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“It is Victorian-era legislation,” says Mike Allen, director of advocacy at Focus Ireland.
“This approach is rooted in poor law provisions and is widespread in homeless services across the world.”
He is talking about the requirement for people who are homeless to prove a local connection to a particular council area, which has recently come to the attention of city councillors since homeless services in Dublin started to apply it more stringently.
Last week, emails and a call between the head of a drop-in centre for the homeless and a Dublin Region Homeless Executive worker highlighted how the rule is being applied so strictly, that even those who are known as rough sleepers are left on the streets while beds are empty.
As part of the European Observatory on Homelessness, Allen worked on an EU-wide report looking at the impact of the local connection rule.
The requirement for a local connection has been in place for centuries, and can be traced all the way back to medieval vagrancy laws, says Allen.
The rule makes little sense these days with free movement of people in Europe, he says. Workers can come and go between countries but “what happens when things go wrong?”
Irish people returning from abroad or travelling to Dublin for services that don’t exist in the county they’ve come from can also fall foul of the rules.
On Monday’s Morning Ireland, the Minister for Housing Fianna Fáil TD Darragh O’Brien said there is no need to demonstrate a local connection to get a bed in a hostel. “No one is being turned away from emergency accommodation,” he said.
That night, Louisa Santoro, CEO of the Mendicity Institution posted on Twitter a recording of a staff member trying to secure beds for three rough sleepers, all of whom were refused on the basis that they didn’t have a local connection to Dublin City Council.
Allen says that local authorities in Ireland are interpreting the legislation incorrectly, “It seems crazy that a disagreement about the meaning of the legislation with such fundamental consequences should be allowed to proceed for such a long time.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing says that the Minister for Housing has “written to local authorities to reiterate that the local connection criteria must not be a barrier to any person who needs shelter during these winter months”.
“He has also requested a broader review of the Housing Act 1988 to ensure it is fit for purpose in providing a statutory basis for our efforts in tackling homelessness,” said the spokesperson.
What is the Law?
“Under the Housing Act 1988 it is a matter for each local authority to determine whether a person is regarded as homeless,” says a spokesperson for the Department of Housing.
Section 2 sets out the requirements and any person assessed as being homeless may be placed in a hostel without needing to undergo a social housing assessment, he says.
“When a household has been assessed as homeless, section 10 of the Housing Act 1988, provides that a local authority may provide accommodation,” says the spokesperson.
“All local authorities have a responsibility to provide emergency accommodation for individuals and households becoming homeless from their functional area,” says the spokesperson.
There is no obligation on the local authority to provide accommodation to those from outside their area, says Allen from Focus Ireland, but they can do so if they want.
Local authorities in Ireland interpret the law as meaning that they only have to provide shelter to those people that they have a responsibility to house, he says.
Focus Ireland’s position is that the responsibility to provide housing and the responsibility to provide emergency shelter are two totally separate assessments, he says.
In the Council Chamber
At the most recent monthly council meeting on 7 December, Lord Mayor Hazel Chu of the Green Party refused to allow an emergency motion calling for the local connection eligibility criteria to be suspended and for the council to offer shelter to all rough sleepers on a humanitarian basis to be debated and voted on.
The motion was proposed by independent Councillor Anthony Flynn, CEO of Inner City Helping Homeless, and signed by a number of other councillors.
At the meeting, Chu said that the issue was an emergency but was not within the council’s control. (Emergency motions have to be on things the council has the power to address.)
The requirement for a local connection was national policy and therefore outside of the council’s control, said Chu.
Instead, she said she would raise it with the Minister for Housing, when the council’s homeless task force meets with him on Friday.
Flynn, the motion’s proposer, didn’t agree with that decision. It is an issue for the council, he said. “It was on a humanitarian basis to prevent further loss of life on our streets.”
Chu didn’t respond in time for publication to a call and text on Tuesday, to find out what she based her decision on.
That motion should have been heard, says Allen of Focus Ireland. The council has discretion within the law to offer emergency shelter to people without a local connection. So councillors could decide to do that.
“If our interpretation of the legislation is correct, the councillors could set the policy,” he says.
A second motion, which was agreed on Tuesday at the Central Area Committee called for the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) to ensure that beds in Dublin are made available to anyone who needs one.
The councillors received a report, from the director of the DRHE Eileen Gleeson in response to that motion.
Local authorities shouldn’t separate out the provision of homeless services from the social-housing eligibility criteria because housing is the solution to homelessness, it says.
“We would welcome policy developments at a national level to update the homeless provisions in legislation and include a focus on family and migrant homelessness,” says the report.
The DRHE used to provide people from outside the Dublin area with emergency accommodation for one night at a time, that system was called one night only and was scrapped recently.
But “there is still flexibility to respond to a short-term need”, says the report.
They can provide accommodation for up to 12 weeks if the homeless person is a migrant looking for work, it says.
Dublin is the area under most pressure with homelessness. “The council should consider what it is asking for, in relation to broadening the responsibilities of the DRHE to take on the responsibilities of other local authorities,” says the report.
“For the DRHE to provide a bed on humanitarian grounds would require clear government policy and guidelines, along with increased funding for the provision of additional services,” it says.
Problems with the Connection Rule
The recent application of the rule by the DRHE, allowing people to sleep rough who want beds, “is contrary to what every minister has said for the last 20 years”, says Allen. The national policy is to eliminate the need for anyone to sleep rough, he says.
It can be difficult to move people on from homeless services if they don’t have a local connection and won’t be entitled to social housing, he says.
But “making them sleep on the street? I don’t think that would be acceptable to people”, he says.
If the eligibility criteria for homeless services was clearly outlined in writing, like it is for all other public services, that would open it up to democratic accountability, he says.
The report to the Central Area Committee by the DRHE says that a homeless assessment includes the person’s accommodation history, reasons for homeless support needs and “any other relevant information that will inform the assessment”.
“There isn’t any other area in public services where you make a claim and you get nothing in writing as to why you have been turned down,” says Allen.
It would be helpful to know the scale of the problem, so local authorities should also record how many people they refuse access to homeless services and why, says Allen.
In 2018, 12 councils responded to Freedom of Information Act requests, asking for the number of people who had presented as homeless, and the number assessed by the council as not homeless. Others didn’t collect the figures.
The responses suggest that between 2016 and the middle of 2018, councils frequently refused homeless services to people for a variety of reasons.
For example, Waterford City and County Council figures said that 1,373 clients were “not placed” after presenting to Waterford homeless services between the start of 2016 and mid-2018. It’s unclear if some were the same person, presenting multiple times say.
Those included 53 who were assessed as “making themselves homeless”, 119 who were “referred to another local authority”, and 470 simply categorised as “assessed as not homeless”.
In the UK, local authorities report on the number of households that presented as homeless and also the number it accepted as being homeless.
The DRHE doesn’t do that and this means they cannot quantify the problem, he says.
There is also trouble defining a local connection. He recalls a case of a woman who was refused by Wicklow County Council on the grounds of not having a local connection, even though her children were in school there.
Lots of people can’t prove a local connection to any council, says Allen.
The Department of Housing spokesperson didn’t directly answer a question about what happens to homeless people who can’t prove a local connection to any council area.
In the UK, a right to shelter was introduced for families, says Allen. But here there is no such right in place, even for children so legislative change is required.
“Anyone who has nowhere to sleep that night … should have a legal right to some form of emergency accommodation for that night,” he says.