Independent Councillor Anthony Flynn has so many questions he’s looking for the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) to answer about the money it’s spending on family “hubs” and emergency accommodation like hostels.
“I think there’s a serious serious black hole here in terms of what’s being spent […] and where it’s actually going,” says Flynn, who is also CEO of Inner City Helping Homeless.
He points to the DRHE’s 2018 end-of-year financial report. It’s the line about “on-site supports” that catches his attention.
Families have approached him, saying they’re not receiving the supports they want, he says.
The DRHE says it paid more than €13 million to Focus Ireland for on-site supports at family hubs.
“Does some of this fall under rent or leases on properties?” says Flynn. It’s not clear. “From an auditing perspective, this is not good enough.”
The DRHE’s accounts are audited by both the Local Government Audit Service and the National Oversight and Audit Commission.
There are protocols to ensure “all funding arrangements […] must be in accordance with statutory requirements and public financial procedures, including the Public Spending Code,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.
But those wanting to check and see where exactly the money’s going, and what services the council pays for, struggle to do so.
Last year, Dublin City Council spent €141,147,361 on homeless services, according to the DRHE’s 2018 end-of-year report.
The council spent €4.7 million on homelessness prevention measures, things like the family-homelessness action team and tenancy-support services.
Meanwhile, €5.5 million went to long-term supported housing, €4.3 million on homeless day services, and €8.2 million on the administrative provision of these services, which includes funding for Parkgate Hall and staff wages.
However, the most significant cost was providing emergency accommodation – the hostels, hotels, and hubs where homeless people stay as they search for places to rent, or hope for social housing. The council spent €118.4 million on this last year.
The report lists the names of projects funded, who ran the service, the budgeted cost, and what was actually spent.
So for example, the service provider for Brú Aimsir, a low-threshold nightly emergency hostel in the south inner-city, is DePaul Trust. Running the hostel was budgeted to cost €1,729,506 in 2018. It actually cost €3,940,717.
Another specific project listed in the report was Lynam’s Hotel on O’Connell Street. Last year, Flynn sought an explanation from DRHE as to why the 2017 payment of €1,322,337 to Lynam’s had “Focus Onsite Supports” in the service-provider column.
Those who are homeless may be offered different on-site supports, mostly access to key workers to help them find somewhere more secure to move on to.
Lynam’s Hotel had only opened as emergency accommodation in December of that year, so how did they spend that amount on “Focus Onsite Support” in that short time? Flynn wondered.
Flynn asked the DRHE for more information, under the Freedom of Information Act.
“The column marked ‘Service Provider’ is an information column only. This payment was not for any on site supports,” the DRHE said in its response.
Instead, the payment was for “the negotiated contract payment to the owners of the Lynams Hotel for the full provision of Serviced Emergency Accommodation”, it said.
It continued: “The accommodation was retrofitted to adhere to current building standards and there are strict quality controls in place to ensure that the facilities are fully regulated with regard to fire and disabled access requirements.”
Spending in 2018 for Lynam’s Hotel came to €1,972,516. That sum was also labelled as being for “Focus Ireland On Site Supports”.
Dublin City Council haven’t responded yet to queries sent on Monday as to whether this funding in 2018 was for “retrofitting” or whether it was for Focus Ireland to deliver on-site supports.
Focus Ireland On-Site Supports
Under the 2018 report’s “Emergency Accommodation” heading, five other family “hubs” are marked “Focus Onsite Support”: Abberley Tallaght, Sunnybank, Viking Lodge, Bram Stoker and The Townhouse. In total, they received €8.9 million in funding.
It’s not clear if this was also for “retrofitting” or for actual on-site supports, or if it’s many things all mashed together, though.
In June 2019, Dublin City Council refused to grant an FOI request for a detailed breakdown of the on-site supports offered by Focus Ireland for The Townhouse. The “record concerned does not exist”, the response said.
A spokesperson for Focus Ireland said their Family Homeless Action Team does work in each of the family hubs marked in the 2018 report as providing on-site supports.
“We also support families through regular keyworking with budgeting, health links , access to school, education and training, attending viewings, preparing independent living skills,” the spokesperson said.
“We have child support workers who work with some of the children who are most in need of additional support,” the spokesperson said.
Focus Ireland also runs summer and mid-term camps, and family day trips, the spokesperson said. Families, depending on need, are offered either weekly or fortnightly support from key workers.
However, the sums in the end-of-year budgets attributed to Focus Ireland on-site supports have been miscategorised, according to Focus Ireland.
Funding for Focus Ireland’s Family Homeless Action Team does not appear under the budget heading “Emergency Accommodation”, where that €8.9 million in funding for “Focus Onsite Support” is listed.
Instead, it appears under the budget heading “Homelessness Prevention, Tenancy Sustainment and Resettlement Supports”. In 2018, the team received €1,462,647, according to a line item there.
Exactly what the companies that provide accommodation for “family hubs” are obliged to provide isn’t public.
The DRHE refused an FOI request in April seeking copies of “leases, contracts or agreements that Dublin Region Homeless Executive has with service providers of family hubs”.
“That disclosure would prejudice the conduct, effectiveness, and/or outcome of both ongoing and future negotiations with private contractors/operators that are engaged to provide emergency accommodation for people experiencing homelessness”, the response said.
When Flynn sought the “contractual obligations” for the 2017 payment of €1,322,337 to Lynam’s Hotel, his request was also refused.
He had wanted to know what the DRHE was asking for in exchange for that money, what that money was spent on and what homeless families could expect in services, he says.
But releasing this information “would have a significant adverse impact on the management of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive function”, its response said.
Under the “Emergency Accommodation” budget heading in the DRHE’s 2018 report, among the line items for the specific family hubs mentioned above, there are two large line items with only brief descriptions.
These are “Private Emergency Accommodation” (€13,355,183) and “Hotels” (€50,350,162). It’s unclear what these line items include and what they don’t.
For example, Lynam’s is a hotel, but it’s listed in addition to this “Hotels” line item. So what does the “Hotels” line item include?
Flynn, the independent councillor, says there are other confusing labelings in the DRHE’s financial report.
A hostel at John’s Lane is listed as having received €950,000 in 2017. But this hostel was closed, says Flynn.
That payment was for “replacement beds” that were “decommissioned” from John’s Lane to other beds in the city, said the response to Flynn’s FOI. In other words, it seems, for other beds instead of those ones.
It’s not clear, however, why they wouldn’t be labeled as such, considering John’s Lane closed on 4 July 2016.
A council spokesperson said: “John Lane’s decommissioned beds is used as heading only for the financial report to isolate the cost of the replacement beds for financial reporting purposes. The report has been realigned for 2019.”
Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí Doolan, who was head of the housing committee up until May, said he has “no problem with however amount of money we spend to provide proper decent accommodation in an emergency accommodation”.
“But of course there needs to be accountability,” he says. Those spending money should be held to account, he said.
But also, “homeless families themselves suffer because they become the butt of anger and frustration and that’s wrong”, Doolan said.
“We’re not accusing anybody of misappropriation,” says Doolan. “It’s just accountability with public money.”
Labour Party Councillor Alison Gilliland, the current head of the council’s housing committee, said that marking the 2018 payment to Lynam’s Hotel as “Focus Onsite Supports” when that’s not what the money was for was “very misleading”.
Not only did this mislead the public about how much Focus Ireland were being paid to provide services, but it also disguised some DHRE capital expenditure.
“I think from the hubs perspective we need to know exactly how much is being spent on each area of our emergency services, whether it be refurbishment, food, Dublin City Council staff themselves,” Gilliland says.
Gilliland, as well as Flynn, say there’s a responsibility on the council’s audit committee to ask questions about the report.
“I sat on the internal audit committee of Beaumont Hospital and we would be very much conscious of questioning and looking at what we should be auditing and cross-referencing expenditure against income,” says Gilliland.
“I think there’s a need for our audit committee to do [an] exercise into our spending into emergency services,” says Gilliland.