Thursday 22 August 2019

What happens when the music stops for the residents of Apollo House?

Apollo House Photo: Damien Eagers
Apollo House Photo: Damien Eagers

Shane Coleman

The occupation of Apollo House, fronted by well-meaning celebrities, has been covered in glowing terms by much of the media.

But the whole thing is in danger of becoming the ultimate manifestation of the populism that is driving politics worldwide and in Ireland.

Populism has different manifestations in each country.

In places such as France, Germany, Italy and the US today - it's a right-wing phenomenon. In others, Spain, Ireland and South America, it's left-wing.

Definitions of populism differ, as do political scientists on whether it's a positive or a negative.

Read more: Apollo House occupiers can stay until after Christmas court rules

But at its core everywhere is a narrative of a pure people oppressed or undermined by a corrupt, or solely self-interested, elite. And a promise that the answer to extremely complex problems can be found in simple solutions.

So if there's a problem with illegal immigration, a politician promising to build a wall to keep immigrants out will be taken seriously. Or if the banking system is about to run out of money, then the cry will go up: 'Let them go to the wall and keep taxpayers' money for real people'.

Unless it's very careful, the Apollo House occupation will end up appealing to a similar facile narrative. 'There are homeless people sleeping on the streets. There are empty buildings owned by Nama. Let's open the empty buildings and the homeless people can stay there. Problem solved'. It follows exactly the same logic as those who advocated the housing crisis could be solved by accommodating people in ghost estates in Co Leitrim.

Just to be clear: we have a housing crisis in this country. Equally, there is a tragic situation where people are sleeping rough on the streets of our cities and towns.

But the professionals - as opposed to well-intentioned volunteers - who work with those living on the streets are quick to caution that it is a hugely complex area.

Unfortunately, with many of them suffering from mental health problems or drug or alcohol dependency, it's just not as simple as putting a basic roof over their heads via temporary accommodation.

Read more: Some occupiers of Apollo House - including musician Glen Hansard - oppose legal action by receivers to regain control

The numbers sleeping rough tend to be quite fluid. But we know that by the end of the week, because of the additional facilities put in place by the authorities, there will more than enough spaces to ensure nobody is going to have sleep rough for the want of a bed.

Nobody for a moment would suggest the accommodation is ideal. By its very nature, it is never going to be.

But the centres are staffed by the requisite number of professionals who have the skills to deal with all the myriad of issues that inevitably arise when accommodating people who have been sleeping rough.

The argument has been made that Apollo House offers more appealing and warmer surroundings than the hostels that many residents can find intimidating and depressing. Certainly nobody would begrudge the most vulnerable in our society that.

And you can see how the happy, collegiate atmosphere of Apollo House, with famous musicians and volunteers singing songs to crowds of well-wishers, would appeal to those in need of shelter.

But for how long can that be the case?

What happens when the music stops?

The organisers say that the very specific needs of the residents in Apollo House are being cared for by an army of volunteers, some of whom have the requisite skills in this area.

It's impossible to know if that is the case or not. If one of the residents has an episode in the middle of the night - is there the expert care to deal with that?

Read more: Apollo House not a long-term solution, Sheridan admits

Even if there currently is, there must be doubts as to how long that can last.

With a high professional-staff-to-resident ratio required in such facilities, it's surely not sustainable.

Apollo House is hardly suitable as a place to live. While the facilities required for a hostel are relatively basic, what quality of sanitation is available there? There is also a massive concern around insurance, which cannot be lightly dismissed.

The argument will be made that all these are side issues - and if everything goes well, perhaps they will be. That by turning the spotlight onto the issue of homelessness, the greater good is being served by this campaign. But the problem is the spotlight is being focused on the wrong area.

All of the discussion that has centred on Apollo House has been about rough sleeping and emergency accommodation. And that completely misses the bigger picture.

Secure

Since the tragic death of Jonathan Corrie two years ago, hundreds of new emergency accommodation beds have been added, but they haven't solved a problem that is about far more than simply giving people a place to stay for the night.

What's needed isn't emergency beds. What's needed is affordable, secure housing for all.

And that's far harder to achieve than simply occupying a building and providing rudimentary facilities.

The celebrities from the arts world undoubtedly mean well. Their motives aren't in question. But their tactics certainly should be.

With their high profile and the attention they've got, they're actually in a position to push for radical measures and reforms.

Read more: 'The passion behind Irish people when they're moved by something is extraordinary' - Glen Hansard

For example, they could demand immediate legislation to compulsorily purchase all properties lying idle; to fast-track the proposed levies on vacant land; to push for more social housing on Nama developments. But they have failed, so far at least, to do so.

Other than firing a shot across the bow of the 'establishment' and uttering platitudes and clichés, what are the demands of those behind the occupation? What do they want to achieve?

The housing crisis is a hugely complex issue - far more complex than vapid conspiracy theories about 'official Ireland' sitting on its hands or dancing to the developers' tune.

And simplistic 'solutions', that merely play to the public gallery have the potential to do far more harm than good.

Shane Coleman presents 'Newstalk Breakfast' weekdays from 7am

Irish Independent

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