Public Accounts Committee to Look into How Homeless Services are Being Procured

The Public Accounts Committee in the Dáil has agreed to review the procedures in place for funding homeless services, says Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan, who is on the committee.

In a 2018 report, auditors flagged that Dublin City Council was not following the government’s rules for procurement for homeless services.

Dublin city councillors have raised concerns that Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) is awarding contracts to companies without using the correct procurement process and that those companies don’t always meet standards for homeless accommodation.

Earlier this month, an assistant principal officer in the Department of Housing, wrote to the Public Accounts Committee which had requested information.

In the letter, she pointed to a 2014 government circular that says public bodies procuring social services should prioritise those applicants “that can provide evidence of the best outcomes for the end-users”.

But that isn’t happening, says Hourigan. “The increase in privately provided emergency accommodation for people experiencing homelessness raises issues around the suitability of the service being provided by the state.”

Dublin City Council hasn’t responded to queries about whether it has acted in line with the circular when awarding contracts for homeless services.

A council spokesperson said in February that getting homeless accommodation is complex and that the council was looking for specialist advice on how to source it in line with the public procurement rules.

Best for Service Users?

In 2018 and 2019, most new contracts to run homeless services were awarded to private companies, Department of Housing figures show.

Homeless charities often train their staff in fire safety, conflict resolution, overdose management and suicide prevention, while private providers usually don’t.

Most private emergency accommodation providers don’t employ qualified social care professionals and last June, workers in at least two hostels said they don’t Garda-vet their staff.

That is concerning, says Hourigan. “As a TD for Dublin Central this is an ongoing area of concern in providing support for some of the most vulnerable people in my constituency.”

A protocol in place since April 2020 between the Department of Housing and DRHE says that DRHE should award contracts to providers of “supported temporary accommodation” where possible.

This category of accommodation means those hostels with more supports for those who are homeless, which are usually run by homeless charities rather than private companies.

“The delegation of funding in 2020 is contingent on decision-making being in accordance with Government policy,” says the protocol.

That includes reducing reliance on hotels and B&Bs “through the provision of more appropriate supported temporary accommodation”, it says.

People who are accommodated in B&Bs or hotels should be moved to supported accommodation when possible, it says.

The protocol also highlights the government circular from 2014 on the management of exchequer funds, which says that public bodies awarding contracts for personal and social services should prioritise applicants “that can provide evidence of the best outcomes for the end-users”.

The public body should assess the projected outcomes by looking at the evidence of the applicant’s effectiveness and prior performance in order to “make evidence-based decisions”, it says.

Public bodies should keep records of that process, says the protocol.

Anti-homelessness campaigner Fr Peter McVerry said in November last year that contracts for homeless services usually go to the providers that offer the cheapest services, not the ones with the best track records.

Dublin City Council hasn’t responded to queries about whether it procured homeless accommodation in 2018 and 2019 in line with the best interests of the end user.

Earlier Flags

The rules around procurement are in place to make sure that there is fair and open competition for public contracts.

In a 2018 report from the Local Government Audit Service, the auditor said that Dublin City Council was not in compliance with the Procurement Directive, which says that all public contracts over €25,000 should be advertised on e-tenders.

While all contracts with an estimated value of more than €135,000 should be advertised in the Official Journal of the European Union, says the website of the Controller and Auditor General.

The auditor’s report said the council hadn’t followed the procedures laid down by the Office of Government Procurement when procuring legal services, homeless services and a specific set of works undertaken for €200,000.

The Department of Housing didn’t directly answer a question as to the consequences for councils that fail to comply with those rules.

According to the audit report, the chief executive of Dublin City Council, Owen Keegan, responded saying that legal services are exempt from the rules under EU law.

About the non-compliance in procuring homeless services, the report cites him as saying that “Generally, when a property in the private sector is offered/sourced to the DRHE for use as emergency accommodation, the property is in the ownership of a third party and it is not possible for the Dublin Region Homeless Executive to tender for a service provider.”

Likewise, most NGO-providers of homeless services secure the building first and then they approach the council, he said.

Dublin City Council hasn’t responded to queries as to how many expressions of interest it has received from NGO providers of social-care services since the start of 2018 and whether it turned any of those down.

The council also uses hotel rooms for emergency accommodation. It carried out a “soundings exercise” in 2016 which found that many hotels wouldn’t want to participate in an open tender process “because of the perceived impact on their business competitiveness”, the report says.

If the DRHE tendered for those, it might get fewer hotel rooms and leave families experiencing homelessness with nowhere to go, the report says.

The chief executive’s response also said that the council would tender for all other services provided by DRHE over the following year, including visiting supports, day services and advice centres as well as council-owned accommodation facilities.

But between 2015 and 2020, the DRHE advertised just three contracts, a search on eTenders suggests. One was for construction works on hostels in 2017, and another was for a booking system in 2019.

The only contract for accommodation or support services was for the Housing First service, which aims to get those who have been sleeping rough long-term into homes.

The auditor’s report for Dublin City Council in 2019 – and for several other counties – is not currently available on the Department of Housing website. That’s because of technical issues, said a department spokesperson.

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Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

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