HAPPY Christmas, Apollo House. There are a couple of reasons to cast a jaundiced eye at the occupation of Apollo House in Dublin city centre, writes Michael Clifford.
The first thing to pop out is the endorsement of the occupation by the building’s former owner, developer Garrett Kelleher.
He said that he supports the aim of the group organising Apollo House, Home Sweet Home, which advocates that nobody be deprived a roof over their head this Christmas.
“It is heartwarming that so many people really care regardless of politics or socio-economics. People have been squatting in vacant properties for generations,” Mr Kelleher said.
Right so. Wonder if Mr Kelleher still had ownership of the building would he feel as strongly? One can also presume that in the various cities around the world where he does own property he will be opening doors to the homeless over the festive season, giving the nod to the practice down through the generations of squatting. At this rate the Construction Industry Federation’s Tom Parlon will appear at the gates of Apollo tonight togged out as Santa Claus.
Another tacit endorsement comes from the Government. No minister has condemned the trespassing. None have questioned the legality. What gives? If the Government is all for it, or at least not agin’ it, there must be something wrong.
One more bum note was the by now mandatory inclusion of the name of Jonathan Corrie by some of the activists. Brendan Ogle couldn’t help including Mr Corrie in a piece he wrote for the Irish Times about the occupation.
Mr Corrie died in a doorway a few yards from the gates of Leinster House two years ago. During his life he had terrible struggles, with both his own demons and a society that is ill-equipped or unwilling to deal properly with addiction related issues.
In death, he is constantly dragged out as an example of how people are dying on the streets for want of a bed. Mr Corrie didn’t die for want of a bed. His untimely tragedy was attributable to a wider malaise in society. Perhaps the only people who should invoke Mr Corrie’s name are his bereaved loved ones, and if they prefer not to then maybe the man should be left to rest in peace.
So there’s plenty about Apollo House to give rise to caution. But beyond that, there is far more reason to celebrate what has occurred.
Up to three dozen people who are accustomed to existing at the margins of society will be part of a community this Christmas. By the standards of accommodation allotted to the most disadvantaged, they will be enjoying the Ritz. Surely that is what Christmas is about.
Many of them will know what it feels like to be invisible to the great bulk of people who pass them on the street, a source of fear or embarrassment, from whom it is best to turn away in the face of uncomfortable questions. And now for a brief pocket of time, for one Christmas, they have inched in from the margins. Respite is all that it is, but that’s plenty of justification.
The other positive aspect to the occupation is the publicity it has generated.
“It has highlighted the issue in an extraordinary way,” according to Fr Peter McVerry. “And it has generated public support in a way that nothing in the past few years has been able to do.” The scourge of homelessness has been thrust into the public glare, which is where it should be all the time. The nature of modern media, which requires constant churning of stories to keep the public interested, often results in the important stories not getting the requisite attention.
That, unfortunately, is life as we know it in this celebrity/media age. For keeping a light shone into the darker recesses of society, we should be grateful to Apollo House.
What matters now is whether momentum can be sustained after the building will presumably be vacated on January 11 on foot of this week’s High Court order. Occupying a building to house rough sleepers was an admirable exercise, but it is also the simplest element of a complex crises. As such, it won’t have bothered those with a vested interest in ensuring that housing is primarily a market issue rather than a basic human right.
Surely the best direction for Home Sweet Home is to now get its political activists and artists involved in addressing the messier aspects of the crisis.
One element that could do with a major focus in the coming months is the business of temporary accommodation. During the week, the Simon Community revealed that around 7,000 people will be living in temporary accommodation this Christmas, including more than 2,000 children. Living in hotel rooms is a transient form of existence for anybody, but for children it can be life-transforming, arresting development and, in some cases, condemning their prospects in adulthood. Last July, the Housing Strategy stated that this shocking indictment of modern Ireland was coming to an end.
“Our intention is to move the existing group of families out of these hotel arrangements as quickly as possible, and to limit the extent to which such accommodation has to be used for new presentations,” the strategy stated.
“Our aim is that by mid-2017, hotels will only be used for emergency accommodation in very limited circumstances.” This is the most urgent and ambitious element of the strategy. Its wider implications for the development and well-being of children in particular is enormous. But will it, like so many other plans, end up being quietly shelved, and excuses trotted out as to why it was not possible.
What about a campaign over the next six months to push for that achievement? How about elevating it to a matter of urgent action which will cost the government serious political capital? Why not organise to ensure that politicians, public servants and private interests be reminded each day of their responsibilities?
Surely such a campaign would be even more laudable that the occupation of an empty office building. It would attract support across society, not least from the agencies who work quietly to support people without a home. A concerted drive to end hotel room child-rearing could do with plenty of celebrity endorsement. In the normal course of such events it would most likely also unearth more solutions from those with expertise in housing and accommodation. Could such a campaign driven by Home Sweet Home make a difference? Imagine how it might feel at the height of the summer for a country to celebrate it had brought to an end one of the most long-term destructive elements of the current crisis?
Happy Christmas Apollo House. And let’s try to make it a happy new life, for children who have no home.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved