Sunday 23 October 2016

A family in emergency housing is still without a home

Mike Allen

Published 21/07/2016 | 02:30

Housing Minister Simon Coveney Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Housing Minister Simon Coveney Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

The Government beat its own deadline to deliver the housing and homelessness plan. It was promised in 100 days and delivered in 75.

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This urgency is welcome. Focus Ireland believes there must now be similar urgency to develop a clear plan to help ease the immediate and deepening family homeless crisis.

The new plan has many positive measures but as yet its capacity to deliver homes is on hold and dependent on subsequent plans.

It is important to stress that homelessness does not stand still. This June alone, 72 families became newly homeless in Dublin. A total of 502 families and their 995 children have become homeless in Dublin in the first six months this year.

'Rebuilding Ireland' has five pillars which reflect the core areas of concern.

The most emotive and politically sensitive - homelessness - is given pride of place. The targets are more ambitious than previous governments' plans. Many of the barriers that stalled earlier plans are also recognised.

In terms of a 'launch' this plan could be seen as a textbook success in one way. The high level of consultation with key stakeholders in drafting the plan was also very welcome.

However, at a deeper level there's a sense that something is missing.

While the language of the plan is filled with urgency, many of the key issues are to be addressed by future plans.

Family homelessness is driven by a crisis in the private rented sector and a new strategy for this sector is promised for "Q4 2017" with urgent legislation to follow.

Meanwhile, the Census has confirmed 200,000 homes are vacant in the middle of our worst ever housing crisis.

Getting access to some of this empty stock to deliver homes can play a vital part in easing the housing and homeless crisis. This issue will not be addressed until a 'Re-use Plan' in "mid 2017".

The rental situation is also to be addressed by a future plan, with this process due to start after the summer and completed by year-end. These are complex issues and it's legitimate to criticise previous governments for not addressing them but it's unreasonable to criticise Housing Minister Simon Coveney for not having the answers immediately.

It is in the substantive issues which the plan claims to address that the real problems emerge. The most serious social challenge of today is the crisis in family homelessness, which sees 1,000 families living in emergency accommodation with over 2,000 children.

So what does 'Rebuilding Ireland' say about this? It includes a number of very positive proposals to make life in emergency accommodation less appalling - free travel passes to schools, action on nutrition, better links with community and social services. All very good initiatives.

Full credit to both ministers Katherine Zappone and Coveney for putting them there, and all strength to them as they fight to get the funding in the forthcoming Budget. But 'Rebuilding Ireland's big commitment on family homelessness is its very first commitment, Action 1.1, and aims to end the use of commercial hotels as emergency accommodation by this time next year.

How will it achieve this? Apparently, not by providing homes for these families, but by building 1,500 units of new emergency accommodation where families will stay "while more permanent tenancies are secured". Focus Ireland has no arguments against rapid-build and we welcome attempts to improve on emergency accommodation provided in hotels and B&Bs.

But when you examine the various timeframes in the plan, this commitment does not really add up, given there are currently over 1,000 families in hotels and B&Bs.

If the current rate of growth neither falls nor rises, there could be an additional 1,000 families homeless by the target date of mid-July 2017.

The plan seeks to deliver 200 new, rapid-build emergency units by the end of 2016, and a further 400 in 2017 - say 400 by mid-2017.

The plan says that, in addition to the rapid-build emergency units, some of the families will move to homes which are currently vacant in the private sector and which will be acquired by local authorities and the Housing Agency. However,the timeline for this starts in 2017 and relatively few of these (though they are welcome, as they will provide actual homes) will be available by mid-July. Focus Ireland maintains that even if the plan to move families from hotel accommodation to new, rapid- build emergency accommodation succeeds, it does not address the fundamental problem faced by these families. That they are homeless. A plan to provide better emergency accommodation, while welcome, is not a plan to tackle their homelessness.

The most effective policy for supporting families out of homelessness was Alan Kelly's directive that local authorities must give 50pc of all allocations to homeless and vulnerable households. Mr Coveney abolished this measure.

We believe the minister needs to look again at this issue, as it is a key - and proven - way to deliver sustainable pathways out of homelessness. This measure shared the burden between the homeless households and others on the waiting list.

While these are very serious criticisms of the plan, Focus Ireland is not setting out in any way to rubbish it. It contains many highly positive aspects and represents a significant step forward.

What we are calling for is for the minister and his department to continue the open approach and consultation with Focus Ireland and others to develop a comprehensive sub-plan to help tackle family homelessness. Focus Ireland believes it is possible to work together to end the terrible family homeless crisis as we 'Rebuild Ireland'.

Mike Allen is head of advocacy at Focus Ireland

Irish Independent

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