Monday 21 January 2019

Colette Browne: 'Attempts to normalise the horror of our homelessness crisis will cost the nation its soul if they succeed'

'The reality is it is not normal that the number of homeless adults and children has increased by nearly 300pc since 2014.' Photo: Damien Eagers
'The reality is it is not normal that the number of homeless adults and children has increased by nearly 300pc since 2014.' Photo: Damien Eagers
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

It's just one week into the new year and there have already been attempts to normalise our homeless crisis - we cannot let it happen.

Former head of the housing agency Conor Skehan appears to have a New Year's tradition - to pop up in the media and say something controversial about homelessness.

Last year on January 2, Mr Skehan claimed some families were gaming the system by declaring themselves homeless in order to jump the queue for housing.

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Given Dublin City Council prioritised homeless families in their housing allocations, he said there was a clear incentive to be labelled homeless and some were cynically taking advantage of this.

As it happens, the local authority ended the practice of prioritising homeless families in May 2018.

So, did it lead to the reduction in families declaring themselves homeless that one would expect if Mr Skehan had been right?

No. In the first four months of last year, when families were prioritised, their number was recorded at 383. But, in the four months after this priority system ended, an additional 415 families presented as homeless. On Monday's 'Claire Byrne Live' programme, Mr Skehan appeared again to discuss homelessness and argue the numbers in Ireland are "normal" and on par with other EU countries.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said something similar in 2017, when he claimed Ireland had a low rate of homelessness by international standards.

However, what he conveniently neglected to mention was that Ireland's definition of homeless is one of the narrowest in the EU - excluding, to name a few categories, rough sleepers, people forced to couch surf, those living in overcrowded accommodation, women and children made homeless from domestic abuse and living in refuges and those living in direct provision.

So when Mr Skehan or Mr Varadkar cite the level of homelessness in Sweden - 34,000 - as a means of making us look good, they are not telling the full story.

For instance, included in Swedish figures are people who have three months left on a prison sentence but who have nowhere to go once released.

While Mr Skehan may want to describe homelessness as "normal", because it is a phenomenon that happens regularly here and in other countries, that categorisation is an assault on language that seeks to undermine our empathy.

Because, if something is normal then it means it is something we have come to accept, something that should not shock and something we should care very little about.

The reality is it is not normal that the number of homeless adults and children has increased by nearly 300pc since 2014. It is not normal that children are growing up in hotel rooms and being denied a safe and secure childhood.

And we will truly have lost our soul as a nation if we can ever listen to an interview - like the one given to 'Morning Ireland' recently by a homeless teenager, who said she felt after two years in emergency accommodation like she had "no life left" - and describe it as normal.

Instead of attempting to downplay the endemic nature of homelessness in Ireland, what is really needed is an acknowledgement of just how bad and how hopeless the situation currently is.

Kudos in that regard should go to the head of housing at Dublin City Council, Brendan Kenny, who has not attempted to downplay the crisis, but rather has continually highlighted the extent of the problem.

Mr Kenny has also publicly spoken of his frustration that the efforts of the local authority to address the problem are being set at naught because of the dysfunctional nature of the wider housing crisis.

Speaking in December, Mr Kenny said the council was simply unable to keep up with the numbers being made newly homeless every month and that evictions from the private sector - which account for up to 70pc of those presenting as homeless - made it impossible to make any progress.

"We're still getting about 200 families a month coming in presenting as homeless, mainly coming from the private rented sector.

"We've a private rental sector that's dysfunctional, it's just not working and that's the biggest issue for us," he said.

It is not the job of Dublin City Council to address problems in the rental sector that are leading to homeless. That is a responsibility of central Government, which has utterly failed to stem the tide of homelessness, despite a plethora of action plans and promises.

Yet the Government, instead of acknowledging this, prefers to foist all of the blame for failure at the feet of the local authorities in an attempt to insulate itself from any blame and any negative media coverage.

At the weekend, it was alleged the Taoiseach no longer has any confidence in Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy because of the inexorable increase in homeless numbers under his watch - a contention that was swiftly denied.

But, even if a new housing minister were appointed, what are the chances that he or she would make any discernible difference?

How could they, unless the underlying housing plan and policies that the Government is so wedded to also change?

Housing and homelessness is an issue that is too important to be reduced to personalities and the insertion of yet a new minister, without an honest appraisal of the Government's own plan first occurring, would just be a pointless exercise in optics.

Given January is a time when we are invited to identify failings and resolve to make changes, now is an opportune time for the government to honestly appraise its own performance - not with an eye on opinion polls or the spinning of statistics, but with the intention to truly tackle the scourge of homelessness.

At what point is the Government going to finally admit that it doesn't have all the answers? That the problem is getting worse, not better.

That the solutions it has trumpeted for years have not been working. That those on the Opposition benches may have something useful to contribute.

At what point are alternative ideas, those coming from the Opposition or those who work day and night in the sector, going to be trialled or even entertained?

At what point is a real sense of urgency going to be injected into a Government response that has, so far, been defensive, complacent and bull-headed?

Or has the Government also decided that homelessness is normal and something we just have to tolerate?

Irish Independent

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