Wednesday 16 January 2019

Can't fix the problem? Fix the statistics

The heartbreaking truth is brushed aside in favour of nonsense the political faithful want to hear, writes Gene Kerrigan

Tom Halliday's illustration
Tom Halliday's illustration
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

It should have been a good week for Fine Gael. The Brexit carry-on gave Varadkar a chance to look good by comparison with the clowns who currently govern the UK.

And Fine Gael was rising in the polls.

Perhaps emboldened by this, Varadkar attempted to kill off homelessness as a political issue. And was caught in an attempt to deceive.

Then, the week ended with an eruption of bitterness over FG misogyny - about which let us note just two things.

First, from the end of the 1970s, there were women active in Fine Gael who played a strong role in the battle to take this country out of the dark ages. Monica Barnes and the late Nuala Fennell, to name but two.

Second, Fine Gael women today, who should know better, have allowed pig ignorance to fester unchallenged among some whose political roots are in those same dark ages.

They might not have become victims of the vitriol had they not remained docile when it was sprayed at others.

Now, to Leo Varadkar's failed attempt to write off the housing crisis.

In less than two weeks, on December 1, it will be three years since Jonathan Corrie was found dead in a doorway across the street from the Dail, sparking concern about growing homelessness.

The death was tragic, the time of year and the location upset many, and that made it a political problem.

Labour's Alan Kelly threw a few shapes, but the problem got worse. So, Enda Kenny scrapped "Environment" and put "Housing" up front in the title, then Simon Coveney threw some more shapes.

Eoghan Murphy has the shape-throwing job now. He's more articulate but just as ineffective.

As the Ministers tinkered, thousands more were driven into homelessness.

It's not merely people sleeping on the streets. The damage is being laid down for generations to come. Recently, Richard Boyd Barrett gave an Oireachtas committee an example of a woman in her early 20s, homeless with her young child for two-and-a-half years. "Her child is now five-and-a-half years old. They have been housed in eight different emergency accommodations."

There was a fire in one place, he said. A close friend of the woman died in the fire, along with three babies.

The young woman, Boyd Barrett said, "is completely traumatised, as is her son. She is still in emergency accommodation. Her son is now in his third school in two-and-a-half years."

This is unspeakable. And it's not an isolated case. FG/FF policies have created a sea of misery, from the families living with relatives, to those exploited by slumlords and sleeping four to a room, to whole blocks of tenants threatened with eviction so that landlords can "refurbish" and raise rents to new exploitive levels. And then there are those sleeping in doorways.

When the political right speaks of "social and affordable housing" they depict it as charity. "Free houses", they sneer. Privately, they use terms like "shirkers" and "work-shy", while they "get up early in the morning".

Let us explain this in terms, even the average TD might understand.

A society needs an economy.

An economy needs a workforce.

A workforce needs housing.

In Ireland, housing today is almost exclusively under the control of the rich and greedy, the land hoarders, builders and the buy-to-renters who manipulate the market and use the need for shelter as a means of making more money. Their activities have driven up homelessness.

From The Irish Times: Average rental yield in Germany, 4.03pc. France 3.82pc, Belgium 5.96pc. UK 4pc.

And Ireland? It's 7.08pc.

They are reefing the money out of us.

From Independent.ie: Average rent for one-person accommodation in Dublin, €1,035 a month. Salary needed to afford this: €3,568 a month, or €42,816 a year.

Average median wage: €33,000.

A society needs a workforce, but the gambling activities of the rich put housing beyond the reach of too many. Social and affordable housing is not charity, it's a State subsidy of the accommodation cost of providing a workforce, without which the economy would flounder.

The mass building of working-class estates in the mid-20th century enabled this country to survive economically. The right-wing parties today venerate the "free market". They're content to allow housing needs to provide a playground for gamblers, vulture funds and people who've accumulated wealth to spare - to the benefit of the banks.

Politicians tinker with "incentives" to tweak the market, but corporate greed is deaf to appeals to decency. What matters is profit, dividends, bonuses and share price.

For the second time this century - and the century is just 17 years old - the Irish housing market has become subject to the rising excitement of the rich and the greedy, with sickening social consequences.

This needs ruthless State intervention. It won't get it.

So, unease grows among the people.

Someone in Fine Gael got hold of a statistic. It gave Varadkar the means to rally the party and kill the political problem. Ireland's homelessness is "low by international standards", he told the party faithful, and his flunkies waved the statistic.

Minister Damien English chimed in - complaining that reporting homelessness will frighten foreign investors. Shut up. Pull on the green jersey.

The Government's chief housing adviser, Conor Skehan, said that while "homelessness is a dreadful thing", it's also "a normal thing, it happens".

Up spake Eileen Gleeson, in charge of fighting homelessness in Dublin, telling volunteer groups it's "not helpful" to feed people or give them tents or sleeping bags. And, by the way, long-term homelessness is due to "bad behaviour". Whatever your experience or expertise, you only get to say such things if your current strategy is working and credible - the volunteer movement has arisen as the official strategies have failed.

Varadkar's claim that all is normal is untrue. The FactCheck people at the Journal.ie examined the statistics. FactCheck is a thorough journalistic entity, credible because it explains and validates its analysis, and does so with obvious impartiality.

It concluded that Varadkar's claim was "unproven". The evidence to validate the claim does not exist.

There is no set of statistics comparing homelessness internationally. There are national sets of statistics, all different and not comparable. To simplify, there is, for instance, the Ethos Light system. It measures six categories, but not all categories are used in each country. Ireland uses only three. To measure that against countries where statistics are based on six categories is plainly invalid.

Therefore, Varadkar had no statistical basis for his claim.

Then, of course, as all politicians are learning from Mr Trump, it doesn't have to be true. It just has to be something the faithful want to believe.

What can be said is that there has been almost a decade of austerity, while politicians shifted the burden of recession to the people, to protect banks and bondholders. European countries developed large homeless problems. And we are part of that.

I will repeat a maxim this column has used before. If a solvable problem persists, it is not a problem, it's a policy. Fight homelessness or protect the gamblers - for the political right, the answer has been obvious, and for the rest of us the consequences have been disgusting.

Sunday Independent

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