Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 16 January 2001 (continued)

5.30 pm

Student loans represent an investment of £90 million a year. In present circumstances the Executive could not afford to change this without severely damaging other services such as health, transport and school education. As Members who are calling for the abolition of the loans also supported the Budget proposals passed here several weeks ago, perhaps they would tell me and the Executive where the additional funding should come from. If it should come from my Department's budget, I need to be told which services to curtail - services to the unemployed, university places, research, training programmes or what? We must recognise the constraints within which we operate. Indeed, outside my Department, what other services might be affected by the need to find funds on such a substantial scale?

Furthermore, it is important to appreciate that the current loans offer a reasonable deal to students. Loans are not repaid until a graduate is in employment and earning a minimum of £10,000 per year. They are repaid at a zero rate of interest, and annually no more than 9% of income is taken in repayment. Some 75% of students now take out a loan, and the average amount is £3,200. I remind Members that the private rate of return to those with a degree is 20% above those without a degree. That figure is widely acknowledged in research literature on this issue. Sir Ron Dearing, Mr Andrew Cubie and many other commentators in education agree - and the Committee itself accepts the principle - that those who benefit most from higher education should contribute to their living costs while studying.

Abolishing Government supported provision for student loans, as some suggest, would not be a progressive move. In their absence, students would undoubtedly have recourse to loans from commercial institutions on much less favourable terms than those available from the Student Loans Company. In such circumstances, student debt would be considerably increased instead of reduced.

The review has been a complex exercise with a competing range of approaches to explore and evaluate. In the past, policy was to maintain parity with England and Wales, but the review also had to consider the Cubie Report and the Scottish Executive's response. Further changes are underway in England and are also likely in Wales.

The review focused on several broad objectives. I will briefly outline the main provisions on higher education, the subject of today's motion. Raising the contribution threshold from £17,000 to £20,000 means that over 50% of students will not contribute to fees, while a further 20% will contribute only partially. Fewer than 30% will make the full contribution, which is just over £1,000 a year.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

A childcare grant to assist mature students on low incomes will be introduced. Means-tested bursaries and other access measures to widen access to full-time higher education to those from lower socio-economic groups will also be introduced. The minimum loan available to students whose parents or spouses have residual incomes of over £46,000 a year will be constrained to enable resources to be redirected and targeted on assistance for students from lower-income families.

I hope to introduce learning accounts for certain part-time courses to encourage lifelong learning and greater participation in part-time vocational higher education. The introduction of such accounts may meet the concerns expressed by one of the contributors about the absence of career development loans.

More domestic places from 2002-03 will be provided, and they will, in part, be used to increase participation from lower socio-economic groups and address skills shortages. The Educational Guidance Service for Adults will be asked to provide a service to mature higher education students in co-operation with their representatives, and my officials will work with the education and library boards and student representatives to develop material for advising potential students on finance.

Madam Deputy Speaker - Mr Speaker, sorry. I did not notice that you had slipped into the Chamber.

Mr Speaker:

I am relieved that that is the reason for the Member's reference.

Dr Farren:

Mr Speaker, perhaps you did not hear, though I trust that others did, the rationale, in so far as I could offer it in the short time available to me, of my proposals and their general direction and content.

Today's debate has helped to maintain a considerable level of interest in this issue, on which there is wide concern. My proposals mark a beginning and show that our devolved institutions can, and will, make a difference. I trust, as we take this debate forward in the Committee and the Assembly, and with representatives of educational institutions and students, that we will through that dialogue ensure that we maximise the level of support, and make it as efficient, effective, fair and equitable as possible to all who want to involve themselves in further and higher education at whatever level.

Mr J Kelly:

A Cheann Comhairle, in moving this motion I was driven by the notion that we, elected Members, have an obligation to address issues that are critical to the citizens who elected us. Health and education are two critical issues in our emerging democracy, and it is difficult to distinguish between them.

I am delighted that the Minister attended, but somewhat disappointed by his unwillingness to address many issues that were raised by Members. In many ways he misrepresented the Committee. At the core of our report, agreed across the Committee, is the notion of, and belief in, the abolition of student fees and the concept of an education system free from debt. Despite our differences, that was at the core of what the Committee for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment wanted. The Committee may - and I am sure that it will - go into that issue with the Minister in greater detail.

I shall not delay proceedings; they have already been delayed today. I thank the members of the Committee who contributed to the debate, particularly the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson. It is important that Members use the Assembly for the reasons for which they were elected and discuss matters that affect those who elected them; if we have done that today, we have not wasted time.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to address urgently the critical state of student debt.




Mr ONeill:

I beg to move

That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Social Development to make greater provision for people presenting themselves as homeless during this time of the year and to outline his plans to deal with the increasing numbers of homeless people throughout the year.

I am sure Members are aware that the Minister of Finance and Personnel, Mr Durkan, secured £30,000 to be administered by the Minister for Social Development, Mr Morrow, to help reduce the plight of the homeless over Christmas. I congratulate both Ministers on securing that funding and administering it so rapidly. That was not an act of tokenism; it was a recognition of a serious and pressing problem.

Throughout the festive period everyone speaks of the season of goodwill. By supporting the motion unanimously, we will continue that goodwill towards the homeless, and homelessness is a serious and growing problem. Despite the imaginative schemes and hard work done by a range of groups and voluntary bodies, despite good leadership and practice by the Housing Executive and despite additional funding, homelessness has risen by 17·6% in the past five years and continues to grow.

A cursory look at the urgent waiting list of the Housing Executive shows that about 11,000 families are waiting to be housed, and perhaps as many as 100,000 people are awaiting adequate accommodation. Those figures are based on details of officially registered homeless people, and an even greater number of people present themselves as homeless. There has been criticism that the standards for admission to the homeless lists are too severe. In addition, there is evidence that many other homeless people, especially young people, do not even present themselves. The application process is often cited as a hurdle.

We must have controls to avoid abuses of the system, and there is well-documented evidence of abuse. However, if the controls are too strict and contribute to the escalating problem, the Department should re-examine the matter.

5.45 pm

There are several dimensions to the problem. First, there are those who are homeless, who are on the Housing Executive's waiting list, and who have no family or friendship network of support. One of the worst growing aspects of this is the lone, or separated, parent with young children who has to be placed in bed-and- breakfast accommodation. In south Down the general practice is for such people to leave their premises after breakfast and walk the streets of the town until bedtime. The misery of such a situation is unacceptable. It is a problem for the Department for Social Development, and it could be ameliorated simply by more suitable housing and temporary accommodation.

Homelessness among young people is another dimension to the problem. There are two main reasons. First, there can be a family breakdown or some form of abuse. Financial or serious internal conflict can drive a young person from the family home. Such young people are among the most vulnerable, and guidance is essential to help them avoid a pattern of living that becomes self- destructive. In value-for-money terms, a little spending now could mean future savings in health, law and order and other areas.

The second area involves young people leaving care, and this compounds the homeless problem. There are several serious problems here. First, there is insufficient support and preparation for young people before they are cast adrift from care. Secondly, young people leave care a year before they are eligible for a Housing Executive tenancy or housing benefits. They are simply unable to get a tenancy. At that stage the Housing Executive requires a guarantor. Can you imagine how difficult that is for such a young person? Often, social services act - but not always. It is a situation of great concern.

In addition to the difficulties faced by these young people, coming out of care and trying to manage alone is a major challenge. It is difficult for those with no knowledge of the effects of institutionalisation to envisage the extent of that challenge. The problems range from personal hygiene to financial and tenancy management. Such young people should not have to cope on their own. This is where the problem crosses from the Department for Social Development to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. The levels of support are very poor.

The situation is even more pronounced among those who have had mental or institutionalised disorders and who are now in the community as a result of the last Government's community care policies. Community care is an excellent idea and is approved by practitioners at all levels. However, it is an expensive option, and attempts to introduce it on the cheap lead to disaster. Many of those so released are now among the most difficult homeless cases. Clearly, this is not just a social problem; there is a great need for health and social services to help housing specialists, who are, after all, only housing specialists. There are many examples of dedicated, hard- working social workers who are simply overwhelmed by the volume and complexity of their work, and I know many examples of breakdown, staff shortages and totally inadequate, and in some cases non-existent, funding.

I am glad that Mr Morrow is here this afternoon, for he is the prime mover in this. I appeal to him to liaise with his Colleague in Health, Social Services and Public Safety no matter how difficult he may find that to ensure that there is a greater standard of support for people in these situations. However, even that will not deal with the whole problem. There are people with whom, for a wide variety of reasons, other agencies find it too challenging to deal. Some positive and substantial efforts have been made to ensure that some of their needs have been addressed, but not enough.

Some of the Christmas funding went to help outreach projects offering the most basic support to those who are termed "the roofless". We must ensure that these projects are getting the support they need, because the alternative is to leave people to die in the streets. This is what is happening. Some people may be shocked by these figures. Many can see the problem for themselves when they see people begging in Dublin. In London, the problem manifests itself in what are called "cardboard cities", but here it is a hidden problem. Many bodies are working tirelessly to combat it, but people are still falling through a system that appears to be flawed. How else could the problem have escalated as it has?

This is a particularly poignant time of year to address this issue. For those who were lucky enough to be with their families over Christmas and are now looking forward to starting the new year, it is easy to forget those who do not have the simplest of necessities, such as somewhere they can call home. After the right to life, the right to a home must be a very close second, and there is a huge amount to do to tackle this growing trend. We need to re-examine the application process and ensure that in an attempt to stop abuse, individuals are not being prevented from getting the service they need.

Suitable housing must be provided, and to prevent even more people from becoming homeless, more adequate temporary accommodation must be made available, and temporary accommodation must mean just that - a stopgap home, not an inadequate substitute.

We need more support for young people leaving care, personal support and the ability to rent accommodation. Some very successful stepping-stone projects have been run in the past. They provided a home for young people in similar situations. It was the young peoples responsibility to take care of the home with some supervision, and that prepared them for living alone. A study some years ago showed that 35% of hostel dwellers were suffering from mental health problems, some of which ranged from middle to severe in degree. We need to examine the issue of community care, establish where it has been failing us and put it right.

I urge Members to support my call for adequate provision to be made to ensure that everyone has somewhere to live, surely a basic right. We made a start with the money at Christmas. We made a difference, but we can make an even greater difference. We must do better so that the blight of homelessness and the way in which that points to an uncaring society does not become the norm.

Mr Shannon:

I support the motion moved by Mr ONeill on a matter that concerns most of us. When you live in an affluent society and in an area where you do not see people sleeping in the streets, you tend to think that there is not a problem. However, when you have an advice centre and are in touch with constituents, you see where the problems are. There are very clear problems with homelessness, and I am glad to have this opportunity to make some points to which the Minister may be able to respond.

It is not just homelessness that is the issue, but the hopelessness of homelessness. It is people who have nowhere to go, no homes and no family. Those are the people we are trying to help, and this is our opportunity to do something. In the last couple of years, we have seen the impact of homelessness and the desperation of those who have nowhere to go and who may sleep in a cardboard box, on a park bench or in the open. However, when we try, as elected representatives, to get them accommodation, we find a problem with housing associations and the Housing Executive. Some who present themselves to the Housing Executive have nowhere to go. Most are single, many have health or addiction problems, many have no money and all are vulnerable and desperate for help. The one thing that has had an impact upon me is that desperation. We must focus on the problem and do something quickly.

There is no age limit on homelessness. The homeless can be elderly, middle-aged or, more often, young. When they go to the Housing Executive to be pointed, many find that they have no points. The circumstances can be desperate. Often it is younger people, 16 to 17 year-olds and those up to 25, who have lived at home and fallen out with their parents who have nowhere to go. They are desperate and alone, with no one to help. A society should be judged by its attitude to people who are vulnerable. If we want a society that helps such people, we have to look at what we are doing as elected representatives.

Some of those people do not meet the criteria needed for points for the housing list. We know what happens now - they have nowhere to go. Will the Minister say what steps his Department is going to take to enable such people to qualify for housing?

We need to address the concerns of many and ensure that the homeless get accommodation. Adequate, satisfactory alternative accommodation must be offered to those in need. I have heard of such people being offered hostel accommodation, which has turned out to be "hostile" accommodation. They were moved to certain areas and had to move out because of intimidation.

6.00 pm

If they cannot get hostel accommodation in their area, they are moved to places outside it, such as Downpatrick, Larne or Limavady. That is how far some people from the Ards and Strangford areas have had to go to get accommodation. They were moved right out and into areas where they did not feel happy. Already vulnerable and worried about what was happening, they found themselves in areas where, sometimes, their political viewpoints were at odds with those of the locals.

We want to look at the alternative accommodation that is offered. We have to ensure that people are, by and large, housed in hostels in their areas to ensure that they do not have these problems. I ask the Minister to look at that as well, because it seems, certainly in the area that I come from, that hostel accommodation is not always available and people find themselves in areas where they do not want to be.

I also ask the Minister to respond on the problem of homeless people with young children. They move from school to school while their parents try to find accommodation. It is an unsettled time for the family and very unsettling for the children. It should be possible to provide accommodation within their areas or in areas where they intend to go to give consistency in their education. That is particularly worrying for parents and elected representatives, and I ask that that matter also be taken on board.

Mr Speaker:

Order. I ask the Member, and all subsequent Members, to speak for not more than seven minutes because of the number of Members who also wish to speak.

Mr Shannon:

My apologies, Mr Speaker. I did not realise that there was a time limit.

In conclusion, there should be co-ordination between all the Departments and bodies to address the homelessness problem. We have all received figures from the Simon Community showing a 5% decrease in the problem. Can the Minister confirm that this decrease in the past year will not lead to complacency and that he will ensure that the downward trend, if there is one, continues?

Mr Davis:

Members receive a variety of information on a regular basis. Some is interesting, and some is serious, but this little brochure from the Simon Community really spells out what homelessness means. It states

"Our home is very important to all of us. It gives shelter and warmth. A home is somewhere that provides us with independence. It is somewhere where we can feel safe and secure. It gives us privacy when we want to be alone. It allows us to open the door to family and friends when we want to enjoy their company. Our home provides us with stability so that we can fulfil ourselves in work, hobbies and relationships. It gives us a place within our community and a sense of belonging. To be without a home is to be vulnerable both physically and emotionally . It is easy to think that people become homeless through their own fault or because they can not be bothered to put in the effort to change their situation. Listening to people who are homeless reveals quite a different story."

It goes on to give the heartbreaking stories of three different people.

Homelessness blights many lives. It is right that this problem be highlighted in the Assembly and that we should attempt to mitigate its effects. I congratulate Mr ONeill for moving the motion. I am pleased to see the Minister for Social Development taking note of the sentiments being expressed.

At one time it was fashionable for to speak of the "deserving poor" and the "undeserving poor". I am glad that such attitudes are disappearing, though some parts of society still have a considerable way to go. In dealing with homelessness, we do not nowadays differentiate between those who have contributed to their situation and those who, through no fault of their own, have ended up with problems.

As we try to alleviate the problem and assist people to find a suitable home rather than leave them to live rough, we should pay tribute to the Housing Executive for the positive steps that it has taken to house those in categories A1 and A2 with urgent needs. The Housing Executive is at the sharp end of the problem and, with a limited budget, can do only so much. A more proactive approach to the problem is needed.

People find themselves without a home for different reasons. Young girls become pregnant, leave home and need accommodation in a hurry. Growing numbers of people from all age groups find life difficult and end up sleeping on the streets. The Simon Community brochure shows that 40% are homeless due to disputes with partners, families or friends; 10% of cases are due to eviction or failed tenancies; and 9% were intimidated out of their homes by others. Mr ONeill also referred to that.

The figures speak for themselves. Some 10,997 households presented as homeless to the Housing Executive. The Simon Community received 4,065 referrals from people seeking accommodation, of whom half were under 25, one quarter were female and one quarter had slept rough. Homelessness crosses the boundaries of age, class, gender and religion. There may also be problems with alcohol or drugs, or, perhaps a young person has outstayed his welcome at home and has been shown the door.

Sheltered accommodation may be available for those with educational difficulties, and there are some excellent schemes. Voluntary agencies such as the Salvation Army and the Simon Community are to be congratulated on the difficult work they do. However, it is up to the Executive and the Assembly to provide the impetus to deal with this growing problem.

The motion is directed at the Minister for Social Development, which is appropriate. However, it is not just his Department that should be involved. The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety should be involved too. She is responsible for health promotion and social services, which could help here. The Department of Education may also have a role to play. Many factors lead to homelessness, and some are connected to the education system, which should be more proactive in guiding the young on sexual issues and the misuse of drugs and alcohol. We do not need to follow Westminster and appoint a homelessness czar, but we urgently need a co-ordinated approach.

In the Programme for Government, the Executive spoke of a healthy society and social inclusion. We must ensure that those fine sentiments are not simply pious words and lipservice. It will be a step in the right direction if we can alleviate the serious problem of homelessness.

Mr McElduff:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an rún agus tá mé buíoch de Éamonn ONeill as é a thabhairt os comhair an Tí. Ba mhaith liom tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún seo. I support the calls for an interdepartmental approach.

I am often reminded of the pyramid of needs, at the very bottom of which are accommodation, heating and food. There is no universally accepted definition of homelessness ní lia duine ná tuairim ar an ábhar seo. The debate on what constitutes homelessness, and how many people should be described as homeless, has run for years. Homelessness is a relative concept - it ranges from those who do not have a roof over their heads to those who live in insecure or poor, sub-standard accommodation in both urban and rural areas. The question of where on the continuum of housing need to demarcate "homelessness" is a political one, which is somewhat subjective.

The current response to homelessness by the statutory services is legislated for in the Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1988. The Order makes the Housing Executive responsible for meeting the housing needs of homeless people as long as each person clears three hurdles - he must be perceived to be vulnerable; he must be in priority need; and he must not be intentionally homeless. In many cases, the Housing Executive places a homeless person in a hostel or temporary accommodation, where he remains until allocated a public-sector tenancy. The time for this allocation varies between areas, depending on the housing demand, and can range from 18 months to two years. The length of the waiting period can have serious health implications for the person caught in the homeless trap.

I do not want to repeat points made earlier, but I want the Assembly to address a number of proposals. I suggest that we allocate resources to increase public-sector housing and provide support for vulnerable public-sector tenants, so that their tenancies are maintained. We should also examine the high cost of rent in hostels and the length of time homeless persons remain there as well as promote the role of the private sector by supporting a percentage of those who are homeless with rent deposit schemes. We should also enhance the role of the private sector. It could meet the needs of those who are homeless but are not deemed to be priority cases by the Housing Executive. We should examine the reasons for people becoming homeless - in many instances a multitude of issues has affected an individual, resulting in homelessness. Education agencies have an important role to play in preventing this.

A strategic approach is needed to deal with the increasing number of homeless people who come to the Housing Executive each year. The lack of appropriate "move-on" accommodation is one of the major problems, as is the lack of support that would help homeless people keep their tenancies.

The availability of public-sector housing needs to be examined, if we are to address the very serious problems. Homeless people must have rights that are guarded through legislation, and ad hoc or short-term programmes to meet particular needs should be made possible. We must be proactive on homelessness, and - and this was highlighted by Mr Davis - a holistic approach is needed towards the personal experiences of people caught in this trap. No room must be left for inactivity.

Go raibh maith agat.

Mrs E Bell:

Some people in Northern Ireland, maybe even in the Assembly, think that we do not have a problem with homelessness and that this motion is irrelevant, but I congratulate Mr ONeill for moving it.

Although there is no obvious evidence of people sleeping on the streets, or of cardboard cities as in Dublin or London, this does not mean that they do not. According to organisations that work with the homeless, if people have no accommodation, they end up in places such as cemeteries. This is happening throughout the Province, not just in Belfast, and it is something that should not be allowed.

When legislation on this was eventually passed for Northern Ireland in 1988, coming into force on 1 April 1989, it was based upon the Westminster Act that had been in force for many years. As a result, the Housing (NI) Order 1988 benefited to a certain extent from lessons learned in England, Scotland and Wales over those 12 years, but for a variety of reasons it gave rise to considerable concern among housing experts. The most troubling of these was that, like the earlier Act, the Housing Order still ignored the single largest homeless group - single people, usually young single men.

6.15 pm

Today Government figures show a 5% drop in homelessness during the last 12 months, while the Simon Community, which is faced with the single homeless, who are not recognised as such by the system, report a 4·7% increase during the same period. Lies, damned lies and statistics.

No one should be homeless, forced to sleep rough, sleep in hostels, occupy condemned premises or, worse still, cemeteries. It is alarming that 24% of some 4,000 people slept rough in the two weeks before they approached the Simon Community. People fleeing from intimidation or marital disputes further exacerbates the situation and helps to explain why they are not all seen lying on the streets.

We must ensure that the problem is met head-on. We must help the Ministers of all Departments to achieve this aim. The £30,000 announced by Minister Durkan at Christmas was only the quick application of sticking plaster, and to be honest I do not think that anyone thought it was otherwise.

Consistent financing is essential, but we must provide proper accommodation and solve the other associated problems. We can continue to support the efforts of the Housing Executive, the Simon Community, Shelter (NI) Ltd, the Salvation Army and other organisations to alleviate homelessness.

The current figure of 10,997 homeless reported by the Housing Executive does not take into consideration the proportion of the people who approached the Simon Community. They are not included in the official figures. We must, as a supposedly caring society, face up to our responsibilities. A roof over one's head is the most basic right, surpassing all human rights apart from the rights to life and food.

The young are suffering most given the numbers involved, and that is not surprising since the vast majority do not qualify for inclusion in homelessness statistics. Families must continue to get priority, but that does not justify ignoring the young and leaving them to voluntary organisations. They are human beings like we are with the same human rights, even if some of them have never had a job.

The Programme for Government recognises the need for all Departments to work together with outside organisations to alleviate the problems of vulnerable people. Education, health and job provision are major factors in reducing the number of homeless. Joined-up government is the way forward, and we have acknowledged this many times. I hope that we will put our words into action.

The motion recognises that this problem does not, as Mr ONeill said, just exist at Christmas. It needs attention throughout the year. I will be interested to hear from the Minister if any plans have been drawn up for the Supporting People initiative, which his Department will be striving to put into action.

I support the motion and hope that the Ministers will do something about it.

Mr Boyd:

Regrettably, homelessness is a growing problem, with nearly 12,000 households presenting as homeless to the Housing Executive annually. Homelessness is particularly poignant at Christmas, but it remains a serious problem throughout the year. Last year, as several Members have said, the charity that takes the lead in tackling homelessness here, the Simon Community, was approached by over 4,000 people for help. Only 1,100 were able to get accommodation. That represented a 4·7% increase on the previous year, so it is wrong to take the Housing Executive's figure of a 5% decrease in isolation.

The most frightening aspect is that the majority of the homeless, 54%, are aged 25 years or under, and almost one quarter reported sleeping rough for up to 14 days before, 23% of whom were female. There is great concern about the increasing number of homeless young people, particularly among 16- and 17-year-olds, and the growing number of teenage parents. About one in 10 of the teenagers living with the Simon Community are parents separated from their children, either voluntarily or against their wishes. This is horrific. In addition, a significant number of teenage women in Simon Community houses are pregnant. People can be without a home for many reasons including family conflict, physical violence, intimidation, relationship breakdown and financial difficulties, including the most vulnerable in society.

People's attitudes to homelessness must be changed. Many perceive the homeless to be middle-aged males with a drink problem, but any one of us could be without a home, given the wrong set of circumstances. Safe and affordable housing is a right. Research by the Simon Community shows that only 4% of the population have any accurate understanding of the facts of homelessness. To many in Northern Ireland it is a problem for London, Manchester and Dublin, but not for Belfast.

We have a shortage of housing that is suitable and affordable for single people and small families seeking to establish themselves or re-establish themselves at the lower income level of the market.

The number of housing repossessions has increased dramatically in recent years. Housing has become an investment opportunity for individuals and companies seeking to make money. The concept of social housing as part of the necessary fabric of society has been predominantly lost.

The numbers sleeping rough are growing significantly. Homelessness is not confined to large cities. Research carried out by the Simon Community shows substantial homelessness in regional areas. Figures from the Simon Community and the Housing Executive show a large increase in the numbers looking for help in Newtownards, Banbridge, Newry, Ballymena, Antrim, Larne, Ballymoney, Coleraine, Londonderry, Magherafelt and Strabane. The most marked increases are in Newry, Ballymena, Antrim, Coleraine and Strabane. Is it possible to get out of the cycle of "No job, no hope, no home"?

The Simon Community and other charities for the homeless help people build the skills necessary for coping with everyday life at home, such as cooking, managing finances and surviving on a low income. However, the proposed changes to housing benefit will have an adverse effect on these support services. The annual budget for the Simon Community in Northern Ireland is about £3·5 million. At present, rent from residents, which in the majority of cases is covered by housing benefit, makes up just under 50% of the Simon Community's total income.

Housing benefit covers the upkeep of accommodation houses and the support services provided by its staff. However, the Government are introducing changes to housing benefit. In future, housing benefit will only cover the upkeep of accommodation houses. Support services will be covered by a new fund called Supporting People. The Simon Community will have to bid for this funding on a project-by-project basis, and it is concerned that the bids from all the agencies will exceed the funding available.

This poses a threat to a vital income source and will have adverse consequences for the accommodation and support services that the Simon Community and other homeless charities provide. I share the Simon Community's grave concerns about this. This is even more worrying given the increase in the number of people seeking accommodation from the organisation.

Homelessness is something that I feel particularly strongly about. During a visit to the Simon Community in Larne a few months ago, I was able to see the essential services that it provides for homeless people throughout the south and east Antrim areas - indeed, throughout Northern Ireland.

Homelessness is a serious problem that needs to be addressed as a priority. There must be adequate investment to improve the housing stock, and particularly vacant properties. People are entitled to housing that fully meets their diverse needs.

The shortage of suitable, affordable and accessible accommodation must be urgently addressed, and an overall improvement in the standard of social housing will have a positive impact on homelessness.

Ms McWilliams:

The homeless are not a homogeneous community. They can split into various groups. I want to focus on young people who have been at the centre of much of what we have been talking about.

There are, of course, other important groups, such as older people who become homeless, lone parents, those with mental health problems, travellers, ex-prisoners and, more recently, sex offenders. Because they cannot find a house, they are vulnerable, being shifted from place to place. I will return to that later. I want to deal with the key issues, the reasons for homelessness among young people.

One of the major problems is family conflict and breakdown - what happens when there is divorce or domestic violence or when a stepfather moves in and a young person cannot relate to him. There are major conflicts and, unfortunately, homelessness can be a consequence. Then we have physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Poverty and anti-social behaviour, with which we are familiar, are important. I am increasingly having to deal with situations in which young people and families are being moved out by paramilitaries, mainly at the point of a gun or at the end of a baseball bat, and into areas such as south Belfast, which is perceived to be mixed. We need an inter-agency community response to let these new residents know that they have responsibilities and rights.

A way should be found to reconcile the community with a group that is known as having been moved from elsewhere. That is at the core of what we are discussing. If we keep moving people from area to area, we increase homelessness. We must get to the root cause with the various agencies. Until the education welfare officer, the Housing Executive, juvenile liaison officers, probation officers and all relevant individuals are round a table together, we are simply dealing with poor residents trying to address each element of bureaucracy in isolation. People get fed up and say that they want the Housing Executive to move this family or individual out by next week - and round and round it goes.

The situation is serious for young people leaving care. I was shocked to learn that within six months, 23% of such young people are homeless. The word "care" may not apply when we consider what happens to them once they move out of the residential accommodation age bracket.

Recently, the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety looked at this matter. Statistics tell us that family homelessness may be going down, but homelessness among young people is increasing. It is clear that over half the homeless are in the under-25 age bracket, and the Minister may want to look at the issue with regard to the selection of the age applying to the different groups. For people over 25, certain rules apply for benefits and selection for permanent housing. For people over 18 and under 25 different rules apply, and if they are between 16 and 18 the rules are different again. The system should be reviewed and the procedures for the different age brackets tied up. People should not be passed over just because they move from one age group to another.

I am also concerned about legislative changes, and this is not an issue solely for the Minister for Social Development. We need an inter-agency approach to the New Deal. It is argued that elements of the New Deal initiative have indirectly created homelessness. A young person moving out of care may not be able or eligible to take up a gateway project. This person is also cut off from jobseeker's allowance because he is not seen as a priority, and that creates homelessness, poverty and, no doubt, some anti-social behaviour. If people are cut off from a chance to earn money, burglaries will result.

6.30 pm

I have experience of working in refuges for people made homeless as a result of domestic violence, and one of the greatest initiatives has been second-stage housing - what is known as aftercare or "move on" accommodation. If refuges and hostels become a permanent solution for those fortunate enough to get a place in temporary accommodation, others needing such temporary help are blocked. A quick throughput of hostel and refuge accommodation should be a priority. Those seeking public-sector housing should immediately be given A1 status, and thus priority, and second-stage housing must be provided, so that people can move out quickly letting others in. We need to address that urgently.

Special health and social care support has already been mentioned by Members who referred to Simon Community projects. We need to give these projects core-funding. People should not have to rattle tin cans outside Woolworths. If the projects work and are good practice, let us fund them. They are run by voluntary organisations. The Simon Community has faced a deficit for three years in a row even though it has brought in most of its money itself. We must continue to support it. An inter-agency approach is required, because it takes more than a roof to tackle homelessness.


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