Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Ceisteanna (30)

Frank O'Rourke


30. Deputy Frank O'Rourke asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government if he will consider reviewing the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme whereby a person or family identified as homeless is required to have financial access to a deposit and one month's rent in advance to access private accommodation, given that in most instances such finance is not available, thereby rendering the person or family unable to move into housing; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26612/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Ceist ar Housing)

I acknowledge the work departmental officials have done with me in this area, which is allowing homeless people to access the upfront payment for a deposit when they are trying to get into a home. What is the Department's definition of a family or individual who is homeless? This requirement under the HAP scheme is having a negative impact on families seeking to access the upfront payment and deposit from local authorities. Are the local authorities being given extra resources for the place finder mechanism announced in January? Is the Department following up with local authorities to ensure a place finder service is in place and to discern how successful it is in helping homeless people move into a home?

I thank the Deputy for the question. In January last, I provided each local authority with the capacity and resources to establish a dedicated housing assistance payment, HAP, place finder service. Among the services and support the place finder service can offer is the capacity to pay deposits and advance rental payments to landlords on behalf of households in emergency homeless accommodation or at immediate risk of entering such accommodation in order to secure housing via the HAP scheme. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection continues to make assistance available to eligible households generally, which are seeking financial support to access rental accommodation. However, in an effort to consolidate homelessness supports within the local government sector, I provided local authorities with the specific capacity to provide this financial support to homeless households.

This targeted intervention for homeless households which are finding it difficult to secure HAP tenancies has been in operation in the Dublin region since 2015 and in Cork city since last year. To qualify for these specific additional supports available to homeless households, a household must have been determined by the relevant local authority to be homeless within the meaning of section 2 of the Housing Act 1988. The operation of local homeless services, including the place finder service, is a matter for each local authority, utilising the supports provided through my Department, as I have just outlined. I understand the service will become operational in the Deputy's local authority area next Monday, no doubt as a result of the efforts he has made in this regard.

The problem is that people were unaware of the announcement made by the Minister in January and the resources to go with it to help people. The Minister is aware that people who are currently homeless are turning up at local authorities seeking an upfront payment or a deposit. There is a question as to what constitutes being homeless. I am dealing with families and individuals who sleep on different couches every night. They are couch-surfing but they are being told they are not regarded as homeless because there is a roof over their head, although it is a different roof every night. There should be clarity between the Department and local authorities on the definition of homelessness. I regard such individuals and families as homeless and I believe most Deputies will agree with me.

People also seem to be unaware of the upfront payment when they try to access services. I have checked with the local authority, the community welfare officer and the rents unit about how to access an upfront payment and a deposit to help people to get off the streets, as we all want them to do. The level of awareness in this area is not as good as the Minister and his officials would like it to be. Will they focus on this issue to ensure homeless people who show up at a local authority public counter after finding a property receive every support necessary to allow them to move into a property as quickly as possible?

I thank the Deputy for his questions. I do not doubt he has done much work in this area and I am well aware he has engaged with my officials for a number of weeks on a couple of cases. The place finder service was only rolled out beyond Dublin and Cork at the beginning of the year. Of the 20 local authorities which requested a place finder service, 17 now have a service in place. The opening of a service in the Deputy's area will bring the number to 18. This is a new measure and its implementation will not always be straightforward in every local authority area. Deputy Ó Broin is aware of cases involving people who sought support at a public counter and were turned away or told they did not have the correct documentation or information. This cases should not occur. As we encounter these problems, we will continue to ensure the local authorities fully understand their obligations and their staff are given the necessary training.

About €3.6 million will go to emergency accommodation supports in the mid-east region this year. Roughly 350 tenancies will be created each week of the year. We know that it works. We also know that with the homeless housing assistance payment, we prevented more than 1,000 families from having to enter emergency accommodation last year.

The Deputy asks an important question about what is homelessness. It is defined in the 1998 Act, but it is very much for the local authority to make the determination within the parameters and criteria set in the Act. One of the reports from the Dublin Region Homeless Executive which was published yesterday speaks to the need for us to address the question of what it is we mean by "homeless". Of course, it is a problem that has come up in the use of section 10 funding in cases in which someone is or is not in emergency accommodation and there are questions about their status. This is a conversation we are having as an Oireachtas and a society. It is a welcome one because for too many years we were not getting into the actual details of the complex challenges we were facing. We are now discussing them, from which will come new solutions.

I thank the Minister. That is the issue - when one actually gets into individual cases and does the spadework with those involved, one sees the complexities. We want to work with the Minister and his officials to unravel them in order that we can help the people who are most vulnerable. Am I hearing the Minister correctly when he says that from next Monday Kildare County Council will be given the resources it needs to have a HAP place finder section to deal with the issues I have raised with him and his officials and to sort out the problems people are experiencing when they show up looking for the upfront deposit and payment?

There is something else the Minister might consider. With regard to the housing assistance payment, as has been spoken about before, there is a discrepancy between the payment allocated and the actual true rent paid. That has to do with a lack of supply, an issue which will obviously be addressed in time. In some cases, however, families are actually getting a top-up from a family member, parents, etc. They are going to the local authority with letters stating the top-up of €200, or whatever it is, will be guaranteed in order to get them off the street, but they are not being accepted by the local authorities. They are not being accepted by Kildare County Council. I wonder if the Minister and his Department can assist in that regard because it is adding further adding to homelessness. In the interim, we are trying to assist people who are homeless to get off the street. We should do everything in our power to make sure that will happen. Unnecessary snags and obstacles are being put in people's way. We should try to work together to remove them.

I thank the Deputy for his question. He touched on a couple of issues and I will try to get to each of them briefly. He is absolutely right to focus on people who are sleeping on the street, on trying to get them into emergency accommodation and then onto a sustainable pathway. We now have the policies in place to do so. Since last year we have seen a dramatic reduction in the level of rough sleeping, 40%, which is very welcome, but there are still more than 100 people sleeping rough in Dublin, an issue on we continue to work. Housing First now has a national director. It also has a programme throughout the country. In one of the reports which, again, was published yesterday, we see a 90% retention rate, which is very welcome.

The third housing summit will be held shortly, in the first week of July. I will be speaking to local authorities, specifically about affordability and the crisis of homelessness we continue to face. I will be speaking about the reports, their recommendations and how to implement them. I will have a further engagement today with the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government on the recommendations and how they should be brought forward. The Deputy is right to state that on Monday the new person will be in place and ready to get to work in his local authority. That is good because they will be able to work on the hard and complex cases the Deputy's constituency is experiencing.

There is an uplift so far as the housing assistance payment scheme is concerned. There is a figure of 20% for the normal housing assistance payment scheme and 50% for the homeless housing assistance payment scheme. However, some local authorities are not using it. Where I find an example in some of the data of their not using the uplift, we can go back and insist on a local authority using this measure because we know that it works.