At the Mendicity Institution, a homeless day centre, staff receive donations of clothing to give out to people who need them.
CEO Louisa Santoro recalls a recent day when a client of her service told her he got a job. He would be given a staff t-shirt at work, he said, but he needed a decent pair of jeans.
Santoro was happy to root through the clothing store to find a pair of blue jeans that fit him but she was very surprised when he told her where the new job was.
“He was in a homeless hostel himself and he was offered a job in one of the other hostels,” she says. “He had a long history as an IV [intravenous] drug user, he wouldn’t be a person that I would say is ready.”
According to Santoro, she asked the man if he would need to be Garda vetted for the role in a privately run hostel and he said no.
Garda vetting is a process whereby An Garda Síochána run checks on a person who is intending to carry out work or an activity around children or vulnerable people, to see if they have a criminal record, according to the Garda vetting website.
“If you take away all the basic standards like qualifications and Garda vetting, it’s going to be chaos,” she says.
Some homeless campaigners have raised concerns about the hiring practices in some of Dublin’s privately run homeless hostels.
The majority of homeless people in Dublin are in privately run emergency accommodation and some say that private hostels are hiring staff with no experience or qualifications and there is no training or Garda vetting taking place.
Generally speaking, staff providing social care services to children or vulnerable adults should be Garda vetted by law.
But there is confusion about whether Garda vetting is mandatory for staff working in homeless hostels.
Santoro, runs a community employment (CE) scheme at the Mendicity Institution that supports homeless people to transition back into the workforce.
She says this type of employment programme is really worthwhile, but that it needs to be done in a structured way that includes both support and supervision.
Two other clients also told her that they were offered work in homeless hostels, she says.
Another man, who was staying in Isaacs Hostel, asked Santoro to help him request a move because he was uncomfortable with the staff there, she says.
He knew them from homeless services but said they were being “high-handed” since becoming staff at Isaacs, says Santoro.
A spokesperson for the DRHE said: “In general terms, there are a very small number of staff working in hostels, who are currently or have previously been living in other hostels.”
“They are entitled to apply and secure jobs that they are deemed suitable for, people cannot be discriminated against because of their living arrangements,” they said.
On 16 June a staff member at Issacs Hotel who identified himself as Paul said by phone that he was a manager of Isaacs Hostel. He said he couldn’t answer questions by phone and refused three requests for an email address to send a query to.
On 19 June Laurentiu Tatulescu answered the phone at Isaacs and said he was the manager. “No, no,” he said. “The hostels don’t require to be Garda vetting for the staff.”
Tatulescu said the company is Framewell Ltd, trading as Isaacs Hostel. He said it is a homeless service run in conjunction with Dublin City Council.
By email on Tuesday he said that Isaacs Hostel is registered as a holiday hostel with Fáilte Ireland. Since 1 April it has been converted to a homeless hostel for adult men due to Covid-19.
“As existing staff had neither qualifications or experience in dealing with people in distress, another company has been brought on board with the agreement of Dublin City Council to run the provision of accommodation services in Isaacs Hostel,” says Tatulescu.
That company is Baroc Ltd, he says. “They are successfully managing few other properties in Dublin in conjunction with Dublin City Council, providing similar services.”
He provided a contact email for a person at Baroc Ltd, but we didn’t hear back from them in time for publication.
A staff member at 15/17 Lower Drumcondra Road, another privately operated homeless hostel, seemed a bit confused about what Garda vetting was but also indicated he hadn’t done it.
We tried to contact other privately run homeless hostels for single people in the city. Most don’t publish phone numbers and some don’t answer the phone.
The staff at Watergate hostel on Ushers Quay did answer the phone but didn’t want to answer the question as to whether they are Garda vetted.
The DRHE didn’t respond directly to questions as to whether all private hostel staff are Garda vetted.
Around the same time, Santoro says she saw a social media post that she thinks demonstrates a causal approach to the recruitment of homeless hostel staff.
It was a Facebook post offering jobs for porters with interviews at Sky Backpackers Hostel – another backpacker hostel which had been converted to homeless accommodation recently, says Santoro.
“Any men looking for work as porters open interviews,” it says and gives the address of Sky Hostel, 2-4 Litton Lane, Dublin 1.
Then four days later another post reads: “Lads need work various sites in city centre, private message me if you are interested.”
The DRHE spokesperson said that they couldn’t comment on the job advert but that recruitment was up to the hostel owners. “Qualification requirements for employing staff is a matter for facility managers or owners,” they said.
Homeless people are aware that standards are slipping in hostels but are unlikely to complain, says Santoro. “They are so accepting of what they are given, they are used to being pushed around and they are used to not having any right of reply,” she says.
Garda vetting and training of all staff should be basic requirements in all hostels, says independent Councillor Anthony Flynn, who is also CEO of Inner City Helping Homeless (ICHH). “The problem is that many of the people that are being employed are not being trained,” he says.
A homeless charity, Dublin Simon Community, agreed to explain the role of staff in their hostels. They offer “a supportive, person-centred approach, providing unique support plans to help individuals address and overcome their own personal barriers to exiting homelessness,” said Caoimhe O’Connell, communications officer with Dublin Simon Community.
Each client is assigned a key worker who works closely with them to assist with their housing situation as well as linking them into other supports like counselling, treatment, employability and health & wellbeing services, she says.
“This requires strong and trusting relationships with our clients, and so our frontline staff, including key workers, are Garda Vetted during the recruitment process in accordance with best practice,” she says.
But Flynn of ICHH says that the staffing model is different in private homeless hostels.
The private operators are “employing security personnel and porters instead of people with social care backgrounds,” he says. “The same level of care is not being provided because we don’t have the same standards or qualified personnel within the service.”
It is unclear exactly what the role of staff is in privately run hostels and whether that is contributing to confusion about whether Garda vetting is required.
According to the National Quality Standards Framework published by the DRHE and the Department of Housing last year, all homeless services, including privately run facilities, should be providing support and care as well as carrying out risk assessments to ensure safety.
Homeless services should “have policies and procedures in place to protect adults from all forms of abuse and neglect,” according to the standards.
Good quality services should recognise and safeguard against all types of abuse and staff should be “trained and competent in the protection, safety and promotion of welfare of persons residing in their service,” it says.
Neither the Department of Housing or the DRHE responded directly to questions as to why these standards are not being adhered to in private emergency accommodation.
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said that the standards have been “fully operational since February 2019”.
The spokesperson said that the purpose of the framework is to ensure that services are well organised, and “focused on moving people out of homelessness and into sustainable housing as quickly as possible”.
The housing manager with Dublin City Council Brendan Kenny and the director of the DRHE Eileen Gleeson said in a reportrecently that the council is satisfied with the performance of private hostels.
The report said that private service operators have a “good track record so far”, and that they “are satisfied with their performance”.
They welcomed increased “competition” in the social care sector and said private companies can “provide a quality and cost-effective service under the supervision of the DRHE.”
They acknowledged that the people living in private emergency accommodation are not getting “the same level of care and resettlement support as those in facilities managed by the charities.”
The DRHE plans to carry out a review including a study to compare private hostels with charity run emergency accommodation and in the meantime they committed to providing two housing support officers to work with residents in private hostels, says the report.
Should Staff be Garda Vetted?
Santoro says that she contacted Dublin City Council to raise the concern that she thinks some of the people being employed to work in homeless services are not suitable for it.
Dublin City Council staff offered her an opportunity to make a complaint, she says. “They said it is our policy that everyone should be Garda vetted,” she says.
“It is not your policy it is the law,” says Santoro.
Indeed the law does stipulate that anyone working with children or vulnerable adults must be Garda vetted
Not all homeless service users are vulnerable adults, says Santoro, but within each facility, there will certainly be some clients who meet the criteria – which includes those with an intellectual disability or a mental illness.
“We need to be very clear if we are dealing with vulnerable people that we all have a responsibility for their safeguarding,” says Patricia Rickard-Clarke, Chairperson of Safeguarding Ireland, a charity which promotes the rights of vulnerable adults.
According to the Department of Social Protection’s website, “adults who may be vulnerable are those who may be restricted in their capacity to guard themselves against harm or exploitation, possibly as a result of illness, dementia, mental health problems, physical disability or intellectual disability.”
On 19 May a spokesperson for the DRHE indicated that all hostel staff don’t need to be vetted and said that the legislation for vetting changed last year.
“Only staff in direct contact with families and children are required to be vetted,” they said.
When asked to provide a link to the new legislation the DRHE spokesperson then said that Gardaí in the National Vetting Bureau had set up a compliance unit to check that the right people were being vetted.
They found that vetting is not mandatory in homeless services because homeless hostels are not locations that are specified in the legislation, said the DRHE spokesperson.
“We now utilise what are called ‘Non Act’ disclosures in order to facilitate the continuance of Garda Vetting and ensure the highest standards of care are afforded to our clients and their families,” the spokesperson said.
We asked the DRHE if they told all private emergency accommodation providers that they need to do Garda Vetting.
The DRHE provided a letter that it says it sent to providers of emergency accommodation advising of the change in vetting practices and saying that they will continue to do vetting, but this would be “non-act vetting”.
Says Rickard-Clarke, of Safeguarding Ireland: “Overall I would interpret the legislation as saying – yes this is a vulnerable adult and yes you should [do Garda vetting]”
But homeless accommodation providers are not specifically named in the schedule of relevant organisations, she says, so “I think there is a gap in the legislation.”
That issue should be rectified by an amendment to the legislation since many of the people in those services are vulnerable adults, she says. “We need a liaison person in each hostel,” she says. “The liaison person must be a suitable person.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing says that there is a liaison person for safeguarding and a safeguarding statement is on display in every homeless hostel.
Garda vetting is carried out for all employees of homeless hostels and all staff in family hostels are also trained in child protection, he said.
The DRHE didn’t respond directly to a question as to whether all private hostel staff in Dublin have been Garda vetted.
A spokesperson for An Garda Síochána said that the provision of homeless services are not specifically identified as relevant work in the legislation so it is not mandatory that all staff working in homeless services be vetted.
“In the case of homeless services, it is accepted that there are roles that may fall within the definition of relevant work or activities,” he says.
He goes on to add that in order to establish if vetting is required for an individual role, an organisation must assess a role vis-à-vis its compatibility with the definition of relevant work or activity as set out in the legislation.
[Correction: This article was updated on 24 June at 11.13am. A previous version incorrectly said that Louisa Santoro was a qualified social worker. We apologise for the error.]