Dáil statement by Jan O'Sullivan TD on Child Homelessness
15 December 2017
Spokesperson on Housing & Local Government, Enterprise & Innovation
Statements on Child Homelessness
Speech by Jan O'Sullivan TD, Labour Party spokesperson on Housing
Dáil Éireann, 15 December 2017
I wish the Ceann Comhairle and other Members a happy Christmas and join him in wishing the staff and ushers the same. I mean that very sincerely.
What we are talking about today, however, is people for whom Christmas is very insecure. I hope that everyone here has a home to go to, but we are talking about people who have very temporary homes, if they have homes at all, and they do not know where their permanent home will come from. Our focus today and as we enter the new year must be on action and what we can do rather than what we can say. Speakers before me have very eloquently described the situation. Deputy Munster captured it very well, as did Deputies Rabbitte and Casey, in describing the situation in which children in particular find themselves. The three things I want to address are the emergency situation, how to stop people losing their homes and how we can speed up the construction and delivery of social homes.
I will focus on those three areas because they are all linked. We all know this issue is complex and requires a variety of actions. Perhaps in some ways Rebuilding Ireland contained too many different subsets of actions because many of the targets simply were not reached. I will divide my time between those areas.
The first issue is the more than 8,000 people and more than 3,000 children who are currently homeless and who have been described so eloquently. In a reply to a parliamentary question the Minister told me that extra emergency beds would be provided. I presume they have been delivered. There were to be 200 extra beds in Dublin by mid-December and a number of extra beds in other cities. I am not sure if the Minister is due to reply to the debate but if he does I hope he will be able to reassure Members in that regard and that there there will be enough beds for everybody. Unfortunately, that does not mean that everybody ends up in a bed. For various reasons some people do not take up the beds. However, we must ensure there are enough beds. We also must ensure that there is enough information provided. A lack of information is often a problem for people. I accept that there are telephone numbers to ring and so forth but people often do not know exactly what to do when they become homeless or when they are in a precarious situation, so information is crucial. It must also be accessible to the people in that situation, not somewhere on a website but available directly to people.
Deputy Casey described the people in his hotel having to get up early to get to Dublin and the situation for children. There must be a way whereby people would not be obliged to ring around to find a hotel. The Dublin Regional Homeless Executive does very good work, but it is totally wrong that a family should be put in that situation. I introduced the Housing (Homeless Families) Bill and it was agreed by all Members, which I welcome. I thank Deputy Bailey, the chair of the housing committee, who wrote to me to say that the Bill will be dealt with in the committee. I ask that it be dealt with quickly. One of the objectives of the Bill is to ensure that no families with children would be sent to a Garda station, as happened earlier this year in Dublin when 12 families and 30 children were sent to Garda stations. One of the reasons that happened is that there is no recognition of children. They are just recognised as dependants of homeless adults.
I believe the Bill will make a difference to that situation and also to the situation Deputy Casey described where families must ring around. They go off to work or school in the morning and then they must ring around to find a hotel. If my legislation was passed the housing authorities would be obliged to take the needs of the children into account and to deal with the other issues involved. For example, people have described how homeless children feel about it. I was struck when a young child said that her little sister, who was two years old, wanted to play with her but the only place where they could play was between the two beds in the hotel room. It is wrong for children to be stuck in that type of situation. I realise that my Bill will not solve everything but I believe it could make a difference and I hope we can get it through Committee Stage as quickly as possible.
There is also the issue of people being put out of their homes and the ways of preventing that. I acknowledge that there has been some action and changes in that regard, but I am convinced that more must be done. We heard Frank on the radio this morning. He is 71 years old and has lived in the same house for seven years, but suddenly has received a notice to quit. That should not happen. There should be security of tenure. Many Members have argued in the House for security of tenure and for the so-called Tyrrelstown amendment to be modified to ensure that people cannot be evicted for spurious reasons. There is an article in the Irish Independent today which I believe relates to a leaked document from the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive. It indicates that four in ten families that have become homeless have been issued with notices to quit by landlords. Only two of those cases were for anti-social behaviour. The others were for either not being able to pay the rent or due to plans to sell the property.
This issue of plans to sell the property definitely needs to be addressed because we all have heard evidence of landlords giving notice to quit, saying they were selling the property and then not selling it or evidence about the other reason about substantially altering the property. I know the Minister has brought in or will bring in some measures about landlords saying they will carry out major changes to the property and then putting up the rent. In respect of selling the property, we saw the examples in Tyrrelstown and my constituency involving the Strand Hotel and Grove Island where groups of tenants were given notice. I know there was a case in Cork, which Deputy Barry raised recently. We need to tighten up this area to prevent evictions.
The other issue involves rent pressure zones. Obviously, they are working in some areas for some people but I think people are getting around them even in rent pressure zones. My city of Limerick is not a rent pressure zone so there is no protection. On average, rents went up there by about 11% last year. Places like Waterford are also still not designated as rent pressure zones while in the counties around Dublin, some areas are left out while others are included. That most definitely needs to be reviewed and it needs to be done quickly. Again, I received a reply to a Parliamentary Question on this issue and I know some work is being done on that. All the points I am making are around getting things done quickly and not waiting and talking. The Simon Community produced a document entitled "Locked Out Of The Market". It has updated its figures recently. It carried out research into available rental properties within the cap limits for HAP and rent supplement. The statistics show that at the end of the third quarter, there were only four properties under the different categories for single people, a couple, a couple with one child and a couple with two children in the whole of Dublin city centre on a particular day that were within the cap. There were three such properties in Cork, one in Limerick city, one in Waterford city and none in Galway city. This shows that the increased cost of rent has simply gone beyond the limits relating to HAP and rent supplement. Again, this area needs urgent attention. I know we hear about reviews but it seems to take so long to deal with any of these issues. It was this time last year when we were dealing with that housing Bill at midnight and were doing sums to figure out how we would calculate rent pressure zones, etc. All of us in Opposition proposed various amendments. That was a year ago but we are still stuck with pretty much the same kind of rules we had a year ago despite the fact that, as others have said, the numbers have been increasing all the time.
I would also urge the Minister to develop Housing First. I know he has increased the numbers. A director is to be appointed. I do not know if that has been advertised but, again, that was something the Minister told me in a reply to a Parliamentary Question. Housing First is the solution for many people who sleeping rough on our streets. They are the kind of people who may have addiction problems and other problems such as mental health problems who need that kind of wraparound 24-hour service that Housing First provides. There are some really good organisations that have been funded to roll out Housing First. I am very familiar with it in my own city where the Simon Community and Novas are the two bodies that operate it. It really works for the long-term homeless who probably would have difficulty in sustaining a home if they did not have that kind of support.
The other area I want to talk about is supply. We need to see something happen with vacant homes. It is the one leg of the Rebuilding Ireland programme that was never brought in. I think March 2017 was meant to be the deadline in terms of a strategy. I know that some measures have been introduced but, again, this is an area where we should be able to see houses coming into use quickly.
In early 2015 the number of homeless children first passed the 1,000 mark and there was a public outcry that such a situation should have been allowed to develop in this country. However, as we move towards the end of 2017, over 3,000 children are homeless and living in emergency accommodation and the numbers continue to increase month-by-month. This does not even count the families living with friends or extended family. Over 3,000 homeless children are in living hotels, bed and breakfasts and increasingly they are being transferred to so-called family hub accommodation. That is over 3,000 childhoods blighted by homelessness and the anxieties and the stresses that it inflicts on children and their parents. This is a time that those children will never get back.
In September, Focus Ireland published a report based on research into the experiences of 25 homeless families. The authors commented that "The vast majority of the families interviewed reported being deeply negatively affected by becoming homeless." Negative implications for children's education is one of the most frequent and profound effects. Anxiety about their homelessness, and the lack of space and quiet for homework are widespread concerns. One parent surveyed for the Focus Ireland report commented, "Our 14 year-old didn't do well in school [when they were homeless]. He didn't study. There was no place quiet for him to study and he was too tired from all the travelling we had to do to get to school." That is just one example of the thousands of children whose education is suffering.
Ireland used to have a large social housing sector that provided affordable housing for one in five households, but the policies of successive Fine Gael- and Fianna Fáil-led governments to privatise the social housing stock and slash new social house building has destroyed the availability of social and affordable housing. Neoliberal policies have been designed to and have succeeded in turning housing in Ireland into just another asset class to be invested in by finance capital for profit and capital accumulation opportunities.
Only the highest earners can now afford to buy a home. However, from a property investor's perspective things could not be better. The Irish Times recently reported that a European buy-to-let league table found that "the average yield on an Irish property stood at 7.08 per cent in August 2017, up from 6.54 per cent in 2016, and far ahead of the rest of the EU 28." A society has been created where property investors are achieving some of the highest investment yields in the world while more families become homeless and renters desperately try to cling to expensive, precarious tenancies. We need to stop serving the needs of property investors and start meeting the housing needs of families and children.
I strongly welcome the initiative of the National Homeless and Housing Coalition to call a national day of action against homelessness and the housing crisis on 7 April. I hope this day of action will demonstrate the mass anger that exists about Government policies. Solidarity looks forward to preparing for and participating in this social movement of NGOs, trade unions, political parties of the left and the many others seeking a society transformed to meet the needs of the 99%.