WHILE everybody accepts that the housing and homelessness crises will not be solved overnight and that they have to be tackled from a lot of different angles, one would have hoped that there would be more tangible progress to report. However – very much to the frustration of all the people and agencies that are doing their best – homeless figures for February showed that there were 9,807 individuals homeless across Ireland, of whom 3,755 are children.
Even though our economy is growing at one of the fastest rates in Europe, there are families still living in cramped and unsuitable conditions in hotel rooms as a stopgap emergency measure, despite the fact that the former Housing Minister Simon Coveney had pledged that this practice would cease with effect from July of last year. The total number of homeless families here in the south west of the country increased by 40% in just one month, according the St Vincent de Paul Society (SVP), who pointed out that, nationally, every day in February, 17 more children became homeless.
That is a shocking statistic, with the total number of homeless families rising to 1,739 by the end of February. As SVP national chairman Kieran Stafford pointed out, ‘We cannot underestimate the profound damage homelessness inflicts on children.’ And, he justifiably asked: ‘How many more children will have to pay the price for a policy strategy that continues to rely on a dysfunctional housing market?’
The latest rise in numbers caused veteran campaigner on the issue, Fr Peter McVerry, to declare last week that homelessness had gone from being a crisis to an emergency, so alarmed had he become by the latest figures. Indeed, a very strongly-worded joint statement by Sr Stanislaus Kennedy and Fr McVerry pulled no punches, as they said: ‘We have lost all confidence in the commitment and ability of this government to solve the housing and homelessness crisis.’
This is a damning indictment of the government’s efforts so far and Fr McVerry described the government’s Rebuilding Ireland plan as ‘a deeply-flawed strategy.’ He, Sr Stan and the various charities dealing with the fall-out from homelessness are adamant that there needs to be a much more ambitious drive to provide what they term ‘real social housing’ rather than relying on the subsidisation of rents in the private rental sector.
The general shortage of housing stock is also causing massive rent increases that working people on low and even medium-sized incomes cannot afford, and they are adding to the demand for more social housing. Looking around the skylines of our cities, the tall cranes that epitomised the Celtic Tiger building boom are after making a big comeback and Sr Stan, quite rightly, asked how come developers are able to get their act together building private houses and apartments, while the government and local authorities lag so far behind on social housing construction?
Describing housing as ‘a fundamental human right,’ they say that the inability or unwillingness to assure this basic right to tens of thousands of people in Ireland today is ‘an indictment of our society and constitutes an emergency that requires far more radical action than we have seen so far.’
Like them or loathe them, many private developers know how to make things happen a lot more quickly, so there may be some merit in employing some of them on a consultancy basis to drive on the urgently-needed provision of social and affordable housing. How radical is that!
It is clear from the depth of feeling among those taking to our streets this weekend to protest about the situation, that – at its political peril – the government must show a lot more resolve in tackling the housing and homelessness emergencies and start getting results quickly.