At the turn of the last century the poor of Dublin were crammed into single room tenement dwellings. Nothing much has changed. Now the poorest people in Dublin are being crammed into one room hotel suits because… well, just because.
Everyone knows the solution to Ireland’s homeless crisis. We might as well stop beating about the bush on that one. The government knows the answer and we know the answer, and the government knows that we know that they know the answer. The answer is quite simple and affordable; as the homeless crisis is fed by the housing crisis we have to solve the housing crisis by building affordable and council owned homes. What stops this from happening is the particularly disturbing reality that the Irish government is dominated by landlords and others who are invested in the housing property market who stand to lose financially if and when the housing crisis is ended. Instead of actually addressing the problem the policymakers use public money to put homeless families in “emergency accommodation” and let others rot on the streets.
As the name implies, emergency accommodation was never intended to provide people with a home. It is envisioned more as a temporary stopgap measure much like Direct Provision was intended for the asylum seekers the last Fianna Fáil regime hoped to hide from public view. Yet, like Direct Provision, the now more than 6,000 people in Ireland’s emergency accommodation are trapped in a semi-permanent – one room per family – provisional measure. It’s not free, of course. These families are being billeted in hotels and bed and breakfasts all around the country – but certainly not in conditions that can, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as luxurious. In 2015 the government spent €25m on this temporary-cum-permanent solution, handing over huge sums of our money to private hotel owners who profit by providing the bear minimum to the families living in their rooms.
Most of us have stayed in a hotel before, and we know what we can expect from a reasonably decent hotel – one that we might consider visiting again. Clean sheets, a television perhaps, a nice lobby and a bar. Maybe even a pleasant restaurant. What we don’t expect is the complete absence of these basic requirements. We definitely don’t expect to be shouted at or face being kicked out because our children were running along the corridor or playing in the elevators. The paying customer can expect a little better than this from the management. Not so for the residents living in emergency accommodation contracts in these hotels, regardless of the fact that they too are paying customers – the State is paying for them. What they get from the hotel experience is a frosty reception and institutional treatment not unlike a minimum security prison or a reform school.
HAVE YOU EVER BEEN SPOKEN TO IN BOLD CAPS? It’s infuriating. It’s patronising and controlling, and this is exactly how it is used against people living in emergency accommodation. Notices are pinned on doors and hallways – hidden from the regular clientele – reminding these most unwelcome guests in bold capitalised letters that they are not to use the front door. Their presence is to be hidden from decent guests. They are also threatened with eviction if their children are caught playing in the corridors. It goes without saying that these families have no recourse to complaint. There is no shortage of others in need of their room, and they are where they are at the discretion of the management. Beggars can’t be choosers, right?
One hotel room for an entire family! What makes them obvious from the outside is the conspicuous placement of ornaments on their window ledges and families coming and going from side and back entrances with shopping and school bags. No one goes shopping in the supermarket when they are staying in a hotel. These people have to. This is their home – for the foreseeable future. What they are forced to call home is a single room, taken up for the most part with beds, in which there can be nothing approximating privacy. Children have nowhere to play or do homework and the adults can forget about the intimacy that is needed to keep them together. Not everyone has sex in hotel rooms it would appear. Nothing of this will change until we build more houses, but we all know that that isn’t going to happen any time soon. It’s easy money for the hotel industry.
Mother and her children forced to live in hotel room as emergency accommodation
It is so wonderful that the misery of those sleeping rough this winter is making it to the news again. Maybe this Christmas Santa will come with a sack packed full of homes for everyone sleeping on the street. More than likely he won’t though.
Days before Christmas, as if right on cue, homelessness is at the pinnacle of Ireland’s news cycle. Every year it is the same thing; the members of comfortable class get squeamish as they elbow their way from shop to shop looking for the ideal gift for the perfect Christmas at the sight of shivering bodies wrapped in sleeping bags in doorways. Human beings dumped on the litter heap of society are more easily ignored during the more pleasant months and from the distance of the leafy suburbs, but at this – most wonderful – time of the year they are forced to come to town in the cold and they are confronted with the detritus of Irish living – the rough sleepers.
FG-FF are taking court action against homeless people seeking shelter on Christmas week. Disgusting. #HomeSweetHome
What is gossip among ladies who lunch, the world over, becomes human interest on the five o’clock news. As though from nowhere a plea is made for the poor unfortunates who have been left, like Jonathan Corrie and scores of others, to die on the streets. What makes it to the news, what pricks the conscience of the propertied class, makes it to the Dáil chamber and ministers and TDs clutch their pearls and talk about change – change that never comes. Every year it is the same thing, the government responds to the news and the pleas with eloquent words and everyone hopes to ride the story out until January when the well-to-do are planning their summer vacations.
Talk of the homeless and “action” for the same has become the nearest thing in Ireland to a winter Olympic sport. But, like all games, it has its season and their whimsical minds wander off to more interesting things… until next Christmas. Talk of the homeless, that part of the talk that makes it to the evening news, is about facts and figures; it is concerned with what is being done to keep people warm and fed over the holidays. No one – bar no one – is ever allowed to ask why our sisters and brothers are out on the street, and when we ask they why the answer is always the same: “That is not for us to answer.” We can ask why we ended up in recession because it threatened their wealth and privilege. This is a thing we can inquire into; why this happened to them, but all is quiet when we ask why this is happening to those on the street.
Yet every now and then we get a glimpse into their thinking on homelessness. You won’t get this from a government minister or a news caster, and you won’t get this from the refined ladies at lunch or the bankers. You will get it from their younglings – the uncompleted chips from the old block. Be it the YouTube famous Foxrock “KPMG Girl” or one of the kids from the €5,000 a year Belvedere College out earning his social conscience get-out-of-jail-free card shaking a bucket to “help the homeless.” In their world “success” is the education their parents can buy and the career their mothers and fathers can hook them up with. “Failure” is something one does all by one’s self.
How else can pubescents trained thus make sense of women and men sleeping rough than personal failure? They are, to quote KPMG Girl, “Losers.” Indeed they are losers. They have lost everything we in our homes can imagine – and not even their lives are safe from this loss, but the reasons are not on the official script. Had the reason for Sharon being set alight while she slept in a doorway be her lack of a decent education and her failure to find a well-paid job then the Social Welfare’s gallant attempts to teach the unemployed of the inner city computer skills would make perfect sense.
That the reason for all economic and social inequalities is the wealth of the privileged is a truth the privileged simply cannot allow themselves to accept. A home for Sharon or one for Jonathan before he froze to death would require equitable taxation, it would mean a little less for Christmas – and that just won’t do. So what will happen is this: The Christmas shopping will get done, a few coins will get thrown into the buckets, and the politicians will get paid to talk a while longer, and eventually January will come. Sharon might make it through the winter. God knows, she might even get turkey and ham at the RDS. But she’ll be waiting until hell freezes over before a home for her gets built.
Each and every unoccupied building in the control of NAMA that might otherwise be a home for homeless people and families is a tangible act of treason against the Proclamation of the ownership of Ireland by the people of Ireland.
Only a few minutes’ walk from the quays, tucked in behind Tara Street DART station, a small revolution is taking place. Home Sweet Home was the brainchild of Ballymun man Quintin Sheridan. Originally it was a social media campaign by Sheridan, who has himself been homeless, to raise awareness of the appalling state of homelessness in Ireland. Since October it has grown to become a movement that has now seized an unoccupied building – Apollo House – for the homeless; to get them off the streets for Christmas and with a plan for it to become a home for rough sleepers in the long term. By occupying this building – a property effectively held in trust by NAMA for the bankrupted owners – those responsible are breaking the law.
I support the occupation and I support the violation of any law that necessitates the suffering and death of human beings in order to keep the rich secure in their wealth. We can go further and state that the existence of the Irish Republic makes any such law illegal on the island of Ireland, because it violates the very essence of our Republic:
We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people. Easter Proclamation, 1916
It is ironic – supremely so – that on this centenary year we find ourselves reminding a stone deaf Irish government of the words of the Proclamation, with its declaration of the ownership of Ireland by the people of Ireland. Yet this should come as no surprise. Earlier this year, on the day the nation marked the one hundredth anniversary of the Rising there was a soup kitchen for the homeless at the GPO in Dublin – at the exact spot Pádraig Pearse first read the Proclamation.
A century on and we find ourselves in a position where the ownership of Ireland is still not within the grasp of the people of Ireland. Every day more people, more families, are dispossessed of their homes in the name of government imposed austerity and put out on the street. With hotel rooms, Bed and Breakfasts, and other emergency accommodation full, more of the people of Ireland are sleeping on the streets than at any time in the country’s history – more than were rough sleeping during the Famine, and more even than at any point during the British occupation.
The reason for this is that we in Ireland remain an occupied people. We have been bought and sold by a privileged Irish ruling class to financiers and corporations. Sovereignty of Ireland remains a distant hope for the people of Ireland in an occupation of austerity that has witnessed more deaths by suicide than by bullets in 1916 and by all the bullets and bombs of the Troubles in the north.
On the grounds of the Proclamation we must all support the present occupation of Apollo House. We are obliged to support the occupation and to take it further and take back control of every asset of Ireland that has been taken from the people of Ireland – buildings and oil and gas resources. These things are the birth right of every Irish woman and man, and what use is an Irish birth right when its ownership leads to the ending of Irish lives? Apollo House is a small revolution. Our hope is that it is the opening salvo in a national revolution.
When the Gardaí tell homeless people to “move on,” where do they think these people are going to go? Homelessness, as the word implies, means that these people have nowhere to go. Encounters with the police often leave the homeless bruised.
Ireland has ordered its economic priorities in such a way that it produces otherwise unnecessary deprivation, poverty, and homelessness. When presented with a provisional solution to the nation’s chronic housing shortage, the government – incapable of escaping dangerous economic modes of thinking – ended up in a predicament where the multi-billionaire Denis O’Brien was holding the State to ransom over the unit cost of modular homes. In the end, with modular homes costing almost as much as permanent houses, the plan fell flat and no modular homes were built. No one got a home and the number of people on the homeless register continued to grow.
Talking with the homeless on the streets of Dublin is an education all of its own. You hear that the government cynically opens up more beds in shelters on the nights when voluntary homeless associations are conducting official counts of those sleeping rough. You hear that there are members of the Gardaí who routinely harass and even assault homeless men and women. You hear that there is no shortage of men who try to lure homeless women and girls back to their homes. You hear that their very presence in the city is criminalised; if they sit on the street they are arrested for “aggressive begging,” if they go to McDonalds’ they are told to leave and to stop “stinking up the place.”
Eddie, a young man living on the streets with his partner Amy, explained that the police want the homeless to be like cockroaches; “to disappear whenever the light is shone on them.” He and Amy know full well that the government are embarrassed by the homeless crisis. Those in power don’t want tourists and other foreign visitors seeing just how many people are without a home. Any rational person can see the solution here – deal with the crisis and get people back into houses. But this government wants to have its cake and eat it.
Neither Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil and Labour before have shown any serious commitment to tackling the homeless crisis, rather they have been content to have more people put out onto the streets and leave it to the law and the police to make the victims invisible. Hiding the problem – according to those on the street – involves the police using increasingly more violent means of shifting men, women, and children who really have nowhere else to go. Without exception, every single homeless person I have spoken to has mentioned police harassment or violence.
Rather than continue to write about homelessness in Dublin I decided that it was time to get out and speak to some of the homeless themselves and listen to what they had to say. I spoke with Sharon on Foley Street. She has been four years on the street.
In the early hours of this morning I went for a walk around the city centre. On a Friday night, nine days before Christmas, the streets of Dublin are abuzz with activity; there are those out for their Christmas work night out, the reindeer jumper clad troupes on their twelve pubs of Christmas jaunt, others are coming and going from their jobs, and then there is the army of rough sleepers trying to get a bit of shut eye. I have been writing more often in the past while about the homeless crisis, and I thought it was time I went and spoke to those who are actually sleeping on the streets. All of those I approached were happy to talk. A few thanked me for making them “feel human.”
200,000 vacant homes and government are still concentrating on 2020 plan. Open what we have in stock. Get people housed.
Over on Foley Street I met Sharon. She and her partner have been sleeping rough in the doorway of a dance studio, or – as she calls it – her “little home.” Sharon finds it hard to sleep, and who would blame her after being set alight in her sleeping bag by a passing group of thugs the Halloween before last? She was reading the city paper and was all chat about the doctor who was acquitted on charges of murdering her own daughter. I sat beside her and over a few smokes we spoke about how she ended up on the streets, her experiences, and her thoughts on what the government could be doing to end the homeless crisis.
What came as a surprise to me – as if I would know anything about sleeping on the streets – was her lack of anger at the state of things. She was wounded over her homelessness, over being separated from her daughter, and over the possibility of having to spend another Christmas in a damp and freezing doorway. Yet when I asked her if she would like to say anything to or ask anything of the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, all she gave was a heartfelt plea that he “try to do the best he can” to get people off the streets. “Every house deserves a cat,” she said as we touched on the idea of everyone having a right to a home.
Some of what she had to say about the problem verged on the xenophobic, and she was aware of this and apologetic. To her it was about “helping our own first.” Just around the corner there were two other men, Alex from Italy and Martin from Romania. It seemed to me that the problem paid no attention to where the victims were from. Still, her opinion is understandable to a degree – as the number of those sleeping rough increases the government cuts more and more funding and services, forcing those on the street to fight harder among themselves for dwindling resources. Her opinion doesn’t make her a racist or a bad person. It merely gives away the fact that she is frightened.