APG on Homelessness hears from Minister for Communities

by | May 28, 2024 | News

APG on Homelessness

On 28 May 2024, the Minister for Communities Gordon Lyons MLA briefed the All Party Group on Homelessness and took a wide range of questions from MLAs and observers who attended. In his presentation, Minister Lyons outlined four key areas of work for his Department in responding to homelessness.

1. The need to increase housing supply

In his opening remarks, the Minister stressed the importance of increasing the supply of adequate and affordable housing for people living here. He was clear that increasing housing supply and the wider policy area of housing is a priority for him and his Department. However, he was clear that if housing supply is to be increased it will require buy-in from right across the NI Executive.

Minister Lyons pointed to the important role that his Departments proposed Housing Supply Strategy will play in increasing housing supply. During questions, the Minister was pressed on the timeline involved in bringing forward this strategy and outlined that conversations with other Executive departments will take place over the summer months.

He confirmed that a further consultation on the strategy will not be required, but that he wanted to ensure that other Departments are fully committed to implementing and resourcing the strategy before bringing it forward to ensure that it will be effective. A recurring theme throughout the session was the central importance of cross-departmental working and understanding that homelessness is not just an issue for the Department for Communities but impacts on other Executive Departments.

Regarding the possibility of increasing housing supply, the Minister was clear that in a very challenging budgetary environment that we cannot simply continue doing what we have been doing. New and innovative ideas will be needed going forward. During questions, the Minister was asked about proposals around modular housing, regulating Airbnbs and private sector rentals. He noted that his Department are actively considering proposals in these areas and are open to different options.

2. The Supporting People Programme

The Supporting People Programme provides housing related support to around 20,000 people in NI across the four thematic areas of disability and mental health; homelessness; older people; and younger people. The Minister described the programme as “invaluable.” He acknowledged the highly challenging financial situation facing providers funded through the programme. In a very difficult budgetary environment, Minister Lyons emphasised that he is keen to protect the programme because he knows of the significant benefits the programme delivers for both wider society and individuals.

He in particular noted that while health is understandably the number one priority for the NI Executive as a whole, it is not solely for the Department of Health to deliver health outcomes. The SP programme makes a wide range of health related impacts.

During questions, the Minister was pressed on the reality that some SP funded providers have either begun or are actively considering handing back contracts to the Housing Executive because they can no longer provide the services contracted with the level of funding they are receiving. In response, the Minister reiterated his desire to protect the programme but emphasised just how difficult the budgetary situation facing his Department is.

3. The importance of shifting to homelessness prevention

Minister Lyons outlined that his Department’s goal is to see homelessness in NI become rare, non-recurrent and brief when it happens. If that goal is to be achieved, homelessness prevention needs to be prioritised. The Minister pointed to the important role that the Interdepartmental Homelessness Action Plan (IDHAP) plays in encouraging and delivering homelessness prevention measures across Executive departments. As there are several different causes of homelessness, several different measures will need to be pursued if we are to successfully prevent homelessness.

He noted the development of the Complex Lives programme in Belfast as a positive example of the kind of collaborative work which can help provide support to people experiencing chronic homelessness.

4. Need to end the high use of Temporary Accommodation

The Minister referred to the financial pressure the high number of placements in temporary accommodation is placing on the Department as well as the Housing Executive. He indicated that we need to find ways to reduce the spend in this area with money going to private landlords and hotel owners rather than being prioritised on homelessness prevention projects. He said that spending in this area cannot be allowed to eclipse the wider work of the Department. Minister Lyons was clear that long stays in insecure temporary accommodation are not good for the households impacted.

Minister Lyons finished his presentation by indicating that his desire is for his Department to make a real difference in this area, not merely to tinker around the edges.

New Office Bearers elected

Following Minister Lyons’ presentation, the APG elected its office bearers for the next year. Ciara Ferguson MLA was re-elected as Chair; Kellie Armstrong MLA was re-elected as Vice-Chair; Nick Mathison MLA was re-elected as Secretary; and Brian Kingston MLA was elected as Treasurer.

The next meeting of the APG on Homelessness will take place in September.


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