Debate Over Who Should Inspect Homeless Hostels to Ensure They Meet Safety and Health Standards

Advocates for homeless people have called for years for the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) to inspect homeless hostels.

Independent Councillor Mannix Flynn appealed for it in 2016.

Anti-homelessness campaigner Fr Peter McVerry has asked for the same, since at least 2019. He repeated the call in the charity’s annual report for 2021.

“I have no doubt that HIQA would close some hostels overnight, and require extensive renovations on others to bring them up to an acceptable standard,” said McVerry.

People experiencing homelessness have long complained about what can happen when they enter the doors of a homeless hostel.

They can face bullying by staff, rules that stop those booked in from talking to each other, or being robbed and assaulted. Those who don’t take drugs routinely complain about being placed sharing rooms with those who do.

Others have flagged concerns about fire safety and when staying in bedrooms with no windows.

But recently the National Homeless Action Committee, an expert group chaired by the Minister for Housing, Fianna Fáil TD Darragh O’Brien, decided against asking HIQA to inspect homeless services.

“Imposing a standard intended for medical-care facilities was not recommended,” says a spokesperson for the Department of Housing. “Doing so could make it more difficult to source and run homeless accommodation as well as over-extending HIQA unnecessarily.”

Louisa Santoro, CEO of the Mendicity Institution, a homeless drop-in centre in the city, says she doesn’t understand why inspections would make it difficult to source homeless accommodation.

“We must acknowledge that this is one of the most vulnerable groups in society,” says Santoro. “Why we wouldn’t be holding ourselves to the highest standard of service is a bit of a mystery.”

In September 2022, the Department of Housing published guidelines for developing new homeless hostels.

Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) has contracted a private company to inspect hostels, but with a remit limited to checking building standards, fire safety and food safety. It has done 45 inspections so far, said a council spokesperson.

Social care inspections should go far beyond the standards of the building, say those working in the sector.** **

The Story with Standards

In April 2019, DRHE brought in a new set of standards for homeless services, called the National Quality Standards Framework.** **They were to cover all homeless hostels whether private or charity-run, the document says.

They cover things like safeguarding residents from abuse, managing conflict and risk, staff training, proper governance, promoting health and well being and assisting people to move on from homelessness – rather than building standards, which fall under a different set of guidelines.

However, the National Quality Standards haven’t been implemented in most of the hostels in Dublin since hostels run by private companies do not at the moment have to meet these quality standards.

In 2022, the DRHE drew up different standards for privately run hostels.

Those were approved by two government groups in 2021, says the spokesperson for the Department of Housing.

Those bodies – the Dublin Region Statutory Management Group and the Joint Homelessness Consultative Forum – include representatives from the four councils in the Dublin region as well as the HSE, Tusla and charities, the spokesperson said.

Mike Allen, director of advocacy with Focus Ireland, said he can’t see any justification for two sets of standards for homeless services.

“Whatever rules that apply to the not-for-profit sector should apply to the for-profit sector,” he says.

Tipping along without legal standards for homeless services appears to make Ireland an outlier within the European Union. Most countries do, says research by the European Observatory on Homelessness, which looked at 16 EU member states.

Out of the 16 EU countries examined, the research found that only Ireland and Germany didn’t have laws setting out standards for homeless services.

Other Guidelines

In September 2022, the Department of Housing published guidelines for homeless accommodation. These, though, are for councils opening new emergency accommodation and cover building standards.

Access to natural daylight is recommended but not mandatory. Sharing a bedroom with more than one other person, to whom the person is not related, “should ordinarily be acceptable”.

Ideally bedrooms would be singles or twins, they say, but may not be possible.

The guidelines don’t set a cap on how many people can sleep in a room, but say that the room should allow for five square metres of floor space per person and each person should have access to a locker.

“Generally, all sleeping rooms, lounges and dining rooms should be properly ventilated preferably by natural means,” says the guidelines.

“Although there may be infrequent occasions where it may be appropriate in limited circumstances to depart from the natural light and ventilation recommendations, local authorities should carefully consider the practical implications for any such decision, provide justification for same,” it says.

There should be at least one toilet for every seven people and one shower for every 10 people. Each hostel should have a dedicated dining area as well as access to basic self-catering facilities, with use of a kettle, toaster and microwave.

Councils should consider whether the building is suitable to be adapted to social housing at a later date, say the guidelines.

If Not HIQA, Then Who?

HIQA regulates medical facilities and children’s services, says Allen, director of advocacy with Focus Ireland.

Allen sat on the National Homeless Action Committee, which decided against empowering HIQA to oversee standards in homeless hostels.

HIQA has a strict rules-based approach which mightn’t work well for services that encourage independent living, he said. “The consensus was that HIQA wasn’t the way to go.”

HIQA also doesn’t have the resources to take on the work, he says. But independent inspections of homeless hostels are still needed, says Allen.

A DRHE spokesperson says that it has contracted a company to inspect hostels for building standards, including fire safety, as well as food-hygiene standards.

The company began inspections late last year and has done 45 so far, they said. “All stakeholders are currently working through the draft reports,” says the spokesperson.

It expects to publish the reports on its website in around four weeks, the spokesperson said.

In 2023, the DRHE will start to roll out the standards for private hostels and begin core training there too, says the spokesperson.

It will also do “unannounced visits/inspections to ensure core safety requirements as set out in SLA [service level agreement] are in place”, they said.

Fr McVerry, the anti-homeless campaigner, says that an independent inspection should focus on the quality of care in hostels and whether people feel safe in them.

“They really need to talk to the residents,” he says. “Did they find the hostel to be a place where they could live safely?”

Hostels in Dublin are a mixed bag, he says. Some are excellent and residents are relatively satisfied.

But in others, many of the residents flag concerns about services, he says. “The residents are the key people who will assess the quality of the hostel.”

Providing accommodation that feels safe would involve separate accommodation for people who use drugs from those who don’t, says McVerry. It also means supports for people struggling with serious mental illnesses.

He doesn’t think the inspections focusing on building standards will address the main concerns people are raising, he says. “We need to see those reports as quickly as possible, so we can give feedback.”

There is also the question of how independent a company can be, if they are reliant on the DRHE for funding.

Santoro, CEO of the Mendicity Institution, says she too gets multiple complaints about people crammed in with others with starkly different lifestyles and needs.

There need to be proper assessments of what supports each person needs, she says. At the moment, a person being discharged from a secure psychiatric unit gets the exact same service as someone who became homeless because they broke up with their partner.

“The person with the highest need is getting the same as the person with the least,” she says.

Santoro says contracting a private company to inspect some aspects of homeless hostels while ignoring other key issues is not a good use of public money.

HIQA is the appropriate inspectorate for social-care services, she says. She thinks they would be competent to alter their approach to the relevant set of standards, she says.

She also thinks HIQA staff would be qualified to ascertain whether people were in appropriate facilities for their needs.

Some of her clients at Mendicity, who are in need of medical care, are inappropriately accommodated in private hostels, she says. “We’ve seen that ourselves in the last couple of months, where people should be in medical facilities.”

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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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