Wednesday 20 March 2019

Gene Kerrigan: Doing nothing effective about homelessness is now the policy - They hardly notice their own cruelty and indifference.

Enda Kenny doesn't lack compassion, but he has free-market rules he must protect, writes Gene Kerrigan

Tribute: The doorway where homeless man Jonathan Corrie died on Dublin’s Molesworth Street.
Tribute: The doorway where homeless man Jonathan Corrie died on Dublin’s Molesworth Street.
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

It's eight months now since this Government solved the problem of homelessness. Jonathan Corrie died sleeping in a doorway across the road from the Dail. A homeless person dying in the open on a freezing winter's night, within sight of parliament ­- that was a political problem.

It undermined the image we like to have of ourselves.

The most urgent need was that something be done to ensure this didn't happen again. If a second homeless person died on the street so close to Christmas, well, it wouldn't be good for the optics.

So, the Cabinet gave Alan Kelly the job of getting the homeless off the Government's back. Alan, at the time, was basking in applause. As the Cabinet's go-to guy on urgent problems, he had recently solved the Government's Irish Water problem.

People were refusing to pay. They were protesting. Irish Water had come to symbolise the waste and unfairness of never-ending austerity. Alan capped here and tweaked there, gave us a big smile and assured us everything had changed.

Alan, in short, is the genius who made Irish Water what it is today.

Within days, Alan had called an "emergency summit" on homelessness. Enda Kenny put on a woolly hat and ventured on to the cold Dublin streets in the middle of the night. He visited the homeless along with Lord Mayor Christy Burke. He said their plight was "something we should be ashamed of".

Meanwhile, Alan Kelly hurriedly opened homeless shelters.

There were two things to say about that.

One - providing temporary shelter for people so desperate that they sleep in the street is a good thing. It relieves suffering, it saves lives.

The second thing to say - well, people who know about homelessness said all this at the time.

They said that a tiny percentage of the homeless sleep on the street. Most sleep on someone's sofa, in spare rooms - a friend's place, a relative's. They sleep in cars. Whole families sleep, cook, eat, wash, play and grow more and more desperate in single rooms in hotels.

There aren't enough dwellings. And landlords are raising rents regardless of the consequences.

Those on the lowest wages are made homeless, regardless how hard they work.

The Government's response to Jonathan Corrie's death had nothing to do with any of this. Alan Kelly said there was "no need for anyone to have to sleep rough in Dublin this Christmas unless they make that choice themselves".

Alan made it possible to say that if someone else died on the streets, it would be their own fault. He solved the Government's immediate political problem.

Homelessness? Nothing was done. And today, with twice as many homeless kids, it's worse than ever.

As was predicted.

A decade ago, Mary Harney said that the numbers of patients on trolleys in A&E departments was a "national emergency". She resolved to solve it. It got worse.

In 2011, Enda Kenny promised to take personal responsibility for the problem. "I'll end the scandal of patients on trolleys," he said. And he'd do it in less than two-and-a-half years.

Almost five years later, there are more patients on trolleys than ever.

Could it be that Enda Kenny doesn't give a damn about the homeless, or about the sick, lying for days on trolleys?

Kenny is not heartless. Yes, it was a political stroke for him to visit the homeless. But like any of us, he was genuinely moved by the death of Jonathan Corrie.

Cruelty and indifference may be part of the problem. But the primary problem is political.

It's some time since this column laid down a political rule: if a set of circumstances persists for years, it is not a problem, it's a policy.

We pointed out that "temporary" prefab classrooms had been in place for decades. Generations of kids were taught in leaky shanty shacks, with vermin living in the walls. They shivered through winter after winter. Occasionally a ceiling collapsed.

When anyone complained about this, the answer was that it was just a temporary problem. Prefabs would have to do until we had a permanent building constructed. And after 25 years or so, when prefabs fell apart - they were often replaced with new prefabs.

Again: when a problem persists for year after year, it is not a problem, it's a policy.

We think of politicians such as Enda Kenny as cute hoors, to whom nothing matters more than hanging on to the seat. And that's true. But it's not the whole truth. Many politicians have strong ideological beliefs. Very basic, perhaps, based on their background. Perhaps based on opinions they picked up early, from home and from the media. They tend to be the bog standard right-wing principles that are the Irish norm.

Private property is sacred.

The free market isn't perfect, but it will eventually sort out supply and demand.

State interference leads to communist dictatorship.

Now, the Constitution protects private property. It says, however, that the exercise of the right to private property "ought" to be "regulated by the principles of social justice". And by "the exigencies of the common good".

In practice, the Constitution has been interpreted as protecting the right to use private property regardless of the common good. Which led, for example, to upward only commercial rent reviews; and the lack of residential rent controls.

Over the past 30 years, such beliefs have hardened among politicians. This led to rampant deregulation - to cut back further on "state interference". As a result, houses were thrown up so carelessly they had to be abandoned. Banks did as they pleased and crashed the economy. Labour laws were flouted with impunity. All in the name of the free market.

There are some obsessed with the bank guarantee - was Brian Cowen somehow beholden to his golfing partners? Was he on the take? No. Cowen acted on free-market principles, as he saw them - protect the banks, the core of capitalism. And do so regardless of the immediate consequences for the citizens - they'll thank you in the end.

We all understand what motivates, for example, Fr Peter McVerry. Compassion, a belief in equality. Put him in charge of the Government and he would act on those basic principles. If cuts were demanded, he would instinctively, without hesitation, stubbornly and relentlessly protect the most vulnerable.

Enda Kenny and his ministers are motivated just as strongly by principles. They act just as instinctively and without hesitation to protect the free market and the rights of property.

Yes, they care about the homeless, they care about the sick. But that care is suppressed when logic demands that they do something effective. That care is curbed when logic demands they interfere with the sacred laws of private property.

Instead, their principles allow them only to tinker. They speak of "rent certainty" and of moving the homeless to the country. On A&E chaos, they speak impotently of reforms and efficiencies.

A year goes by, a decade - still they tinker. Their faces set against anything more radical, anything more sensible, they soldier on. Doing nothing effective is now the policy. They hardly notice their own cruelty and indifference.

Sunday Independent

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