Tuesday 22 January 2019

Anger drives Fr McVerry in his work to help the homeless

Turbulent priest: Fr Peter McVerry (centre) with (left to right) Eddie Buckley, Ger Bowes, Edwina Black and John Paul McGlue, who use the services of the Peter McVerry Trust. Photo: Damien Eagers
Turbulent priest: Fr Peter McVerry (centre) with (left to right) Eddie Buckley, Ger Bowes, Edwina Black and John Paul McGlue, who use the services of the Peter McVerry Trust. Photo: Damien Eagers
Ryan Nugent

Ryan Nugent

When Fr Peter McVerry first warned of a "tsunami" of 5,000 homeless he was ridiculed, but four years on with that number now doubled he predicts the crisis to get "much, much worse" and says those in charge with solving it are only trying to normalise it.

Down the line, those who cannot pay their mortgages and the impact of Brexit is going to see the situation get worse before it gets better.

He doesn't see the private sector solving the housing crisis and thinks the Fine Gael-led Government is overly reliant on this method.

The social justice campaigner has been fighting homelessness in Ireland for 40 years now, but says it's rare if ever government comes looking for advice on how to fix things.

Sitting in a meeting room at his Berkeley Street HQ in Dublin's north inner city, Fr McVerry says that anger keeps him going - anger at the continued failure to fix an embarrassing social issue that has dogged the country.

He admits there is much frustration at how his views and those of the other experts in the voluntary sector are often dismissed. "Anger is a very positive emotion, we think of anger as negative because very often it does explode destructively, but anger is a very positive emotion," Fr McVerry says.

"I get very angry when I see the failure of our society to address homelessness, the failure even sometimes to take it seriously. It's the anger that keeps you going; you want to change things."

Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy has come to meet him once, right at the beginning of his tenure in the summer of 2016.

"When he first came into office I had a meeting with him. It went very well," Fr McVerry says.

Was he there to seek advice?

"I presume he was… but he knows my views."

He highlights comments made by Junior Housing Minister Damien English recently where the Meath TD denied there was any need to make housing a constitutional right.

This, he feels, was an example of the establishment not listening to the people at the coalface of Ireland's biggest problem.

"Now every single organisation I know working with homeless people wants the right to housing put into the Constitution," he says.

"But Damien English knows better. No, he says, it's not necessary. And that's frustrating, that elected officials think they know better than not just me, but everyone on the ground wants the right to housing put into the Constitution and thinks it would make a great difference.

"But the Government thinks it won't make any difference. They don't listen to the people on the ground."

Before he's had time to sit down for this interview, Fr McVerry is brought around to take photos to accompany the interview. This takes quite some time as many of those availing of service at his drop-in centre want to speak to him.

They tell them how they're progressing and tell us why he's the only one who's been there to help them at their lowest ebb. Everyone is treated as equals here, nobody is patronised, nobody is thought of as different. It's about building self-esteem. It's people we're dealing with here, Fr McVerry says.

He doesn't think that mind-set is evident within the Government and is damning of its motivations.

"These are political problems [for politicians], for me it's a human story. I'm dealing with people who are suffering from being homeless. For politicians it's a file on their desk," he says.

"The reality of homelessness is not what's driving them. I see no passion in the Department of Housing or in the local authorities."

And then there's the other political problem of the day, Brexit - and all that will add to a spiralling crisis. If the Government is keen on capitalising on the business the UK loses, what will that mean for competition for houses?

"The Government is hoping for hundreds if not thousands of highly paid employees to relocate, many of them will be looking for accommodation in the private rented sector," he says. "The private rented sector already can't cope. These are people on high salaries who are able to afford high rents. The rents will go up even further and low income families are going to be squeezed out."

He concludes there are "huge, huge pressures coming down the road" unless we address them in the right way. "I think it's going to get much worse before it gets better."

Irish Independent

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