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The 'homeless industry' also has questions to answer

Any decent society should be outraged at the death in a city-centre doorway of Jonathan Corrie. But outraged at whom?

The time has come to focus attention on homeless charities - there are 23 in Dublin alone; on what Archbishop Diarmuid Martin referred to on national radio last week as the "homeless industry".

Year after year - especially at Christmas - they prod peoples' guilt and clamour for more and more funds. But do they need more money? How much do they get? And how do they spend it?

Homelessness is a critical issue, both as a measure of society's compassion and its effectiveness, but also because it is used by so many to begin debates about the price of houses, rents and issues such as rent control.

There has been a lot of debate about homelessness recently - but what are the facts? What is the scale of the problem?

The truth is we do not have a "homeless crisis" as such, not much more critical than ordinarily, but there are serious questions to be asked in relation to management of the homeless issue.

It is estimated that, based on the most recent data available, there are at least 2,663 homeless people in Ireland.

However, this needs to be put in context: in 1999 there were 2,219, and just before the peak of the Celtic Tiger, in 2005, there were 2,399 homeless, notwithstanding a substantial growth in the population - especially in Dublin where most of Ireland's homelessness occurs.

Champion of the homeless Fr Peter McVerry recently said Ireland was facing a "tsunami of homelessness". But the problem does not appear to be new or growing wildly out of control, as he and others seem to suggest.

A good start would be to define "homeless" - it varies widely, but comes under four groupings:

There is 'rooflessness', without a shelter of any kind, sleeping rough; 'houselessness', with a place to sleep, but temporary in institutions or shelter; living in insecure housing, threatened with severe exclusion due to insecure tenancies, eviction, domestic violence; and living in inadequate housing, such as in caravans on illegal campsites, in unfit housing or in extreme overcrowding.

So many are surprised to learn that a lot of those counted as 'homeless' actually live in long-term supported accommodation and are not sleeping rough as is commonly imagined.

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The information on 'rough sleepers' like Jonathan Corrie - who make up a small proportion of these figures - also shows interesting long-term trends: Dublin is currently estimated to have 168 rough sleepers, compared to 185 in November 2013 and 312 in 2002.

Nationally, it is estimated that there are a further 46 rough sleepers, according to housing authorities across the country in their end-of-year performance reports for 2013.

Now let's put these figures in an international context: Ireland's rate of approximately 0.02 rough sleepers per 1,000 the population is four times less than England, where the rate is estimated at 0.08.

What is the Government doing to address homelessness? Well, quite a lot, actually.

The State allocated approximately €12m to homeless services in 1999, when the first national strategic approach was undertaken, which grew to approximately €95m in 2010.

It is estimated that the "homeless industry" receives between €100m and €120m from state funding sources.

In January 2005, the Department of Environment announced an independent review of its homeless strategy.

The report, published in February 2006, argued that all agencies in this area needed to refocus their energies to make "itself largely obsolete, which should, after all, be its overarching goal".

In other words, the "homeless industry", as described by Archbishop Martin, should be out of business by now - but eight years on, it is bigger than ever.

The most recent plan, the Homeless Implementation Plan, commits to providing 2,700 units over the next three years.

In summary, a staggering €110m is being spent on 2,663 homeless people - that's over €40,000 per person.

Now here are a few more facts and figures to make you scratch your head:

Homeless people can be generally described as in three subgroups - transitional, episodic and chronic.

Chronic homeless comprise only 11pc of the total homeless population (episodic comprise 9pc and the transitional 80pc), yet the chronic homeless consume half of shelter beds.

Each bed in emergency accommodation in Dublin costs approximately €28,000 a year, with beds in supported temporary accommodation costing approximately €29,000.

Surely the time has come to examine what is being done with all of this money - and, in particular, what the many homelessness charities are doing?

The Dublin Homeless Network represents the 23 charities across Dublin - that's one charity for almost every seven rough sleepers in Dublin or for around almost every 100 homeless nationally.

In 2010, in Dublin alone, there were four outreach services, 24 day centres, support and advice services, 14 emergency facilities, 20 transitional housing services, 14 long-term supported housing services and four settlement services.

This does not include domestic violence services or services for homeless young people. More significantly, it does not include 33 private emergency accommodation facilities.

Between them, the 23 homeless charities in Dublin employ nearly 900 full-time equivalent employees in statutory and voluntary homeless services and several hundred more on a part-time basis.

CSO filings examined for 2013 show that the top 12 homeless charities receive over €78m in income of which well over €25m is spent on staff payroll.

Questions must be asked: is this huge amount of resources being well spent? Is there duplication? Are there better alternatives? Who supervises and co-ordinates these many agencies?

A recent ambitious target set and agreed on by all - that by the end of 2010, no homeless person would spend longer than six months in emergency accommodation, but would be provided with appropriate long-term accommodation - became "mired in operational and implementation difficulties", according to Professor Eoin O'Sullivan of TCD, Ireland's foremost academic expert on homelessness.

As a society we need to examine whether any - or many - of these homelessness charities are duplicating tasks?

Are there possible savings to be made if there were fewer organisations, each of which needs its own accommodation, support staff, and associated rental and travel expenses.

Many of these agencies also spend considerable amounts on advocacy and advertising. One, for example, employs a Head of Advocacy and an Advocacy Manager.

As a society we need to ask if duplication and competition between agencies diverts money away from those who need it most and to examine if there is evidence of progress by these charities.

Worryingly, however, it appears that the continued provision of resources into the services and accommodation provided by these agencies is having little effect - because, they claim, the problem is continually worsening.

Is there any way to improve this?

Yes, there is clear evidence that an approach called 'Housing First' - which provides homeless people with accommodation first and fast - has worked very well internationally.

There are over 500,000 housing units in Dublin, of which 7pc are void, a relevant proportion of which are owned by Dublin City Council, more than adequate to meet the city's homeless accommodation needs.

Yet these empty houses can remain boarded up, without water, gas and electricity for periods of up to, and in some cases over, 40 weeks, before they are re-occupied. So there are questions to be asked of others too, not just the homeless agencies.

Evidence gathered from Finland by Professor O'Sullivan shows that housing with intensified support halved the use of social and health care services compared to service-use during homelessness.

This approach by-passes the provision of shelters, hostels and other forms of accommodation traditionally and expensively provided by existing charities.

So perhaps it is time to stop feeling harassed by the lectures of those to whom we give more and more money. Perhaps it is time that we turned around and asked them to explain how fewer could do more with less for those who have least, whose best interests are at the heart of all concerned.

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