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Consciences of goldfish: Homelessness.

By Mike Allen.

A person who is homeless can expect to live only until his or her mid-forties. Each year around 30 people who are homeless die in our capital city; most in emergency shelters, a few on the streets. You never hear of them. Their deaths get as little attention as their lives, unless they die in some manner which is sufficiently gruesome to be newsworthy, such as by drinking hand-cleaner or being crushed to death in a rubbish bin.

Jonathan Corrie’s death within sight of the Dáil last December received a level of coverage usually reserved for the deaths of national figures or celebrities. For years the people of Dublin walked past Jonathan Corrie with few giving him a moment’s thought. Now we needed to hear almost everything about his life: his terrible addiction to drugs, his upbringing, his relationships, the feelings of his children.

Within 24 hours of Jonathan’s death the Catholic bishops called for a ‘Summit on Homelessness’. Labour Minister for the Environment, Alan Kelly and the Lord Mayor of Dublin, veteran leftist radical, Christy Burke sought to be the first to respond to the bishops’ call. Within ten days Minister Kelly announced a ‘20 point action plan’ to tackle the problem of rough sleeping in Dublin. Kelly declared, after five years of cuts in homeless and health services, that money was not going to be a problem.

You want to clap and cheer. At last the scandal of homelessness has come to public attention and political will has heard the public concern and turned it into action. We are a good people and Kelly’s is the sort of determined and immediate response we want from our politicians.

On the 9th of January this year a homeless man was found dead in Temple Bar. There were news reports but, by the following day when his identity was confirmed, everyone had lost interest. For the record, he was Vytas Virzintas, a 54-year-old Lithuanian. In the second week of January, the Department of Environment posted a progress report on its 20-point plan on its web-site. There was little interest.

Now you want to put your head in your hands and sigh. We are the goldfish of social conscience.

Poverty is a profound problem in our society, but perhaps the least acknowledged aspect of the problem is that it is rarely simple and often hard to comprehend. One of the remarkable consequences of Jonathan’s death was that, for a brief period, it was possible to talk about these complexities. People wanted to understand what had happened, to hear about the messy human reality of homelessness – and about the fact that there are solutions and things we could do to prevent it.

Jonathan Corrie died because he had nowhere to sleep? No. He had been offered a bed that night but did not take it up. Jonathan slept on the street by choice? No. He felt unsafe in a lot of the emergency hostels, though he was actually OK with the one he was offered that night. There are almost 2,000 homeless people in Dublin sleeping rough every night? No, actually most people who are homeless are in emergency accommodation. Rough sleeping is the most visible face of homelessness but numbers vary between 100-200. Isn’t homelessness caused by poverty? Well not always. Jonathan didn’t have a deprived upbringing. Is it about not having a home? Sorry again, Jonathan seems to have been bought a home on two occasions. Extreme poverty and homelessness are the outcome of all the myriad things that can go wrong in a life and with the network of family, friends, State services or a voluntary organisations which we all need.

Jonathan’s childhood friend Luke Murphy said it best: “There are no simple lessons or easy political points to make from his life or death. He was brought up with love and discipline, his family never gave up trying to help him”.

So did the unique circumstances of Jonathan Corrie’s death make a difference? Did the complexities of his story help Government to avoid knee-jerk reactions?

The centrepiece of the 20-point plan is a commitment that ‘by Christmas’ there should be enough emergency beds available so that no-one should be forced to sleep on the street for want of a bed. This is a good commitment. All homeless services had been telling the authorities for months that there were not enough beds for the people who needed them. On November 11th, the official ‘rough sleeping count’ identified 168 people sleeping rough. That cold, rainy night virtually all of the more than 1,700 emergency beds in the city were full.

Kelly’s plan committed to 260 new emergency beds being available and by Christmas the Catholic Church, Civil Defence and voluntary organisations had exceeded this and provided a total of 271 new beds. As a result, although around 15 people slept rough over Christmas there were more than 15 empty beds in the system. No one slept rough for want of a bed.

But by the second week of January, the joint Focus Ireland/Peter McVerry Trust street team estimated almost 50 people were sleeping rough with no beds available for them. This is partly because the problem of homelessness is growing, but also because the ‘hidden homeless’ (people in precarious situations, such as squats) take the opportunity of decent beds being available to move into the mainstream system.

This highlights that, while we must provide enough emergency beds for everyone who needs them, more and more emergency beds is not the answer. Throughout the world, cities that respond to a public outcry about homelessness only by providing more emergency beds find that, when the public attention moves on, the city is left with a permanently higher number of emergency beds and the same rough-sleeping problem. In this way many US cities have homeless hostels holding thousands of destitute men and women with no hope.

While there are many routes into homelessness, every route out of homelessness requires the provision of a home. In many cases a variety of supports is also necessary.

Without the possibility of a home, people who are homeless end up being supported in their destitution, acclimatising to a way of life in which their fundamental humanity is undermined. That is why, Actions 6, 8 and 9 in Kelly’s plan are so important, because they provide homes.
Action 6 commits to offer 50% of all social houses which get allocated to homeless households. In previous years the allocations to homeless households varied between 5% and 20%. This action will make a significant difference to the chance of someone moving out of homelessness. The other actions make derelict housing units available, also creating potential new homes.

Some of Kelly’s housing measures are problematic and raise the question of when a housing unit is not a home. For instance, recent proposals to put homeless families into the units in O’Devaney Gardens, which were vacated several years ago to allow the regeneration of the estate, would put families who are already very vulnerable into even greater risk.

The most significant weakness of the action plan is the failure to address the crisis of rapidly rising private rents. Over 20% of Irish households now live in private rented accommodation, with only 10% living in social housing. While private tenants have certain rights and security, there is no limit to the annual rent increase their landlord can demand. Hundreds of households have found that rights of tenure are meaningless when you can no longer pay the rent.

The problems are even greater for the 70,000 low-income households dependent on Rent Supplement (RS). For over two years Joan Burton, Minister for Social Protection, has refused to increase RS levels to match rents that have risen by up to 20%. This has contributed to around 40 families a month losing their homes, along with countless single people. The failure to address this issue either through rent regulation or increased RS may yet undermine the positive commitments in Kelly’s plan. There is also silence in the plan on distressed owner-occupier mortgages.
At the start of April, the annual ‘Cold Weather Initiative’ will come to an end. Dozens of emergency beds temporarily provided by the civil defence and others will be closed down.

If Kelly’s housing measures have not by then allowed significant numbers of people to move out of homelessness into their own homes, or if unaddressed rent inflation or the banks assault on distressed homeowners continue to drive increased numbers into homelessness, Dublin’s night-time streets will again fill with citizens with no place to shelter.

We need the public to have the attention span which the media and the political system lack. Kelly’s action plan promised both emergency beds and longer-term structural solutions. We need to welcome the delivery of the emergency beds but keep up the vigilence needed to ensure that the deeper solutions – sustainable homes, affordable rents – are also delivered. So when those emergency beds close in April it is not because because we have returned to accepting rough sleeping as normal, but because people now have their own homes. •

Mike Allen is Director of Advocacy with Focus Ireland