Public Affairs Ireland | Training and Development | Conferences

Monday 31 July 2017

Jan O’Sullivan is the Labour Party spokesperson on Housing, Planning and Local Government and Enterprise and Innovation and TD for Limerick City. She was formerly the Minister for Education and Skills and Minister of State for Housing and Planning and for Trade and Development. Jan was first elected to Dáil Eireann in by-election in 1998 and has retained the seat since then. She is also a former member of Seanad Eireann from 1993 to 1997 and of Limerick City Council and served as Mayor of Limerick in 1993/1994.

We were all shocked when we heard, on May 23 this year[1], that 12 families with 30 children among them who presented as homeless in Dublin had to be sent to Garda stations because homelessness services had nowhere to send them. It was reported that at least one of these families spent the night in a public park. The stark reality of the plight of these families exposed the lack of protection there is for children in such vulnerable circumstances.

Very frequently families are asked to ‘self accommodate’, i.e. find a bed-and-breakfast or hotel that will take them and, if they succeed, the Homeless Executive or the Local Authority will pay for the accommodation. That can take hours of phone-calls, with children hanging about as you try to find a place that will take you in. This must cause huge stress and anxiety to the adults in this desperate situation, but particularly to the children.

 If you are a bit luckier you may get allocated a hotel or bed-and-breakfast but it is likely the whole family will have to find somewhere to go during the day; eat in fast-food cafes and wash clothes in a launderette (all hard to afford when you are poor).

The new family hubs are a step up, but still far from suitable for family life. Recent reports by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission[2] and by academics Mary Murphy and Rory Hearne[3] describe the limitations of these hubs and recommend that there should be strict limits on how long a family could be asked to live in them.

Kitty Holland, Irish Times columnist recently quoted[4] the words of children who had lived in hotels and the overwhelming impression was that the children were hugely restricted in just being children – they had no space to play, had to be quiet, suffered from boredom, couldn’t play with their friends, and missed their own place and possessions.

While we enshrined the Rights of the Child in Bunreacht na hÉireann by way of a constitutional referendum in 2012, these rights have no legislative back-up when it comes to children who are part of a family that becomes homeless.

Family autonomy is frequently denied in these situations.

This is why we drafted the Housing (Homeless Families) Bill 2017[5].

It obliges housing authorities to act in the best interest of the child when that child’s family is homeless. Current law treats the child simply as a dependent of homeless adults.

As it stands, the Housing Acts refer to a person as homeless if there is no accommodation available that the person “together with any other person who normally resides with him or who might reasonably be expected to reside with him”, can reasonably be expected to occupy. The homeless person is then entitled to apply to a housing authority for accommodation or assistance.

But there is no explicit recognition in our current legislative scheme of the “other persons” as persons in their own right, with entitlements under law.

Specifically, there is no statutory recognition of the needs of a homeless family unit nor, notwithstanding the passing of the constitutional amendment on the rights of the child, is there any statutory recognition of the constitutional rights of homeless children.

Our Housing (Homeless Families) Bill 2017 would require local authorities to recognise these persons as a family unit and to have specific regard to the best interests of the children of homeless families in crisis accommodation situations.

In a report published this July, after our Bill was published, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission wrote:

“the Commission is of the view that the wide margin of discretion afforded to local authorities within the current system of emergency accommodation does not adequately protect the right to housing for families experiencing homelessness”.[6]

I would further argue, as indeed does the IHREC, that there should be a right to shelter in our Constitution as there is in 81 other states.

Such a constitutional right has been proposed by many sources including the eight report of the Constitutional Convention[7] and it was comprehensively argued by a number of speakers at a conference organised recently in TCD by Senator Collette Kelleher in conjunction with the Simon Communities and the Mercy Law Centre.

But the growing crisis in homelessness will not be stemmed by legal or constitutional change alone. Homes must be delivered.

We urgently need specific actions as opposed to reviews of plans to make the right to a home a reality.

The obvious easy win is the nearly 200,000 empty homes that were identified across Ireland in the last census; it is estimated that 20,000 to 30,000 of these are in Dublin, with approximately 50,000 more in cities and other urban centres where demand is greatest. If even one-fifth of these were brought back into use, it would make a huge difference. So the promised Empty Homes Strategy is urgently needed, as well as an empty homes tax. The Peter McVerry Trust has developed a number of proposals including Empty Homes Officers[8] in all local authorities and they have set the example by appointing two such officers themselves and by developing data-gathering systems to map and monitor vacancies in Ireland in real time.

Why does it take so long to get construction started, especially in the 700 or so sites owned by local authorities or other public bodies around the country?

Both the current Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Eoghan Murphy TD and the former-Minister Simon Coveney TD have said they wanted to see mixed tenure on these sites, and I agree with them. But that won’t happen in a vacuum. The danger is that there will be the 10% social housing that is legally required and the rest will be costed at the discretion of whatever developer does the building. If prices are not controlled, they will be set at whatever the market can get in that particular location, which will make the homes anything but affordable in the Dublin area in particular.

In the absence of a national Affordable Housing (Purchase) Scheme and an affordable leasing scheme, it will be very hard for Local Authorities to ensure homes are affordable. My fear is that most of them won’t succeed. Surely, where the State owns the land, the State puts in the infrastructure and the State wants mixed tenure, the State should set up the schemes?

The National Economic and Research Council has published a paper entitled How a European Cost Rental Model could work in the Republic of Ireland[9] and the ESRI and NESC have also advocated for such schemes. The Ó Cualann Co-Housing Alliance has provided an excellent model in its development in Ballymun wherein mixed-tenure at affordable prices has become a reality.

There are far too many people now forced to compete with each other in the private rented market: those on Rent Supplement or HAP, those on low incomes who are on housing waiting lists but have to pay the full-cost of private rent, and those on middle-incomes who traditionally would have been able to raise a deposit and get a loan to buy a house but are priced out of the rapidly rising cost of purchase and stuck in the also rapidly-rising cost of rental. These families can see no way out because they can’t afford to pay rent, childcare etc and still save for a deposit.

The Bill I introduced in the Dáil this Summer is designed to put children’s rights and needs at the centre of decision-making when a family becomes homeless and to provide a protective floor.

However, other measures, many of them promised in Rebuilding Ireland[10], must be delivered with speed and determination if children and their families are to have the opportunity to exercise those rights.

The most basic right to be vindicated for any child is the right to a secure roof over his or her head, along with their family.

Notes


[1] RTÉ Report, available here.

[2] IHREC Report available here.

[3] Report available here.

[4] Irish Times article, available here.

[5] Bill available here.

[6] IHREC Press release, available here.

[7] Report available here.

[8] Peter McVerry Trust Committee statement, available here.

[9] NERI Paper, available here.

[10] Rebuilding Ireland Action Plan, available here.

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