During a discussion on the supply of social housing, at Dublin City Council’s monthly meeting on 7 November, Social Democrats Councillor Tara Deacy made a request around family hubs.

If the council is to open new family hubs, could more kitchen space be included in the designs? she asked.

Deacy says she was surprised when the council housing manager, Coilín O’Reilly, said that the council has no plans for new family hubs.

Family homelessness in the county has increased significantly in recent times, from 908 families in March to 1,081 in September, shows official data.

“My presumption was that we were going to be building more hubs,” says Deacy by phone on Tuesday. “If there are no additional homes going to be built, where does that leave us?”

There are other kinds of homeless accommodation for families, like commercial hotels or B&Bs or private emergency accommodation, when Dublin City Council contracts a private operator to run a homeless hostel.

But families staying in these privately-run hostels say they don’t get the same supports and facilities as there are in hubs, which can be run by NGOs or private operators with visiting support from NGOs.

A spokesperson for Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) said that O’Reilly, the council housing manager, had simply meant that there are no current plans in the pipeline for more family hubs, not that the council doesn’t hope to open more.

The DRHE has issued calls to tender for emergency accommodation three times in the last year, they said. “In addition to this process, the DRHE consistently engage with the NGO sector to source and provide suitable family accommodation.”

Both processes are ongoing, said the spokesperson.

The Department of Housing didn’t respond in time for publication to a query about whether its policy is still to develop more family hubs as an alternative to commercial hotels and other private emergency accommodation.

The Roll-out of Hubs

The DRHE spokesperson didn’t provide a clear answer as to the definition of a family hub these days.

But it was introduced to the typology of homeless accommodation in 2017. At the time, then Minister for Housing Simon Coveney, of Fine Gael, had said he would end the practice of accommodating families in hotels.

One alternative for families would be these family hubs, which Coveney pitched as offering cooking and laundry facilities, play space for children, and on-site access to support workers – also known as key workers – who would assist the family to find a home.

“We want to move away from commercial hotels and B&Bs as a way of providing emergency accommodation and move towards a much more structured, supportive environment for families,” said Coveney, at the launch of a family hub run by the housing and homeless charity Respond, in March 2017.

He said that kids’ clubs, homework clubs, support, counselling and housing advice would all be available on site.

Soon after, it emerged that not all family hubs were going to be directly run by charities, but instead would be run by private companies, with visiting supports run by homeless charities.

Deacy said she thinks the quality of the family hubs needs to be improved, with more cooking facilities and more professional therapeutic supports for parents and children.

“The quality of the ones we have isn’t great,” she says. “We are expecting people to live as a collective in a hub without any capacity for independent living.”

But those who stay in the hubs do generally have access to support workers and key workers, unlike some of those in the other kinds of homeless accommodation for families.

The Alternative

Rebeca Acatincai, who is currently staying in what was built as a Staycity aparthotel in Dublin 8, says she feels she is trapped in homeless services.

She has been homeless with her husband and seven children for almost a year, she says.

Her son’s mental health has worsened, she says. Her older daughter is pregnant, she says.

A Fingal County Council spokesperson says she is eligible for Homeless Housing Assistance Payment (HAP), “and it is open to the applicant to source accommodation within the private rented sector”.

But it is really hard to get a private-rented home for such a large family, Acatincai says.

Meanwhile, she is on the Fingal County Council housing list. But she can’t access choice-based lettings due to a fault on her account, she says. Choice-based lettings is an online system for allocating social homes, with many homes allocated that way.

Acatincai wants help and support to move on from homeless accommodation, she says. But she doesn’t have a support or key worker, she says.

Before her current accommodation, Acatincai stayed at a guesthouse on Gardiner Street, which she says was fully contracted for homeless services but there were no laundry facilities, cooking facilities or visiting supports.

“That was a three-bed,” she says. (They are a family of nine.) “But no tables, just shower, no kitchen, no wardrobes, nothing, so we kept our stuff in our suitcases under the bed.”

Andrew Connors, a father of five, is now staying at the same place with his wife and children. The family have been homeless for three years, and has moved several times between hostels.

He likes the staff where he is now, he says, but their living quarters are cramped for his family of seven people. They have one bedroom and a living room, he says.

He has also been pushing to try to get a key worker for years.

The DRHE spokesperson said on 2 November that all homeless families have access to visiting supports.

For families staying in private hostels and hotels, “DRHE funded visiting supports are provided by Focus Ireland and DePaul Homeless Action Teams”, said the spokesperson.

“These teams work with all residents to support them out of emergency accommodation through individualised support plans whilst ensuring that they have access and are linked in with relevant social / health services,” they said.

But both Andrew Connors and Rebeca Acatincai are with long-term homeless families and neither of them has a key worker.

Connors needs help with choice-based lettings too because neither he nor his wife can read. “You have to have a key worker if you can’t read and write, I think.”

What Standards?

In 2020 and 2021, the average cost for a family in private emergency accommodation per night was €60 while the equivalent in a charity-run hostel was €107, says a spokesperson for the DRHE.

The private emergency accommodation rate includes the visiting supports, she said.

As of July 2022, 592 families were accommodated in NGO-run accommodation, 240 families were in private emergency accommodation – when the entire building is taken over for homeless accommodation – and 194 families were in commercial hotels, says a spokesperson for the DRHE.

The Ombudsman for Children’s Office flagged a concern in August 2022 in a report, to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, that the National Standards Quality Framework – the standards for homeless services laid down by the DRHE – is not being implemented in privately-run family hostels.

“An independent, statutory inspection mechanism to ensure appropriate monitoring, oversight and accountability in respect of all homelessness services has not been put in place yet,” says the report.

“Families with children that are homeless or that are seeking international protection are housed in accommodation that limits children’s ability to enjoy their right to play and leisure,” says the report.

HIQA should be appointed to inspect all emergency accommodation, says the report, reiterating a call the Ombudsman for Children’s Office also made in 2019, in its report No Place Like Home.

The DRHE didn’t respond in time for publication to queries sent Friday as to whether all staff in family hostels are Garda vetted and trained in child protection.

They didn’t answer whether private hostels are operated according to the National Quality Standards Framework or how often family hostels are inspected and whether there are unannounced inspections.

Laoise Neylon is a reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at lneylon@dublininquirer.com.

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