Embattled city council boss Owen Keegan hit back at critics of comments he made about homeless people sleeping in tents and safety on the streets of Dublin.
Mr Keegan — who was at the centre of fresh controversy last week over an ill-judged letter about student housing — told a radio station the number of tents in the capital added to perceptions of “edginess” in the city.
The city council chief executive responded directly to a number of people about his tent remarks according to emails released by the council, in one saying he totally rejected the “characterisation of my comments and your assessment on my motives”.
Mr Keegan said he fundamentally disagreed with people who “promote” the use of tents for homeless people and “seek to sustain this inferior form of accommodation”. He said tents were removed on average of three or four times a week by the council and this only happened where “the occupant has taken up an offer of secure accommodation”.
“Sleeping in tents is dangerous, unhygienic and poses a serious public health risk to both the occupants, and at times to the general public,” he added.
In another response, the city council chief executive said while there were valid reasons for somebody to live in a tent, it was never the best option.
“Notwithstanding the potential difficulties with hostel accommodation, I believe living in a supervised hostel is much safer than living in a tent in the city centre,” he wrote.
Internal emails also reveal the city council was advised not to make official statements on Mr Keegan’s tent comments for fear of “adding fuel to the fire so to speak”.
The local authority had received several media queries about his remarks, but their external public relations advisers had recommended letting the matter fizzle out. An email to Owen Keegan from one of the council’s communications staff said: “In other words if we try to justify our position, media might just use this to keep the argument going.”
The message said their PR advisers had recommended that they not “engage with media” and that coverage of the story was already beginning to peter out. Later, an email from their PR advisers said it appeared the story had not “garnered much [further] attention” and appeared to be running out of steam.
“I would recommend not issuing any further statements on the matter for now,” said the message, “as it will only fuel the story further.” It added that if the city council wanted to run a campaign highlighting the homeless services available, they should wait until a better time “rather than issue now in reaction to comments others have made”.
A week later, Mr Keegan said at some stage the city council needed to address “some of the criticism” he had received. He was particularly upset with those who said homeless hostels and shelter were extremely unsafe and that living on the streets might be a better option.
In an email, he wrote: “I was especially unhappy with a representative of an organisation that actually run hostels suggesting that they are not safe (Fr Peter McVerry).” The council chief executive later doubled down on those comments in another email with a person who had formerly worked in homeless services. He wrote: “It was especially galling seeing some of the main players who operate hostels complaining about the standard of accommodation in hostels.”
Mr Keegan also asked a colleague for her views on hostel safety. “Do we inspect hostels? Do we investigate complaints?” he asked. In other correspondence, Mr Keegan also questioned an email from one homeless service user who said they’d seen a man take his life at a named centre after being bullied. An email to his colleague Brendan Kenny, the city’s deputy chief executive, said: “Is [it] one of the hostels we support?”
Mr Kenny responded: “Yes, it is in Kildare and managed by [a service provider]. No problems reported to us.”
“Interesting!” replied Mr Keegan.
During a separate email exchange with Brendan Kenny, Mr Keegan again asked if the council should issue a statement in response to what was described as a “misleading impression” in one report on homeless accommodation.
Mr Kenny responded: “No, I think if we respond, it will just keep the issue going. We have regularly done media responses on this but our views never get traction! However, we are satisfied with the actual standards being applied currently [in homeless shelters] on the ground and none of it could compare with the risk involved with sleeping in tents.”
Owen Keegan’s remarks about tents in the radio interview were not without public support however either, with a number of emails received by the city council backing what he had said.
One letter said homeless charities always “peddle the same mantra” about accommodation not being safe but said the solution was to have different services depending on people’s needs.
Their email added: “Have a drink hostel, have a drug hostel, again assign them. Have a couples’ hostel. The key is proper assessment and segregation and strict management with zero tolerance on behaviour issues.”