26 May, 2009

Mr. Michael Finneran TD
Minister for Housing, Urban Renewal & Developing Areas
Department of the Environment, Heritage & Local Government
Customs House
Dublin 1

Re: Submission – Proposed tender for the provision of support services and housing for people who are homeless.

Dear Minister

Thank you for meeting me and my colleagues on Wednesday, 20 May, 2009, and for giving us the opportunity to share with you our concerns in relation to people who are homeless, and the way in which services are provided in seeking to meet their needs.

As requested, we also provide this submission in relation to your intention to seek tenders for the provision of support services and housing for people who are homeless. However, I must point out that while we are in principle opposed to the outsourcing of services in the manner that you propose, we do make specific recommendations as to how the interests of very vulnerable people might be better protected, while at the same time outlining our reasons for questioning your approach.

TRUST’s Philosophy and Experience

We have, based on our experience, come to believe that outsourcing or privatizing public services, especially for vulnerable people like those we work with everyday will not succeed, and more seriously, puts their rights in jeopardy as it is much easier to make the state accountable than a private sector enterprise or a voluntary service provider.
Indeed, as I draft this submission, there is widespread public outrage at the way in which children were abused in horrific ways in the various centers in which they were held by the religious orders. We are forced to ask could a similar mistake be made by the state again by subcontracting its responsibilities to the private or voluntary sector, as it did in the past, and at great cost to those affected, most of whom have been forced to carry that pain through their entire lives. Indeed, we are fully aware of the human cost of the state failing children. We help many of the victims who ended up homeless on our streets and we know all too well the consequences for individuals when the state gets it wrong. For that reason we are convinced, based on our direct experience that this is a very retrograde move, and the state should accept its responsibilities to people who are homeless and put the necessary services in place under the direct management of your department and through the relevant local authorities.

While some might consider the comparison above unfair, it is worth reflecting on the image and standing of the religious orders at the time they were entrusted by the state with so many of the nation’s children. The voluntary bodies today, like the religious orders in the past, are in the main often manned by well meaning and dedicated people. However, they do not have the resources the state can command, and most importantly, and the reason for our main concern, cannot be subjected to the same level and degree of accountability that can be demanded from state institutions. This is not just a philosophical point, but a critical issue if we are serious about ensuring that the rights of the most vulnerable in our society are properly protected. The state failed children in the past, and it is worth underlining that these were the most vulnerable children, from extremely poor backgrounds, like many of the people your proposed outsourcing of service provision is meant to help.

Our recent success in having our complaint upheld against the Homeless Agency (see below), and the way in which it was using the voluntary sector to harvest information in an unwarranted and in a potentially illegal way from people who are homeless, is a clear illustration of just how vulnerable they can be in having their rights infringed. Indeed, it is worth underlining that point. Imagine some one who has serious mental health problems, possibly as a result of serious abuse during childhood, being subjected to an in depth cross examination about the most intimate details of his or her entire life – with an extensive forty page questionnaire – by a very young and untrained person. Surely the risk of inflicting such damage to a very vulnerable person is the kind of approach that never should be even countenanced? However, unless the state is directly involved in the management and provision of services the risk to vulnerable people will increase, especially at a time when resources are cut back. We do of course acknowledge that some research is necessary to plan services but it must be managed in a highly sensitive, responsible, transparent and accountable way.

Accountability and Transparency

The nature of homelessness requires a high degree of accountability and transparency on the part of service providers. During our meeting we very much welcomed the opportunity to share with you how we define this issue. We also were impressed by your understanding of the problem, and for that reason, we are confident you will equally understand the great emphasis we place on putting mechanisms in place to guarantee a very high level of accountability and transparency. Homelessness is not the same as not having a house. Most of the people we meet everyday are living the way they do because they cannot fit in. In some instances, addiction problems of all kinds from drugs to gambling as well as alcohol are to blame. In other instances, mental health problems, family breakdown or an inability to cope explain why a person is on the street. It is clear, that if someone with any of these problems is to survive in settled accommodation of any kind they will need a high level of support. If the services fail, the person will quickly end up back on the street and considerable resources will have been wasted. Worse still, if the wrong approach is adopted with any individual, they could be left worse off, and end up costing the state much more in the long term.

The critical resource most people who find themselves outsiders in Irish society need is time, if they are to have any chance of re-integrating back into society. And against the background of cuts in services that is a costly and scarce commodity today. We have often been told by those like ourselves in the state services who try to help people that if they try to give them the time they need, they are made to feel like they are “wasting time with people.” That issue inspired our very successful project and book of the same name, a copy of which I gave you at our meeting. Indeed, the reason for the success of that initiative, and especially the book, which made into the Irish Times best sellers list for a non fiction book, is because it resonated with so many people. In other words, if we are to help people we must give time. Against that background, we believe that outsourcing state support services to voluntary bodies, highly stretched financially, even with well meaning people, cannot succeed in replacing the state, especially when such initiatives maybe undertaken by the state to save money. This raises the question is the state relinquishing its responsibility because it is not prepared to undertake these services on the cheap, because it must operate to a much higher standard, which voluntary or commercial bodies do not?

We fully respect, and I emphasize this point, that you are trying to do the best you can with the available budget at your disposal. However, it is our responsibility to point out to you that if the state cannot afford to meet the standards that are expected, voluntary bodies will not be able to do so either.

The Homeless Agency

We do not want to single out the Homeless Agency for particular criticism as we have no doubt that like many organizations in the field it is staffed by people who want to make a difference. Nonetheless, our complaint against the Agency (see attached letter dated 25/07/2007) was upheld by the Data Protection Commissioner (see attached his reply dated 11/07/2008). It is also worth noting that many envisaged that the Homeless Agency would act as the guarantor or protector of the interests of people who are homeless. But as you will also see from the attached letter, the Data Protection Commissioner discovered that in a legal sense the Agency does not exist! It has no legal personality and is not properly constituted, and therefore is in no legal position to protect anyone. More seriously, it presented itself as an independent body when it is merely an appendage of Dublin City Council. In other words, it cannot provide any proper protection, or properly advance the interests of people who are homeless the way it is constituted.

Protecting the Rights of the Most Vulnerable

We recommend the following specific safeguards which must be put in place if support services for people who are homeless are outsourced. We offer these recommendations as a constrictive contribution, although we are opposed in principle to outsourcing for the reasons outlined above. Against that background, we must stress in the strongest terms that these measures be put in place or vulnerable people will be put at risk:

Human rights based management practices must be adopted by all service providers contracted to operate these services. This will require training, which is not unduly onerous, but will help to ensure that a self critical management style is adopted, this is especially vital given that many become homeless because they are not able to cope or speak up for themselves, and end up having to accept what they are given.

An independent ‘advocate’ must be appointed to work with each service provider who will work actively in an independent way in demanding that the necessary high levels of care are provided for the people the service is set up to help. This person can be thought of as a kind of independent ‘quality control’ operative who will seek out failures or deficiencies in the service and ensure that at all times the relevant staff are working optimally in meeting the needs of the people they are meant to serve.

The independent ‘advocates’ will report to an independent monitoring committee which will have the sole function of ensuring that ‘quality control’ will be maintained at the highest possible level in the delivery of services. The committee will set and review standards and provide leadership and real back up for the ‘advocates’ on the ground. In other words, this committee will give the ‘advocates’ added impact at local level as they can seek the assistance of the committee to intervene when they do not get action at local level when deficiencies are found.

In conclusion, the state should not abdicate its responsibility to the most vulnerable to save money. We fully accept that for the best of motives to seek optimum return out of existing budgets there is a temptation to engage voluntary bodies to provide state services. However, as we have again been reminded in recent days, when short cuts are taken for any reason, there will be a price to be paid. Indeed, we also do not want to give the impression that we are totally happy with state service providers in preference to voluntary service providers. The only difference is that state service providers are easier to make fully accountable and transparent in their operations. Therefore, if you do proceed with the outsourcing of services it is absolutely imperative that the recommendations above are fully implemented or there is a real risk that vulnerable people will suffer.

Thank you for meeting with us recently and for affording us the opportunity to brief you directly about our concerns. We also look forward to welcoming you when you get the chance to visit us shortly.

With very best regards

Yours sincerely

Director and Co-Founder
Member of Irish Human Rights Commission

Encl. Trust Letter to Data Protection Commissioner dated 25/07/2007
Reply from Data Protection Commissioner dated 11/07/2008

cc. Ms. Claire Gavin, Assistant Principal Officer, Social Inclusion Unit

and Mr. Tom Gallagher, Private Secretary to Mr. Michael Finneran, TD
Minister for Housing, Urban Renewal & Developing Areas