If Leo cares then homelessness is now a middle-class concern
Varadkar's about-face may finally force us to look harder at the crisis and bring about meaningful change, writes Donal Lynch
It felt strange to hear Leo Varadkar, that unabashed champion of the middle class, take what sounded like such a strong stance on homelessness last week. What an unsexy, un-Instagrammable, unsolvable, non-Leo theme, you couldn't help thinking. A serious comedown after all of those glamorous foreign trips. But in he waded.
Six months after saying Ireland had one of the lowest rates of homelessness, the Taoiseach now said he found the sharp rise in the number of homeless "unbelievably frustrating" and that the housing situation was certainly a "crisis". It was the strongest language yet used by a Taoiseach on the issue of homelessness and evidence that, maybe this time, something might be done. Because when Leo cares about a poverty issue, we know it's because it's really a middle-class concern. Homelessness and the soul-sapping poverty of being a renter in Dublin have become inextricably intertwined. An issue which we held our nose about all our lives has suddenly become the only issue worth thinking about.
It's always difficult, a prominent homelessness campaigner once told me, to get politicians to care enough to do something meaningful. By which he meant not merely throwing money at the problem, because there has nearly always been money. The lack of a home is as stark a deprivation as most of us could imagine, but the popular empathy for the homeless has translated into a well-funded charity sector more than it has any meaningful State interventions in the issue.
Homelessness as a continuing "crisis" perseveres, knotty and unsolvable. Rent caps, already ludicrously generous to landlords, continue. Property owners are allowed to hoard dwelling spaces. And still the presumption persists that somehow, some way, the market will sort this out.
Meanwhile, there is an over-reliance on charities, which receive more than €100m in State funding every year but deliver dubious value for money. Figures released by the Department of the Environment a number of years ago showed that nearly €32,000 was being spent for every homeless person. A few months later, Enda Kenny said that the issue wasn't even about money, but this, for many people, underlined the hopelessness of the situation. If that money could not dint the problem, then what could?
Like most people, I sometimes feel a self-hating pang for not caring more about homeless people. I live in the city centre, near the fault line between Google and the ghetto, and see homeless people, speak to them and walk past them most days. And all of this pains me, not because I have such outgrown empathy for their plight, but because, like most people, I walk around in my own little bubble. By speaking to me, by holding a sometimes demanding hand out, they are breaking that bubble, demanding contact.
I give sometimes but I feel no amount of money will help them. I feel more hopeless for them than I do for orphans in Aleppo. They are the poverty on my own front door but their plight leaves me impotently frustrated. I vaguely thought that mental illness and addiction tended to play a huge role in homelessness and, since we don't deal with those issues properly either, then it followed that homelessness was inevitable.
We now know - because the charities which work in the area tell us - that the recent surge in homelessness has been due to structural rather than personal reasons. People are ending up homeless because they can't afford where they live. The figures which terrorise Leo, those people living on the streets or in emergency accommodation, are just the tip of the iceberg. If a home is a place you feel you belong, it is also a place that belongs to you. For most Irish people it is, anyway.
The slice of people who can afford to buy their own homes gets thinner and thinner. Rent allowances have not kept pace with rent hikes and people are getting thrown out. While repossessions have dropped dramatically, the population of precarious renters - who are one bad event away from destitution - has dramatically risen. They live cheque to cheque and are always in fear of losing their homes. Our tenancy laws are woefully unfit for purpose and an increasing number of renters are embroiled in PRTB disputes - which have also sharply risen. One in 16 families is now on a housing waiting list. Their fear colours our whole society.
The biggest single structural factor in what has been billed as "the highest homelessness figures since the Famine" (records have only been kept since 1988, however) has been the lack of housing. Not mental illness, not addiction, then, but a more acute form of the same, simple, terrible problem which looms so dark over the majority of the population under the age of 40.
Perhaps this binding together of these two issues - the middle-class terror about financial security and the plight of this small but desperate group, the real homeless - might be the catalyst that allows meaningful change to take place.
That will have to involve the supply of more of the right kind of houses, not merely the traditional three-bed semi-ds, but smaller living spaces for a younger population (a quarter of the entire homeless population is under 18). It will involve making home-building profitable by relaxing the VAT on the price of a new home. It will involve the State taking over the building of social housing and not merely relying on the private sector to supply these. It might involve legislation to force property owners to stop hoarding empty buildings.
All of these measures will ease not only the homelessness crisis but also the broader housing crisis.
If Leo's language around the issue has changed that might also be some acknowledgement of the fact that this is now very much a Fine Gael issue, one on which history will judge this Government. The problems with housing and sharply rising homelessness were not inherited from the old Fianna Fail bailout regime. They began later and stemmed from an inability to plan correctly for the economic turnaround that the Government now takes credit for. This failure to plan for the needs of a growing population is perhaps the single most damning piece of evidence against the Government. Employment may have risen, GDP may have soared. The bad old days might really be behind us.
But without housing, and with so many on the streets, it is impossible to say we have truly recovered.