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27 July 2000 Edition

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Scandal of homelessness worsens


Despite homelessness being one of the most recurrent and high profile issues in Ireland over the past twenty years, government funding and strategy are far from meeting the needs of Ireland's homeless population, Michael Pierse writes.

The case of a 16-year-old girl from Dublin whose father was jailed earlier this month for torturing, raping and mutilating her, again focused attention on the trauma that is suffered by young homeless people in this country.

The girl, whose homelessness had been known to the Eastern Regional Health Authority, has only recently been given accomodation, while many of those working with homeless people were apalled that she had not been given immediate counselling and residential care.

It also emerged, that despite the assertion by Minister for State in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mary Hanafin, that the girl's siblings had been housed, her brother had also been left homeless following their ordeal.

Fr Peter McVerry, the Jesuit priest who runs three homeless hostels in Dublin, had originally highlighted the girl's plight. He told An Phoblacht that it was a disgrace that she should have to suffer so much public exposure, following the original trauma of being raped, tortured and then left homeless by the state, merely to receive services to which she is legally entitled.

Since the revelations the Eastern Regional Health Authority has admitted that the way it deals with young homeless people is unsatisfactory.

The Minister for Health's decision to appoint a director for youth homelessness has been given a cautious welcome by the priest. His fear is that the new director would be ``answerable to, and take orders from, the same people who have failed the young homeless for the past 20 years''.

``I think the problem of youth homelessness goes much deeper than that,'' he said of the appointment. ``The structures of the childcare system are seriously flawed.''

The April 2000 report from the Forum on Youth Homelessness, a working group set up by the Easten Health Board, called for substantial changes in the way the 26-County authorities deal with homeless children. Changes in the way children contact out of hours social workers, were recommended along with a call that contracts be drawn up between hostels for the homeless and funding agencies to ensure hostels provide services which meet the needs of homeless children. They also called for an independent body to deal with such issues.

``The Forum on Youth Homelessness envisaged that the Director for Youth Homelessness would oversee a radically reformed structure for the delivery of services - that has not been implemented'' McVerry explains. ``While I wouldn't ascribe bad faith to the Minister, he is being informed by the Eastern Regional Health Authority (ERHA) and it is clear that they do not want a new structure''.

The ERHA had been set up, to replace the Eastern Health Board, just as the report from the Forum on Youth Homelessness was completed. While the authority claim that they are the independent authority called for by the homelessness forum, this has been hotly debated since their structures were finalised prior to the publication of the report.

``They are not the independent board recommended by the Forum,'' McVerry believes. ``The ERHA are just a service provider, they were already in existence when the Forum Report was published and are clearly not involved in the direct provision of services''.

On the publication of the Forum on Youth Homelessness report, £1.5 million was allocated to the EHRA to implement its recommendations, including the establishment of locally based services, multi-disciplinary teams, special drug centres for youths and the appointment of GPs and counselors.

McVerry says that this is not enough and that an independent body is required that, although fully accountable to the ERHA, would be able to cut through the red tape of the current system. Homeless children are currently faced by a very inadequate and distressing service, he says. ``They have to go to a Garda station at 8 p.m. but many young people don't like going to the Gardaí anway. They could be there for three or four hours waiting to see an out of hours social worker. That puts them off and then they may find that there are no beds available''.

While some young people do get a good service, he claims that those who are older or have behavioural difficulties or a drug addiction are less likely to get the help they need. ``Foster parents generally are unwilling to accept older, more difficult children, while most hostels will not accept a young person who's using drugs,'' he says. The availability of psychiatric help and other crucial services are, like everything else in the health service these days, usually subject to a long waiting list.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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