Sunday 25 August 2019

Homelessness is complex, and not just for Christmas

Even those involved in the occupation of Apollo House know the truth is more complicated than simple feel-good solutions, says Brendan O'Connor

Christy Dignam and Glen Hansard (left) perform outside the Apollo House in Dublin City centre
Christy Dignam and Glen Hansard (left) perform outside the Apollo House in Dublin City centre
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

The occupation of Apollo House could not have come at a better time. After the year we've all had, a bit of idealism warmed the cockles of our hearts at Christmas. From Trump to Brexit to new politics, we were stumbling out of 2016 feeling disillusioned, disenfranchised, even disgusted. And along came Glen Hansard and Home Sweet Home to reclaim something for the people, to remind us that this land is our land. And better still, they were reclaiming something from Nama/the banks/faceless receivers.

It is generally agreed that the banks ruined the country. And it is generally agreed too that some people have too much, and some people have too little. And there's too much bureaucracy in general. And if only we listened to the people, and had simple solutions, we could fix everything.

And Apollo House did all of that. It simplified everything. Take some of the property owned by Nama banking-style fat cats, and put some homeless people in it. Give them a roof over their heads at Christmas. And who could argue with that? And Christmas is a time when we all feel extra guilty about the homeless, because Christmas is a time of home for most of us. Indeed, for some people Christmas may be the only time they think about homelessness. Some people associate the homeless with Christmas in the same way they associate Glen Hansard with Christmas.

It would be wrong to be cynical about the Apollo House project but it's fair to say that most people probably have mixed feelings about it. Thirty-five people with a roof over their heads may constitute less than half of 1pc of the approximately 7,000 people we're told are homeless - but it's still 35 people off the streets and not only with a roof over their heads, but in their own rooms.

And in fairness to the Home Sweet Home people and their celebrity supporters, they seem to be well aware of their own limitations. They are not suggesting this is a long-term solution. They are not saying they have all the answers. They are seeking all the expert help they can get and they are working in a complementary fashion with all the existing services. They are just trying to do something. And they are trying to make a point. And they have made that point spectacularly. Everyone is talking about homelessness and how to best deal with it.

Some people are being a bit cynical too about the celebrity involvement. But again, from what most of us know of people like Jim Sheridan and Glen Hansard, they are people of integrity and authenticity. They're not bullshitters, there is no doubt that their intentions are good, and they are getting huge results in ways.

So why the mixed feelings then? Is there a sense maybe that it's too early to say whether this is a good idea or not? Anyone who mentions any of the practical reasons why the occupation of Apollo House is not a good idea, from a health and safety point of view, or an insurance point of view, tends to get labelled as part of the problem.

And yet, there is a word that keeps coming up here. Complexity. We live in an era when people have little time for experts, or for notions like complexity. Experts and their talk of complexity is seen as just another way for the 1pc to control the rest of us. The world is looking for simpler answers these days. Blame Europe for everything, blame migrants, Make America Great Again. And the idea of putting the homeless into public buildings is a nice simple one too. But we keep hearing that troubling word complexity. Maybe just as every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, everyone who is homeless has their own individual story and challenges. And maybe the answers aren't simple.

Or then again, maybe they are. And all this time we've been wasting cash on multiple charities, none of whom have solved this problem because they didn't just grasp the issue in a simple way. But then, the experts tell us that here is a bed for everyone who needs one this Christmas, that Home Sweet Home is, in fact, offering a solution to a problem that does not exist.

One thing that the Apollo House project is not doing is looking at the real question here. Why are homeless people at the mercy of charity? While the meitheal vibe around Apollo House where all these volunteers, from tradesmen to medical people, are chipping in and doing their bit, is very admirable, it's more good deedery. And it's not sustainable.

The message about homelessness at Christmas is that we can all be good people by giving a few quid, by expressing our solidarity by going to a gig, by maybe even volunteering to help out. And we can all feel good about that.

And Apollo House for all its good intentions, perpetuates this rather Victorian notion, that the better-off should do good deeds, especially at Christmas, and that the poor should be grateful for these acts of charity. But equally, maybe Apollo House should get a conversation going about rights versus charity. After all, Ireland is not Depression-era America. The State has enough money to ensure everyone has a bed. We pump huge resources into homelessness - €70m this year and €100m next year. So really, we should not have to give to charities on top of the taxes we already pay. Should a State homelessness agency not be dealing with the problem in its totality? But then it's back to that word. Complexity. Every homeless person is homeless in their own way. They are not all stereotypical druggies, or stereotypically mentally ill, or stereotypically angelic victims of the system. It's complicated, and perhaps that's why the industry around it is complicated. And perhaps that's why Apollo House is a nice gesture that makes us all feel good and sparks a debate, but why we all, including its celebrity champions, recognise that it's not the answer.

And then, interestingly, into all this complexity comes another victim of the system. Mick Wallace, as far as we can ascertain, is on the verge of homelessness this Christmas too. The last thing he has left, he tells us, is his family home, and they are trying to take that off him as well. He built it himself apparently, in his spare time. You'd almost get the impression he built it with his bare hands. And now they want that, too. Now for a house he built himself 25 years ago, he did manage to rack up a fairly big mortgage on it. The house is worth €800k, the mortgage is over €900k, and Wallace is in arrears of €77k. Wallace is also in massive arrears on two buy-to-let properties. Unlike most homeless people, Wallace has an income after tax of €4k a month.

Wallace says he is being made bankrupt because he spoke the truth to power, and now he is being targeted, all based on one mere €2m personal guarantee out of his €30m loans. He will be out of bankruptcy in a year but he has also complained they can have a charge on his income for another two years after that.

Mick Wallace feels hard done by. He doesn't seem to think this is his responsibility, perhaps he should speak to some other people in trouble with mortgages and negative equity. He might be shocked to find that many of them have been paying back their debts for years, and will be for the rest of their lives, and they won't be let off one cent of it. And they always had to pay their taxes as well, unlike Wallace, who hasn't always done that, though he says this was due to factors out of his control. In the post-truth world, Mick Wallace is presenting himself as a victim.

That's how he feels. And that's his simple narrative. He's a good guy, done down by bad guys. But again, the truth, the facts, including not paying tax and problems with employees' pensions, paints a more complex picture. Simple stories and simple solutions are very appealing, and indeed maybe we can take back this Republic from the banks and the moneymen and the experts and other bad guys, and maybe we can make Ireland great again. But even when there are good intentions, we must resist post-truth, even if it's harder to face the real world in all its complexity.

Sunday Independent

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