Carol Hunt: Ability to pay trumps even the right to life
The Government could eradicate homelessness overnight – if only it had the will to do so
What do you say to your young child when he asks, "Mammy, why is that man sleeping in the street? It's freezing cold and if he stays out here he might die."
We know this occurs. Just last week a man narrowly avoided being crushed to death after he fell asleep in a recycling bin in Dublin city. Last year a Polish man was not so lucky, as workers discovered his body in a truck at Ballymount recycling centre. Last November, the body of a 40-year-old man was found dead from hypothermia in a shop doorway in Bray.
"Because he doesn't have a home" seems such a nonsensical answer to my child's question. It's like stepping over a person who is bleeding to death and bemoaning the fact that he can't afford a doctor: the fact that there are many in the vicinity who could quite easily staunch his wounds, quite possibly save his life, is irrelevant. Ability to pay trumps everything. Even the right to life.
In the late Nineties, my husband volunteered for the Simon Community in inner city Dublin. Then, the vast majority of homeless people he came across struggled with addictions and mental illness – primarily alcoholism and schizophrenia. But in the last few years there has been an explosion in the number of people forced to live on the streets. Some days, as I walk through the city, I wonder have I somehow entered a Dickensian film set as I am pleaded with at every turn by men, women and children.
Last Sunday, I passed two homeless men on Grafton Street. Both held large pieces of cardboard stating that they neither drank nor did drugs. First, they suffer the tragedy of becoming homeless; secondly, the indignity of having to beg; thirdly, the humiliating need to explain to a passing, hopefully charitable "normal" person that any cash I may deign to give will not be spent on alcohol or drugs.
And this has always been the narrative where homeless people are concerned – that they have brought their misfortune upon themselves and consequently need to prove to society that they have changed their ways so that they might deserve our charity. But increasingly, "people like me and you" are not as far from the street as we would like to think. At the end of last year, Focus Ireland revealed that in Dublin alone the number of families who have become homeless has doubled in the last six years.
That's 16 families losing their home in the capital every month and five children a week becoming homeless.
Last weekend the Constitutional Convention recommended that the right to a home be included in the Irish Constitution. And the Government approved recommendations from a report by the Homeless Oversight Group which recognised the need for a multi-agency approach.
So, everyone knows that there's a problem. Yet the construction of social housing is at an all-time low and so far Nama has handed very few of its empty houses over to local authorities. Private landlords paying Celtic-Tiger mortgages need their tenants to cough up rents that they increasingly cannot afford.
All of the above issues are the result of political choices. They could be eradicated overnight. But this would require attitudes to the homeless to change. It would require tenants to be given more rights. It would require Government attitudes to debt forgiveness on mortgages to change. Politicians would have to put the needs of people ahead of banks. So far, we've seen that they're just not prepared to do this.
So perhaps, it's time for the public to be heard and to demand a referendum on the right of every Irish person to a roof over their head. Remember, each person sleeping rough on our city streets today is somebody's child. If we don't act now, what's to say that yours or mine won't be there tomorrow?