“So are we going to find out who runs the hostels?” says Louisa Santoro, the CEO of the Mendicity Institution, a homeless day centre.
Most of the people who use her drop-in service are staying in hostels run by private companies and, even in an emergency, she can’t contact the staff there, she says.
There aren’t details published online for the companies that run private homeless hostels, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) won’t give out their email addresses, she says and the people who live in the hostels don’t know the names of the companies either.
That is not a transparent way to do business, says Santoro. “Who are the company directors and what are their recruitment practices?”
The DRHE has drawn up a new set of standards for private hostels – which have mushroomed in recent years – outlining for the first time what is expected in terms of transparency, staff training and vetting, confidentiality and complaints.
The new standards are a lot less comprehensive than the original ones, she says, but they do promise “clear and accountable management structures”, causing Santoro to wonder if the hostels will start to publish their contact information.
She also wonders if this is “a paperwork exercise” or if the new standards will be implemented.
A Dublin City Council spokesperson said that the council has appointed a dedicated member of staff to work with private hostels to implement the standards and to coordinate staff training with the HSE.
The spokesperson also said that private hostels “resumed” Garda vetting of staff last November.
What Is the Problem?
Since at least 2019, people living in private hostels and their advocates have raised concerns about standards in those hostels and treatment by staff.
In July 2019, families living in one hotel complained of oppressive rules and said that there was no complaints procedure open to them.
In October 2019, Brian Jones said he felt he was bullied by staff in a private hostel and that they threatened people with “cancellation” (eviction) for very minor infringements of the rules.
In June 2020, Santoro complained about lax recruitment procedures in some private hostels and some said that they didn’t do Garda vetting of staff.
In September 2020, Asha Iqbal said residents in her hostel weren’t allowed to speak to each other. The rules that Iqbal received said “Dublin City Council” on them but the council spokesperson said that it was not responsible for that rule.
In January 2022, Santoro carried out a survey of 96 people in her service. Ninety of those people reported having been assaulted or robbed in a hostel, she says.
“Over a year ago the Minister [for housing Fianna Fáil TD Darragh O’Brien] said that he wanted to reduce the reliance on private providers,” says Santoro. “Now, instead, we are going to introduce a new set of standards that asks people for the first time, to deliver services safely.”
Careful recruitment of staff is the key to running safe homeless services, Santoro says.
Last week a council spokesperson said: “Garda vetting of staff in PEAs [private emergency accommodation] resumed in November 2021 and will continue on a rolling basis.”
The new draft quality standards for providers of private emergency accommodation are published on the DRHE’s website.
They say that among other things private hostels must have a robust confidentiality policy, and a complaints procedure and will carry out referrals to health services.
The new standards document mirrors the themes in theNational Quality Standards Framework for Homeless Services, which were supposed to apply to all services but were only operated by homeless charities, but it’s a lot lighter and there is a reduction in standards.
The original standards are 54 pages while the new standards document for private emergency accommodation is seven pages.
According to both sets of standards, hostels should have complaint policies.
In the original standards: “Service users’ complaints and concerns are listened to and acted upon in a timely, supportive and effective manner.”
For private hostels though, that becomes: “There is service improvement through fair and transparent processing of complaints.”
Does this mean that the service user has lost the right to have their complaint acted on in a timely, supportive and effective manner?
“It makes absolutely no sense to have an inferior set of standards to the National Quality Standards Framework,” says Social Democrats TD Cian O’Callaghan.
Those quality standards were supposed to apply to all hostels, he says.
Santoro says it would not be acceptable to run a private nursing home to a lesser set of standards than a public nursing home.
The Department of Housing also released documents to O’Callaghan under the Freedom of Information Act, including a template of a contract, or service agreement.
According to the service agreement, all frontline staff in homeless services should have social-care qualifications.
Santoro says she is certain that many staff in private hostels don’t have those qualifications at the moment.
Will It Happen?
The council presented the standards document and the service level agreement, together with key performance indicators, to the statutory management group and consultative forum in September 2021, says the spokesperson for Dublin City Council.
“Subsequently a specific staff member has been recruited to work with the PEA operators on these items and co-ordinate staff training with the HSE,” he says.
The council didn’t respond in time for publication to questions about when the new standards will be up and running in private hostels.
The council is currently tendering, for the second time, to try to recruit a private company to carry out some inspections.
O’Callaghan says that the Minister should mandate the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) to carry out inspections instead, urgently. “Anything short of having HIQA appointed to inspect accommodation won’t do.”