Friday 28 October 2016

It's lack of political will - not money - that is hindering progress on homeless crisis

Published 01/10/2015 | 02:30

Flowers are left on Dawson Lane, where homeless man Alan Murphy died last week
Flowers are left on Dawson Lane, where homeless man Alan Murphy died last week

Homelessness is a complex issue, we're told. There's some truth in that but it's not the whole truth. Homelessness can also be pared back to a simple question. Are we really willing to shrug and keep walking past the evidence of rough sleepers in mounting numbers, their bedding piled up in alleys and doorways all over Dublin and elsewhere?

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The financial crisis has been devastating for Irish society. But if it has blinded us to the struggles of those on the margins, then something more valuable than assets has been lost.

A homeless crisis exists, of that there can be no doubt. Some of it is visible via those cardboard mattresses on the streets. Then there are the families housed in bed and breakfasts, not as a temporary measure but an ongoing solution.

Solutions are now being advanced - belatedly, and sometimes in the face of objections.

The problem has been aggravated by the willingness of councils to take a cash levy from developers to excuse them from social housing obligations imposed as part of their planning permission.

Affordable housing has been undervalued by too many councils now playing catch-up.

President Michael D Higgins suggested some weeks ago that an apology was due from a body representing county and city managers, but we're still waiting.

As the recovery progresses, the rising tide is leaving too many boats stranded. In the case of homelessness, it's not lack of money but an absence of political will barring progress. Solving the homeless crisis is not regarded as a priority by the Cabinet - the voices of homeless advocates are drowned out by other voices, sometimes representing vested interests.

There's an initial flush of shame when a homeless person is stumbled upon dead on the street. But it soon dwindles away. Take Alan Murphy, whose lifeless body was discovered last week near Dáil Eireann, a matter of yards from where Jonathan Corrie was found in December.

Words flowed as Enda and his Government said how saddened they were. But interventions have proved ineffective and the crisis has not been addressed meaningfully. Everyone knew that another homeless person would die after Mr Corrie. It was only a matter of time.

At the Capuchin Day Centre for Homeless People in Dublin, Brother Kevin Crowley is calling on the Government to declare a national emergency. Meanwhile, he is feeding more people than ever before, with up to 500 dinners served daily and increasing numbers needing food parcels. It was 400 a day a few years ago, now it's 1,600.

"It's the economy, stupid" is a well-ventilated election catchphrase, but the economic impact referenced is only that experienced by the relatively well-off. The poor, the struggling, the not-coping classes - they don't figure in our concept of economy. Otherwise, billions of euro would be earmarked for support structures and to tackle root causes of homelessness.

Currently, the Government is all but dancing a conga down Kildare Street to alert us to the merits of its Capital Plan. Brendan Howlin makes a virtue out of drastic reductions on capital expenditure during the lean times. But the social housing spend was annihilated. Is that something to be proud of? It has given birth to an emergency.

We're hearing about €2.4bn set aside for a metro system which won't be operational for 12 years, at least. It's important to plan ahead, says the Public Expenditure Minister. Indeed. But not if people are cast adrift in the process. Granted, the Capital Plan projects a €2.9bn spend between 2016 and 2021 on social housing - but it will take a long, long time to come on stream.

Even as solutions are advanced, there are groups which seem determined to shoot them down. For example, rapidly rising rents in the private sector are contributing to homelessness; when interventions to address this are offered, we hear about Government fears that the property market could be strangled by meddling.

Environment Minister Alan Kelly is seeking Cabinet support for rent controls and wants to link rent to inflation for four years. But the Department of Finance has concerns that it could cause some landlords to quit the market, adding to supply shortages. And as the tug of war continues, people are left without a roof over their head.

Another plan from Mr Kelly's department, incentivising private landlords to take social housing tenants, was vetoed because of the bill to the Exchequer. I suppose nobody thought to number crunch the human misery cost as one avenue after another is blocked and hopes wither.

At least now emergency measures have been brought to Cabinet to fast-track planning and site procurement for factory-built houses.


But there could be additional homes available already if local authorities hadn't accepted fees from developers in lieu of social housing obligations. Developers have found it worthwhile to pay such levies because they can charge higher prices per unit sold.

I'm curious to know what the councils have been doing with the money received. Was it set aside for social housing - or poured into the communal pot?

Accommodation shortages aren't the only reason why people are homeless, of course. Some are addicts, some don't want to follow curfew and 'dry' house rules, and others feel safer on the street than in hostels. But those rising numbers tell their own story.

Yet still the politicians, local authorities and those in a position to make a difference alternate between wringing their hands and sitting on them. And we let them.

Irish Independent

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