Seeing those young boys trying to sleep on hard chairs in a garda station was upsetting for many people and had the effect of making us think again about the homeless crisis. We have a housing problem and a homeless problem, caused by an inadequate housing supply to cater for a great demand. Increasing supply takes time, 18 months to two years we are told. But the problem is we have been told that for at least the last two years and little has changed. As such, the housing crisis is fast becoming a national scandal.
What has changed in those two years is the nature of the homeless crisis. For while in the past, those sleeping rough were mainly substance abusers, they now include large numbers of women and children who have to avail of garda stations when no other accommodation is available.
One thing that hasn't changed is the apparent capacity of the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive to raise the temperature in any debate on this issue. Remember when it was critical of volunteers giving out soup and sandwiches to those who sleep in doorways? Well last week the Executive not only raised the spectre of moving the homeless out of the capital to facilitate the visit of Pope Francis, but also suggested that the homeless problem was being aggravated by allowing asylum seekers to stay here.
The lack of progress on the supply front is down to a number of factors. Private builders are not building to the necessary capacity because, they claim, the conditions are not right; finance is still too difficult to access, despite economic recovery, and still too expensive; and the planning regulations, they say, are too restrictive and cumbersome. Plus the cost of appropriate land is too dear and rising. Nevertheless, more than €100m has been paid out in tax relief to first-time buyers under a scheme introduced in 2016.
In the public sector too, housebuilding is not really happening either to the extent that it needs to. This is not surprising, given that Fine Gael seems ideologically opposed to anything suggestive of the old system of local authorities building houses to rent to those who cannot afford the mortgage necessary to own their own home or to avail of the private rented market. There have always been, and always will be, those who need subsidised accommodation, not because they are lazy and feckless, but because they are poor.
What little is being done in this area is down to very few voluntary bodies working with some local authorities in public-private partnerships. But as far as progress in solving the housing crisis and the problem of homelessness is concerned, it is hard to see much headway being made. Not when the latest figures from the Department of Housing show that 9,872 adults and 3,824 children were homeless in June. Not when the phenomenon of mothers and children having to seek shelter in the public offices of garda stations is becoming a regular feature.
The stark statistics should be enough to jolt us out of any complacency over a situation that is fast becoming a national scandal and, according to Father Peter McVerry, has the capacity to get infinitely worse. We should not have to be confronted with images of discomfort and indignity being imposed on blameless young children to realise the need for urgent action.