FERGUS FINLAY: Families with no place to live bring home reality of the housing crisis

The real casualty of homelessness is the future, writes Fergus Finlay

WE’RE a proud country, no doubt about that. Only this last few days, our equestrian team won the Aga Khan. Our experimental rugby team trounced the Welsh. 40,000 of us raised the rafters in Croke Park, as the Kilkenny legend trundled on. And we stayed up late on Sunday night to watch Shane Lowry hit a couple of miraculous shots to beat some of the best in the world in an important golf tournament.

I’m sure we were all emotionally drained at the success of it all. And maybe a little bit smug. Aren’t we a great country, for a small country? And on top of it all, haven’t we got a tax cut to look forward to in the budget, now only a couple of months away?

But how can anyone justify a reduction in taxes, or, indeed, increases in pay, while the number of homeless children in Ireland is increasing rapidly? How can we regard ourselves as a civilised, or even a sensible, people if we turn a blind eye to that, while rewarding ourselves a tax cut? How can we sustain our self-satisfaction when some of our kids face such an uncertain future?

A couple of weeks ago, on this page, I wrote an open letter to the Government about the things that needed to be fixed. I was arguing that there are things more important than a tax break. The Government, I said, needed to dial down expectations about all of us being a tiny bit better off after the budget, and, instead, should spend some of the money on pressing social problems. The kind of spending I had in mind would also be a considerable investment in the future.

My suggestion didn’t get a great reaction. On social media, I was told to mind my own business, while an opinion poll published a week later demonstrated that three-quarters of people surveyed reckoned that tax cuts — resulting in more take-home pay — were the single most pressing issue facing the Government.

No doubt, the Government will listen to that. They’re indicating that they will give away more than a billion euro in tax cuts in the next budget. There’ll be token investment in other stuff, too, but the Government appears to have decided that the best way to people’s hearts is through their wallets. And while some of the tax-reduction money will go to lower-paid people, I’m ready to bet that those on the top rate will have more reason to be pleased on budget day.

There’s a side of me that understands that. But, in my heart of hearts, I think it’s totally wrong. We’ll have all the usual horse-manure arguments about how entrepreneurs and risk-takers deserve to be rewarded, and about how reductions in income tax fuel economic growth. It’ll be a bit like the old days, when the PDs used to claim that the economy had lain stagnant until they had started reducing taxes — when, in fact, the opposite was the case. As soon as the economy started to grow, they gave it away in tax reductions. Over-inflated growth, as we all know now, proved to be our undoing.

We really need to rise above that. There should be no tax cuts this year — none at all — while tiny populations of Irish people are crying out for help.

What do I mean by tiny? Here’s an official statistic from last week. Department of Environment figures show that while Dublin’s population of homeless children has increased by nearly a half in the six months to June, the numbers have more than doubled outside Dublin. Every region of the State, bar one, has had an increase in child homelessness.

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In Dublin alone, there were 780 children without a home (in 359 families) in January. By June, that number had gone up to 1,122 children (in 531 families). Outside Dublin, there were 85 homeless children in January. There are 196 now. These aren’t huge numbers. But they’re shaming numbers. This newspaper, a couple of days ago, highlighted the case of just one family, the Donegans. Anne Donegan was in hospital, having a baby, when her home was burned down, and, ever since, she and her nine children have been shunted around. Now, they’re living in three sparsely furnished rooms. The children are out of school, and their future is uncertain.

The real casualty of homelessness is the future. Children who are moved from place to place, who aren’t safe and comfortable where they live, will inevitably fall behind in school. Early school-leaving is a recipe for social and economic disaster. But, more than that, it’s a betrayal of our children.

The Department of the Environment put out a statement last week highlighting the latest report on housing trends. That report showed that house prices are continuing to rise, and that rents are continuing to rise. House property is, once again, becoming entirely unaffordable for different categories of people, especially those on low incomes, and rent supplement is frozen.

The response to the emergency facing many families has been to create ‘emergency accommodation’. But emergency accommodation provides no stability, no certainty and no future. For children, especially, emergency accommodation can be a form of prison.

The root of this problem is in ideology. Fianna Fáil, in government, took a conscious decision that public housing was a thing of the past, and for years invested nothing in provision. Housing departments in local authorities were allowed to run down, and now that the Government is prepared to invest again, the local authorities are simply not able to react quickly enough.

In the short term, if it’s not possible to build the necessary houses quickly enough, the Government must start buying houses and apartments, and making them available for rent at affordable prices. If the Government is not willing to become a landlord, it should enter into proper accountable agreements with reputable charities.

Many brilliant organisations — Focus Ireland, Simon, the Peter McVerry Trust, to name but a few — are themselves starved of resources (and have suffered cutbacks in recent years). Without even asking them, I’d be certain that they would be willing to get involved in managing a portfolio of affordable properties, to provide more certainty than homeless families have now.

Homelessness destroys lives. And it is an especially vicious circle when families who have nothing are forced into a market where the cost of everything is going up inexorably. Precisely because our economy is getting better, these families are forced into a competitive battle for accommodation that they simply can’t win.

That’s why the Government must act on their behalf, directly and with imagination. If it takes a couple of hundred million euro to break this vicious circle, it should get priority over tax cuts. The rest of us can survive. Children who have nowhere to call home may not.

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