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Rory Hearne: 'We have the means to end homelessness - but our politicians lack the will to do so'

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Shocking: Families queue up at The Lending Hand, a soup kitchen feeding up to 300 people every Monday on College Green in Dublin. Photo: Niall Carson/PA

Shocking: Families queue up at The Lending Hand, a soup kitchen feeding up to 300 people every Monday on College Green in Dublin. Photo: Niall Carson/PA

Shocking: Families queue up at The Lending Hand, a soup kitchen feeding up to 300 people every Monday on College Green in Dublin. Photo: Niall Carson/PA

Imagine the entire population of towns like Wicklow, Tramore, or Ballina being uprooted overnight, along with their children, and forced into homelessness. A national outrage and emergency action by Government would swiftly follow. Yet the latest homeless figures show that a population equivalent to one of these towns - 10,514 people, including 1,733 families and their 3,826 children - is in emergency hostels, hotels or family hubs. Where is the Government's emergency response? The number of homeless children has risen by a shocking 440pc since 2014.

Homelessness is a deeply traumatic event, especially for children. It is described as an 'adverse childhood experience', with potentially severe impacts that can last a life time. At least 12,000 children have experienced homelessness in Ireland at some point in the past five years. Children are affected emotionally and developmentally by spending many months, and even years, in emergency accommodation. Homelessness is a form of structural violence.

The new family hubs are no better than hotels, and are more like institutions, where families (mostly lone mothers and their children) must stay in their rooms, can't have visitors, must sign in and out, and children can't mix with other children. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission says "family hubs have normalised family homelessness", and "developmental delays, emotional attachment issues, self-harm and accidental injuries have been reported with regard to children". Just like direct provision, family hubs are becoming long-term institutionalisation.

A new book, 'How Will Santa Find Us?', tells the story of a family who lose their home. As they move from place to place the parents distract their children through a journey with their imaginations - they become ghosts in a hotel lobby, or go on safari while sleeping in their car. Isn't it deeply disturbing and upsetting that such a book has to be written, and that there are any homeless children in Ireland at all?

The monthly homelessness figures are only the tip of the iceberg of hidden homelessness and the wider housing unaffordability and insecurity crisis. They don't include rough sleepers, people living in cars or tents, in overcrowded accommodation, couch surfing, in direct provision, Travellers in substandard sites, or women in domestic violence refuges.

Not included either are tenants with unaffordable rents, insecure leases, those in fear of eviction or rent hikes, or home owners in mortgage arrears.

The real scale of the housing and homelessness crisis is around 260,000, or one in six, households (half a million people) - 50 times greater than the official homelessness figures and four times the social housing waiting lists.

This is an economic and social catastrophe. There is no inequality greater than homelessness and persistent housing insecurity. The UN describes homelessness as "an egregious violation of human rights, threatening the health and life of the most marginalised" which "requires urgent and immediate human rights responses by all states".

This crisis is a moral and policy failure of a system that has the resources and wealth to solve it. Homelessness is preventable and can be eliminated, as Finland shows. It is about the political willingness to do what is necessary.

But this Government has prioritised the interests of the banks, real estate investors, vulture funds, landlords and developers, over the housing needs of children.

Victorian beliefs in the 'undeserving poor' seeps through language of 'scroungers' and 'ghettos'. Behind the rhetoric there is an indifference to suffering caused by the housing crisis. The Government has refused to take action to prevent the flow of people into homelessness - such as improved tenant protections and leases, limiting landlords' ability to evict, cap rents and putting the right to housing in the Constitution. It has failed to provide the routes out of homelessness - by refusing to build social and affordable housing supply on a major scale. There is still no cost-rental scheme to enable local authorities and approved housing bodies to build, no new agency to drive building.

We accept that it is the State's responsibility to ensure every child has access to education, irrespective of whether their family can afford it. The Constitution includes the right to primary education.

Yet decent, safe, and secure housing is even more fundamental to us than education. Housing is a basic human requirement for children to be healthy and develop - a child without a stable home can't get an education.

The Government's Rebuilding Ireland home loan programme is fundamentally flawed and a new housing and homelessness plan is urgently required. It is also time to put the right to housing in policy, law and the Constitution.

  • Rory Hearne is a lecturer in social policy at Maynooth University

Irish Independent