Housing minister 'concerned' at how homeless deaths are being reported

Research has been commissioned to look at recategorising homeless deaths after a spike in numbers last year
Housing minister 'concerned' at how homeless deaths are being reported

Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage Darragh O'Brien.

Housing Minister Darragh O'Brien has said that while every death of a homeless person is a tragedy, he was concerned about how the deaths were being reported.

The HSE is currently investigating a sharp increase in the number of deaths of people classified as homeless in the Dublin area last year. A total of 79 people who were either sleeping rough or in contact with the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive (DRHE) died, 30 more than the previous year.

"Each of those deaths, there can be different reasons for them and 79 is far too high — one death is far too many," he said.

"When you look at it, they're deaths in homeless services and we've had instances whereby a couple of deaths last year, that are within the 79 people, who had their own accommodation.

"It wasn't people who died in the street, they died of health complications, although that doesn't make that any easier. I don't think it's down to lack of services per see."

The minister has commissioned Dr Austin O’Carroll to research each of the deaths, expected to report towards the end of March.

"We need to look at things about categorisation," he said.

"About what we're actually reporting, how cases are identified, and how they're actually reported. We have had instances whereby someone who's accessing services may have died in a road traffic accident and then that has been classified as a homeless death, that's what's happening and that is still a death of someone who is in homeless services, but not necessarily because someone's been sleeping on the street."

Homelessness and issues with service provision were brought back to focus last month after an RTÉ Investigates documentary showed a number of men being turned away from homeless services because they were not from the area.

Despite a number of reports of this happening since the documentary aired, the minister says any instances of locality being an issue that were reported to him were without merit, and that the practice has been ended. He rejects opposition politicians’ claims that privately operated hostels do not have to meet government standards.

"I've been on outreach teams myself and it's very complex the issue with rough sleepers," he said.

"There can be very personal reasons for them why they don't want to access hostels. I visit hostels that are extremely good, they have lockers, own rooms or shared rooms, 24-hour staffing.” 

Mr O’Brien said that despite opposition claims about standards, the National Quality Standards framework applies to private hostels providing homeless services.

"We do inspections and gave additional funding to our local authorities for those inspections, but what is good news is that we're moving away from using them. I'm actually now looking at hostels that we can potentially convert to permanent accommodation for people," he said.

"What I [would] like to see is the phasing out of the use of private hostels."

Emergency accommodation

The latest Homeless Quarterly Progress Report, taking in the last three months of 2020, shows that 8,200 individuals were accessing emergency accommodation last December, a decrease of 1,531 compared with the same period in 2019.

There was also a decrease of 578 families (37.3%) in the number of homeless families across the same period, which the Department of Housing said was the lowest number of families in emergency accommodation since March 2016.

Mr O'Brien said he believes his government can build on these statistics, ending child homelessness in the next decade and eventually phasing out private emergency accommodation.

"It does seem possible to me [eradicating child homelessness] on the basis that we keep increasing our supply and give people permanent access to homes," he said.

He pointed to a 72% drop in the number of people using hotels as emergency accommodation as testament to the focus on this area at policy level and said good policy decisions around public housing and HAP can help get people out of emergency accommodation.

"I've always found it absolutely awful," Mr O'Brien said. "I've met mums and dads whose kids have changed their uniform in the car in the car park because they don't want to be going into the hotel and for people to know that they're living there. That's an awful stigma and an awful thing for a young child to have.”

Homelessness: The facts

  • 10: How many homeless people have died in Cork since last February (estimate) 
  • 79: The number of homeless people who died in Dublin last year 
  • 72%: The drop in the number of people using hotels as emergency accommodation in Dublin in 2020 
  • 8,200: The number of individuals in emergency accommodation in Ireland in December 2020 
  • 970: The number of families in emergency accommodation in December 2020 
  • 2,327: The number of children in emergency homeless accommodation with their families in December 2020

This article was amended on March 3

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