On Wednesday 12th June Mercy Law Resource Centre presented to members of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government on child and family homelessness. We raised very urgent concerns in relation to the accommodation provision made to vulnerable homeless families and set out several positive recommendations to address these issues. Alongside the statement made by Mercy Law Managing Solicitor Rebecca Keatinge, the Committee heard statements from Focus Ireland, the Ombudsman for Children and the Children’s Rights Alliance.
Before the Committee MLRC Managing Solicitor Rebecca Keatinge set out six key concerns in relation to emergency accommodation provision to homeless families. She highlighted in particular the apparently increased reliance on provision of one night only emergency accommodation to vulnerable families and stated that the latest figures indicate that 80 families are currently on such provision. She noted that this included mothers discharged from maternity hospitals into night by night emergency accommodation provision. Rebecca set out the devastating impacts on families arising from this chronically unstable emergency accommodation provision and called for a complete cessation of such one night only provision.
MLRC also addressed the shortcomings of the ‘self-accommodation option’ of emergency accommodation whereby families must source their own booking in a commercial hotel or B&B. Many of MLRC clients, who may have limited resources or language skills, are simply not able to secure such bookings and examples were relayed to the Committee of families having to resort to Garda stations, parks and their cars in the absence of any hotel booking. MLRC noted that Rebuilding Ireland committed to ceasing reliance on commercial hotels as a form of emergency accommodation to families except in very limited circumstances, yet the Government has completely failed to fulfil this commitment with over half of families in the Dublin region still residing in commercial hotels. MLRC highlighted the unacceptable periods that families are spending in unsuitable hotel and B&B accommodation and the long lasting and grave impacts of such unsuitable accommodation on child development and family stability.
MLRC shared the concerns expressed by the Ombudsman for Children in relation to the risk of institutionalisation and normalising of family homelessness through reliance on family hubs. MLRC also raised specific concerns to the Committee in relation to the accessibility of family hub placements for vulnerable families and called for a shift away from hotel and family hub provision to provision of emergency accommodation to families in transitional own door placements.
Finally, MLRC raised an overarching concern in relation to the failure of housing authorities to identify and meet the particular needs and vulnerabilities of families who present and access emergency accommodation. MLRC called for the enactment of a statutory obligation such that the housing authority have a duty to take into account and to have paramount regard for the best interest of children and to have regard to the functioning of the family unit. MLRC also called for the issuing of Regulations under Section 10 of the Housing Act 1988 to oblige the housing authority to consider the suitability and adequacy of any emergency accommodation as provided to families and to place a limit on the time families can spend in unsuitable emergency accommodation.
Overall, the session was both instructive and illuminating, with each organisation drawing from recently published reports to give stark evidence-based findings on homeless figures, experiences of homelessness from front-line engagement, and collective recommendations to address the ongoing crisis.
In attendance from the Joint Committee were Eoin Ó Broin TD (Sinn Féin), Pat Casey TD (Fianna Fáil), Richard Boyd Barrett TD (People Before Profit), Mattie McGrath TD (Independent), Fergus O’Dowd TD (Fine Gael) and Victor Boyhan (Independent Senator), with Maria Bailey TD (Fine Gael) Chairing. Questions were put to each of the organisations following opening statements. Responding to MLRC’s concern in relation to one night only emergency accommodation provision, Deputy Casey condemned this provision as ‘completely unacceptable’ and ‘horrendous’ and questioned the logic of such provision. The discussion following opening statements picked up on three key recommendations and priority actions as set out by MLRC including cessation of both one night only and self-accommodation emergency accommodation, the implementation of time limits on unsuitable emergency provisions provided by the over-reliance of B&B and commercial hotels, and a referendum on the Constitutional right to housing.
Mercy Law Resource Centre has been consistently advocating for a right to housing to be protected in the Constitution. Several Committee members and NGO and OCO colleagues represented at this Oireachtas Committee meeting articulated their support for implementation of such a legal protection. Responding to this recommendation, Deputy O’Dowd described a right to housing “an absolutely essential right”, citing its ability to facilitate rights such as privacy and dignity, a position supported by Deputy O’Broin, Deputy Casey and Senator Boyhan.
Comparisons and contrasts between the Irish and Scottish approaches to installing legal protections on the rights of housing were also made, with Focus Ireland’s Mike Allen highlighting that the legal right to housing established in Scots Law depended on cross-party cooperation, and occurred in a substantially less severe housing and homelessness crisis.
Out of the diversity of expertise, perspective and function represented by the various organisations present at the Committee hearing – which included both non-Governmental and statutory agencies – a broad consensus and lucid set of priorities and recommendations emerged. It is now hoped that these recommendations will form the basis of a report to the Minister from the Oireachtas Committee and contribute a positive and meaningful shift in policy with respect of family and child homelessness.
MLRC continues to raise our concerns that the current mechanisms of dealing with family homelessness are not fit for purpose, and that inertia in terms of political will and legislative development in this area detrimentally impacts the most vulnerable families in Irish society. We have proposed both long and short term recommendations to the Committee to address the most pressing issues faced by homeless families engaging with the system, supports and housing agencies. It is hoped that this meeting and the information and recommendations submitted may form the basis of a report to be compiled by the Committee and used to propel urgent action to address the specific concerns made by both MLRC and our colleagues in attendance before the Committee.