Monday 14 October 2019

Apollo House has put urgent need for home building back to top of Government's agenda

Glen Hansard, Christy Dignam and Jim Sheridan protest outside Apollo House, Dublin Picture: Gerry Mooney
Glen Hansard, Christy Dignam and Jim Sheridan protest outside Apollo House, Dublin Picture: Gerry Mooney
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

'Nama owns Apollo House and Nama is owned by the State, therefore the people of Ireland own Apollo House," was the argument, met with applause, made by counsel for the occupants of Apollo House on December 21.

With only three sleeps to Christmas Day, Mazars, the receivers for Nama claimed that the homeless people were trespassing in the office block on Tara Street that had been empty for over a year.

There was a massive Christmas tree twinkling in the round hall of the Four Courts and the Court term was about to end in an hour, with the festive season in full swing.

In a courtroom overflowing with media, volunteers and celebrity supporters, Judge Paul Gilligan was faced with sending 41 people on to the freezing streets during the religious festival.

A week before the occupation, planning permission was granted to demolish the 10-storey Apollo House and replace it with offices from five to 12-storeys, along with the demolition of Hawkins House - the 'Angola' of the Department of Health - the street will then be densely occupied.

The receiver was seeking an injunction directing immediate cessation of occupancy of Apollo House and said that to allow the unlawful activity to continue, was a "licence for anarchy and a licence for people to interfere with the private property rights of others".

In response to the claim that the building was owned by the people of Ireland, he said "so is Áras an Uachtaráin, the Four Courts, the National Museum" and that "public buildings cannot be unilaterally conscripted for accommodation".

It could be argued that that is exactly the purpose for which many empty public buildings could be conscripted, adapted and made into studio apartments to rehabilitate back into society and employment, those who are long-term homeless.

In a long address to both sides, and several times seeking proof of "exceptional circumstances" but not getting a satisfactory response, Mr Justice Gilligan eventually ordered that, as the occupants admitted trespass, they must cease occupation, but placed a 'stay' on the order, so that it did not come into effect immediately.

The 'trespassers' were due to leave at noon on Wednesday. By then, they had enjoyed a safe, warm, Christmas period and volunteers had provided food, bedding, showers, kitchens, furniture and appliances.

The court was told on Wednesday that most of the occupants had been provided with alternative regular hostel accommodation through Dublin City Council and operated by the Fr Peter McVerry Trust.

But the judge was asked to extend the stay for a further seven days to allow the remaining homeless people to continue the "orderly wind-down".

The receiver continued to rely on the confirmation by Dublin City Council that there were enough beds to accommodate all 'rough' sleepers from mid December.

The problem is that these beds may be in 'wet' or inadequate hostels, where many homeless people do not want to mix with alcohol or drug-dependent individuals. Dublin City Council was due to open three facilities in December to provide 210 new emergency beds.

But one of these facilities was also the subject of an injunction by local residents' associations requesting that the premises would not open to accommodate 57 homeless people. The judge in that matter placed a stay on the order until next Wednesday, January 18.

Counsel for Mazars had described the occupancy as a "civil disobedient protest to bring the problem to the attention of the media".

Whereas, it would appear to be a genuinely compassionate collaboration between furniture suppliers, electricians and the campaign organisers 'Home Sweet Home', as the cold winter was upon us, to help those without shelter.

The combination of celebrity support and compassionate volunteers has indeed brought this unusual action to international and Government attention. In Sligo, an empty Nama building has been occupied by homeless people. It may soon be a national trend, Irish people helping each other out, while Government and housing agencies sit back and make plans.

During the depths of the recession, when citizens of Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy took to the streets in protest over austerity measures, Irish people sucked it up. Leaving aside the water-charges protests, we have not rocked the boat, until a cold December day when homelessness had reached a peak and those sleeping in doorways could take it no longer.

Having lawfully aided the occupants to enjoy the Christmas and New Year period in a safe environment, on Wednesday Judge Gilligan was obliged to apply the law and said "it is no function of this court to stand by and allow trespass" and that it was "a matter for the Government and not this Court" to provide housing.

By yesterday all but one of the occupants had left. The Court was told that that individual was unable to leave and the hearing was adjourned until next Tuesday.

The growth of homeless shelters, hostels, secure temporary accommodation, whatever we want to call them, is not the answer to the crisis that has hit our streets. For families, a home is what is required, from where parents can go to work, and children attend school and a civil society is nurtured back to functioning.

By refusing to allow the occupation of Apollo House to continue, the urgency of home building is put back on the Government agenda.

Irish Independent

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