State should help neediest but populist policies will not solve housing crisis or homelessness

Initiatives to address the housing crisis should be time-limited, properly costed and should not create long-term welfare dependence where it does not already exist, suggests John S Byrne.

EVERY time I turn on the news lately, I am reminded of the homelessness crisis.

The most recent statistics estimate that 8,000 people are homeless, 3,000 of them children.

Such is the extent of the crisis (and its media coverage) that people may be become desensitised to the issue.

Homeless campaigners have responded to that fear with the ‘My name is...’ campaign to bring human stories into the public arena, so that homeless people do not become statistics on a local authority balance sheet.

The problem with this campaign is that it uses emotion to drive an agenda, but homelessness is a complex social-policy issue.

Almost without exception in the media coverage, the proposed response to this highly emotive issue is more accommodation, by either building local authority housing or making housing in the private sector more affordable.

It is as if the lack of availability of a house is the only reason a person becomes homeless, or that it is somehow the State’s responsibility to provide housing for someone who cannot provide it for themselves.

In Irish law, the Housing Act of 1988 governs housing policy. It does not say that the State is responsible for providing a house to anyone.

It does say that, every three years, each local authority is responsible for providing the government with an assessment of housing need in its region. It also says that the local authorities should give regard to vulnerable groups when developing that assessment of need, but it does not say that the State must provide them with a house.

The obvious questions then, are; why are some of our politicians talking about providing 90,000 local authority housing units to solve the crisis? And why are we providing long-term, State-sponsored houses to people when there is no legal obligation to give them a house, never mind for life?

The answers might be more to do with political populism or re-stimulating the building industry than meeting the needs of the homeless community.

Using taxpayers’ money to add more housing stock to a dysfunctional housing/welfare system is not only reactionary and very expensive, it is also not necessarily the best long-term solution.

The principle of welfare is simple. It ensures that everybody has a basic, acceptable, minimum standard of living. This is achieved by ensuring that everybody in society works, and/or tries to meet their own needs (including the need for accommodation).

In doing so, they generate economic activity and pay tax into the ‘collective kitty’, from where the funding is sourced to provide for the needs of the most vulnerable in society, or those who cannot provide for themselves, namely the very old, the very young, the sick, and the disabled.

In a functioning welfare system, if an individual has no work, the State provides him with community employment in return for welfare benefits that are also paid for by those who are in paid employment.

Ireland does not have a functioning welfare system, because we have a scandalous record of providing for our most vulnerable citizens.

We have also somehow created a system in which a sizable minority of people have become dependent on, and feel entitled to, welfare, without feeling any obligation to give back to their community.

Many people seem to think that the State is obliged to provide them with everything they need, as if they have no responsibility for themselves.

This view of welfare provision is flawed and unsustainable, as is the suggestion that just because an individual cannot afford a house that the State should provide him with one for the rest of his life, as if he has no responsibility for himself.

I am conscious that this is a highly emotive issue, but emotional reactions do not make good, economically sustainable social policy.

In order for a welfare system to be effective and affordable, benefits should be for the shortest possible period of time, with unconditional, long-term intervention only for those who have no other option.

Before we spend another cent of taxpayer money on building social housing, we need to review our existing policy, for its effectiveness and efficiency, and ask whether long-term state housing provision is the most helpful and cost-effective way of dealing with a housing crisis.

I am not suggesting that there should not be state intervention for someone who does not have somewhere to live.

What I am saying is that any proposed intervention should be time-limited and must make every effort not to use precious resources, creating long-term welfare dependence where it does not already exist.

John Byrne is social-care worker and lecturer in social-care practice at the Waterford Institute of Technology. He is also a practising psychotherapist.

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