Speech by Brendan Ryan TD on the Housing (Homeless Families) Bill
I congratulate my colleague, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan, on bringing forward this very important Bill. As Deputy O’Sullivan set out earlier, children have no rights to protection, safety or a roof over their heads except as dependants of their parents, even though the rights of the child have been written into the Constitution. There is also no statutory recognition of the needs of a homeless family as a family unit. The vast majority of us in this House who have constituency offices and advice clinics will have met and dealt with too many families over the past few years who have found themselves in bed and breakfast accommodation, hotels or worse. This is a terrible time to be in an insecure tenancy. Homelessness can hit almost anyone who cannot afford the ever-increasing rents. Homelessness has evolved and is striking a broader section of society and, as is always the case in crises, children are suffering the most. In my constituency of Dublin Fingal, Fingal County Council works hard to ensure families remain together if they have to avail of emergency accommodation or short-term housing. However, this needs to be underpinned with legislation. Unless we do this, the passing of the children’s rights referendum five years ago will have meant very little.
It seems like the most oft-quoted line in Irish politics over the past few years has been “We need to start building homes”. However, why, when money is available, as it appears to be now, are homes not being built quickly enough? Has the Minister seen data for the delivery times for local authority housing projects which have gone through the Part 8 and Part 11 processes but have not progressed any further? We have projects in Fingal which have not yet been delivered, despite having been approved for over a year. I believe – it is the view of the Labour Party – that the local authorities are not adequately resourced to deliver housing projects. We know local authorities stripped out tradesmen, architects, quantity surveyors and other specialists over the Fianna Fáil years, as public housing delivery was left almost solely to the private sector. We need to get real on housing delivery. The market will not solve the housing crisis because the market is not interested in so doing. The market is motivated solely by self-interest and profit. The only actor invested in resolving the housing crisis should be the State, and the State is not doing enough. The answer is not just money.
It has to include a delivery plan and local authorities are the key to this.
Housing staff in local authorities are currently over-stretched. They are managing homeless figures, leases for long-term rentals, RAS, the HAP schemes, etc. All of these have an urgency to them which usually requires immediate action. If that action is not forthcoming, then leases will break or fall and another family will turn up at the homeless desk the following morning. These officials work long hours, as we have to acknowledge, to meet these immediate concerns and they are losing days, weeks and months in pushing the building and delivery of new housing stock because their workload is spread across a range of functions. The hands-off approach will not work any more. The Minister of State needs to direct the chief executives to build homes quicker and, as part of the bargain, he needs to resource them adequately to achieve this. They need officials who are solely dedicated to the delivery of new housing stock. Purchased stock from the private market is a useful short-term response by local authorities but it does nothing to increase supply. It will contribute to pricing other young families out of the market by gobbling up the short supply that currently exists.
Local authorities need to focus on delivery of new homes, built from the ground up, as they did in the past and were very good at in the past. The statistics on homelessness continue to horrify and disappoint in equal measure. With children sleeping in Garda stations, in cars, in tents and on the street, the changing nature of homelessness needs to be recognised in law. A Garda station may be a safe overnight location for an adult, but it is not an appropriate place for a child or a family. Our Bill would change that by requiring housing authorities to regard the best interests of the child as paramount and to protect and assist families, including by providing them with safe accommodation. It will also ensure that there is a holistic response to support the needs of families in hotels and hubs with not just a roof over their heads, but also the wider requirement to support and encourage the effective functioning of families and the development, welfare and protection of children within the family setting. Homelessness charities, including Focus Ireland, have told us that it is important that the law is strengthened and changed to support families in crisis situations. Mike Allen has said there must be a clear statutory responsibility that no family sleeps rough. This Bill goes some way to achieving that and while it will not solve the housing and homelessness crisis, it would be a positive step along the way.
I thoroughly enjoy my work as a Deputy and public representative. I relish the challenge of finding solutions for my constituents in Dublin Fingal. However, the most frustrating aspect of all of that work relates to housing and homelessness in circumstances where I know that the only advice I can give to people who come to my clinic is to do exactly what I know that every one of them has been doing every minute of every waking hour of every day. This will continue until sufficient supply comes on stream, as the Minister of State knows. No stone can be left unturned until this is achieved. Our Bill will help to drive that imperative and I urge all parties and individuals, including those from Tipperary, to support it.