Housing rules preventing homeless mothers from reuniting with children, committee told

Charity worker says local authorities do not allocate homes with more than one bed to non-primary carers

Homeless mothers are being prevented from getting their children back because local authorities will not allocate them homes with two bedrooms, the Oireachtas housing committee has heard.

Levels of suicidal ideation and self harm among women in one Dublin homelessness service in recent months were “staggering”, the committee heard.

Una Burns, head of communications and policy with the Novas homelessness charity, said that between last April and last month staff intervened "on 26 occasions" where suicide attempts were already advanced.

She said staff carried equipment at all times to interrupt suicides and that while they were trained “the trauma of these experiences in our services is unparalleled”.

“It is fair to assume that the death rate among the homeless women we support would have been far higher in 2021, but for the interventions of our frontline staff,” she said.

Among the most traumatising experiences for homeless mothers in the Novas services was not being able to reunite with children.

“If a client doesn’t have the primary care of their children they are not entitled to more than a one-bed unit of accommodation…Because they cannot access, or have no hope of accessing a two-bed unit, social workers cannot recommend reunification of the parent and his or her child/children…It is a vicious cycle,” Ms Burns said.

‘Overriding motive’

“More discretion is required in the type of properties single people with children are entitled to. Reunification can be the overriding motive for the women who live in our services to recover from addiction and homelessness.

“Currently it is incredibly rare for homeless women whose children are in care, to regain access, despite their immense efforts.”

Organisations told the committee there had been a “new wave” of homelessness since the moratorium on evictions and rent freezes, introduced during stringent Covid-19 restrictions, had been lifted.

Pat Dennigan, chief executive of Focus Ireland, said "entirely avoidable evictions" were increasing due to a widening gap between market rents and Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) rates, which were last reviewed in 2016.

“HAP tenant are attempting to close this gap from their already inadequate income of wages or social welfare.”

Wayne Stanley, head of policy with the Simon communities, said: "The level of topping up is really endemic and, when combined with the inflation on things like bread and milk, people are really being forced into homelessness".

Vacant possession

The committee heard calls for a review of HAP rates, directions to local authorities to purchase houses where sitting HAP tenants had been issued with notices to quit by landlords seeking vacant possession, and measures to encourage small landlords who were thinking of selling to delay doing so for a number of years.

Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin called on the Department of Housing to clarify a circular issued to local authorities on January 19th, which appears to rule out the purchase of homes where sitting HAP tenants face homelessness.

Fianna Fáil Senator Mary Fitzpatrick said: "A circular clarifying the position would be really important. A pot of money to purchase properties has been allocated where it makes sense.

“We could be waiting for one- and four-bed properties to come up and at the same time allowing families go into emergency accommodation…We have to be very clear there is no confusion at the local authority level on that issue. It’s just too important.”

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times