Fergus Finlay: We must change the Constitution if we want to end homelessness scandal

When scientists and researchers talk about ACEs, they can be accused of using jargon. And as a term, it has a bloodless, academic feel to it.

Fergus Finlay: We must change the Constitution if we want to end homelessness scandal

When scientists and researchers talk about ACEs, they can be accused of using jargon. And as a term, it has a bloodless, academic feel to it.

It’s an acronym, a technical term that masks the devastation ACEs can cause in the human experience.

ACEs are the reason I won’t even consider voting for any party that isn’t willing to consider a constitutional referendum on housing.

Maybe I should explain. The term ACE is short for adverse childhood experience.

It is now well established scientifically that the more extreme an ACE, the more deep-rooted and long-lasting its damage can be.

It’s the reason why people who have been sexually abused as children often carry life-long and deeply damaging scars.

Not all ACEs are profound in their effects. Loneliness in childhood may not be as damaging, for example, as abuse.

But what the science shows is that an accumulation of ACEs, even if they don’t include physical or sexual abuse, can result in traumatic injury for the child.

ACEs can affect not just childhood, but the entire life of a child who grows up suffering their effects.

ACEs can cause health breakdowns, physical, mental, and emotional. They can lead to anxiety, self-harm, depression.

They can turn children who were abused into adults who abuse others — sometimes their own children.

So the effect of ACEs can carry over from one generation to the next.

The best and easiest way for a child to accumulate ACEs, right now in Ireland, is to be without a home. To be homeless.

When I talk about a home, I’m not talking about a four-bedroom detached house in a leafy suburb.

I’m talking about the ability to come home to the same place every day after school.

I’m talking about stability, a sense of safety, reasonable security.

I’m talking about somewhere that’s warm enough and dry enough so that a child won’t be at risk of throat or bronchial conditions.

It’s not a lot, is it?

Yet there are thousands of children in Ireland for whom that isn’t happening right now. Thousands who have no idea when it might happen.

Homeless children are often isolated from peers and friends.

They are often inappropriately nourished. They often lack basic stability in their lives.

They can witness or be caught up in drug abuse or domestic violence, or both. They can be surrounded by mental health challenges.

They can depend for love and support on people who are themselves under intolerable stress.

In other words, and sorry about the jargon again, children in homelessness are experiencing far more ACEs than any child should.

And the consequences for those children ought to make them a national priority.

If we knew right now that 4,000 Irish children were at imminent risk from the coronavirus that is seriously affecting China, we would move heaven and earth to protect them.

But we know they’re in danger from a range of things that are every bit as bad, in terms of their health and wellbeing and development, and we’re doing nothing.

We’re not even promising them anything.

I’ve searched the 146 pages of the Fianna Fáil manifesto.

I can find no reference whatever to those 4,000 of our children.

I’ve done the same with the 108 pages of the Fine Gael manifesto.

It makes occasional references to the unacceptability of children in homelessness and promises to “continue” to prioritise their needs. But the causes of their homelessness are, apparently, “complicated”.

In addition, neither of the men who would be taoiseach has listed the ending of child homelessness as his first priority. Nor even, as far as I could search, among his first five or even 10 priorities.

I don’t how it is possible to even want to be taoiseach without being overwhelmed by the need to remove children from this situation.

Maybe they’re afraid. Afraid of trying and failing.

Maybe they’d tell you privately the best advice they’ve had is not make a hostage to fortune out of homeless children.

They are, though, both prepared to spend money on building houses (and Fine Gael, according to their manifesto, want to see a better class of homeless hub built).

Eventually, after a lot of damage has been done, the problem will go away. And we won’t have to worry about children quite so much.

They hope. At least until the next housing crisis.

Which is why it’s a complete mystery to me that neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil appear to be willing to change the Constitution.

To declare an interest, I’m part of a group called Home for Good that launched a campaign last week to do precisely that.

There’s a simple reason. Our constitution contains very powerful property rights.

Those rights are there to protect us from having our land and jewels and expensive cars taken away from us.

We don’t just have a right to own everything we have, the state has an obligation to vindicate that right.

All well and good. It may seem like a bit of a cruel irony that the Constitution had such strong protections for wealth and property, but has nothing whatever to say to the mother who cannot give her children the safety and stability of a home.

But property rights are important nevertheless, and it’s right they should be there.

The only thing is. The Constitution also says that property rights can be “delimited” (that’s the word the Constitution uses) by the common good.

The only problem with that is, it doesn’t say anywhere how the common good should be defined.

So what we are looking for is that the powerful property rights in the Constitution should be left as they are.

But they should be balanced by a provision that says, for example, that adequate, secure, and affordable housing are part of the common good.

Not luxurious housing. Adequate. Not free housing. Housing ordinary people can afford.

Twelve times in the last couple of years, efforts have been made in the Dáil to change the law, to protect tenants, to limit rents, to penalise land hoarders.

On each occasion, the government of the day has said the one-sided property rights in the Constitution made progress impossible.

Picture: Maxwells
Picture: Maxwells

If there was a proper balance between strong property rights on the hand, and a well-defined sense of the common good on the other, those arguments would not have been possible.

Whatever government is elected in the next few weeks, and however well-intentioned they are, they will not be able to guarantee to end homelessness without changing the Constitution.

The smaller parties recognise that, and many of them are committed to the holding of a referendum.

But Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have managed to avoid mentioning it so far. I don’t know why that is the case.

And I know that changing the Constitution is only one of the things that needs to be done.

But it’s vital. Homelessness among children is an unacceptable scandal, and a blight on our claim to be a republic.

That above all is why the two big parties must be forced if necessary to commit to changing the Constitution.

As part of the ending of a national scandal.

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