Outside a homeless hostel at 10 North Frederick Street in the north inner-city, stands a red-haired man in a yellow high-vis jacket.
He’s not a security guard, he says, he’s staff. His job is to monitor the people going in and out, and their behaviour on the street.
He declines to answer questions about the inside of the hostel, like how many beds are in each room.
Further up the street at 13 North Frederick Street, another man in a yellow high-vis jacket stands on the door of another homeless hostel, talking to another man who has just come out.
The role of staff in Dublin’s homeless hostels has changed a lot, says Louisa Santoro, the CEO of the Mendicity Institution, a homeless drop-in centre.
When she started working in homeless services in 2003, hostels used to be staffed by qualified social-care professionals providing care and support, but increasingly it is security staff and porters, she says.
There has been a sharp decline in standards of care in hostels, she says. “People get much less support now.”
On paper, the quality standards for homeless services in Ireland are comprehensive and should apply to all homeless services funded by the state.
But in recent months, TDs have raised questions in the Dail about standards in homeless accommodation.
Last week a response issued by the Fianna Fáil Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien indicated for the first time that the National Quality Standards Framework — a document that sets out what homeless services should provide in terms of safety, human rights and equality as well as the care and support people should receive — doesn’t apply to private hostels, where the majority of homeless people live.
What is the Problem?
According to a spokesperson for the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE), there are 2,994 homeless individuals, excluding families, in the Dublin region. Of these, 1,496, roughly half, are now accommodated in private hostels.
Homeless people say that private hostels do not provide care and support.
Santoro says that the widespread use of private hostels for single homeless people is leading to rough sleeping. “It is a shocking time to be working in homeless services.”
She knows men who have slept rough after being excluded from hostels for minor reasons and not given a real reason, she says. “All it says is ‘breach of the house rules’.”
One man was refused access to a hostel because he showed staff his hospital discharge letter, says Santoro. It was an ordinary letter, just asking staff to keep an eye on him in the night, she says.
But the staff said that he was too high risk and refused him entry so he slept rough, she says. “Because the system is so broken now, there is no overall responsibility.”
She says it is also unfair on the workers in private hostels who are expected to do a difficult job, without the training and supervision that is required for the role.
Santoro thinks that without the appropriate support in place, some people might become stuck in homelessness for much longer than they would otherwise. In the long run that will cost the state more, she says.
The Standards Debate
“A National Quality Standards Framework has been developed to ensure a consistent approach in how local authorities and service providers respond to the needs of those experiencing homelessness and to improve the quality of services provided to individuals, families and their children who are accessing emergency accommodation,” said Minister Darragh O’Brien in response.
The NQSF was “fully operational in the Dublin region since February 2019”, he said.
The Department of Housing did not respond to queries submitted in July, asking them to clarify what was meant by “fully operational”.
On 12 November, Social Democrats TD and housing spokesperson Cian O’Callaghan asked the minister if he would commission an independent review of homeless services to ensure they are meeting the required standards.
“In general, the operation of emergency accommodation facilities is contracted out by local authorities, under service level agreements, to NGO partners involved in the delivery of homeless services,” said the minister.
But according to figures published by the Department of Housing the majority of homeless people are accommodated in hostels run by private companies, not NGOs.
That shouldn’t matter though if, as the standards say themselves, they apply in all settings.
“The National Quality Standards Framework will be applicable to all homeless service provision in receipt of Section 10 funding, whether the delivery mode is via a statutory, voluntary or private service provider,” says the DRHE website.
The DRHE says that the private hostels are funded under Section 10.
Last week, Green Party TD and housing spokesperson, Francis Noel Duffy, asked the minister what role “HIQA plays or could play in evaluating the adherence of homeless facilities, including privately run facilities, to the national quality standards framework.”
Sinn Féin TD and housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin asked whether the National Quality Standards Framework applies to private providers and what level of inspection has taken place since the standards were introduced.
The minister responded, indicating for the first time that the standards framework does not apply to all hostels.
“Local authorities carry out inspections on facilities that are not covered under the framework, as they determine to be appropriate,” he said.
What Kind of Inspections?
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing says that 55 percent of homeless people are in privately run emergency accommodation but that the National Quality Standards Framework is in place for NGO-run hostels.
There are inspections for private hostels though, he says. “There is a quality control and inspection regime in place for all homeless services, whether provided by public, NGO or private bodies.”
“Private providers of emergency accommodation are required to provide a high-quality standard of service, and this is clearly set out in the service level agreements in place between them and the local authority.”
So far the DRHE has carried out 126 inspections of private homeless hostels, says the spokesperson.
But the inspections were not to check compliance with the National Quality Standards Framework.
These inspections were for fire safety, covid compliance, bed occupancy and food standards amongst other things,” says a spokesperson for the DRHE.
The inspections are ongoing and the process ensures that the health and safety of DRHE clients who are using these facilities is monitored on a regular basis, they say.
The spokesperson didn’t answer questions about the results of those inspections.
“The PEAs managing emergency accommodation in Dublin City have a good track record and we are satisfied with their performance and they always respond quickly to any problems that arise,” says the DRHE spokesperson.
Concerning Lack of Clarity
Green Party Councillor Janet Horner said she found the minister’s response confusing. “We are being assured that standards are in place in hostels,” she says. “There seems to be a concerning lack of clarity around what the standards are.”
Independent Councillor Cieran Perry says he is surprised that staff don’t have to be specially trained to work in homeless services. “I am extremely concerned if this is the case, that private operators are not putting in the necessary qualified staff.”
He is also concerned that private companies might cut back on staff to save money, he says.
Anti-homelessness campaigner Fr Peter McVerry says that the contract for running homeless services normally goes to the operator which offers to do it the cheapest.
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing didn’t directly answer a series of questions, including who decided to change homeless services to remove the care component and whether that was done to reduce costs.
The Department of Housing spokesperson didn’t answer questions about the criteria employed to select contractors to run homeless hostels.
A DRHE spokesperson said that “all long term leases and contracts are negotiated by the City Valuers Office”.