Homelessness is “levelling off” despite a new high being set last week, with 11,632 people now recorded as homeless, Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien has insisted.
Speaking in Dublin on Monday, Mr O’Brien said the Government plan, Housing for All, is “moving in the right direction” ahead of a Cabinet committee meeting focusing on homelessness figures scheduled for Monday afternoon.
“We’re seeing a levelling off on homeless numbers – it’s still too high, and I want to see those numbers come down, because behind all those numbers are people, are families, are kids,” he said, at the launch of the Government’s new Vacant Homes Action Plan.
The figures show a 30 per cent increase in homelessness in the space of a year, and this was the first increase in homelessness in December since current records began in late 2014. Numbers usually fall slightly during the month-long period around Christmas.
Mr O’Brien said he remained “hopeful” for the year ahead on housing delivery, but there had been “complexities within the homeless situation at the moment”.
“We had a specific issue around new presentations as well to homelessness in the last month; we did see a decrease in family homelessness, and that is a positive. Still, the largest cohort of those who are presenting to homeless services are single men, and we need to make sure there’s more suitable properties available for them,” he said, adding that the State had provided more emergency beds and spaces in recent months.
“We’ve seen a levelling off; now what I want to see is a reduction, and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure we can reduce that number further,” he said. Mr O’Brien told reporters that people are exiting homelessness, “but we’re seeing more enter it at the moment, and that’s something that remains a challenge”.
Speaking at the launch of the Vacant Homes Action Plan, he also said the Government’s Urban Regeneration and Development Fund would have another €150 million allocated to it. This funding would in turn be distributed to local authorities around the country based on their populations and incidences of vacancy, for investment in steps to bring homes and other properties back into use as housing.
The Department will also issue new guidance on compulsory purchase orders, with an initial focus on derelict properties. There will be support for the development of vacant homes officers in local authorities around the country as well.
Under the Croí Cónaithe scheme, which was extended to cover all vacant properties in cities and rural areas as well as towns in November last year, a grant of up to €30,000 is available for occupation of a vacant property as a principle private residence. There is another €20,000 available for a derelict property, meaning a total of up to €50,000 is available. Uptake on the initial scheme, which was aimed at towns, was lower than anticipated.
The Department of Housing will also run a six-week advertising campaign on supports for those who own or wish to buy a vacant home with a view to converting it into their private residence.
It was launched at the former Coláiste Mhuire buildings on Parnell Square, where Dublin City Council is developing a library project. The buildings have been derelict for 20 years Mr O’Brien said the project was a “perfect illustration of the benefits to local communities when vacant and derelict sites are brought back into use”
Amid ongoing speculation that the Government is considering tax breaks to encourage property development, Mr O’Brien signalled that any changes would not be considered before the budget this autumn. He said he did not expect any discussion on taxation policy at the Cabinet subcommittee on housing today, adding: “Any tax measures are a matter for Government at budget time.”
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There are more properties coming through his department, he said, for use in providing accommodation for refugees entering the country.
“We’re seeking more properties there, be they former State properties or private properties, to come on stream, where we’ll refurbish them and then hand them on to the Department of Children to be managed.
“There are properties where work is under way right now and there is a regular flow of additional bed spaces into the system through my own department,” he added.
Asked about a report from employers’ and business lobby group Ibec, which found the housing crisis is a “critical barrier” to growing the economy, he said he would study it. “I’m acutely aware of the situation with regard to making sure that people have access to affordable housing to purchase, or indeed to rent,” he said, adding that the Government’s plan was a year old and that “You don’t just over a one-year timeframe create affordable housing in a 12-month period”.