In Dáil Éireann during Leaders’ Questions on Thursday, 8th December, I raised the issues of Homelessness with Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Simon Coveney. With many families and individuals living only one crisis away from homelessness this is an issue which affects all areas of our society.
Those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness are some of the most exposed and vulnerable members of our society. We need to act decisiveness and with urgency to tackle the ‘perfect storm’ that has arisen and which is leading to a catastrophic increase in the incidence of homelessness.
Full Transcript of Deputy Michael Lowry Question to Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Simon Coveney T.D. Thursday, 8 December 2016 on Homelessness and Housing
Michael Lowry T.D. (Tipperary, Independent)
I afford the Minister the opportunity to give his own assessment of progress made in the housing of homeless people and the supply of housing. He will be aware that Focus Ireland recently estimated that 20 families each month were becoming homeless. Owing to the current housing crisis, it is estimated that approximately 40 children every month are losing their homes. This is on top of the 2,500 children and 4,377 adults already officially recorded as homeless in October 2016.
Since 2010 it has become apparent that there has been a drastic increase in persons accessing homeless services. This is not just in the cities and towns where it gets attention; it is a problem across the State. For example, in County Tipperary a total of 25 persons presented as homeless in 2010.That figure has increased dramatically to 426 persons in 2015 and to more than 500 in 2016. Like other parts of the State, County Tipperary is facing a serious housing crisis. The lack of affordable rented accommodation, the lack of social housing, unemployment, unrealistic rent allowance limits, unsustainable mortgage payments and evictions from owner occupied and buy-to-let properties have created a situation where the frequency of individuals and families becoming homeless has accelerated drastically, resulting in homeless services becoming completely overwhelmed.
Many families and individuals are living only one crisis away from homelessness. Homelessness is a problem that affects all areas of our society. Across County Tipperary homelessness is on the increase, especially hidden homelessness, where people are forced to sleep in cars, pitch a tent or sleep on the couches of relatives and friends. My constituency office has seen a notable increase in the number of calls relating to homelessness or from families in fear of homelessness. Many of these people are on the county council housing list. They are being asked to leave their current accommodation due to repossession or they are being asked to leave because a buy-to-let property is getting repossessed by a financial institution or because their landlord has decided to sell the property. These people simply cannot source an affordable alternative and are living in limbo, fearing homelessness.
The introduction of schemes such as the housing assistance payment scheme, HAP, was designed to provide assistance to people currently on the social housing list to rent from the private sector. While the HAP scheme will pay a proportion of a person’s rent in private rented accommodation the scheme just is not working. Private rented accommodation is extremely limited in supply. Yesterday I checked the Daft.ie website and there were only 70 properties available to privately rent across County Tipperary for people in that situation. Those properties that are available range in price from €480 for a one bedroom apartment in Carrick-On-Suir to more than €900 for a three bedroom family home in Thurles. Yesterday, in Clonmel, there were three such properties available when the council checked. People cannot access the HAP scheme.
Minister Simon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
There are a lot of comments and questions there. I first want to give a little bit of good news. We have a lot of work still to do to respond comprehensively to the homeless crisis we face in this city and in other parts of the State. Today we have the November figures on homelessness in Dublin and for the first time in a very long time the number of adults and families who are homeless in Dublin has actually reduced, month on month. That is not to say that we do not still have a mountain to climb – we do. We still have far too many people without a home to go to or a bed to sleep in. Yesterday the Taoiseach and I visited a new homeless shelter that will open tomorrow. Three of these will be ready to open tomorrow providing 210 new beds for emergency accommodation in Dublin, to make sure that everybody who needs a bed will get one this winter. When we look at the numbers, we have provided more than 17,000 new social housing solutions this year. This is a record. There will be 2,700 housing solutions put in place for homeless individuals and families this year. That is 500 more than has ever been achieved before. The previous record was last year when the former Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly was very focused on this area.
There is a lot that we are doing. In the budget we increased the budget for housing by 50% for 2017, an increase from some €800 million to nearly €1.3 billion. I believe we have outstripped all of the targets set for 2016 in actually trying to get people in to sustainable homes. With regard to the homeless HAP scheme in Dublin, the target for this year was 550 people. We will have probably hit the figure of 800 solutions there.
I fully accept that homelessness needs to be a big priority in finance and policy direction and we need to take radical decisions if necessary to try to prevent the stream of people and families coming in to homelessness.
Next week I will bring to Cabinet a new rental strategy which I hope we will have a chance to debate in the House afterwards. Many of the parties in the House contributed to the consultation process to get this right and I thank them for it.
There is a lot happening but there is still a lot more to do. I want to say to the House very clearly that from my perspective this is my number one priority as Minister. If the State cannot look after people who literally do not have a roof over their heads we have to ask ourselves some very serious questions. This is why in our homeless and housing strategy the first chapter, or pillar, focuses on homelessness and the need for a comprehensive response, whereby Ministers, such as Deputies Zappone, Harris and Varadkar, work in partnership with me to ensure we have a whole-of-Government approach towards not only helping people make the transition from homelessness into a stable home, but also to try to help them get over what are often mental health, addiction or family breakdown issues to ensure a permanent success story for them.
Michael Lowry T.D. (Tipperary, Independent)
I thank the Minister for his response and I do not doubt his sincerity and genuine commitment to resolving an issue which is at crisis point and has been steadily building over a period of seven to eight years. Local authorities need to be more involved. Some local authorities are performing and operating to the strategy, but others are not delivering. Housing voids, which are those which are vacant and need refurbishment, need to be made available for new tenants but it is simply too slow. The system is too cumbersome and the reaction time of local authorities is too slow.
It does not make sense. We have 3,000 qualified applicants on the housing list in Tipperary. We built four houses in the past two years, and I am told there is a huge backlog in the Department. Responsibility to proceed with the work should be delegated to local authorities. At present we have five different stages. Local authorities must apply to the Department for an appraisal to be carried out on the requirement for housing. They must then go through a design process and a tendering process. It takes years and not months to get it through the Department. It would greatly assist if responsibility was delegated to the local authorities. Let them make their own decisions. Let them apply procurement laws and let the Department assign somebody to do an assessment of them.
Minister Simon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
I take the point in terms of streamlined decision-making and in some cases it may well still be a barrier. Yesterday, I approved €18 million for 56 houses to be built as part of the redevelopment of O’Devaney Gardens in Dublin. This year we will see 4,240 new units in terms of new builds, acquisitions and voids coming back into the system. Do not forget that last year the number of houses built by local authorities in the entire country was 75. We are dramatically ramping up the capacity of local authorities to deliver on social housing build programmes as well as getting voids back into use.
The Deputy is right to stay in the past the decision-making process between the Department and local authorities was not fast enough. There was an eight stage process. When Deputy Kelly was Minister he changed it to a four stage process. I am streamlining this even further to ensure we send teams of people to local authorities to get sign-off in a matter of days on decisions which in the past may have taken months. The Deputy will see significant changes in urgency and the pace of decision-making between the Department and local authorities if he looks at individual projects and the decision-making around them. If this is not happening and the Deputy knows this and has cases where it is not happening, I need to hear about them.