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State of disgrace

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

“Exactly what’s the problem here? I don’t need the story.” Such was the abrupt response of a member of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) to homeless Carlow man Joe Nolan, on the recent documentary, RTÉ Investigates: Stuck In The Rough. Nolan had been trying to secure emergency overnight accommodation, but was refused, due to him not being from Dublin. Only those with hearts of granite could have failed to be moved at the sight of him retreating in tears to a freezing cold car park to spend the night alone.
We all know homelessness is a problem. It’s not in front of our eyes every day in Mayo, but in Ireland over 10,000 people – equivalent to the population of Ballina, or roughly eight percent of the entire population of Mayo – don’t have a roof over their heads or a bed to call their own. The number of homeless children has risen by over 400 percent since 2014, at a time of supposed recovery and renewed prosperity in this country. Try to imagine the effect of that lack of security on a young child. Over 3,000 children don’t have to try.
It’s far too big, too complex an issue to summarise in a column like this. But this much is simple: the majority of homelessness is caused by poverty and a poor supply of decent, affordable housing. Addiction is not nearly as big a contributor as we are led to believe – rather, people are more likely to become substance dependent after becoming homeless. Many lower-paid workers have very little security. In our communities, there are people in rental accommodation who are currently just one paycheque away from homelessness.
It would be remiss not to mention the large number of charities and hostels operating in the sector. Homelessness is now an industry of sorts, however unpalatable that may sound. There are people with the very best of intentions, who by virtue of working in this sector are essentially profiting from misery. If homelessness disappeared, so might their jobs. But homeless charities or hostels are not the cause of the problem; rather their existence is a direct consequence of government decisions.   
If charities weren’t there to help, who would? For too long, the State has relied on funding charities to provide all kinds of services it does not and will not. A band-aid solution underpinned by poor planning and policy. The State thus ensures that there is a dependence on charity, rather than looking towards a rights-based model. And all too often, charities must spend valuable time and resources trying to navigate rigid, bureaucratic State mechanisms to access funding in the first place.
There is an argument to be made that money donated to homeless organisations would be better spent going directly to those in need, but, in reality, that money would never materialise in the absence of charities. Donating is a fast, easy option, and we’re generous in Ireland. But unfortunately, many of us then think we’ve done our bit, and can wash our hands of the problem, when we’ve stopped wringing them.
We might think that we are not complicit in people sleeping on the streets, but the successive failure of governments since the recession to build affordable public housing at a time when funding has never been cheaper to access, can only be attributed to deliberate policy. Housing solutions being presented are inadequate, expensive, lacking in innovation, and are designed to ensure that private developers benefit. Our votes contribute directly to these policies.
Homelessness does not end when we change the channel. If we truly believe the Joe Nolans of Ireland deserve to be treated with dignity and homelessness should end, donating can help, but it should not be our first, or only, port of call. If we are genuinely outraged that over 3,000 children in Ireland have no homes in which to feel safe, we can make our objections loudly known. We can pick up the phone or write to our public representatives – at local and national level – and tell them so. We can consider where our votes go at the ballot box.
If we truly believe in the value of society, it is up to the most privileged among us to start thinking differently. And giving those who need it most a leg up.