Since Fine Gael came to power in 2011, homelessness is up 81%. At this stage, we could all save ourselves a lot of energy and just admit that we couldn’t care less, says Donal O’Keeffe.
On Census Night 2016, there were 765 children, ranging in age from new-borns to four-year-olds, either out on the streets or in emergency accommodation. Think about that. Children aged four years and younger are now the largest single age-group experiencing homelessness.
There are now 3,000 children in emergency accommodation. In all, some 8,000 people are homeless in Ireland. If that’s shocking to you, try this on for size: almost a fifth of homeless people are in jobs.
On RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Fergus Finlay of the children’s charity Barnardos, pointed out that “generation after generation of Irish people have had reason to regret what they did to children and what they allowed to happen to children over the years.”
Finlay instanced then-Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s saying that the only possible response to the Ryan Report would be to ensure that Ireland becomes a model of how we treat children.
“And ten years later, we find hundreds of children – with no names, but they should have names – having their lives shaped, twisted out of shape, by the experience of homelessness. It is something that we all ought to be deeply ashamed of.”
None of this should be news. Anyone with eyes in their head or a heart in their breast could have seen this coming. The people at the front lines – sober, level-headed people like Father Peter McVerry, Sister Stan and Brother Kevin – have for years been telling anyone who would listen just how bad things were getting.
On a personal note, it’s three years now since I first visited Cork Penny Dinners for the Evening Echo. There, I met Catriona Twomey, who told me volunteers were seeing an alarming rise in the number of people availing of their services. Not only that, she said, but they were seeing a change in the profile of visitors. Now, she told me, all of a sudden, volunteers are serving meals to people the charity never saw before, not ‘just’ homeless people or ‘just’ those with drug or alcohol dependency. Now they are feeding people who have jobs, families with small children, people just about meeting the rent or paying their mortgage and who can’t afford food.
To give you an idea of how serious this is, in 2011 Cork Penny Dinners supplied approximately one hundred meals per week. In 2017, that figure is closer to two thousand meals per week. To put that in perspective, that’s twenty or so meals a day in 2011 and four hundred or more a day in 2017.
If you call to Penny Dinners today, you’ll be given a welcome that will warm your heart and make you feel like you’re home. Nobody – not volunteer or client – will stare at you, because they know you might be in trouble and they know what a big deal it can be to ask for help. So try not to stare at the children in buggies or at their mothers either.
Penny Dinners also discretely supplies a weekly shop to several households, literally to put food on the family table. They do so quietly and without fuss and they make sure that people who are already desperately embarrassed, can regain a tiny bit of dignity.
And it’s not just Penny Dinners. Over in Cork Simon, as I researched that piece for the Evening Echo, Sophie Johnston told me that Cork Simon’s nightly soup run is now feeding people who have to choose between paying their rent and buying food. These are the people on the very edge, one cheque away from homelessness.
Last time I wrote about homelessness for the Echo, a year and a half ago, I got into a brief conversation on Twitter with Simon Coveney, who was then the Minister for Denying There’s A Homelessness Crisis.
Responding to my article, Coveney tweeted “homelessness is a huge Government priority, more than €200m committed for social housing in Cork to 2017 – over 2,000 homes.” Coveney added: “I too know Cork Simon well and appreciate the scale of the problem – we have focused on increasing supply and emergency accommodation.”
I replied, “And yet rent supplement has not been increased in over two years, while rents have increased by up to 30%.”
Coveney answered that “increasing rent supplement does nothing for supply and pushes rent up – instead we have focused on rent certainty for 2 years”
“All well and good,” I said, “but more and more are finding the gap between rent supplement and rent unbridgeable.”
“These are judgment calls,” responded Coveney, “but our advice was to focus on housing supply, rent certainty and better temporary emergency accommodation.”
“Not increasing rent allowance wasn’t your advice from Sister Stan, Brother Kevin, Fr Peter or – indeed – the Simon Community”, I replied. “Every charity dealing with homelessness has begged this government to increase rent allowance. No dice. Because Ideology.”
There ended the correspondence.
€430 A MONTH FOR A BUNK-BED
I find the language surrounding homelessness interesting. The notion that there even is a homelessness crisis is always denied or downplayed, and homeless people are almost always discussed solely in the context of mental health and drug or alcohol dependency. Last week, on Newstalk, former Fine Gael minister, Ivan Yates, at the very least facilitated an outrageous attack on single women living in hostels with their children, classifying them as – essentially – welfare queens.
And outrageous as €430 a month for a bunk-bed is, even that is out of the reach of some.
Simon Coveney is right – to an extent. Supply is a huge problem. Ireland’s lack of social housing is shameful, especially when you think that half a century and more ago this country built social housing when we were considerably worse-off than we are now. But this Government, led by Fine Gael, as was the last, doesn’t prioritise social housing. Because Ideology.
Homelessness is up 81% on Fine Gael’s watch. Let’s keep the recovery going.
On Monday, the current Minister for Denying There’s A Homelessness Crisis, Eoghan Murphy, told Morning Ireland the Government’s record on homelessness is a success. “It would be worse if we didn’t have the strategies in place that we’ve had.” Here, Minister, have a headline from 2013: “Government commits to ending homelessness by 2016”.
Poverty is a colossal contributory issue in the spiralling homelessness crisis. And not just in the case of people scrabbling to bridge the ever-growing gap between rent and rent allowance. Try being on a zero-hour, minimum-wage job while the banks squeeze landlords to up rents.
Try being told your home is being sold out from under you by the bank and then try finding a new home when there simply is nowhere to go.
Homelessness should be declared a national emergency. It won’t be. Do you know why not?
Because we just don’t care.
We could all save ourselves a lot of energy and just admit that. We step over homeless people on the streets every day of the week, and poverty and greed are forcing more and more people into homelessness all the time.
We just don’t care.
Focus Ireland’s Shine A Light Night – an event where the business community come together for one night to raise vital funds and to stand in solidarity with people experiencing homelessness in Ireland – is on Friday, 13th October.