Delivering Housing Solutions for a New Era

Irish Council for Social Housing
Biennial National Social Housing Conference 2009
Sheraton Hotel, Athlone, Co. Westmeath

Good evening everyone. Thank you for your invitation to address your very timely conference. I now know what it is like to be the “warming up” act before The Late Late – not an easy one as so many of you, including myself have travelled some distance – geographically and in time.

Let me tell you a little about the work of TRUST. TRUST was founded in 1975 – see our website for more information. Our work would not be possible without the enormous generosity and support of people from all walks of life, rich and poor, and very poor. We have always said that in an ideal world there would be no need for TRUST – but of course this is not an ideal world.

“To be without a home is to be suspect. The homeless are easy targets. Their bodily integrity is constantly at risk. Their lives are an offence against the sacred canons of private property and consumerism. Their privacy is regularly intruded on as part of the price of being statistics in the poverty industry; their painful experiences are reduced to sociological research data. The true test of a civilised community is how people at the margins are treated. Not only must individual liberties be defended, but society should be educated and sensitised towards a broader vision of life and living.” – Dan Sullivan, then President of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, describing what it means to be homeless in Ireland in a piece I asked him to write in 1995 for a book I co-authored with Ann Dempsey “Not Just a Bed for the Night” published by Marino Books in 1995.

Everyday we meet up to 60 men and women who sleep rough. We meet with people as they present themselves to us – all outsiders in a city of plenty. Many come from outside the city, some from the remotest parts of rural Ireland, some returning to the land of their birth to be buried in the “old sod” and many from outside the jurisdiction. Recently we see increasing numbers from the EU Accession States and other countries. In July we met people from 20 different countries. Indeed, some people we meet we have grown older with us. We provide a health service, advice and dressings, but more important, human contact. Sometimes our place looks like a casualty department, as many people we work with will not go to A&E, and if they do go they will not wait, which obviously poses huge problems for hospital staff.

As part of a holistic service we provide bath and shower facilities. We have lobbied Dublin City Council to provide public shower facilities. Ironically, the best-known public baths in Ireland were sold by Dublin City Council and now house a very expensive gym, which is located just across the road from where we are based.

We seek to treat people as people recognising that they need help and have rights, especially the right to privacy and a right to be heard.

Hospitality is important. We provide tea and coffee, as we would welcome visitors to our own home and, most importantly, provide a listening ear. We also receive daily phone calls from prison from people we know, with no one else to call. Many people we meet have no family contact, and often family members contact us about loved ones who have disappeared.

The people we meet are perceived by the wider society as being different and difficult; and indeed many are difficult. They suffer from the effects of isolation, neglect and health problems, exacerbated by what are often described as chaotic lifestyles. Accessing mainstream services – particularly basic accommodation is a major problem. We meet increasing numbers of people who were ‘re-settled’ in totally unsuitable accommodation, and then find themselves homeless again, an experience that often makes them feel like even greater failures. Just two weeks ago John, a man we know for years, who had been settled slept rough again. That is not unusual for him, as he has lived in five different flats over the years.

People present to us with a wide range of medical problems including bodies that are ravaged by disease and violence. Some have pressure sores from sleeping out in all weathers, sometimes in urine soaked clothes for weeks; infected and untreated minor skin conditions and major skin problems e.g. leg ulcers and gangrene; as well as lice infected heads and scabies. In addition we often meet people who are suffering from malnutrition and all of the medical conditions common to the general public but exacerbated by their living conditions. We are now coming across conditions long disappeared since the advent of good food e.g. trench foot and impetigo (wild fire). These are conditions clearly associated with extreme poverty and many of the people who suffer in this way are our new neighbours from Eastern Europe, who like our own Irish who emigrated in the past. In addition we witness the consequences of racism, a new and worrying phenomenon in Ireland.

Some people we meet cope with very serious addiction problems, including drugs, alcohol and gambling. They suffer from despair and the pain of loneliness. They are pushed from service to service, often unable to get relief for minds at breaking point. Often the only “solution” they are offered is a brown envelope of medication, and which some are unable to read the directions.

These people are just seen just as statistics in our increasingly bureaucratic world.

Many people we meet struggle to create a sense of normality after years locked away in institutions and others who have been relocated from one institution to another. Some people who are locked in prisons they have created for themselves, often out of the frustration of not being understood or ignored. Many people we know have attempted suicide, and many have died on the streets. Increasingly, young people who are homeless are dying on the streets, and one never hears about it as families are ashamed because their loved ones ended up that way.

We meet some people who are so cut off from everything around them that they at times appear to be beyond reach. Others however challenge and inspire us every day to look at the way we all live our lives.

Sometimes the only hearing the people we meet ever get is when they are being researched – an issue we have grave reservations about because of the amount and quality of research being undertaken today. In that context nothing has changed in the last thirty years as a quote from a report I jointly authored in 1976, I could just as easily publish today as well: “If we are to push for fundamental change in the whole area of homelessness, then a certain amount of constructive research is necessary. We feel strongly however that it must be pursued with the greatest caution. It is clear to us that the ‘research industry’ uses that section of our society, which is the most vulnerable and the least able to battle for its rights as its’ source of material. We must never forget that we are working with human beings, who for the most part have been battered by our society and who for so long have been pushed about as just another number in a cold inhuman bureaucracy”.

We must be acutely aware of the injustices in society and be prepared to discuss them and stop intimidating those who are courageous enough to speak out by our silence. Prophetic voices have been dramatically silenced in recent times. Mary Robinson, former President of our country, said in 2001 “Each time you speak out with a critical voice you pay a price”. Voluntary bodies now are often afraid to speak out in case scarce funding is cut.

A Christmas morning a few years ago I happened to catch Eurovision Mass from Circus Pinter Top in Paris. Apart from the charm and artistry of Parisians I was struck by a few quotes from the Pastor:

“Encounters with people move us”

“It is the blind application of the law which makes us inhuman”

This sometimes can happen when too much emphasis placed on buildings, finance and particularly ticking boxes in highly bureaucratic forms which has now become the norm. A definition of a statistic I like is attributed to Laing and goes something like this – “a drunken man leaning against a lamppost for support rather than illumination”

The privatisation of State Services is now endemic. Just last week The Irish Examiner revealed in a headline:

New out of hours service for children ‘shambolic’

The story highlighted the concerns of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors about a private company Five Rivers Ireland, employed by the HSE to provide an out of hours service for children. They stated “we have a situation where a private company is, in effect, directing and ordering a state organisation, the Gardai. We have responsibility for the children and they are telling us what to do. It’s a ludicrous situation”. In December the same paper noted “the HSE decided to contract out the emergency service to the private sector. Five Rivers Ireland, a branch of UK Five Rivers, won the contract. The cost of the contract, which runs for a year has been kept secret and both the HSE and the Office for the Minister for Children refused to provide details”. A report from the Irish Medical Times last May said “the HSE received six offers for the contract, ranging from €236,000 and €1.22m.”

I started working with people who are homeless in1973 at a time when we had just joined the E.U. I have worked in the slums and witnessed the grinding poverty, exclusion and stigma experienced by the people living there, and today meet the children, now adults, of many of those people.

We in TRUST have worked with homeless people right through the years of the Celtic Tiger people who have not benefitted from the wealth that was generated. I was surprised to see the headlines recently highlighting people who were destitute as if it was a new phenomenon. Since1975 we have worked with such people, and many obviously find it shocking now as they thought it was a thing of the past.

Social Housing was not a term in vogue then, like so many other terms now associated with poverty, I don’t particularly like the term. Somehow it reinforces difference, and in difficult times, ‘differences’ can be reinforced. However it is a widely accepted term where housing allocation is linked to social need and subsidised by the State. Social Housing has now become a much used and abused word. It is now clearly associated with mis-management, social problems and ghettoisation and if we allow this to continue we are complicit in demonising or excluding many citizens.

The Irish Council for Social Housing was formed in1982, and seeks to encourage and assist the development of a range of social housing services which compliments the role of the Local Housing Authorities. The ICSH seeks to meet the different and changing needs of various groups of people, including older people; people who are homeless; people with disabilities and families on low income. You also provide a range of services, including education and advice on management – these two areas I will refer back to later.

Looking at your objectives I am struck by how similar they are to what has clearly become a business type model to be followed to access funding etc. This can be appreciated in the latest Invitation to Tender from Dublin City Council on behalf of Fingal County Council, South Dublin City Council, Dun-Laoghaire Rathdown County Council and in collaboration with the Homeless Agency (21st August2009) which seeks – and I quote a – “Multi-Provider Framework Agreement for the Provision of Housing Support Services(s)”

I have no problem with well thought out plans to alleviate poverty, save money and create a greater awareness of the needs for good quality housing and services. I do however have a very serious concern around how inadequate the debate has been around the complexities and multi-dimensionalities of homelessness, particularly the misconception that housing alone will solve the problem. Homelessness is a universal phenomenon and a challenge to all of us. Real debate has never taken place around what is happening and many are excluded from participation. The fact that this Invitation to Tender document is confidential is of serious concern.

Soft words like “client” or “customer” which can so easily distance us from people needing help, and lull us into a false sense of security that people are being cared for to the best of society’s ability. These terms also give the impression that the person who is homeless has the same rights as a consumer which is not the case. The language of consumerism used in accessing funding like ‘performance indicators’ pressurises services to work only with people likely to be successful – further alienating the homeless person most in need – and service providers can be equally lulled into a sense of achievement. As a society we need to be more aware of how we use language, to understand its power and to take into account its effect on people who are vulnerable. A management culture environment with its emphasis on quantitative yardsticks defined in terms of “benchmarks” and” performance indicators” can loose sight of the complexity of the human condition. A new word I have noticed in the Tender is ‘bundle’ – a word which reminds me of that cruel word ‘bed blocker’.

The Homeless Agency was established in 2001, following on from the former Homeless Initiative of which TRUST was a member. TRUST is not part of The Partnership and feels an independent voice is crucial based on our experience. The Partnership includes statutory members from the four Dublin local authorities, Health Service Executive, FAS, CDVEC, Prison Service, Probation Service and the representatives of the Homeless Voluntary Network which comprises a range of Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs). Homeless Support Services for four years from 2005 to 2008 inclusive amounted to €65,769,454. The total expenditure was €230,099,770 for the same period and homeless accommodation accounted for approximately 70% of the total expenditure, with the remaining 30% for support services – and which just covers the Dublin area.

TRUST made a submission to the Data Commissioner on25th July 2007 regarding our concerns about the collection, storage and sharing of personal information on LINKS, a computerised system. Even though our complaint was upheld by the Data Commissioner, our concerns remain, and we will be raising them again formally having seen the Tender Document. This is because what is called the Holistic Needs Assessment form is such a huge component of the planned administration of the Homeless Support Services programme being put out to tender.

The following questions were raised in our submission of July 2007:

  • Is proper care being taken to ensure that informed consent is obtained from people, who in most instances maybe highly vulnerable and suffer from mental and psychological problems?
  • Is getting people to sign forms sufficient where they may not understand what they doing? (In other words, does this mean they have no choice or they do not get a service?)
  • What steps are taken to ensure that staff are properly trained and made aware of the rights of the people who they subject to highly personal and in-depth interviews?
  • What steps are taken to ensure that all of the information gathered is obtained consistent with the Data Protection Act?
  • Why is this data being collected in some instances by people who have little or no knowledge of the complexities of homelessness?
  • Why are medical records routinely demanded by staff running services for people who are homeless when such a demand would not be made of other citizens in similar situations i.e. when they seek assistance from similar types of State services?
  • Why are details of prison records and the psychiatric history of individual applicants sought together with information about their families when such information may not be necessary?

From anecdotal evidence it is clear that as people are barred from different service providers on the basis of alleged incidents in other centres, it appears that computerised data bases are being employed. Again, what steps are taken to ensure that any information placed in such data bases about an individual are not libellous, and where offences are alleged, that due process and natural justice have been complied with to ensure that their rights are protected?

These concerns were also raised by Community Welfare Officers who are State Employees. They are concerned because they are obliged to hand over confidential case files in the planned transfer of services to outside service providers. SIPTU& IMPACT have asked the HSE to engage in discussions. This was reported in the Sunday Tribune on the 19th July 2009 “Community welfare officers fear their clients’ best interests and their confidentiality will suffer if they are obliged to hand over their case files in a planned transfer of the service to the auspices of Dublin City Council” In the same article, Kevin Figgis, chairman of SIPTU’s health professional branch said “We feel there hasn’t been sufficient debate in regard to what’s in the best interests of the client and maybe other parties are too eager to take over services they don’t fully understand”. I should refer to the proposals of the HSE – a member of the Homeless Agency Partnerships with Local Authorities – which state that primary care teams will deal with health issues. We all know that these teams are not in place, which is an issue of huge concern to GPs and their professional colleagues.

I am reminded of the quote from a piece written by Simon Challand, a former Medical Adviser in Uganda about the advice he had received from “an African Bishop with a smile –” “Waste time with people”… You Europeans are always concerned about projects and budgets. The African does not worry about them–just waste time with people”. He gave me this advice in 1996 shortly before I came out to work in Uganda. Since then his words have kept coming back to me, and I reflect on their truth and wisdom and how difficult it has been for me, as someone with European values and attitudes, to apply them.”

The writer was very honest about his difficulty in applying these words in practise but I can too easily identify with the African Bishop based on what I see happening on a daily basis. This notion inspired my latest book which was published in April ’08 by Gill & Macmillan is entitled “Wasting Time with People?” and made the best sellers list. The book was launched in City Hall and aimed to promote a new kind of Ireland. If we really want to create a much more inclusive society and ensure everyone feels wanted we must make more time for people, and that includes listening to others, something our politicians at all levels should be aware of.

I live in an area designated as Social Housing and Dublin City Council is the Local Authority I have most knowledge of through my work. I have seen the very worst and very best of services provided by a range of excellent people from top to bottom. Equally I have had contact with voluntary bodies providing services all over Ireland where the same is equally true. However, I must admit to feeling angry when one Saturday some time ago a woman from a well known Voluntary body knocked on my door and asked me would I like to avail of a literacy class? That represents an appalling comment on popular, and quite false assumptions about people who live in Social Housing. The stigma of living in some estates is cruel. That stigma is perpetuated often by the structures in place and just adds to a sense of despair and inferiority in some instances.
Why is this so?
In terms of the proposed solution to homelessness, as envisaged in the Invitation to Tender document it will make a bad situation worse. This will create another layer, to an already three or four tiered system, which as I have pointed out, is already perpetuating stigma and isolation in some aspects of social housing policy.

The Institutions of the State and the Voluntary bodies are only as good as the people who work for them. Many of the personnel who work in the area of housing and homeless services do not come from the areas in which they work. This represents a lack of the necessary commitment required to develop and maintain trust.

Sports clubs are those most likely to motivate people and instil a sense of belonging, yet for many of them, space and funding pose huge problems. The Catholic Church was for a long time a stable influence in many areas. However, it is in serious decline, a point I only make to underline the growing disadvantage and isolation from the rest of society in many places.

“Partnerships” were once perceived as the solution. However, based on a business model, hamstrung by bureaucracy, red-tape and lack of funding cannot be said to be making any difference. This situation poses a challenge: how do we create structures that allow for the involvement of local people who are not always fairly represented by local politicians.

Meanwhile, local Authority and State employed personnel should clearly see their involvement going beyond just writing reports and attending meetings. They too often must defend proposals they are unhappy with. Many express their frustrations privately rather than feeling free enough to say it as it is.

The nauseating reply just recently from the HSE following the death of a teenager reported in The Irish Times by Carl O’Brien, Social Affairs Correspondent highlighted the bleakness of vocabulary used when dealing with poor people:….. “the HSE said that while Mr. X was not the subject of a care order, it will carry out a ‘case management review as part of good practice and routine procedure’.” The statement concluded that “The HSE has statutory responsibility for the management and delivery of health and social services under the Health Act 2004”. I doubt if a business could match that, or want to even use such language which would probably be vetoed by the PR department!

With the down-turn in the economy there are opportunities to motivate people and instil a sense of pride and citizenship. In the past, that has not happened as it was always much easier to give more money rather than time. Sadly from my life’s experience I find myself quoting the German Philosopher Friedrich Hegel, and often repeated by the former Prime Minister of England Benjamin Disraeli — “the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history”

There is a danger that the cutbacks required will impact for generations on the most disadvantaged. The Irish Council for Social Housing must ensure they are not complicit in this by accepting more and more outsourced services, instead of ensuring local services are supported. This must be done to ensure that all citizens are treated with dignity and respect and that housing with adequate support services is provided.

Voluntary Bodies are now forced to cherry-pick to continue to obtain funds from the state. This has resulted in the development of a 3-tier system where some people prefer to be in a well run Social Housing complex, rather than having a Local Authority address, although of course the former is classified as ‘Social Housing’. Admission procedures for desirable ‘Social Housing’ have become complex and intrusive, and anecdotal evidence suggests, and our experience would confirm, that the most problematic people are not being helped, and in fact are being discriminated against.

What place is there for people excluded from Local Authority and Social Housing? Only night shelters and hostels remain for them, and yet public policy suggests there is no need for people to stay in such places long term. These people then are likely to find shelter in prison at enormous expense. Government and Local Authorities have an obligation to address these issues and public representatives, local and national, cannot feel satisfied that attending an odd local meeting or photo-call is enough. We deserve better as a country is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable people.

Last year a man known to us was dumped outside our gate. I have known him for many years. He lived in a Social Housing complex run by a large, heavily grant aided Voluntary body across the city. My two nursing colleagues spent 2hrs working with him while 30 other people awaited attention. He was in rags, bearded, filthy and crying. He had spent the previous weeks sleeping in a shed not far from where he once lived. He had refused to participate in an anger management course. Rules and regulations were too much for him – he was visually impaired and disabled. When bathed, clothed, and his wounds were treated he left with a note to a C.W.O. and was asked to come back a few days later. After leaving, he was collected by the person who dumped him and we heard he returned to the Social Housing complex. Is that good enough? Not ‘best practice’ to my mind.

Article 1of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. However, by looking at the conditions and the way in which those who are marginalised in our society — from those who are homeless on the street to people unable to care for themselves and those living lives of isolation in urban and rural Ireland – many are denied their Human Rights. This too can happen in the areas of Social Housing, particularly at a time of cut-backs.

I am a member of the Irish Human Rights Commission and have a particular concern that the Human Rights Debate can be at times be confined to legal experts and academics. Similarly the debate around housing can become focused only on bricks and mortar and finance, rather than peoples rights.

I find the wisdom of the words of Eleanor Roosevelt more important today.

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. They are the world of the individual person: the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works”. Eleanor Roosevelt

Those of us around long enough can remember clearly how large blocks of empty apartments may appear to solve homelessness and yet so easily become ghettos – do any of you remember Keogh Square?

Many people on the housing lists country-wide would welcome and could cope successfully if offered some of these empty apartments. Vulnerable people should not be further consigned to a life of misery and isolation without adequate support services provided by the State. They are entitled to live their lives with dignity and respect. They deserve to live without having to fear their neighbours. I am not convinced that Voluntary bodies can provide the type of support they need and should have the courage to say so. Because grants have been cut agencies may be tempted to take on more work to avail of urgently needed extra cash.

Joe Duffy on Live Line and Eamon Keane on Newstalk have clearly become the only hope for many. Indeed Paddy O’Gorman can be assured of continued employment – if our national radio network survives.

The Irish Council for Social Housing must look at the needs of the wider community and ensure that dealing with one problem doesn’t isolate further some of our fellow citizens. This difficult time can be a great opportunity to harness all of the State agencies, and widen the debate and motivate a sense of shared ownership of the community we all share.

Could the members of the Irish Council for Social Housing find yourselves complicit in privatising housing and related services, thereby diminishing the role of the Local Authorities?

I find myself quoting from one of our most successful businessmen from Donegal, Gerry Robinson. I am unlikely to be invited to participate in the Think In at Farmleaigh taking place around the economy and the mess we find ourselves in. People like me, and ordinary people all over the country, whose voices are never heard, who work hard, pay taxes, seem not to matter. Below are a few points he made recently in the Innovation Supplement, in the Irish Times about entrepreneurs in our current economic mess. His words are very apt in relation to the issues I have raised this evening:

  • You have to distinguish between well-run and privatised. I think sometimes people confuse those two. People often think if you privatise something, it runs properly and that solves all the problems.
  • Part of the difficulty comes from the fact that most politicians have never run anything in their lives. Most politicians are the exact opposite of entrepreneurial.
  • State-owned things should be financed by the State and run properly by the State.

If you have a good idea and it’s well thought through, you can nearly always get it funded. Giving grants is all about a whole rigmarole of box ticking and being risk averse. You end up with people who know how to play the system and so get the money. That ability is the exact opposite of being entrepreneurial.

The Invitation to Tender document I referred to represents a declaration by the Minister for Housing that the state does not want to care directly anymore for the very poor and the most marginalized, and that it is opting out and does not want to know.

The Minister for Housing, through Dublin City Council, is seeking to off-load to the voluntary sector the state’s responsibility to care for our most vulnerable citizens. Any suggestion that this work can be done more cheaply that way, when so many already do not get adequate services, represents nothing less than a scandalous betrayal of their rights. These people deserve time and attention. That work requires experienced people, and if the state cannot afford to do it properly then how can the voluntary sector provide these services without the necessary resources? We have already seen that once prophetic voices in the voluntary sector are now unable to speak out in case they jeopardize their budgets. If this goes ahead, who will speak out?

I have been regularly approached by many good people in recent years working for voluntary bodies in receipt of funds to provide services, which should be provided by the state, asking me to speak out on different issues. They tell me they cannot do it or they might compromise their budgets! Can such a system protect the rights of vulnerable people who are homeless, when those charged with providing care are afraid to speak out in their defense? The state cannot off-load its responsibilities without doing away with proper accountability and undermining the quality of care in the long term.

Most people have no idea how the management of public services impinges so directly on the quality of care. Today many people who are homeless spend their lives being moved from one service provider to another to create the impression that they are improving. If they stay in a hostel too long they are asked to move out to create the false image that they have been helped out of their “chaotic lifestyle”. In fairness, having written up their report the managers of the hostel usually inform the same person that he or she can come back in a few weeks if they cannot find anything better. The fiction of progress is maintained by dislocating, but never really helping the vulnerable person, who is often in no position to complain and many of these people are homeless because of the neglect of state services over many years.

I am sure all of you do not want to be part in creating a society where the state opts out of its responsibility to directly care for the most vulnerable. Therefore, I urge you to resist this form of privatization and outsourcing, and keep the market out of housing provision in areas where it will exact the greatest pain on the most vulnerable.