Alison O’Connor


Government can’t wish away the homeless crisis this Christmas

Government has zero legitimacy in criticising the commentary around housing, until real improvement can be shown, writes Alison O’Connor

Government can’t wish away the homeless crisis this Christmas

CHRISTMAS is coming, the goose is getting fat and, as the traditional seasonal song goes, you might put a penny in the old man’s hat.

Hang on a minute though. Get a hold of yourself. Don’t go getting all sentimental and mushy, worrying about the welfare of others, just because ‘tis the season of goodwill.

What do you really know about that old man’s situation? How “bad” might his behaviour have been to land him in such a predicament? Maybe he needs the “right” sort of help, but not yours. Same goes for the heaps of children you’ve heard about who are forced to live in hotel rooms, or those waiting years on housing waiting lists.

Actually do you mind keeping your voice down. If you insist on going on about our housing and homelessness crisis could you do so quietly, otherwise people in other countries might hear you. Above all else we don’t want that. Did you not get the memo — the one that points out our issues here are much better than elsewhere, in fact what we have going on here is normal.

Of course you’d be foolish taking my word on this. A government politician with housing under his responsibility warned darkly only a few days ago about “commentators talking down our country”.

Bad-minded types like me who make wild claims about how bad our homelessness crisis is. Our social response to the issue, and you simply won’t believe this, is apparently being portrayed as dysfunctional. Imagine. Well that’s what junior housing minister Damien English told the Dáil on Tuesday.

Hours before, the more senior housing man Eoghan Murphy took issue with for showing an 11.2% increase in rents in the last 12 months. Days before that, the most senior man of all, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, got the first dig in by saying Ireland had one of the lowest homelessness rates by international standards compared with our peers. “They’re the stats, we can provide them for you,” he told the media, neglecting to add that comparisons in this area are extremely difficult to make because of differing data.

Is it just me, or can you hear in there the familiar echo of Trumpian warnings of how the mainstream media cannot be trusted with its pedalling of “fake news” and if you want the real facts go straight to the source, whether that be Donald or Leo.

There was the added bonus of the Taoiseach saying that despite these positive homelessness statistics, his Government would not be resting on its laurels. “What’s better than that is we don’t think that’s good enough, and we want to continue to reduce homelessness in the years ahead,” he said.

Of all the talk we’ve heard of Leo being the king of spin this one, to quote a phrase, really does beat Banagher. It shows the extraordinary vulnerability the Government is feeling on the issue and their certain knowledge it will be a gaping political wound in the next general election for Fine Gael.

In the more immediate term there is the imminent arrival of Christmas, a traditional time for people to reflect on the less well off, and gasp, wanting to help. Sadly, all the tweeting in the world of photos of alpacas, filling of dishwashers or novelty socks hasn’t knocked this story off the front pages. Perhaps, I humbly suggest, the reason might be to do with gross political failure to tackle the issue effectively. The sector is beset by dysfunctionality at all levels, and appears immune to improvement — well, immune to the improvements suggested by this Government. They regularly plead for time, given that construction does take time, and this is a legitimate request. The problem is that way too much time is passing without any sense of matters progressing, and actually a real fear of things getting worse.

Cue the pre-emptive strike from Leo and his minions, fuelled by Eileen Gleeson, director of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive. She told the Dublin City Council’s policing committee homelessness often resulted from years of “bad behaviour”, it didn’t happen overnight, and could not be solved by unauthorised groups handing out food.

Those remarks appeared to show a remarkable lack of compassion for the people she was talking about. Some homeless people live such chaotic lives and are beset with such mental health difficulties they will never be successfully rehoused, regardless of what is provided for them. Frequently there are issues with drug addiction and alcohol abuse. They are simply unable to ever live in a manner that the rest of us perceive as normal, but a compassionate society cares for these people in ways that help them in a practical manner.

The crux of it is that these homeless people have gotten caught up in the housing shortage problem and been shoved further down the food chain. It really is disturbing to think that the woman in charge of the official response to homelessness in Dublin carries such an attitude to these people and will express it publicly. She may well have had some point about untrained groups handing out food but she might consider that many of the people involved there are driven by compassion and an absolute frustration at the apparent official failure to improve the problem.

Leo’s chorus had been joined earlier in the week by the chair of the Housing Agency Conor Skehan saying that while homelessness is a dreadful thing to happen to someone it is a normal thing, and we need to move away from a situation where we use words like “crisis” and “homeless” continuously.

I wonder might we see similar pronouncements in January when we find ourselves in the middle of a flu epidemic and patients on trollies are queuing out the door of hospital emergency departments.

“Crisis, what crisis?” we will told by Leo, “Whatever ye do don’t be calling this a crisis. It’s normal.”

The logic of this latest political narrative on the housing supply crisis is that the abject failure of initiatives to date should be ignored. But the Government has zero legitimacy in criticising the commentary around housing, until real improvement can be shown. For example we learned this week that local authorities or approved housing bodies managed to build less than 1% of the social housing required since the start of last year to provide homes for those on waiting lists across the country.

Analyst and architect Mel Reynolds calculated there were 120,598 households on waiting lists at the end of last September, and just 1,093 social houses have been built since January 2016. When you consider how far into this crisis that we are, and how long Fine Gael is in Government, those figures are mind boggling.

I wonder what focus groups Fine Gael has been trying out this new “shock reality” approach on — are they the same ones they used during the disastrous 2016 general election campaign? As that election showed, but Fine Gael still do not apparently realise, this approach is a dodgy one.

So despite their concerted efforts, there will be just as much outrage in the run up to this Christmas that we have such an entrenched homelessness problem, and that vulnerable people in our society can be spoken about in such a way. That is a good thing.

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