MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Scale of housing crisis has not hit home

Erica Fleming addressing a demonstration in June. Picture: RollingNews.ie

Maybe the theme of embarrassing the Government really is the way to go, writes Michael Clifford

There is a crisis in housing today, but there is also an emergency. The main crisis is social and political and involves a failure
of government policy in pre-empting a housing shortage and subsequently
addressing it.

This has resulted in those who don’t own their home having to shell out for
inflated rent, pushing further away the prospect of homeownership and lowering standards of living.

The emergency of homelessness is of a different order. That is no less than a humanitarian crisis, which should receive a commensurate response, but there’s no sign of it yet.

The extent of the blight was evident in the recent Census figures for 2016. This showed that last year there were 6,906 people without homes, a statistic that has gone up since and won’t be long arriving at 10,000.

Nearly a quarter of those without homes are under 15. The most shocking news from the data is that there are now 765 children under four years who are homeless, many of them having grown through their first years in hotel rooms.

The Government has been making
efforts, but nobody would suggest that the matter has been treated as an emergency. As of yet, the political will for drastic action is not there. Even the symbolism of the change of minister for housing last June — barely a year after Simon Coveney took up the post — speaks volumes. Is the housing portfolio now becoming the new Health, once characterised by Brian Cowen as Angola?

The failure in official circles to recognise the homeless emergency was evident last Wednesday evening at a public meeting in Dublin’s city centre.

The meeting in the Alexandra Plaza Hotel was called to identify solutions. It was convened by a group called Inner City Helping Homeless (ICHH), which was formed four years ago to address the sharper aspects of the emergency in an area of Dublin worst affected.

ICHH operates outreach services (Its motto is “when the city sleeps, we take to the streets”) and attempts to access housing and shelter for clients. It is entirely run by volunteers and receives no government funding.

In a civilised country, a group like this wouldn’t exist. In today’s Ireland they patrol the outer reaches of society, trying to plug holes of despair and hopelessness.

There were about 80 present at the meeting, a paltry number considering the issue at hand. A handful of city councillors, and only one TD, Sinn Féin’s Dessie Ellis, were in attendance. Many of the others worked directly with rough sleepers, or those attempting to access
accommodation.

Erica Fleming, the young mother whose plight to find a home was highlighted last year, was at the top table. Having secured a home, she now campaigns on behalf of those still out there.

Most of the contributions were infused with common sense, and have been aired elsewhere. Build, build, build was a constant theme. Creative ways to open up voids was another. Remove the overweening reliance on the private sector to build public housing was repeated forcefully.

The councillors blamed the Government for a failure to release funds. Sinn Féin’s Daithí Doolan said of Fine Gael, “they are from a different planet”,
although presumably occupying the same galaxy as Fianna Fáil, to whom the Shinners are making eyes of late.

The plight of children was high on the agenda at the meeting. Mick Caul, who works with the homeless, raised two large posters of his niece and nephew, aged three and four.

These kids, he said, were lucky to have homes and so much else. Others of their age were not. Something had to be done.

Caul has had hundreds of these large posters printed, all of which will contain anonymised images of young children, each one representing a child who is
without a home in today’s Ireland. He is starting a campaign, HASHTAG Mynameis, where the posters will be centre stage, a reminder that, behind the statistics, hundreds of real young minds and bodies are being developmentally arrested and possibly damaged.

“It’s just barbaric,” he said. “It’s political decisions making these choices.

“Maybe the symbolism of children will embarrass them.”

Geraldine O’Donnell told of life elsewhere on the frontline. She is involved in an early learning organisation which caters for 25 children under six, of whom seven are homeless.

She spoke of children who, every day, have to travel across the city just to
receive a basic education. “There are children going to different schools every day,” she said of some families.

She said homeless adults had featured frequently in the media, but the experience of children receives no such airing.

“Nobody is listening to the children. Nobody is talking to the children.”

The director of ICHH Anthony Flynn repeatedly made the point that the
meeting was primarily concerned with identifying solutions for a report to be prepared. He acknowledged that those primarily concerned with this issue, including the appalling spectre of children without homes, had an uphill battle.

“Unless we have power in numbers we can’t address this,” he said. “Unless we hit the Government in a massive way over the coming months we will get nothing done.”

Mr Flynn is correct. Mobilising public opinion to apply pressure is central. But despite the emergency, there is little sign of that happening. A number of speakers at the meeting referenced the anti-water charge campaign that overturned government policy.

Yet there is unlikely to be a repeat of that kind of mass demonstration. The water campaign was fuelled by a public sentiment that was exhausted from
austerity. There was a mass channelling of personal anger and disaffection at how the recession had been addressed. More than anything, the timing of the campaign was crucial.

That is highly unlikely to happen with the homeless emergency. Sympathy is widespread, but it is something that doesn’t personally touch on the vast
majority. Everybody was liable for water charges, coming on top of a myriad of other changes and taxes. There is no such self-interest in mobilising to ensure that children are not developing without homes.

The political pressure is more likely to come from those who are grappling with the housing crisis, rather than the emergency. As more young people in particular find themselves shut out of home ownership, and swamped by ballooning rents, they will be on the lookout for somebody who might recognise and properly address their plight. If such an entity gains
traction, the government will react.

For now though, the emergency has not hit home at the heart of the state apparatus. Some work is being done, but not with the urgency that is required.

Maybe the theme of embarrassing the Government really is the way to go.

There’s enough to be embarrassed about in a rich country like ours when small children can’t even be provided with a secure place to
develop.

More on this topic

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Homelessness is not just an urban issueHomelessness is not just an urban issue

1,400 homeless in rural Ireland as charity calls for quick, effective action1,400 homeless in rural Ireland as charity calls for quick, effective action


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