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Children's rights should be at the heart of our response to homelessness - O'Sullivan

15 November 2017

Speech by Jan O'Sullivan TD
Spokesperson on Housing & Local Government, Enterprise & Innovation

I wish to commend the Housing (Homeless Families) Bill to the House and thank those who have already indicated their support for the Bill.

No child should have to sleep on the streets; no child should be sent to a Garda station in the middle of the night for want of a place to go; no child should spend months on end with only a hotel room, shared with the rest of their family, to call home.

The referendum to put Children’s Rights into the Constitution was passed 5 years ago. It has to mean something. It has to mean something to the most vulnerable children.

There are currently 3124 children in homeless services according to the latest figures. Each and every one of those is vulnerable. When their family finds itself homeless, there should be a recognition of the particular needs of the children in the family and housing authorities should have a duty to respond to those needs.

The Housing (Homeless Families) Bill is a simple text but designed to have a wide application. When 12 families, with 30 children among them, presented as homeless in Dublin one night last summer, they were sent to a Garda station and, it was reported that at least one of those families slept in a park.

This led to Focus Ireland rightly calling for protection from such an outcome. Their director of advocacy, Mike Allen, said at the time: ‘there must be a clear statutory responsibility that no family sleeps rough.’ We drafted the Housing (Homeless Families) Bill in response and, having introduced it at first stage in the Dáil last summer, we are now using Labour Party private members time to debate 2nd stage. I welcome indications of support so far from other parties and members. There has been cross-Party support previously on other aspects of the Housing and Homelessness crisis and, given what a serious and complex issue it is, I believe the best service we can give to the people caught up in this crisis, is to work together to bring solutions.

The purpose of this Bill is to impose an obligation on Housing Authorities to recognise a homeless family as a family unit, and to have specific regard to the best interests of the children of homeless families, in crisis accommodation situations.

The Housing Acts at present refer to a person as homeless if there is no accommodation available which the person, and I quote, “together with any other person who normally resides with him or who might reasonably be expected to reside with him”, can reasonably be expected to occupy. Such a homeless person is entitled to apply to a housing authority for accommodation or other assistance.

But there is no explicit recognition in our current legislative scheme of those ‘other persons’ as persons in their own right, with entitlements under law. Specifically, there is no statutory recognition of the needs of a homeless family as a family unit, nor, notwithstanding the passing of the constitutional amendment on the rights of the child, is there any statutory underpinning of the constitutional rights of homeless children.

Requiring a Housing Authority to consider specifically the needs of families, will affect their decision-making in a broader range of circumstances: living in a hotel room when you are learning to crawl and then to walk is not meeting your needs as a child; living in a hotel room that is far from your school and your friends is not meeting your needs as a child; living in a hub does not allow you to enjoy many of the normal freedoms a child needs.

Giving legislative force to the constitutional article on the rights of the child will have the effect of focusing government and local authority attention on ensuring that families spend the shortest possible time in inappropriate accommodation including hotels and hubs.

Last Friday, I attended a seminar on family homelessness organised by Novas in Limerick. Kate O’Loughlin gave evidence of her experience of living in a hotel with her 4 children and going into labour on her fifth in the hotel. She explained that she went into Labour surrounded by her four other children while they stayed in emergency accommodation, and I quote: “So, I was in the hotel room, in one double bed, pregnant, with all the kids, in the one bed, and I went into labour. I’ll never forget it.”

Thankfully, she was offered a home to bring baby Michael to after his birth. Kate said it was like moving from darkness into sunshine.

One of the most traumatic experiences for the family was when she had to decide to send her daughter Ellie to live with friends because the hotel could only take 3 children. Ellie was only 8 years old. She said: “one day I looked over at Ellie and the tears were streaming down her face. It was heartbreaking. So, I snuck her into the hotel room. Myself and my daughter Ellie always had a great bond. But then she just wasn’t my Ellie anymore. I felt like I was losing her.”

Getting a home brought the family back together. Kate said: “when we all sat down for our first cooked meal in the house, I could see the tears in Ellie’s eyes. She said, ‘Mum, this is what I love – this is the best part of the day – we all get to sit down and have our dinner together.’

You may have seen Kate and Ellie on the RTE news last Friday.

There are many other testimonies from families and those who work with them. A Barnardos social worker describing the life of a two-year-old she visited at Christmas living in a hotel said: “her entire world was the space between those two beds”.

It is essential that these lived experiences of young children are not swept aside in the statistical analysis that represents so many human stories and damaged lives.

Unfortunately, all the indications are that the situation is worsening. Commentary on the 2 reports published yesterday, from Daft.ie showing rising rental prices and from the ESRI on the upward trend in the cost of homes, predicts rising, rather than falling homelessness. This is a stark prospect.

I agree with those who say that increasing supply is crucial to reversing this unacceptable trend.

We need more social homes provided through Local Authorities and Voluntary Housing bodies and we need more private homes that are affordable. We cannot allow the market to simply ramp up when it suits and when profits are high enough.

We also need to see a lot more urgency about getting at least some of the 180,000 plus empty homes back into use. Indications from cabinet yesterday that the Department of Finance is to produce a report on the feasibility of a Vacant Homes Tax is a start but a report won’t cut the mustard. It is long past time we had a strategy for using empty properties. One of the few examples of successful programmes to revive empty homes is the Local Authority voids scheme which we started in 2013 and which has restored over 5000 council houses and apartments that are now lived-in. There is a lot more potential under private ownership.

Another tentative move by Government, which hasn’t much flesh on its bones yet, is the announcement in the budget speech that a redesigned role for NAMA is being examined. Last year, the Labour Party proposed that NAMA should be refocused and merged with the Housing Finance Agency to address the serious shortage of supply in residential accommodation. Its expertise, experience and resources should be put to use in this time of crisis, now that the previous crisis for which it was established, has been confronted.

This crisis needs leadership. It is not enough, and is clearly not delivering quickly enough, to tell Local Authorities to ramp up building. They have between then nearly 700 sites suitable for housing, there is funding for the infrastructure but there is no blueprint and each has to re-invent the wheel.

A national affordable housing scheme is urgently needed to turn these sites into thousands of homes.

Rapid build has a lot more potential to deliver quickly. The O’Cualann model of co-operative housing can deliver affordable homes, if it is extended to other sites.

We are not short of ideas. We are short of action.

We accept the Bill before the house is only part of the many actions needed. It will, however, give some protection to the most vulnerable victims of the housing shortage and I hope it will get the full support of the House.