A 71-year-old man known as Frank was interviewed onRTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland recently. He was due to enter emergency accommodation the following week because his landlord was selling the flat in which he lived.
The December 15 interview was heart-rending. Frank had lost contact with his family, and was paying the rent of €1,150 through his pension and doing odd jobs. Now he was out on the street.
Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty, on the programme on an unrelated issue, expressed her anger at what was occurring.
“I am going to engage with Frank personally this week,” she said. “There should be a net protecting them,” she added, referring to older people.
Later that day Frank was provided with a one-bed flat by Dublin City Council. It was a happy outcome in Christmas week.
Nobody with a beating heart could begrudge Frank his new home at a stage of life when fear and insecurity can be easily amplified.
However, somebody must have lost out on council accommodation to make way for Frank. It may have been another pensioner whose story remains unknown.
Or a single parent battling to protect her children from the developmental ravages of growing up in a hotel room. Who knows? But the point is somebody was jumped in the queue.
Would Frank have got his home if his story hadn’t appeared on Morning Ireland?
In reality, Frank’s plight was addressed because of the impact of his story. Morning Ireland is the most listened to programme in the country.
The fast-tracking of the housing of this unfortunate man was the result of policy dictated by the latest emotional outrage.
There should be perpetual emotional outrage at the housing emergency, but, unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Instead, the emergency throws up occasional cases which are individually appalling. The response from government and state agencies is to douse the flames of high emotion.
This tactic of simply of putting out fires would not occur if the emergency was being treated with commensurate urgency.
The Government is the principal culprit in this regard, but not the only one. The Fine Gael-led administration remains reluctant to tackle vested interests in the property business. The market is still regarded as the solution to everything.
Some opposition politicians continue to see the issue as one for harvesting political capital. Councillors point fingers but won’t do anything that might impinge on their own electability in the name of the greater good.
A suspicion remains that local authorities don’t want to get their hands dirty by directly getting involved in building social housing.
One example of how little has changed concerns politicians’ general attitude to objecting to new developments on behalf of constituents.
The raft of objections that occur gives little confidence that they are even pausing for reflection in light of the urgency that now exists to build.
And let’s face it, large tracts of the public are all in favour of emergency measures to tackle the issue as long, as it doesn’t impinge on their own lives.
In such a milieu, the housing emergency is reduced to one of occasional emotional outrage which is met with a fire engine response from the Government.
Three years ago, one such emotional outrage led to a major change of policy. On December 1, 2014, Jonathan Corrie died on the street, a stone’s throw from the gates of Leinster House.
The circumstances of his death so close to both Christmas and the seat of government prompted widespread anger.
Mr Corrie’s death had nothing to do with the housing emergency. His life had been marked with the kind of afflictions that leads to chaotic lives. But that detail was ignored in the general outpouring. Something, anything had to be done to douse the flames.
The following month, the rules were changed in the greater Dublin area to allow for 50% of all social housing to be allocated to homeless people.
Since then allocation has been rowed back on but those without a home still receive a level of priority that didn’t exist prior to Mr Corrie’s death.
Enter Conor Skehan, head of the Housing Agency, who stated in an interview in the Irish Times earlier this month that some people may be “gaming the system”.
This, he alleged, was being done through people making themselves homeless to get bumped up the housing list.
Stated from the head of the housing agency in a generalised manner, the comment was crass. Factually, he may be correct. A few councillors in Dublin have made a similar point, although one is rowing back on her comments following the latest emotional outrage.
A small minority of people in every walk of life game the system in which they are operating.
This applies to high-earning professionals as much as to those existing on social welfare and every sector in between. Some landowners game the system by hoarding land, putting the squeeze on demand.
Gaming the public housing system is of a different order. Is it likely that any more than a tiny minority are willing to move their family into hotel rooms for a year, two or more in order to get bumped up the waiting list?
The real issue is whether or not the potential for “gaming” by a few negates the advantages of the system for the majority or in the public good?
Maybe the existing policy is progressive, maybe not. That discussion has been bypassed in the prevailing environment of occasional bouts of high emotion and fire-fighting on behalf of the government.
In such an environment, Mr Skehan’s comments will inevitably be seen by some as simply an attempt to cast aspersions on those who are without a home.
This view is enhanced when allied to his comments in November about the housing emergency being “normal”.
Mr Skehan has thus come to be regarded as somebody who is engaging in fire-fighting on behalf of the Government. That may or may not be fair, but it is a product of the environment in which the housing emergency is now dealt with and debated.
So it goes with the row over the re-appointment of Mr Skehan as chair of the agency. Many, including opposition parties and a majority of Dublin City Council, see it as a cynical move by the government to hang onto a reliable firefighter.
In a country willing to genuinely pull together to solve the emergency, the row would be dismissed as irrelevant.
The reality is that the reappointment of Mr Skehan as the head of the Housing Agency is unlikely to make the slightest difference to the 8,000-plus people who are without a home.
That is all that matters. Everything else is a distraction from the reality that the lack of housing is still not being treated as an emergency.
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