CHRISTMAS is coming and, with it, will come the government’s annual quick-fix job to get homeless people off the streets and into hostel beds for the festive season so that their consciences can be salved while they tuck into their turkey and ham. Yet, when the new year dawns, so will the stark realisation that the underlying problem of homelessness is as bad as it has ever been and nobody seems to be getting to grips with it.
If Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s new communications unit advised him in advance on his recent remarks about the homelessness problem not being as bad here relative to other countries, then they did not do a very good job, as it came across as very disingenuous to say the least. Trying to talk down a problem that everybody knows is bad is definitely not the way to go and one has to wonder if the money he is spending on these ‘spin doctors’ would be better put towards expertise to actually solve the twin crises of homelessness and housing.
Senior housing official Eileen Gleeson also came across as disingenuous when she claimed that voluntary groups doing soup runs and looking after those sleeping rough on the streets only exacerbated the homelessness problem. Again, another ill-judged intervention that did not serve any useful purpose and was an insult to those trying to help out in good faith.
Even though neither of them meant their words to be offensive, it was ironic that they should make these remarks around the same time as a Focus Ireland report, called ‘Finding a Home,’ revealed that there has been a 54% increase in homeless families in the last 18 months, with 72 families per month becoming homeless, most coming from the private rented sector where so-called vulture funds who snapped up properties cheaply during the economic downturn are now looking for their pound of flesh and, in many cases, tenants are the collateral damage. Continually rising rents in the private rental market generally are adding to the problem and, because the supply of housing is being outstripped by demand more and more, the homelessness problem is getting worse, especially in our cities.
There are plenty of temporary solutions, such as public housing hubs, but these are no substitute for getting people into their own social housing long-term. While availing of these quick-fix solutions, many people are forced to put their lives on hold as they cannot put down roots in a community or settle children properly into schools, and living in such cramped quarters cannot but have some impact on people’s mental health.
We sympathise with those in the frontline services – be they local authority employees or housing charity workers – trying to do their best with limited resources to solve the problems of homeless people and probably knowing in their hearts and souls that even their best efforts will not be good enough to make a significant impact. The main resource they need is a supply of housing units to enable them to carry out their work and, while some are coming on stream, there are nowhere near enough.
All the political sniping in the world will not solve the problems being faced by the homeless, who are the people always caught in the crossfire when intermittent wars of words break out between the political parties and ultimately end up solving nothing.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin rightly pointed out recently that, ‘in the last three years, there have been four housing ministers, four housing strategies and over 40 announcements – yet the crisis has kept getting worse.’ And, he is not shy about reminding us that the last Fine Gael-led government brought the social housing building programme to a halt and stating the obvious that the country needs a dramatic increase in funding to build social and affordable housing.
So, instead of bickering with one another, why can’t our public representatives of all parties and none get their heads together and see to it that this funding increase is put in place for such housing units and – more importantly – that the spending of it is actioned? They can no longer depend on the private sector, which seems to have lost its mojo for housing development on the scale of the boom years as building costs have gone through the roof since then.