While some Dublin city councillors worry that private companies rather than NGOs will be running some of the new homeless hostels for families in the city, others say it doesn’t matter what type of organisations are running these “hubs”, as long as the quality of service is good, and they are well monitored.
The Townhouse B&B in Gardiner Street and the Viking Lodge in Francis Street have been converted to emergency accommodation run by private companies, according to management there, who spoke by phone on 7 December.
The Sunnybank Hotel in Glasnevin and Lynam’s Hotel on O’Connell Street are also due to reopen soon as homeless family hostels under private management, according to a council written response to Labour Councillor Alison Gilliland.
When the roll-out of “family hubs” has been discussed at the council’s housing committee meetings over the past several months, there wasn’t much talk of private companies running the facilities.
Rather, the focus was on the support they would get from NGOs, through their staff called “keyworkers”.
“The providers will have a service-level agreement with us,” said the manager of the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive, Eileen Gleeson, speaking at a meeting of the council’s housing committee on 23 May.
This document would cover what’s required of the “hub” operator, how homeless people are treated within the service, “how they are assisted, how they get keyworkers to work with them to help them to move through”, Gleeson said.
Gilliland said she got the impression through such discussions that the hubs would be run by NGOs. Social Democrats Councillor Gary Gannon said he hadn’t heard anything about private companies being involved in running the hubs. And Green Party Councillor Patrick Costello said he was surprised to hear that private companies were involved.
But a report to the councillors at that same meeting, also specified that Lynam’s in O’Connell Street would be run by “lease agreement with private operator”. Gilliland said she had thought the term “private operators” in that context meant NGOs.
People Before Profit Councillor Andrew Keegan says he is not clear how this model of hostels differs from that of direct provision, and he is concerned about the increasing “commodification of homelessness”.
However, Gilliland said that as long as the privately run hostels are well-monitored, and those who live there are able to make complaints, the system should work fine. The operators also need to be “aware of and sensitive to the needs of homeless families”, she said.
Said Gannon: “We have a great tradition in this country of generating profit out of other people’s misery. As they do in direct provision centres.”
Under the plans for the Sunnybank Hotel and Lynam’s Hotel, the council will lease the hotels from their owners and use them as family hubs under what is called a “contracts with services” agreement, according to the DRHE’s response to Gilliland.
“It was never intended that they would be operated by an approved housing body such as Salvation Army or Peter McVerry Trust,” said the response.
The contract with the owners includes for “the operation of the facility by them along with the provision of laundry facilities, play space, shared kitchen facilities, case worker space and study space for older children and provision of meals”, it said.
Gilliland says that the people living in the hubs will be supported too – the response from the DRHE listed visits from Focus Ireland workers, who will try to move the residents out of homelesness, and said that the families will be linked in with the council’s community development officer.
On 23 May, at a council housing committee meeting, Gilliland had asked the DRHE head, Eileen Gleeson, what the difference was between a family hub and another type of homeless hostel, known as supported temporary accommodation.
“The family hubs are almost all purpose built, we can design them,” said Gleeson.
Gannon doesn’t buy the argument that they are really different. “It’s just hotel rooms called family hubs. We just rebranded it,” he says.
Keeping an Eye
Some of those who work in the area of homeless services say that it doesn’t really matter whether the operators are private companies or NGOs – what matters is the level of support and the system of oversight.
Homelessness Campaigner Erica Fleming says that she fears that standards will be lower in privately run hostels, compared to those operated by NGOs. “I think what you are going to uncover is a lot of inequality,” she says.
There is “urgent need to implement National Quality Standards for Homeless Services, alongside a robust inspection regime to ensure compliance”, says the Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon.
According to homeless advocate Fr Peter McVerry, “There is no body nominated to inspect the hubs.” Other advocates for homeless people have also worried that these new hostels for families are not independently inspected or regulated.
However, Muldoon says he has received assurances from Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy that all organisations providing emergency accommodation will have a service-level agreement (that is an agreement which outlines what services will be provided), and will have strict quality controls and high standards around child protection.
“I would expect that these standards should apply to all organisations, be they NGOs or private companies,” he says. “These are public services paid for by the state and as such the government must have a mechanism in place to be assured of the quality of service.”
The Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General or another suitable body could be appointed to monitor quality of service in the hostels, Muldoon said.
At Townhouse B&B and Viking Lodge, the operators asked us to direct further questions to Dublin City Council.
The DRHE has not responded to three emails asking about the qualifications and vetting of staff, quality standards or inspections.
It also did not respond to a query about what safeguards are in place to make sure that profit-making companies do not seek to cut costs in a way that leads to a lower standard of care.
Gilliland said she would like to see a higher level of monitoring of services in the private hostels, compared with NGO-run ones. “I would hope that DRHE would check in with families, monitor and evaluate the services provided, more frequently than they do with the family hubs.” she said.