Housing Agency chief defends claim families ‘may be gaming system’

TDs tell agency chairman claims ‘objectionable’ and ‘exceptionally offensive’

The chairman of the Government's Housing Agency has stood over his controversial claim that some families in emergency accommodation may be "gaming the system" by presenting as homeless to jump the social housing waiting list.

Conor Skehan was told at the Oireachtas housing committee on Wednesday that his remarks, made in an interview published in The Irish Times on January 2nd, were "exceptionally offensive", "objectionable" and that he had "crossed a line".

After Mr Skehan went on to present quotes from social media and case studies from a councillor as his evidence that families may be gaming the system, committee members said they were “more concerned” about his stance.

Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Mick Barry told Mr Skehan he had added "fuel to the fire of prejudice" against families in homeless accommodation.


Body of evidence

Mr Skehan told the committee: “I stand over the comments . . . to do with people describing themselves as homeless in order to obtain advantage on the housing waiting list, that there appears to be a body of evidence that [this is] taking place. As a responsible committee . . . you should investigate this.”

Earlier, Mr Skehan said he had been “very careful” with his words in the interview. He had not said families were “gaming the system” he said but that some “may” be.

He said it was the Housing Agency’s role to tell people “what they need to hear” and that the committee found out “if these things are true or not”.

Mr Skehan said that in his role as chair of the agency people often sent him “stuff” that gave him the grounds for his statements that families may be strategically presenting as homeless.

“One strand of evidence is social media . . . One of the relatively common things we are coming across is group chats where people are sharing information with each other about how to improve their conditions.”

He quoted a woman who “claims to be in emergency accommodation”, as writing: “It’s hard . . . I’m on it with three kids . . . it’s hard but I’ll stick it out to get my forever home.”

He quoted meeting minutes from Fingal County Council, from January 16th, at which it was reported there were 430 families homeless or at risk of homelessness. Some 68 offers of accommodation had been refused last year, 36 of which had been turned down by applicants in homeless services. He also quoted some "case studies" given to him by a Fingal councillor.

Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin said: “I am more concerned now than I was at the start . . . Third-party accounts of very complex family situations aren’t evidence.”

He said “none of us know” from the quotes cited of the woman on social media what her circumstances in becoming homeless were.

Mr Barry said Mr Skehan’s comments to the committee had added “fuel to the fire of prejudice towards people who find themselves in very difficult positions”.

He believed some high up in Government, the Civil Service and the Housing Agency“don’t understand the realities of life that people are straggling with” .

Many families who lost their rented accommodation did all they could to “avoid the system” by moving in with relatives.

When they have to leave due to overcrowding they present as homeless due to family breakdown, when the root cause was loss of their rented accommodation. This was “not gaming the system,” he said.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times