MICHAEL CLIFFORD: A rough time of it for the homeless

Despite the spin, the current level of homelessness in this country is not normal, writes Michael Clifford

ARE you fed up hearing about the homeless? Does it all get to be like a broken record, the same sad song being played over and over again, while you’re getting on with getting up early in the morning?

If so, the Taoiseach can feel your pain. Last weekend, he conveyed to us that homelessness in this country is not the big deal it’s being made out to be. It’s all quite normal when one looks at the statistics compared to other countries.

At the Fine Gael national conference, Mr Varadkar quoted a report which showed that we’re doing just fine in this regard. Unfortunately, the detail of his claim didn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The OECD report he referenced was from 2015, when this country recorded 3,625 people as being homeless. The latest figures, for the month of September, put the numbers without a home at 8,374. It would seem that the OECD reports can’t keep up with the rate people are being turfed out of their homes.

Still, do facts matter when it comes to an issue like housing?

Later in the week, the Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy was asked about a survey from Daft.ie about soaring rents. He replied that he didn’t accept the report. He didn’t say what might be wrong with its methodology or how questions were asked, or whether he believed for some unknown reason that Daft.ie might be trying to inflate the problem. Mr Murphy just didn’t accept it, as if he was so traumatised by what was before him he was unable to face up to reality.

Joining the party chorus later in the week was junior housing minister, Damien English. He believes that a “negative narrative” is embarrassing us in front of the neighbours.

“Some of this narrative has seeped into international coverage of our housing system and is damaging to Ireland’s international reputation, that our social response to this issue is being portrayed as dysfunctional,” he told the Dáil.

Whatever about you, it’s becoming quite obvious that the denizens in the Government are fed up hearing about the homeless.

The narrative emerging from Fine Gael bigwigs this week has precious little to do with the human catastrophe of turfing of people from their homes, and the developmental implications for 3,000 children. It’s all to do with the next election and the narrative that must be massaged to show how good Fine Gael is at running the country.

Despite the spin, the current level of homelessness in this country is not normal. It is directly attributable to the economic collapse and the manner in which the recovery was handled. The recovery, sanctioned and implemented by both Fianna Fáil — which was responsible for the mess — and subsequently Fine Gael, largely worked.

The approach included saving the banks and setting up Nama to wash out dirty loans and get things back on track. Pain was distributed throughout society. And then the tide turned around 2014 and things slowly began to improve, although this was not felt in people’s pockets possibly until this year.

That’s the big picture that the Government likes to sell. In reality, things are a little more complicated. We were not all in it together as is portrayed. The measures and policies adopted were not designed for the long-term, but for the next election.

One example of this is the manner in which Nama was pressurised to flog everything fast in order to turn a buck, rather than examining how its unique position might be used to shape housing into the future. It was all about producing something that could be waved around at the next election.

The other falsehood peddled is that everybody has come out the other side, not necessarily unscathed, but intact.

Canvass opinion on that from the legions who have joined the ranks of the homeless through the recent years of recovery. Just as things stopped getting worse for many, those at the sharp end of the policies pursued were getting thrown out on the streets.

Between December 2014 and August 2017, homelessness increased by 5,412, or 189% according to the Peter McVerry Trust. While Fine Gael was urging everybody to keep the recovery going, those who had paid the highest price for the recovery were seeing their lives fall apart. That is the reality that Mr Varadkar and his colleagues would prefer was simply dispatched to a dark recess of history.

Sorting out the problem now requires a major long-term strategy. Whether or not the Government is employing the correct strategy is highly contentious, but what is not argued is that it won’t get sorted by the next election.

Therefore, the spin machine dictates, the issue must be driven down the electorate’s hierarchy of concerns. What better way to do that than portray the level of homelessness as entirely normal, and not at all an affront to an alleged civilised society.

Another affront delivered during the week came from the permanent rather than elected government. Eileen Gleeson, head of the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive, told the city council that those on the streets are there because of “bad behaviour” and that volunteers feeding and comforting them may be doing more harm than good.

The homeless cohort to which she was referring to is those who might be described as the traditional homeless, rough sleepers who require more than just a roof over their heads. Most of these people are on the streets because of a myriad of personal problems or conditions, which result in leading chaotic lives. To equate their plight with “bad behaviour” is to suggest that it is moral failings which have led them to their current station. One might have expected a less primitive analysis from somebody overseeing solutions to homelessness in the greater Dublin area.

Ms Gleeson believes that volunteers comforting those at the edge of society will discourage them from seeking help from official bodies.

“They’re afraid to come in, they’re reluctant, they’re quite happy to continue with the chaotic lifestyle they have. If somebody provides them with some sort of halfway shelter they’ll willingly take it,” she said.

The comments display a worrying lack of understanding of the problem. The people to whom she is referring very often don’t want to come in, are not capable of coming in, and drift in and out all the time from the system which Ms Gleeson oversees.

The notion that any among them would refrain from entering the system because some volunteers acting out of basic compassion bring them some comfort in their current station misinterprets their basic needs.

Apart from that, the services which Ms Gleeson wants all rough sleepers to access simply are not there.

But then, Ms Gleeson is part of a system which must spin out the numbers to show what a great job they are doing. It’s not easy to concentrate on that aspect of the job while pesky volunteers get in the way, offering basic compassion.

More on this topic

Focus Ireland warns of homelessness surge post Covid-19Focus Ireland warns of homelessness surge post Covid-19

High levels of frailty among homeless peopleHigh levels of frailty among homeless people

Homelessness charity wants emergency measures extended after figures fall below 9,000Homelessness charity wants emergency measures extended after figures fall below 9,000

459 fewer people required emergency accommodation in May459 fewer people required emergency accommodation in May


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