Blue-sky thinking and still no roof overhead
The Taoiseach launched Social Innovation Fund Ireland this week. Often touted as the new big idea, social innovation is not really a new concept, just a modern way of describing how people and organisations can more effectively respond to a social problem or unmet need.
The aim of the fund, chaired by former KPMG managing partner and current chairman of Enterprise Ireland, Terence O'Rourke, is to provide growth capital and support - including business mentoring and technology - to the best social innovations so as to maximise their impact. Last December the Animate programme was launched, Ireland's first "non-profit accelerator" which supports early-stage innovations to the next stage of their development. The idea emerged from the Forum on Philanthropy and Fundraising set up by Government in 2012.
The four projects awarded funding were diverse. One was Thriftify, a tech start-up which helps charities value and sell donated books more efficiently online for higher prices. Another was the Save a Selfie mobile app designed to help the public pinpoint the location of emergency equipment in their locality. Recreate is a social enterprise that takes end-of-line and surplus stock from businesses and reuses them as arts materials. Another funded project was Carebright, a homecare provider which has created Ireland's first community hub in Co Limerick for people living with dementia.
The Social Innovation Fund, a registered charity, will get matching funding from government for every euro it fundraises. The Taoiseach called it a "vehicle for creating solutions for critical social issues". The hope is that innovation, which has been so central to Ireland's economic recovery, can also be transformative in our social recovery and close the gap which exists between the two.
It set me thinking about homelessness, our number one social problem these days. There is so much noise politically and in the media on this urgent issue and yet there remains a fog around a solution. Homelessness - particularly after a property and economic crash - is a complex problem. Houses cannot be built in a day or a week ... or can they? Other countries have greater challenges. In post-apartheid South Africa it was a phenomenal task for the new government to provide water, electricity and housing quickly to a jubilant and highly-expectant population; with political freedom comes high hopes of economic and social rights. To meet the needs of millions of South Africans required the involvement of many players, not just government. Social entrepreneur Niall Mellon embraced some of that task with the support of many Irish volunteers, using his business skills and networks to build homes there for the poor.
Here in Ireland, despite the Government allocating huge resources to housing, the issue appears to be mired in complexity, bureaucracy, turf wars, and political and professional egotism. For example, last December, Environment Minister Alan Kelly introduced new apartment size regulations to speed up the provision of social housing units. But bizarrely, the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI), has come out saying "no can do", unhelpfully claiming that the new regulations are unworkable. Instead of everyone pulling together, we get megaphone discourse through the media, with the minister "flummoxed" by this lack of cooperation in providing homes quickly for people. One can see why Mr Kelly has a short fuse. It appears each time he proffers a solution, it is challenged by some vested interest or other, or for base political motives.
Mr Kelly is ambitious, and in my view refreshingly operational; he likes to get things done and has little patience with the naysayers and non-performers of this world. But that is what's needed to shift the problem. Be innovative; do things differently. More than 13,000 social homes were provided last year, an increase of 86pc on 2014. The Social Housing Strategy aims to provide 110,000 homes for people on local authority housing waiting lists by 2020. Part of the plan includes building 35,000 houses at a costs of €3.8 billion. Of the houses delivered last year, only 1,000 were built or bought by local authorities; over 2,000 were refurbished empty houses; 350 homes were built by approved housing bodies and 100 by regeneration schemes. The vast majority of new homes are rented, mostly through the housing assistance payment, with the State paying landlords directly.
Thirty years ago, Sister Stanislaus Kennedy was a social innovator before it was fashionable. Seeing the unmet needs of young women homeless in Dublin, she started Focus Point in Temple Bar. It was a coffee shop and drop-in advice centre for people who were homeless. It was simple. Volunteers provided healthy meals for adults and children. Advice and information was available so that people could challenge the circumstances which had led to their homelessness. Over the years, Focus Ireland services have expanded exponentially to 70 different services nationally for all kinds of people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
Last year, Focus Ireland helped over 11,000 people, ranging from providing emergency accommodation for young people, providing long- and short-term housing units for families, and therapeutic and support services for young people emerging from State care at high risk of homelessness. The charity and its founder are leading advocates on the subject of homelessness and a trusted partner of the Government, informing political debate and providing homes for people.
One in five people using homeless services is a child. So this is also a child and family welfare issue. Shockingly, many families are living in hotels, hostels and B&Bs because of insufficient social housing units or because they have been priced out of the private rental market. These uncomfortable truths now sit at the top of the political agenda.
There has never been more awareness of the problem or more money thrown at it. Yet impactful solutions seem beyond reach. Incentives to landlords to rent to people currently homeless make sense. So is the proposal for Nama properties to be made available. Whatever it takes should be done - immediately. Action is not postponable. Big talk from Government ministers about our growth figures and economic recovery rings hollow while so many families endure this insecurity. In fact, the promised abolition of the universal social charge may be premature while this issue persists.
Surely the great social need of our time in Ireland right now needs a collective societal response to resolve it. If the State, the private sector, the construction industry and professions, and the expertise of charities like Focus Point and others could be harnessed to resolving this finite problem, it would be the national achievement in 2016.
If ever there was a critical issue that needed solution-based political leadership, combined with social innovation, this is it.