Homeless services need to see major reform of standards and independent inspections, says an interim report from a cross-party committee of senators and TDs.
Also, reliance on private hostels should be phased out, says the report from the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing Local Government and Heritage.
National standards should be fully in place in all hostels, it says, and independent inspections should be carried out by the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA).
Following the recommendations though would require an about-face by the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) in how it runs its homeless services.
In recent times, DRHE has increased its reliance on private providers.
It only applies national standards to charity-run hostels, not private hostels. And a council official recently said it would hire a private company to do any inspections.
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said it was reviewing the report’s recommendations. “A new housing strategy and action plan, Housing for All, is also currently being developed,” they said.
Progress is being made in reducing homelessness, they said, with the numbers in emergency accommodation at their lowest since June 2017.
Dublin City Council hadn’t responded before publication to queries sent on Tuesday.
For years, anti-homelessness campaigners have called for minimum standards of care for those who live in the city’s homeless hostels, says independent Councillor Anthony Flynn.
Linked to that has been a call for independent inspections, says Flynn, who is also the CEO of Inner City Helping Homeless.
“The report highlights issues which have been prevalent and worsening for years now,” says Flynn.
In 2019, the DRHE launched its National Quality Standards Framework (NQSF) for homeless services, a document outlining the supports that homeless services should offer people and the rights they should enjoy.
The standards say they apply in all services, whether charity-run or private.
But Flynn has repeatedly said that the standards are not being followed in private hostels.
He recently asked Chief Executive Owen Keegan to outline a timeframe for minimum standards to be in place in private hostels.
“The DRHE are currently re-framing the NQSF standards documents for both the NGO and private emergency accommodation sectors,” says a response he received, on 5 July.
Flynn says he understood that to mean that the council wants to change the standards framework rather than improving the private hostels so that they meet the current standards.
Cian O’Callaghan, a Social Democrats TD, says he has received responses from the Minister for Housing saying that “parallel standards” would be put in place for private hostels. “They would be the same but yet not the same” as the NQSF, he says.
“The minister should put his foot down now and say that the standards have to be applied,” says O’Callaghan, who is a member of the joint committee which issued the report.
The standards should apply to all hostels “as was originally intended”, says the joint committees report.
“The National Quality Standards Framework is a very good framework,” says Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin, but the problem is it has never applied to private providers and there have been no independent inspections.
“I see no reason why that should be diluted in any way,” says Ó Broin, who is also a member of the joint committee.
The recent report strengthens a previous Oireachtas report published in 2019, which recommended that “consideration be given” to expanding the role of HIQA to inspect hostels.
HIQA could start inspecting homeless hostels if it was mandated to do so by the relevant minister and given the necessary resources, says Ó Broin.
In February, Brendan Kenny, the housing manager of Dublin City Council, said that the DRHE intended to hire a private company to carry out inspections.
A spokesperson for the DRHE said at the time that they would need to employ a specialist procurement consultant, which would take three to six months.
Funding bodies should not be in charge of inspecting the services they fund, says Ó Broin.
“This nonsense that Dublin City Council is proposing of employing a private company, that is not acceptable,” he says.
The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing also recommended that homeless charities should be able to bid for all contracts to run hostels.
Homeless charities have complained that these contracts haven’t been advertised on eTenders, the national tendering platform, as they legally should be and that some adverts are only aimed at private providers.
Says the report: “In all instances where the provision of accommodation for people who have become homeless is being sought, NGOs and not-for-profit organisations should be permitted to tender to provide this accommodation.”
Also, there should be a full review carried out when somebody dies while experiencing homelessness, the joint committee’s report says.
“A proper methodology for counting people who die while accessing homeless services and to have some mechanism for reviewing those deaths, to try to find better ways of preventing such deaths into the future,” says Ó Broin.
Louisa Santoro, CEO of the Mendicity Institution, a homeless drop-in centre, says that a process, to learn from deaths that occur to people experiencing homelessness is badly needed.
Her service has lost eight clients since late 2020, and there is currently no system in place to review a death that occurs or to learn from it, she says.
What Happens Next?
The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing includes each political party’s spokesperson on housing, and this report has been agreed on a cross-party basis, says O’Callaghan.
Says Ó Broin: “There wasn’t much disagreement among the members.”
O’Callaghan says he’ll be watching out to see if the recommendations have made their way into the government’s new housing policy, which is set to be launched next week, he says.
“The responsibility for implementation rests with the minister for housing, Darragh O’Brien,” he says.
“The ball is now clearly in the minister’s court,” says Ó Broin.
The cross-party support for the recommendations is encouraging, says Flynn, the independent councillor. “But implementation of these recommendations cannot and will not come quickly enough.”
Says O’Callaghan: “The key thing is that we will be following up. This isn’t just a report. We will be coming back to see if it is being implemented.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said that its priority is to get people out of emergency accommodation.
“For those experiencing homelessness it is important that there is sufficient capacity to meet the needs of all persons,” they said, and the department is supporting councils to provide this accommodation.
That includes providing emergency accommodation through local authority or AHB owned facilities, says the spokesperson.