“Some days I don’t even want to wake up because I don’t want to face this day … I am tired in school. Some days I would just sit there and not even smile”. This quote is from a ten year old girl who is living in a family hub. Hubs, of course, are Fine Gael’s housing solution for every region of the country. A position paper by the faculties of public health medicine and paediatrics in the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland on the impact of homelessness and inadequate housing on children’s health was published last Tuesday and it included that quote from the ten year old. It also included other quotes, statistics and truly shameful findings about the health impacts of homelessness and inappropriate housing on children. The paper in question showed that children kept in temporary accommodation for over a year “are over three times more likely to have mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression”. Dr. Julie Heslin, the lead author, has observed that delaying action is detrimental to children and stated: “We know that the impact on a person’s health and wellbeing of adverse experiences in childhood lasts well beyond childhood and becomes apparent in adult life as mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety and relationship difficulties, as well as physical disease, such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes.” That is a shocking judgment on the Government’s housing policy of the past nine years.
Like my colleagues in Solidarity-People Before Profit, I warmly salute the people who have taken the time today to march through the streets to demand, for the umpteenth time since 2008, that urgent action be taken on the housing crisis. I have asked the Minister several times when he expects equilibrium to be reached in the Irish housing market, that is, when supply will equal demand in such a way that all those seeking to purchase or rent properties can do so at reasonable sustainable prices, mortgages and rent. The Minister cannot tell me because he knows the Irish property market has always been a dysfunctional, rigged market. Recently, I saw an interesting RTÉ programme on YouTube. It was from 1964 and in it a famous journalist, Mr. John O’Donoghue, was questioning tenants in dire accommodation in central Dublin and families moving into new homes in the then new suburb of Finglas. It is clear there was a housing crisis in Dublin at the time and, despite the creation of the three new towns of Tallaght, Clondalkin and Blanchardstown, that crisis has continued in one form or another up to today.
Even when the level of housing construction was high at some points in the 1970s, 1980s and 2000s, there were still lengthy housing lists and people in homeless accommodation.
Of course, since the crash, under the watch of this Government, the crisis has accelerated. The core reason was the almost total withdrawal of the State under the Ahern-PD-Green Government and the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government from direct housing construction and provision. They foisted Tory Thatcherism on our people and they have left 10,500 or 11,000 of them homeless today. The housing needs of our people were left at the mercy of stop-start land hoarding and massively greedy developers, property and estate agents and landlords. It is a corrupt industry, a rigged industry, and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have sustained it. Very often, both parties were funded by that industry. We have ended up with 150,000 families and citizens on housing waiting lists or on HAP or RAS tenancies, and with 7,000 homeless adults and almost 4,000 homeless children. Those are the late October figures and the Government would not even give us the statistics on the current situation. These are shocking statistics for the second wealthiest country in Europe, with Luxembourg the only country above us, and one of the four or five wealthiest countries on this planet. It is shameful. It is not just Deputy Kate O’Connell who should be apologising over the behaviour of the Government in housing and health in particular.
Over the years, like colleagues on this side of the House, I have submitted many possible housing solutions to the Government in my submissions to public consultations, in my annual pre-budget submissions and in many speeches and representations. I have also introduced my own Private Members’ Bill on a constitutional right to housing, the Thirty-ninth Amendment of the Constitution (Right to Housing) Bill 2019, which is still on the clár of the Dáil. The purpose of the Bill is to begin the process to allow for a referendum to be held for the electorate to decide on the insertion of a right to housing into Article 45 of Bunreacht Na hÉireann. The wording put forward in the Bill reads: “The State recognises the common good as including the right to adequate and appropriate housing and shall guarantee that right through its laws, policies and the prioritisation of resources, with particular regard to children.” With the support of the Office of Parliamentary Legal Advisers and the excellent Oireachtas Library and Research Service, we decided to put that wording into Article 45, which sets out the directive principles of social policy, because we thought even this Government might accept it and run with that Bill.
The genesis of my Bill comes from a long-standing, deep concern about the housing crisis and, in particular, the increasing numbers of children experiencing homelessness, especially from 2014-15. In 2011, there were 641 children experiencing homelessness and, under the watch of this Government, the figure has increased almost 500% to just under 4,000 this year. Without excluding other cohorts of people experiencing homelessness, my Bill explicitly states there must be particular regard to children, given the longer-term impacts of homelessness on them.
In 2015, four and a half years ago, I sought a meeting with the Ombudsman for Children because I saw how bad the problem was becoming at that time, with young mothers with children coming into my office and my mobile clinic, shaking with the fear at the prospect of being evicted and becoming homeless. I met the Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon, in that summer of 2015 and made a complaint to him about the treatment of homeless children. I met the Children’s Rights Alliance before it travelled to the UN and submitted its third and fourth combined parallel report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child to highlight the treatment by the Government, and by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in particular, of the homeless children of this country.
Like other Deputies, I link in often with the CEOs of Dublin City Council and Fingal County Council, my two local councils, and other local housing officials in regard to vacancies and upcoming projects. At present, it is like swimming in treacle given the projects are so slow. As Deputy Mitchell will know, sites that were to be built through Dublin City Council direct build, and where the building was to start in the summer of 2017, only started a few months ago, for example, at Burnell on the north fringe of our constituency.
In February of this year, I brought forward a Dáil motion on homelessness, which passed Dáil Éireann with the support of colleagues, which I deeply appreciate. It summarised the approach of myself and my colleagues in the Independents 4 Change technical group. I called for the Government to declare a housing emergency and implement the necessary emergency measures to urgently address the crisis, to hold a referendum on the right to housing and to commit to rehousing families who have been in emergency homeless accommodation, including hubs, for 18 months or more. We know that in Sweden people are only allowed to be in that type of accommodation for a day or two, and they are then moved into at least HAP-type accommodation or direct provision by the state or the city council of Stockholm or other cities. The motion also called on the Government to commit to rehousing all other families experiencing homelessness by the end of quarter two of 2019, to limit the use of hubs and emergency accommodation to three months maximum and to increase supports to schools in areas with large populations of homeless families. We have heard lots of complaints from teachers during the past couple of years, for example, when we met the INTO and other trade unions, about the impact on homeless children of trying to cope with school life in many local area schools. The motion also called for free counselling for all families and children experiencing homelessness, should they wish to avail of the service, an increase in the number of available emergency beds and single rooms in dry hostels, and the extension of the Housing First programme.
Above all, on behalf of my Independents 4 Change colleagues, I asked for the creation of a national housing executive or a number of regional housing executives to align closely with the Land Development Agency and local authorities to begin a massive programme of direct build social and affordable homes on public or compulsorily purchased acquired land – whatever we have to do – with the elimination of developers from those sites, and with a target of at least 35,000 social and affordable homes per annum. This is the minimum we need to start digging into those lists. I still meet people who have been on housing lists for ten, 12, 13 or 14 years, as well as people who, in desperation, having being thrown out of private rented accommodation after eight or nine years, must then wait a minimum of two years. The number of people in emergency accommodation for over two years is deeply shameful and is outlined in the statistics we have been belatedly provided with. The approach we advocate is based on the fundamental principle that, as the great Gene Kerrigan has said, housing is too important to be left to the developers. We should have learned that lesson.
The current epidemic of homelessness, which has been created by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Fine Gael Independents, is the shameful result of the commercialisation of housing and tenancies, and the sustained policy decisions to make housing and renting unaffordable and unattainable. I agree with colleagues that this will be a huge issue. All families, even those not directly impacted, are going to feel the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil approach and their housing market ideology, which is clearly preventing the State from addressing the massive demand for new affordable and social housing. The Minister of State’s party and its coalition partner have a blind faith in private market developers. They have barely delivered 20,000 homes per annum when we know we need a minimum of 150,000. Only a massive programme of direct build by local authorities under a regional or national housing executive, working closely with the new Land Development Agency, will deliver. If the Government does not do that, there will be many of us on these benches after the general election who will be prepared to implement that kind of programme.