Data Shows a Shift Towards More Private Homeless Hostels

In 2018, something changed.

Before then, as the number of people pushed into homelessness grew, so too did private homeless hostels and charity-run ones, show Department of Housing figures.

After 2018, any growth in hostel beds came from private hostels.

One reason that’s an issue is because private companies don’t have to meet the same set of standards as charities, when they’re running hostels.

Whether that trend will continue or not is unclear. Council managers have welcomed the increased competition, while the Minister for Housing has said he wants to phase out private hostels.

The Numbers

On 12 February, a Department of Housing spokesperson said that “in general” running emergency accommodation “is contracted out by local authorities, under service level agreements, to NGOs involved in the delivery of homeless services”.

But the Department of Housing figures show that the majority of homeless accommodation, both nationally and in Dublin, is run by private companies. The trend, too, has been to use them more.

Between January 2018 and January 2020, the number of adults put up each night in homeless services in Dublin grew by 681 – and all the extra beds that the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) opened were in private emergency accommodation.

Some charity-run hostels may have closed, and others reopened elsewhere, but overall there was no charity-run supported accommodation added.

Department of Housing figures show that there was little fluctuation in the number of people with supported beds until 2020 – when it fell.

Between January and December 2020, the DRHE cut the number of supported hostel placements in the city by 483 beds, down from 2,278.

The number of people in private emergency beds stayed roughly the same in that period, hovering around 2,350.

A DRHE spokesperson says that the drop in the numbers in supported hostels was due to Covid-19 measures.

The DRHE cut the number of people sleeping in each room “in order to facilitate social distancing and a safer environment during the Covid-19 crisis”, said a spokesperson.

Many of those supported beds will reopen when public-health guidelines allow, she said.

What Is the Difference?

Supported temporary accommodation is run by homeless charities where most staff are trained social-care workers supervised by managers.

Charities train staff differently. But it often includes housing rights, conflict resolution, suicide intervention, overdose management, and alcohol harm-reduction. Lately, some charities are training staff in trauma-informed care.

Private emergency accommodation is run by companies without social-care staff doing support work.

In November last year, a Dáil response from Minister for Housing, Fianna Fáil TD Darragh O’Brien, suggested that these hostels do not have to comply with the National Quality Standards Framework, the detailed rules around how hostels should be run that have been laid down for the sector.

More recently, O’Brien said the standards are in place in private hostels, according to the Irish Examiner.

In some privately operated hostels, people staying there have complained about bullying by staff, unfair evictions, and astrict no-talking rule. One professional says some privately operated hostels don’t put staff through Garda vetting.

Most of those in private hostels don’t have support plans, said Dublin City Council housing manager Brendan Kenny, recently.

Although a DRHE spokesperson said last week that all homeless people get support. “Supports are in place for all clients whether they be visiting supports or supports onsite,” she said, by email.

Why Change Tack?

A couple of decades ago,most dorm-style hostels for individual homeless people – that is those without children in their care – in Dublin were run by homeless charities.

From 2016 to 2017, the rise in homeless families put up in hotels and B&Bs was likely behind the increase in numbers in private emergency accommodation.

But despite a dip in the number of homeless families in 2020, there was no fall in numbers in private emergency accommodation. Those held steady.

In January 2019, there were 880 single homeless people in private hostels, according to the DRHE, about a third of that cohort.

By November 2020, around half of all single homeless people, some 1,500 people were in private hostels, according to a spokesperson for the DRHE.

Council officials have said there are positives about private emergency accommodation.

“We think that some competition in this area of work is a good thing,” said a report to councillorsin June 2020 from then director of the DRHE, Eileen Gleeson, and the council housing manager, Brendan Kenny.

Private operators have a good track record and they respond quickly to issues, the report said. They can provide “a quality and cost-effective service under the supervision of the DRHE”.

But people in private hostels don’t get the same level of care and resettlement support, the report says. So officials intended to commission a review of how homeless services are managed, with a comparison between charity-run and private hostels.

In the meantime, the council would assign two housing support workers to work with homeless people in those private hostels, the report says.

In late January, Kenny told the Oireachtas housing committee that the DRHE had increased its use of private emergency accommodation in 2020 because of Covid-19.

“We had to empty some of the hostels in the city. We had to thin out most of the hostels for social-distancing purposes and so on,” he said.

“We had to very quickly acquire hostels in the city, otherwise, more people would have been sleeping on the street and dying on the street,” he said.

Were There Choices?

Some charities say they would be willing to open more homeless hostels – but not all.

Anti-homelessness campaigner Fr Peter McVerry says the Peter McVerry Trust isn’t willing to keep expanding its homeless services indefinitely.

“Our focus now is on getting long-term accommodation for people,” he says. “Hostels are not a solution, they are simply a way of getting some people off the streets.”

A spokesperson for Respond, which runs six family hostels, says it developed its services in response to emerging needs and in partnership with the DRHE and the HSE.

“While we don’t currently have plans to expand service provision in Dublin, we are always happy to discuss any service needs with the DRHE or any Local Authority or the HSE should they wish,” said the spokesperson for Respond.

O’Brien, the Minister for Housing, said last week that he wants to see private hostels phased out, according to the Irish Examiner.

But the Dublin City Council housing manager, Kenny, told the Oireachtas housing committee he wants to transfer the standards over to the private hostels.

A DRHE spokesperson said on 1 February that it has hired nine housing support workers to work in private hostels.

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Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

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