area until we have achieved our objective of ending involuntary long-term homelessness.
Many issues have been raised by Senators. The Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, took note of much of what was said during the first hour of the debate. We will take the various ideas and proposals back with us. I have been noting the various issues that have been raised while I have been here. I will not go through them in detail. We have noted them and we will bring them to the forum also. In his opening address, the Minister outlined a number of significant actions that are being implemented to address the immediate issues of homelessness. Every effort is being made to ensure a bed for the night is available to everyone who needs a place to sleep this winter. It should be acknowledged, however, that the provision of emergency accommodation is not a viable long-term solution to homelessness. The Government's homelessness policy statement emphasises a housing-led approach to homelessness which is about accessing permanent housing as the primary response to all forms of homelessness.
The issues of rising rents and sourcing suitable accommodation, especially in the Dublin area and other large urban centres, have been discussed on the floor of the House this evening. The fundamental reason for the increase in rents is the lack of supply of housing units. Increasing public and private housing supply is a critical issue. Earlier this year, the Government published the Construction 2020 strategy for the renewal of the construction sector, for which I now have responsibility. The strategy includes a commitment to formulate a social housing strategy, and such a strategy was published last week. The social housing strategy sets out an ambitious agenda for ramping up significantly the delivery of social housing in the coming years. It has been mentioned that the social housing strategy sets out to provide 35,000 new social housing units at a cost of €3.8 billion over six years. It will restore the central role of the State in the provision of social housing through the resumption of direct building on a significant scale by local authorities and approved housing bodies. The delivery of housing units, as part of the implementation of the social housing strategy, is critical. As many Senators have said this evening, we will not achieve our objectives unless all stakeholders work together in a collaborative, focused and determined manner.
With regard to rent control, the Private Residential Tenancies Board was asked to conduct a study to explore options for addressing the difficulties being experienced in segments of the private rented sector due to rising rents and to report back with policy options. I note the various concerns that have been expressed by Senators about increasing rents and the rent control solutions they have proposed. The report produced by the board, Rent Stability in the Private Rented Sector, includes an examination of rent regulation regimes in other countries and proposes for consideration a series of rent stability policy options. The options proposed relate to rent regulation at one end of the spectrum and to measures aimed at increasing awareness of tenant rights under the existing legislation at the other end of it. I reiterate that it is critical to highlight the fact that tenants have rights. I ask all Senators and the media to do so. There is evidence that people are leaving their houses, unfortunately, because they are not fully aware of their rights. We all have a role in addressing that deficit. It is critical that people are fully aware of all their rights before they are forced out of their houses. We will have to join stakeholders in carefully considering the options proposed in the Private Residential Tenancies Board's report before we decide on the best policies to address the current difficulties in the market.
I apologise for interrupting the Minister of State. I ask him to comment on whether it would be possible for a cap or a freeze to be imposed on rents right now. Is that being considered?
The Minister of State to continue, without interruption.
The Department is listening to the stakeholders involved in this sector. The Private Residential Tenancies Board commissioned the report. The experts who advise the Department have shown that increases in rent supplement tend to inflate the rental market. Such an approach can have casualties, unintended or otherwise. I will be addressing the question of rent supplement in a moment. The Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection is responsible for the issue of rent supplement which has been raised during this debate. She is acutely aware of the difficulties people are experiencing in maintaining affordable rented accommodation in the current market in which supply is constrained. An increase in rent supplement rental limits might not be the solution to the problem, as it is likely that it would add to rental inflation. It would have an impact not only on rent supplement recipients, but also on the wider rental sector. This would affect many lower income workers, families and students.
I understand the Tánaiste intends to keep the issue of rent supplement under close review. It should be noted that officers administering rent supplement throughout the country have considerable experience in dealing with customers. They make every effort to ensure the accommodation needs of such people are met, including through the use of discretionary statutory powers as necessary. It is not often understood that social welfare officers have discretionary powers to address specific issues in individual circumstances in order to keep people in their homes. They do exercise that discretion. In the light of the particular concentration of the homelessness problem in the Dublin area, the Department of Social Protection has agreed a tenancy sustainment protocol with the Dublin local authorities and voluntary organisations so families on rent supplement that are at risk of losing their accommodation can have more timely and appropriate interventions made on their behalf.
As the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, noted in his opening statement, the issue of homelessness is complex. Many Senators have outlined the various complexities associated with this important issue. It is about much more than funding and money. It is important to acknowledge that statutory responsibility for the provision of accommodation for homeless people rests with individual housing authorities. The solution has to involve more than just the housing authority. I agree with Senators who have said that a more holistic approach needs to be taken. It is vital that we fully address the health care and social supports required by homeless people. The HSE plays a critically important role in this area. As well as providing a national framework of policy, legislation and funding, my Department’s role with regard to homelessness is to ensure all the relevant parties come together to provide the integrated and holistic response required to deliver on the Government’s priority to end long-term involuntary homelessness.
As Members will be aware, a special forum on homelessness is being convened in the Custom House tomorrow afternoon. The Minister and I will attend meetings with the political and executive leaders of the Dublin local authorities and representatives of voluntary organisations working in the homeless area. I do not mean to be patronising when I acknowledge the work of the non-governmental organisations in the voluntary sector, the charities and everybody else who gives of their time to help homeless people in trying and difficult circumstances. That should always be acknowledged on the floor of this House and the other House. I commend everyone involved in this area. I reiterate on behalf of the Government, particularly the Minister, that no stone will be left unturned in dealing with this issue, particularly as we approach Christmas. Tomorrow's forum will give us an opportunity to see what further collective actions can be taken by the Government, the housing authorities and the voluntary sector. We can achieve success by bringing together our collective resources, expertise and thinking and, more importantly, our actions and solutions. I have no doubt that if we work together, we can ensure we achieve our goal for the benefit of those who are most in need of our support.
I am encouraged by the proactive and positive approach that has been taken during this evening's debate. We all acknowledge that nothing is to be gained from political point-scoring. In 2007, when I was my party's spokesperson on the environment in this House - I was sitting where Senator Diarmuid Wilson is now sitting - I debated this issue with the former Minister of State, Michael Finneran. We had many homeless people on our streets at that time, as we have now. We must consistently and continually face up to the challenges we encounter not just as legislators and policy makers, but as a society. I welcome the suggestion that we continuously evaluate and examine what we are doing, what is not working and what can work. I hope tomorrow's summit can be a benchmark in this regard. That will be the case if all sectors come together collectively to try to find the solutions we so badly want to achieve.
I thank the Minister of State. When is it proposed to sit again?
Ar 10.30 maidin amárach.