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'Apollo House was about much more than 35 people in one building'

This country needs a lot more people to say enough is enough, and on many more issues than homelessness, writes Frankie Gaffney.

Frankie Gaffney

THE OCCUPATION OF Apollo House has now reached something of a resolution.

The headlines and talking heads (including Minister Simon Coveney), are focusing firmly on the commitment to provide suitable accommodation for the residents, as if this was the whole point of the campaign. But this is, perhaps, the least significant achievement of the Home Sweet Home movement.

I have a friend who lives in the Tenters area of Dublin (a few minutes walk from St Stephen’s Green). Proudly carved in stone on the exterior of his houses is the number 1922: the year the houses were built and the year this State was founded.

Despite having just emerged from a bloody war of independence (a fight to the death to ensure we’d have a State at all), and despite being at the time engaged in a new and bitter civil war, the government then was building houses for those in need.

Good, solid, quality houses. Houses that are still standing, that still have families living in them. The Irish State has many failings, historically and to this day, but one thing it has always done – far better than the private sector – is build decent houses for the less well off.

Whatever challenges the current government has faced pale into utter insignificance in comparison to the problems faced by government then: a newly born State already in ruins before it had a chance to get on its feet, with a divided populace murdering each other.

Yet we remain in the midst of the worst housing crisis not only since the foundation of the state, but since the Famine.

The Fine Gael-led (and now Fianna Fáil-backed) administration’s record on the issue is damning.

In 2015, the government built 75 houses. At this rate, it would take 1,200 years to clear the housing lists. And that’s only if nobody else were to join it. Life expectancy for women who sleep on the streets is 38 years of age (the same as it was in 1847). In 2016, the centenary year of the 1916 Rising, while ineffectual politicians paraded about the country, at least 60 families lost their homes every month.

Yesterday, as a result of pressure from the Home Sweet Home campaign, the government made a number of decisions after conceding homelessness was at emergency levels. The minister reiterated his guarantee that there will be no families left in the disgraceful position of being “accommodated” in the entirely inappropriate hotels or B&Bs by 1 July 2017.

The epidemic of hidden homelessness (those sheltered by friends and relatives, depending on pure kindness to save them from the streets) will finally be examined and those numbers are finally set to be included in the tally of those who require housing.

Some councils have been denying such people access to housing lists. This is now under the spotlight.

Previously, hostels provided beds for the night, with people left to wander the street for up to 16 hours per day – and not knowing if they’d have a bed again the next night. Now the minister has agreed to new minimum standards, including residents having six-month security of tenure, and crucially their “own key” to come and go as needed.

This finally offers the minimum amount of dignity required to begin the process of people getting back on their feet. This is a brand new standard in accommodation for the homeless. The bar has been raised, significantly.

It should never be forgotten that these measures came about not because the government identified a problem, and then acted out of a sense of duty or concern, but because a coalition of artists, trade unionists, housing activists, and homeless people themselves, got together and said enough was enough.

Crucially, the Irish people overwhelmingly supported this initiative, forcing the government’s hand. This is about much more than 35 people in one building – this is about a nation.

And they haven’t gone away you know.

Home Sweet Home has declared it will be a “permanent intervention in the nation’s housing policy”.

Two new homeless shelters will be opened as a result of the action (swapping one property for two is not a bad deal).

A full-time activist and advice centre will also be opened by the group itself, empowering people to address this problem into the future, and creating an important watchdog to ensure promises are kept.

As Brendan Ogle put it, “The government’s only policy for workers was to drive down wages, at the same time as their only policy for housing was to drive up rents and prices.”

The agreement the government has made amount to a concession that they can no longer maintain this free-market fundamentalism.

Some journalists have tried to spin negative stories about the Home Sweet Home movement over the past few weeks. But what is truly newsworthy is that, working with some of the most troubled and vulnerable people there are, all this was achieved without non-violently, without any arrests, and in a spirit of kindness, co-operation, and pacifism – in only three short weeks. Three weeks.

It took five years for the founders of the State to get from 1916 into negotiations with the British, but Home Sweet Home was sitting down at a minister’s table to read demands in less than a month, without a shot fired (and with Christmas and New Years to contend with in between).

Maybe that doesn’t make a good headline, but by God it should.

Although it might mean the world to the 35 residents who have been housed, given the enormity of the results of the Home Sweet Home campaign, finding homes for these individuals should be seen for what it is – a very minor detail in a seismic event in Irish politics.

Yet the government, sections of the media, the establishment in general, are trying to focus on this small aspect, and ignore the rest.

The idea is to make out this was a stunt – and that those involved were appeased with a few crumbs, satiating only themselves. The reason they will push this narrative is that they are shocked at the massive upswell of support this act of righteous civil disobedience garnered – and frightened at the prospect of what else might be achieved by similar tactics.

So Home Sweet Home should stand as an important lesson: when the government says their hands are tied, don’t believe them.

Remember how easily we can untie those knots, real or imagined, when people act together, when we take matters into our own hands.

This country needs a lot more people to say enough is enough, and on many more issues than homelessness. Nothing has demonstrated more clearly since the imposition of austerity that the time for talking is well and truly over.

As is, perhaps, the time for marching and protesting.

Action, it is now clear, speaks far louder than words. Fionnuala Flanagan this week described the takeover of the NAMA property Apollo House as “the most revolutionary event to occur in the city since 1916″.

She just might be right. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another hundred years for the next installment.

Frankie Gaffney is an author from Dublin and is involved with the Home Sweet Home movement. His controversial novel, Dublin Seven, was published to critical acclaim last year.

More: Home Sweet Home makes government deal but future of Apollo House uncertain

Read: Home Sweet Home co-founder has multiple convictions for robbery, kidnap and aggravated burglary 

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