Homelessness crisis - This crisis is a stain on our country

Any country where the number of people without a home, the number of people in danger of losing their home, and still others with decent jobs who cannot even dream of buying a family home, is rising to a crisis level can hardly imagine itself a success.

Yet that is the scenario described yesterday by social justice campaigner Fr Peter McVerry when he warned of a “tsunami of homelessness” over the growing housing shortage, especially in Dublin. Fr McVerry said that, in 40 years working with homeless people, the problem was never as pronounced as it is today.

Housing Minister Jan O’Sullivan later acknowledged the crisis and insisted Government was confronting the myriad issues involved. She suggested that considerable progress would be made towards resolving the crisis this year, but only time will tell if her expectations are realised.

This catastrophe has been anticipated for some time and it is more than unfortunate that its inevitability did not, several years ago, stimulate the kind of response that would ensure that every Irish citizen has that most basic human need — a place to live.

That this social crisis is rooted firmly at the crossroads where conflicting property rights, social responsibilities, the legacy of our banking crisis, and a less than perfect planning regime intersect, makes its resolution all the more difficult, especially in a society where human need comes a distant second to the rights afforded to banks or investors.

Last week, the Government launched a 75-point plan to stimulate the construction sector, and therefore the supply of home, but the timing of that initiative, in the days leading up to local and European elections, might provoke a degree of scepticism. Nevertheless, the rejuvenation of the building sector is an imperative on so many levels.

One suggestion in that document — a decision will not be made until well after the elections — is that the State might help first-time buyers, for a short period, to pay the deposit on new houses. This is one of those points where genuine social need seems to require a response that appears counterintuitive to good economic policy. It must be hoped that Finance Minister Michael Noonan’s assurance that the measure would not contribute to creating another property bubble proves to be accurate. If it is not, then this would expose the State, and the taxpayer, to potential losses. That one in five existing mortgages is in arrears is an indication of the potential pitfalls of this measure.

Nevertheless, something radical must be done to try to resolve this unacceptable impasse and, in the absence of any alternative, this measure deserves thorough consideration. Another idea worth considering is how the prospect of paying stamp duty deters so many older people from selling the now-too-big family home and downsizing to a place that better serves their current needs. If a way could be found to counter this, then a considerable stock of housing might become available.

If this crisis is to be resolved, it is likely that some measures that seem to confound economic discipline and supply-and-demand orthodoxy will be required, but two simple facts make that risk acceptable — we must reassert that we live in a society, not an economy, and that the level of homelessness predicted is just not acceptable in an advanced and affluent society such as we consider ours to be.

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