Homelessness Should Still Shock You

Image of a house being built. Josh Olalde is the photographer: https://www.instagram.com/josh_olalde

This week the housing charity Threshold published its 2022 annual report. I was struck, reading it, that the numbers involved in their work were terrifyingly large. Over 50,000 people needed to reach out to the charity in an effort to avoid homelessness. It was a stark reminder of how the homelessness crisis that Ireland has been enduring for the better part of a decade has now been effectively normalised.

When I first began to work with the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, homelessness was growing at a rate that was recognised as a genuine crisis. At that point, there were about 7,000 homeless people in Ireland. Today, that figure is almost 13,000 and the monthly figures are still rising.

But these figures are no longer generating the same shock and fury.

A complex web of service providers has been woven to ensure that most citizens do not have to countenance the profound suffering involved in being without a home. 4,000 children in Ireland are left in this situation as Christmas draws close. The State has successfully off-loaded its responsibility onto charity providers so that all our thinking about this is automatically obscured. When Approved Housing Bodies (AHBs) provide all the “solutions”, we are shifted from concerns about what we owe a citizen and what a just society would look like to apolitical issues about governance and transparency.

These reflections drew me back to the Centre’s archives. When I began my work here in 2017, the existing team were busy working on a major review of the housing policy that prevailed at that time, Rebuilding Ireland. I think it is worth remembering what was argued in those pieces.

In their article, “Homelessness and Social Policy”, Margaret Burns, Eoin Carroll, and Peter McVerry SJ highlight the rapid rise in homelessness that was already occurring at that time. They are clear that there was a reliance on emergency accommodation which is profoundly problematic, regardless of the excellent intentions of the charities that provide the facilities. Such arrangements are inextricably institutional. They note that there were lots of politicians making noises about rapid build housing, which remains the case six years later. And they identify that in lieu of actually building social houses, the government of the day is committed to a wrong-headed cost-cutting exercise called rent supplementation. That supplement has now grown to cost more than a billion a year, with not one home provided.

In their analysis of the philosophical underpinnings of the housing policies of the Irish State, Margaret Burns and Peter McVerry SJ were joined by Rory Hearne and PJ Drudy as they argued that the commitment to market-based solutions at the expense of the traditional – and very cost-effective! – approach of building social housing had “plunge[d] an increasing number of households into a situation where their housing is unaffordable, or insecure, or grossly inadequate – and in many instances all three.”

This was 2017.

How much more so is this all true today, as rents have continued their Alpine ascent, where unregulated landlords continue to be an issue, and where slum conditions are returning. This is the situation for those who can afford a home in the first place!

I remember how Peter McVerry summarised this issue of Working Notes when it was finished: Ireland doesn’t have a housing and homelessness crisis. It has a housing policy which invariably creates a homelessness crisis. This was true then, and remains the case now (even though the current government’s policy – at least on paper – is considerably stronger).

Two years later, in 2019, we went back to Rebuilding Ireland and considered whether our assessment had held true. We concluded it was worse than we feared – an abject failure. The reliance on charity and supplements, the refusal to charge local authorities to use land they owned to build houses they would then own for generations, and the financialisation and commodification of private housing (which serves to strengthen banking balance sheets and make the middle classes feel richer) add up to a dysfunctional system we predicted would get worse and worse.

We laid out five steps to remedying the situation and this makes for dismal reading. Admittedly, things have improved for those who were carrying long-term debt from Celtic Tiger mortgages. But there has been no return to large-scale construction of publicly-owned housing, the brief eviction ban was ended as quickly as possible (but worked while it was in force), and our design and planning systems are still insufficiently alert to the need for inter-generational community and the reality that housing policy is the frontline of our environmental response.

Threshold engaged almost 20,000 separate households last year. We should be deeply grateful for their work. But such important work should not be done by a charity. Such tragic work should not need to be done at all. The Irish State has the land and the resources to resolve the homelessness crisis. But one gets the heart-sinking feeling that we’ll be pulling this piece out of the archives in six years and lamenting that the solutions are there for anyone to see and yet are still not implemented.