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Dublin: 15 °C Friday 29 August, 2014

Column: Ireland is not a just society. The solidarity we need has been lost.

Why should bondholders come before our most vulnerable? Fr Peter McVerry asks whether a fair society is any more than a dream.

Fr Peter McVerry

I RECEIVED AN email recently from a lady who is living in private rented accommodation.

She had got a letter from the Community Welfare Officer informing her that her rent supplement was being reduced from €340a month to €250 a month. She was told to negotiate a rent reduction from her landlord, and if the landlord was not willing to reduce her rent, she had 13 weeks in which to find rented accommodation under €250 a month. She would not be allowed to pay the balance herself (even if she could have afforded it), but failure to find accommodation at the lower rate would result in her rent supplement being discontinued altogether.

Now, her rent supplement has already been reduced twice in recent years and she has already negotiated, with considerable difficulty, a reduction in rent with her landlord to compensate. She is very clear that her landlord will not reduce the rent any further. She has lived in this accommodation for five years and it has become her home. Since she got the letter, she has been looking around for cheaper accommodation in her neighbourhood, but cannot find any. The situation is causing her considerable mental stress. She is staring homelessness in the face.

Why would the Department of Social Protection take such a course of action? It is trying to save money by reducing the cost of renting. Since 40 per cent of rental accommodation is dependent on a rent supplement, they hope to force rents down, and cite some very disputable evidence that rents are currently above market rate. However, the consequences of this policy will, potentially, make hundreds of people homeless and condemn the rest to living in hovels that are unfit for human habitation.

Patrick is 38 and has been unemployed all his life. Recently the Department of Social Protection cut his jobseeker’s allowance by €44 because he failed to attend an interview at which his skills and qualifications would be reviewed, in an effort to assist him in finding work. He was being penalised for not making an effort to escape from unemployment. He confirms for many the stereotypical image of welfare spongers, too lazy to work, too comfortable on welfare.

‘Even if a job did exist, he has no hope of getting it’

There are 436,700 people in this country out of work, many of them third-level graduates, most of them with at least a Leaving Certificate. Patrick left school when he was 14. His literacy level is low. He has no skills or qualifications. He has a criminal record from his earlier years. He is on a methadone programme and has to attend his methadone clinic every day – which due to cutbacks is now only open during the daytime. Patrick’s chances of getting a job in the height of a recession are almost nil. Yet he is expected to keep looking for a job which, even if it did exist, he has no hope of getting, or he is punished for not doing so.

Supposing Patrick actually does look for work! He has a very low self-esteem. He feels that his life has always been a failure: he failed to finish school, he failed to learn to read and write properly, he ended up in prison, he failed to ever get a job. His few attempts to get a job inevitably end again in failure. All Patrick’s attempts to find a job are simply reinforcing his sense of failure. The Department of Social Protection, in its demand that Patrick keep looking for a job, are only damaging Patrick even further.

Patrick also suffers from depression. This is related to childhood traumas which have never healed. He often lies in bed for days on end, too depressed to get up. Now, even if he could get a job, no employer would keep him on.

Ironically, in all the years of the Celtic Tiger, when some unskilled jobs were available, especially in the construction industry, the Department of Social Protection never asked Patrick to attend an interview to see how they could help him to get employment! Patrick would have been delighted if someone could have helped him get a job. Now that there are few jobs available, and hundreds of thousands of well qualified people looking for them, Patrick is being pressurised to attend what will almost certainly be a useless interview.

‘Designed to punish people for being unemployed’

This crackdown on people who are unemployed is not primarily to help people get a job; it appears designed to punish people for being unemployed. Welfare payments are seen as a waste of valuable resources on people who are unproductive in the economy. The Government’s “Action Plan for Jobs” hopes, over the next five years, to reduce the number of people who are unemployed by 100,000. 436,700 people, at least, will be competing for those jobs or training places. Even if they all materialise – a huge “if” – there will still be 336,700 people unemployed.

It would actually make more sense if those who chose NOT to compete for those jobs, thus giving others a better chance of securing them, were to be rewarded for opting out, not punished! Why ask everyone to chase jobs when we know that more than three out of four cannot succeed?

Do those who make such policies understand the consequences of their policies, or do they simply not care? I believe the people who make such policies are usually good, caring, compassionate people who simply live in a totally different world, unaware of the real consequences of their decisions.

I look with anger at the different treatment of bondholders and homeless people. A political decision was made that unidentified – and apparently unidentifiable – bondholders had to be paid, no matter the cost. And so it happened. Why could we not have made a political decision to eliminate homelessness, or blighted housing estates, no matter the cost? It is not rocket science! The problem of homelessness is not so complicated that we cannot identify or find a solution. But politicians understand the world of finance and are comfortable in that world, whereas the world of homelessness is a different world, right beside us, amongst us, but light years apart.

‘Some already-wealthy people got even wealthier’

In 1996, when the Celtic Tiger was just beginning, there were 2,500 homeless people in Ireland; in 2008, when the Celtic Tiger was just ending, there were 5,000 homeless people in Ireland. During those years when our Government had more money that it knew what to do with, the number of homeless people doubled. Why? Basically, the escalating cost of housing pushed up the cost of renting; a flat that had cost £30 per week in 1996 would cost €130 per week in 2008. Some already wealthy people got even wealthier from building or investing in houses, while at the same time, and for the same reason, homeless people were priced out of the market into homelessness.

The stress caused to that lady on the rent supplement system, the pain that is imposed on so many ordinary people who had nothing to do with the economic crisis in which we find ourselves, while those wealthy bankers, developers and politicians who were primarily responsible for the crisis are largely untouchable, is just grossly unfair.

Today, to move into a new world, a world that promises a better life for all, and a real hope for a better future, we need a new war: a war on poverty, at home and abroad, and a war on climate change.

A war on poverty would create a demand for investment in producing basic needs for all, adequate housing, food, medicines, infrastructure, health and education. A war on climate change would create a demand for non fossil-fuelled transport, for clean energy, for public transport.

‘This solidarity no longer exists’

Such a war requires a solidarity that, unfortunately, no longer exists in Ireland, or indeed elsewhere; it was almost destroyed by the Celtic Tiger. It requires a sacrifice of self-interested short-term gains, which, on the national level, is willing to put future generations and the poor in first place, and, on the international level, is willing to dismantle barriers to free trade set up by rich countries to protect their own interests, to dismantle barriers to the free movement of labour with the same enthusiasm as they dismantled barriers to the free movement of capital.

We cannot build a new economic model on an old political model. A transformed economic model requires a transformed political model, a transformation of leadership: political leadership which does not bow to powerful vested interest groups, which does not seek their own good at the expense of the good of others; which is not self-serving but seeks to serve the common good; which gives rightful place to other values beyond mere economic growth, values such as solidarity, community, respect for the dignity of others.

And so I dream on. At the heart of a new economic and political model is the concept of solidarity. We will never eliminate homelessness and poverty in Irish society, or in our world, as long as we see homeless and poor people as outside objects in need of our compassion; we will only solve homelessness and poverty when we see homeless and poor people as part of ourselves, and we as part of them. We are one people and one community. Reaching out to those who are homeless, poor and marginalised is not an act of charity, it is a demand of justice.

A shared sense of solidarity, the solidarity that acknowledges the dignity of every human being, a solidarity that feels the pain of others as our pain, that sees the desires and hopes of others as our own desires and hopes is the fundamental requirement for building a more just society.

This is an extract from the TASC Annual Lecture given by Fr Peter McVerry on Thursday June 7. For more information, see the TASC website.

Fr Peter McVerry has been working with Dublin’s young homeless for more than 30 years. He now runs the Peter McVerry Trust, providing services to those who need help in breaking the cycle of homelessness, and to aid their move towards independent living.

Byline photo: Photocall Ireland.

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