Opinion Columnists

Saturday 19 January 2019

Brendan O'Connor: Leftist ideology does not always help the homeless

The reaction to the appalling story of Margaret Cash and her children points to the need for more joined-up thinking, writes Brendan O'Connor

DISGRACE: Margaret Cash and her six children were forced to sleep on plastic chairs in Tallaght Garda Station.
DISGRACE: Margaret Cash and her six children were forced to sleep on plastic chairs in Tallaght Garda Station.
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

In the age of instant outrage, we react with our gut and forget about joined-up thinking. We view things fairly simplistically and look for simple solutions. So, for example, we get a Taoiseach who promises that no woman involved in the CervicalCheck scandal will have to go to court.

In one way, the story of Margaret Cash and her seven children is fairly simple. We are all appalled that six of Cash's children had to sleep on hard plastic chairs in a Garda station last Wednesday night. Garda stations are not pleasant places to be at the best of times. At night they take on a bleaker and sometimes more menacing air. The idea that these children were sent there because it was ''a safe place'' is terribly sad.

Worse still is the life these kids have apparently been living for the last year. Margaret Cash says she has been homeless since September after the private landlord she was renting from went bust and the house was repossessed. Since then she seems to have been living in emergency accommodation. She has talked about being kicked out of hostels at nine in the morning and having to traipse the streets with her seven children. She says she is then given the numbers of various hotels to ring for the next night, and it can be difficult to get anywhere with them. Seven children is problematic from a purely practical point of view also. Child protection laws mean that children cannot be in a room on their own, so Margaret and the children need, presumably, adjoining rooms that can accommodate all eight of them. Staying with friends is not an option either, she says, as most of her friends are struggling in small houses with maybe five or six children of their own.

It beggars belief that this woman has been walking the streets with her children like this for nearly a year and it only came to our attention now, because Margaret decided to bring it to our attention as a last resort.

So it's hard not to have a simplistic response, which is that that woman and her children should be given a house right now, that it is inhumane to have her and her children living like this. Margaret's nine-year-old daughter would also have been sleeping in that Garda station last Wednesday night, which is somehow an even more upsetting idea than the six boys sleeping there. But Rebecca was spared that ordeal because she is sick, was only recently discharged from hospital and so was staying with friends. Presumably sickness is not really an option in the regular life of the Cash children.

The story of Margaret Cash and her family has been used to argue for more social housing, and indeed the Government is building more social housing, just not quickly enough.

But again, it's not that simple. It is, for example, a simple fact that until we have this utopia with social housing for all, we will need the private sector to be willing to build, to buy and to let property to people. And we cannot portray them as being the bad guys for investing in property and for seeking to make a return on it.

There was a story running in tandem with the story of Margaret Cash during the week and it was presented almost as related in some quarters. This was about Ires Reit, a property investment trust, which is now letting 300 of its 2,500 properties to people on the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) scheme. You might have mistakenly thought this was a good thing. We often hear complaints about private landlords being unwilling to let properties to people once HAP is mentioned. So it seems enlightened of Ires Reit to have trebled the number of properties it lets to people on social welfare.

But apparently not. We were told consistently in the reporting of the story that Ires Reit made a profit of €19m in the first half of the year, and giving them HAP money for apartments is letting big business profit on the misery of others. There was a woman on the news who was a tenant in one of these properties who was not happy about it being let to her by Ires Reit. The woman's rent was €2,200 a month, of which the Government paid €1,912, and she then topped it up with €288 a month.

The woman felt it was wrong that her rent was being paid to these people. She felt, reasonably enough for her, that she should have a social house instead.

I'm no fan of aspects of Ires Reit, but equally, it is a company, owned in large part by investors in the Irish stock exchange, possibly even owned in part by your pension fund, that is providing a service and is being paid market rates for it. And it is a company that is not discriminating against people on social welfare, as we are told many other private landlords do.

The demonisation of Ires Reit in all this shows the lack of joined-up thinking and the ideological rigidity behind many of the arguments around homelessness. It was akin to that kind of socialism that doesn't so much love the poor but hates the rich.

Does it strike you at all that if Margaret Cash and her kids had been living in an Ires Reit house, she would probably not be homeless again now?

Another element of joined-up thinking that we do not speak about is the role of men in all these situations.

In these stories the images are usually all the same. On one side we see young mothers struggling with children. The men we see tend to be charity workers, activists and politicians talking about it.

I'm not making any comment here on Margaret Cash's situation. And let's be clear, we do not know anything about her situation, only that she says she split up with her partner recently.

But in a general sense, consider someone like Jordan Peterson, the Canadian academic turned self-help guru, whose book, 12 Rules for Life has become an international phenomenon. The left has spent an inordinate amount of time tearing Peterson to bits over the last six months for perceived thoughtcrime.

While it is true that Peterson says some idiotic things, if you read his book, which many of his critics don't appear to have, one clear message shines through. He is telling young men to be true, to take responsibility, to have respect for themselves and others, to have some discipline.

While the left is busy talking about our responsibility and our duty to all these struggling young women and their children, they seem to be less keen when someone suggests there are young men too, who should bear some responsibility.

It's a question that pops up again and again when you see stories of homeless families. Where are the fathers? What of their responsibility?

Doubtless many of them are in no position themselves to help, but if your own children were in a desperate situation, would you not be fighting as hard as you could to get them out of it?

Again let me stress I am not judging Margaret Cash's situation. But sometimes, you have to wonder if ideology and the rush to blame society and the Government for everything blinds us all from asking some obvious questions.

And why, when someone like Peterson does talk about personal responsibility as a cure for the crisis in masculinity, are some on the left so resistant to listening?

Sunday Independent

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