FERGUS FINLAY: Focusing resentment on homeless shouldn’t be name of blame game

Margaret Cash with six of her seven children. Picture: Aoife Moore/PA Wire

The housing crisis is the result of 20 years of bad politics... bad political choices and bad ideology, writes Fergus Finlay.

I’M sanctimonious. Arrogant. Stupid. I have a brass neck.

These are the more polite things I’ve been reading about myself over the last few days, all because I posted something on social media. Of course, I am all of those things, to some degree. (At least, when I asked my nearest and dearest how anyone could possibly believe those things about me, all I got was raised eyebrows.)

Here’s what I posted, on Twitter and Facebook – “In the middle of a major public policy crisis of housing and homelessness — caused by 20 years of bad politics — all I see on Facebook and Twitter is puerile conspiracy theorising and crass victim blaming. We really have lost our way, haven’t we?”

I posted it because of the story of Margaret Cash. She was the woman who spent the night with her children in Tallaght Garda Station, after it proved impossible to find emergency accommodation for her and her family. The story, and the pictures of children trying to sleep on waiting room benches, caused an uproar, simply because it was the latest manifestation of a crisis in homelessness and failed housing policy.

But it also caused an almost immediate backlash, in which Margaret Cash, and the homeless organisation trying to help her, were the principal targets. Almost immediately, some people alleged that the photo had been staged, and the entire story was dodgy. The organisation, Inner City Helping Homeless (ICHH), was forced to deny setting up the photograph, as if they were somehow the villain of the piece.

As a matter of fact ICHH is a fantastic volunteer run organisation of people who are on the streets night after night, doing “what it says on the tin” — helping people who are homeless.

They have as much first-hand experience of the problem of homelessness as anyone, and alongside other longer-established organisations like Focus or the Peter McVerry Trust they are, effectively, the voice of conscience in relation to the issue of housing.

But no sooner had the suggestion of staged photographs been disproved than the anger turned on Margaret Cash herself. Don’t get me wrong — not everyone decided she was to blame. But enough people did to make me believe, as I said in the post, that we really have lost our way.

Many of the respondents to my original post insisted that they weren’t being critical of anyone, just asking reasonable questions – like where is the father, doesn’t she get thousands in state support, how could she turn down offers of accommodation just because one or two of the children might have to go elsewhere for a night or two, do I really think she has behaved responsibly in her life, do I now know that the great majority of people never ask for handouts and work hard to try and support their children.

Others were more trenchant in their views. One tweet I got said this (and as far as I can tell it was from a woman) — “An unemployed woman has 7 children in expectation that the State will feed, clothe & educate them? Bringing children into the world without means to sustain them is a form of child abuse. I’m horrified by this woman’s choices & your sympathy. Reason housing is in short supply.” I don’t even know how to begin to answer something like that. As I said, the only judgement I can make, from the majority of replies I got, is that a majority of people reacted in sympathy to the plight of a family. But we are divided on the subject.

In some respects, in my honest opinion, that’s because there is “othering” going on here. And I realise I’ll get a lot of “how dare yous” for saying that. But we often take a different view of things when we’re talking about people who don’t belong, in our perception, to our niche in the world.

Focusing resentment on homeless shouldn’t be name of blame game

So forget, for a moment, that we’re talking about a particular person here (because if we were, we’d presumably know a lot more about the person and their lives than we do). We can draw a set of conclusions, and make our judgements, on the basis of a couple of simple facts.

A woman. A traveller. A single parent. Seven children. That’s four facts, and on the basis of those four facts and nothing else it’s easy for a lot of us to reach immediate conclusions. This is clearly someone who’s “gaming the system”, someone who’s used to getting away with it, someone who thinks the world owes her a living.

Suppose the four facts that we know were different. Let’s say, for example, a deserted wife. A recognisably middle-class accent. Four children. A heartless landlord.

If they had been the facts of the case, I wonder how many of us would have felt the pictures had been staged and the woman was to blame for her own circumstances? We wouldn’t have known any more about the real story, but we’d know enough to identify with the woman and to blame the system.

I’m sorry I posted the original thought, even though it got a lot of reaction. I was trying to make a different point, and failed completely to make it.

The point was this. The housing crisis is the result of 20 years of bad politics. And when I say bad politics, I mean bad political choices and bad ideology.

Almost from the moment we became a State, we, the State, built houses. We emptied slums and tore down tenements, and built places that people could afford to live in and raise their families. Even in years of recession, from the 1930s to the 1990s, through trade wars, world wars, oil shocks, and crisis after crisis, we built houses. Not always great houses, and we never did enough to build communities around the houses, but there was never a time when housing supply was at the core of a homelessness crisis.

Until we became one of the richest countries in the world. That was the moment we made a conscious decision that the only houses to be built in Ireland in future would be those built by the private sector. We didn’t just stop funding local authorities to build houses, we also stripped them of capacity to plan, design, commission. And then we attacked them when we needed the houses and they couldn’t produce them overnight.

We’re still in that trap. There is still political reluctance to build the houses we need, and to do it in the way we always did in the past. The essence of current policy is still to pour hundreds of millions into the private sector, this time in the form of landlords. Even when it is revealed that the State owns a huge serviced site half an hour by shuttle bus from Dublin — the site it bought for a prison it isn’t going to build — it never seems to occur to anyone that houses could take the place of an unwanted prison.

So if it’s blame we want, there’s plenty to go round. It just seems strange and sad that we should choose to focus our resentment on homeless people instead.


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