Fri, Jan 29, 2021
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On the back of reports of people being turned away from homeless services, Neasa argued in the Dáil that the Minister must ensure there is an obligation on local authorities to provide emergency accommodation where the alternative is for someone to sleep rough on the streets; Neasa also questioned the Minister in relation to the procurement and oversight of private providers in this sector; and queried the status of a report into the standards of homeless accommodation in Dublin.
Deputy Neasa Hourigan: I return to the issues raised in the “RTÉ Investigates” programme on homeless services operating in Dublin. They will be of concern to the NGOs involved and to my colleagues on Dublin City Council, including Councillor Janet Horner and the Lord Mayor, Councillor Hazel Chu. I return to the issue of local connection, which was rightly raised by Deputy Toíbín.
The letter to which the Minister referred outlines a response that will pertain only to the cold weather period, which obviously will not last. We have also had assurances from local authorities that they will apply maximum discretion when enforcing the supposed local connection rule. We need more than this. I propose that an instruction in legislation or perhaps a circular be issued providing that this is not a matter of maximum discretion but an obligation on local authorities to provide emergency accommodation where the alternative is for someone to sleep rough on the streets. No one should be forced to forgo the safety and dignity of a bed and a roof over his or her head in a city where thousands of empty properties are available.
A key concern for service users is safety in emergency accommodation centres. We are awaiting a report from the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE, and the HSE regarding the standards in emergency accommodation centres in Dublin. I ask the Minister to give an undertaking that this report will be published promptly and in full.
I also ask him to ensure that all staff in emergency accommodation facilities are Garda vetted and trained to deal in a sensitive way with people in a deeply vulnerable position. That is currently not the case, and many such workers are not vetted by the Garda.
From 2016 to 2020, the budget for homelessness services in Dublin has increased from €96 million to €200 million. This partly reflects the growing scale of the homelessness crisis in Dublin, but it also reflects the growing use of private emergency accommodation facilities. We see private emergency accommodation in the north inner city as returning a 100% annual profit on running costs under a ten-year contract with Dublin City Council. This is a significant profit for a service over which we have very little - I would say it is insufficient - oversight.
Contracts for providing emergency accommodation are not subject to the public procurement process that would be the norm for other services contracted in the State. We must procure services which are care-based and underpinned by respect for the dignity of the individuals using the service, not locking people into homelessness for profit.
We need to eradicate rather than manage homelessness in the long term. With regard to the short and medium term, however, will the Minister outline details in respect of procurement and oversight of private providers in this sector, Garda vetting of staff in emergency accommodation, the status of the report on standards of accommodation in homelessness in Dublin and the status of guidance given to local authorities on maximum discretion, which he has touched on?
Minister for Housing, Darragh O’Brien: I thank Deputy Hourigan for her question and the points raised.
I want to be clear, once more, that the issue of local connection is not a barrier to anyone accessing emergency accommodation. I followed up that letter of the 9th, which the Deputy referred to, of an announcement I had made on the 7th, and have had a meeting since with the local authorities, with housing officer and with the DRHE. I have had a couple of meetings quite recently and we followed that up with an additional letter, which I am happy to share with the Deputy.
We have capacity in our cities. We have emergency capacity and it should be used. I agree with the Deputy that we must recognise and reduce the need to use emergency accommodation, which is happening. We are looking at the capacity within our hostels that is not being used because people are being moved into permanent accommodation. Up to 3,600 voids came back into the system in 2020, and many of those were focused on homeless individuals and families where we have been able to house them permanently. This is absolutely what we want to do.
I do not have time to respond to all of the items raised but I will respond to each item directly in writing. With regard to private accommodation and procurement, many of those elements of private accommodation were procured quickly in times of emergency when accommodation was needed.
Thankfully we are starting to move away from that emergency response. I will respond in more detail to the Deputy in writing.