Friday 18 January 2019

Gene Kerrigan: Housing, health, horror and hopelessness

Disgust is not enough. The horrors of homelessness are firmly rooted in the politics of greed, writes Gene Kerrigan

'The shape and content of our society is being decided by greed'
'The shape and content of our society is being decided by greed'

So, are you "morally outraged" about the homeless family who had to sleep on plastic chairs in Tallaght garda station?

Eileen Gleeson, director of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, said she's "morally outraged".

Peter Burke, the Fine Gael TD selected to defend the party's record, said he's "morally outraged".

It seems to be the officially approved response, but I'm not buying.

We're all shocked by what happened, says Simon Harris.

No, minister, we're not.

Every now and then some brutal event triggers our moral outrage and we smack our foreheads and demand that "this must never happen again".

Next Christmas will be the fourth anniversary of the death of Jonathan Corrie, sleeping rough in a doorway across the road from the Dail. Gave us a right jolt, that did. We were "morally outraged".

At that stage, December 2014, homelessness was at a soaring level of 2,858.

We knew about the people we saw sleeping on cardboard, in shop doorways. Increasingly, we learnt about the hidden thousands in hostels and in squats, sleeping in cars and in tents.

And above all the kids in hotels and B&Bs, suffering Christ knows what psychological blows that may still affect them 20 years from now.

Clearly, we had a problem of too few roofs over the heads of too many of our people.

But not to worry, because in February 2013 the Government produced a 'Revised National Homeless Policy'.

And this had a "key commitment". Guess what? It would "end long-term homelessness by 2016".

Big Phil Hogan was in charge of housing, reassuring us he was on the ball. Followed by high-powered Alan Kelly, loudly galloping off in all directions.

Followed by quiet-but-efficient Simon Coveney.

And now, with his sleeves rolled up to show he means business, Eoghan Murphy is being dynamic in directions even Alan Kelly couldn't imagine.

Yet, despite all the dynamism, quiet or loud, in June of this year the homeless numbers hit 9,872.

And we responded with occasional eruptions of moral outrage.

It was a solvable problem. Count heads, produce the required number of roofs, to schedule, in the appropriate places.

Hogan, Kelly, Coveney and Murphy aren't the brightest, but they're not incompetent fools. Their leaders - Enda Kenny, Leo Varadkar, Eamon Gilmore and Joan Burton - have had enough competence to achieve and retain high office year after year.

In serving us, though, one failure follows another.

It's not that they don't want to end homelessness - if only to save themselves the embarrassment.

The problem is politics. The same hopeless right-wing obsession with the power of the 'free market'.

This political fetishism requires incentives for the private sector, in the hope it will produce the necessary services.

Simultaneously, the public sector must be run down, so that it leaves the field clear for the entrepreneurial set.

The 'free market' politics requires that the public sector provides little more than a safety net for those who can't afford the private services.

When this doesn't work - as it hasn't, for instance, in the hospitals - the free market fetishists say it's a management failure. And they hire more levels of management, create new layers of bureaucracy, outsource to more expensive private 'consultants'.

This is the mess we face today, in housing and in health.

Of course, in one important sense, those free market policies have worked - for those already on the upside of life. We've never had so many millionaires, our well-off are better off, they ooze optimism.

Profits and dividends rise for those who hoarded land, for the renters and their agents, for the accountants and lawyers who brokered the deals that brought in the companies well named as vultures.

The political base of the right-wing parties will include most of the shareholders who enjoy nice dividends from all this. Many of the entrepreneurial types will be - in every sense of the word - classmates of the politicians.

It is a cruel, inefficient, lopsided ideology that has produced a generation of politicians who can't house their people, and who can't treat us when we're sick. Ten thousand homeless, a million on hospital waiting lists, children in agony, their health declining by the month, by the year, as they wait for operations.

Free markets are fine for establishing how many different types of coffee or phone or car people need to choose from in order to feel fulfilled. When it comes to the basics, it has failed miserably.

Housing and health are held captive to an ideology that requires huge rewards for some as a condition of providing basic services for the many. And while the system delivers the huge rewards, increasing numbers suffer as it fails to deliver the basic services.

Here's the core of it.

From the lips of Leo Varadkar.

It has been for years clear that there's a severe shortage of hospital beds and the resources to make them function. In 1980 we had nine beds for every 1,000 of population.

By 1990 the politicians had cut this to six beds for every 1,000 people.

Today, the OECD average is 4.8 beds per 1,000.

And we in Ireland have about half that.

Here's Leo.

In 2016, with an election pending, he did an interview with Niamh Horan, of this newspaper. She, of course, raised the issue of waiting lists and A&E chaos and here is what our leader, then health minister, said: "What can happen in some hospitals is sometimes, when they have more beds and more resources, that's what kind of slows it down."

Was he really saying the problem isn't a shortage of beds, but a surplus? Perhaps Niamh misunderstood. Leo explained.

"When a hospital is very crowded, there will be a real push to make sure people get their X-rays, get their tests and - you know - let's get them out in four days."


"When a hospital isn't under as much pressure, you start to see things slowing down and it might take five, six or seven days to get a person discharged."


It's a bit like saying the fire brigade will perform better if you don't give them too much water to squirt all over the place - with less water they'll aim better.

This is the sincere belief, the deeply felt truth about the health system, as seen by the man who is now Taoiseach.

When he was challenged on this he said he didn't mean front-line staff, he meant managers. He knows it's always popular to have a pop at managers. But the original interview showed, in context and without doubt, that he was referring to doctors and nurses.

And here's the thing: he and his type have indulged their 'free market' fetishism for years, and we've been shown over and over that it can't do the job.

The solution is - as it was in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s - an emergency programme of building, State-directed, all obstacles brushed aside.

This would do the job - but it would also eat into the vast rewards now reaped by the usual suspects, their battalions of consultants and the pricey PR types who police the media for them.

Young people are being driven out of Dublin by high rents. Some of our most skilled people have left the country, and they'll be reluctant to return. The shape and content of our society is being decided by greed.

Moral outrage, if you will. I'd tend more toward implacable anger.

Sunday Independent

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