Homelessness in Ireland is not a new phenomenon. The JCFJ was founded around four decades ago and looking back through old issues of our journal Working Notes confirms that even then, it was an issue of concern. But over the past forty years, the face of homelessness has changed. Peter McVerry SJ, our colleague in the JCFJ, tells us of his first-hand experience of how the problem has grown. When he began his work, many of the people he supported through homelessness were young people who had problems at home, or adults who had addiction issues. Now, homelessness is usually not the result of additional issues in a person’s life (although this can still be a factor). It is mostly caused by a lack of affordable housing.
Homelessness Ten Times Worse Than 40 Years Ago
While devastating to those afflicted by homelessness, it is also disheartening for long-term advocates for homeless people, like Peter, and all of us in the JCFJ, to see this problem intensify. There are approximately ten times as many people homeless now as there were when the Centre began, and yet in those decades Ireland has transformed itself from a relative backwater from which young people emigrated in their droves to escape mass unemployment and dismal futures, to a thriving first world economy. But as the gap between those at the top of the ladder and those at the bottom grew larger, more people have failed to make it past the first rung, if they have even made it that far. So here we are, where over the last few years we have seen stories of young families living in cars or living for years in emergency accommodation because they can’t afford rental costs.
Outrage Emerges When We Are The Ones Affected
Despite these indisputable facts, beyond the housing and homelessness sector there is not the outcry of rage that one would think this situation should engender in people. I still hear people wheel out the old tropes about homelessness – essentially distancing themselves from the reality by pretending there is something different about people who find themselves without a home. This might be a protective psychological trick, and it is definitely true that these views are often found among people who would have to fall down several rungs on the ladder before they even came close to the bottom. But it’s still hard to understand.
The fact that people tune out of talk of homelessness but are now voting for Sinn Fein to solve the housing crisis is because the housing crisis, as they perceive it, now affects people like us. You know, the ‘decent, hardworking’ sorts who just can’t catch a break. We can’t afford rents, because rents are too high; we can’t buy a home because house prices are crazy. It’s not our fault and so we protest, or vote to demand change.
Stepping into Another Person’s Shoes
What does it take to make the mental leap to put ourselves in a homeless person’s shoes? To see that it’s the same problem – ‘decent, hardworking’ people are becoming homeless because rents are too high and they can’t even think about buying a home or saving for a deposit. That there is no difference between a homeless person and me or you. Even the old tropes about the types of people who become homeless don’t wash – don’t we all know someone who has struggled with addiction or trauma? The only difference is how far up the ladder we are and how many rungs are between us and the ground.
In a world where individuals are increasingly concerned with identity and where tribalism has polarised us to the point of toxicity, we should all be able to empathise with people’s problems without needing them to be just like us, i.e. ‘the right kind of people’.
Ultimately, everyone is just like us – flawed, vulnerable, hopeful and human. It’s just the hand we are all dealt that differs.