In February, Dublin City Council put out a tender for a private company to inspect homeless hostels.
But that company, once selected, would focus on physical standards, including compliance with fire safety and building regulations, environmental health as well as food safety, said a spokesperson for Dublin Region Homeless Executive.
The new inspector’s remit doesn’t seem to cover all the areas in the council’s recently published new standards for privately run hostels, such as health, well being and personal development, and confidentiality.
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said that its National Homeless Action Committee will at its July meeting consider whether the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) should step in and inspect homeless hostels.
Not all members of the council’s housing committee are yet sold on HIQA – which currently inspects hospitals and other healthcare providers – getting the mandate, at least not without some reorganisation of the state body.
“The issue of standards for emergency accommodation for people who are homeless is crucial,” says Mike Allen, the director of advocacy with Focus Ireland, a homelessness charity.
People who use homeless services are saying they are wary about hostels and that they are not safe, Allen said. “So a robust, clear, independent assessment of standards across the sector is needed.”
Councillors Look In
On 6 April, six councillors – a delegation from the special homelessness subcommittee that sits under the council’s housing committee – toured three of the privately run family homeless hostels in the city.
Social Democrats Councillor Mary Callaghan says the family hostels they saw were well equipped.
Rooms had wardrobes and chests of drawers, she said. “The rooms were fresh and clean and all had private bathrooms.”
The hostels had laundry facilities, storage rooms for buggies, and all served three meals a day, she says.
“All in all I thought not bad,” says Callaghan. “Considering that it is homeless accommodation.”
Some families had fridges in the rooms and some of the hostels had wifi. The council should ensure there is wifi in all hostels, she says.
Green Party Councillor Janet Horner says that the family hostels were clean and standards were good overall.
But some of them had no space for children to play, she says. “There should be play space available and not to do so is a violation of children’s rights.”
Some children spend years in emergency accommodation with no access to a room to play and move, which could impact their development, she says.
If play space isn’t available there isn’t much advantage to a private hostel versus a hotel, she says.
Fine Gael Councillor James Geoghegan says the people managing the hostels seemed very good, and the facilities were all very clean and well run.
But “into the future I don’t think this is the model for supporting people who are homeless”, he says. Hostels should be run by homeless charities or directly by the state, Geoghegan says.
There should be staff on site who are supporting people to move on from homelessness, he says.
The councillors also visited two hostels for single people: Ellis Quay in Stoneybatter and another in Drumcondra.
In Drumcondra, the standards were fine, says Callaghan, except that there were no wardrobes or chests of drawers in bedrooms so people were living out of bags.
A lack of storage space must be a massive problem for the many people who are pushed into homelessness from the rental sector, she says.
If they can’t afford to pay for storage, they cannot keep their belongings, she says. “That sense of all the things that are precious to you, you lose.”
Four of the councillors who went on the tour said that conditions at the hostel at Ellis Quay in Stoneybatter were not acceptable.
“I just thought to myself, ‘Can you imagine living here?’” says Callaghan.
There are four hospital-style beds in each room and big pipes running along the ceilings, she says.
The shared bedrooms have no windows. “There is no light. Psychologically, that is just dreadful,” says Callaghan.
That hostel might be a step up from sleeping on the streets, she says, but for someone who has just become homeless, being placed in Ellis Quay would be traumatic.
The Ellis Quay hostel is for short-term stays, says Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey. But the council has to move away from shared rooms and no windows, he says.
Horner says that while people are only supposed to stay in Ellis Quay for a few nights, many get stuck for longer.
She wonders too, she says, if people are screened for mental health issues before they are placed.
“You don’t want someone going through a night in Ellis Quay if they are already in a desperate mental state, because it’s not a good place,” she says.
Geoghegan said that particular hostel was “deeply depressing”, but that it is used for short-term stays and it is obviously safer than the streets.
Rolling Out Inspections
A spokesperson for the DRHE says it has “tendered for an Independent Inspectorate to cover fire safety standards, environmental health standards and food safety standards across all services.”
The HSE is also developing a training programme for staff in private hostels, says a spokesperson for the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE).
Training is to include first aid, safeguarding vulnerable adults, child protection, suicide prevention and intercultural awareness, they said.
Council staff and HSE staff, or agencies funded by them, will provide support services in private hostels, said the spokesperson. The council has appointed a staff member to oversee training and assessments, they said.
“As with the development of standards in the charitable sector, there will be a developing process for inspecting facilities and addressing concerns or areas where the standards are not currently met,” said the DRHE spokesperson.
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said that the private operator will be responsible for the physical standards of the building.
Visiting support teams will be responsible for standards relating to support and case management, they said.
But many of the standards for private hostels don’t appear to fit neatly into one or other category.
The standards call for feedback from residents to be used to inform the development of the service and for hostel operators to have robust procedures for assessing and managing risk.
Right for the Role
In 2017, a DRHE official said it had written to HIQA many times asking them to inspect homeless services.
Homeless people have continued to complain about hostels, that some aren’t safe or that they face bullying by staff.
The Department of Housing, in its policy document Housing for All, commits to “prepare and publish guidelines with standards for the development and refurbishment of emergency accommodation”. It doesn’t mention social care standards or inspections.
If HIQA were to be mandated to inspect homeless hostels, there would be a long lead-in time, says Francis Doherty, communications manager with Peter McVerry Trust, a homelessness charity. “We need to make sure that the current system is functioning effectively.”
The DRHE is currently doing unannounced inspections in both privately run and charity-run hostels, Doherty says.
Allen, the director of advocacy with Focus Ireland, says that HIQA is an inspectorate for medical care.
“We don’t think the medicalised model … is appropriate for dealing with independent adults who just happen to be homeless,” he says.
If the Minister for Housing decided to mandate HIQA to do inspections, it would need to establish a separate branch of HIQA with a very different remit, says Allen.
It could do that, he says, or it could set up a new independent inspectorate.
“In assessing standards, whoever is doing it should ensure that the funding provided by the state is sufficient to meet the standard required,” he says. “There has been a long, long history of only partially funding homeless services.”
Homeless services try to plug the gap with fundraising, he says, but not all of them can.
Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey says there needs to be independent oversight and unannounced inspections. But he doesn’t know if HIQA should be brought in, he says
Lacey is wary of independent state agencies, he says. “I’d like it not to be a box-ticking exercise. But also not to interfere with the service being provided.”
Instead, he says he thinks councillors could play an increased role in inspecting hostels, as councillors are genuinely independent.
Every two years the council could appoint three councillors, says Lacey, who could be given access to hostels and do unannounced inspections, reporting back to the housing manager and the housing committee.