IN DECEMBER 1989, Ireland ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESC) which covers areas such as decent income, employment, education, health care and housing. As a signatory, the Irish State made a commitment to progressively realise ESC rights to the “maximum of its available resources”.
Almost 25 years later, the covenant has yet to be given legal effect in Irish law.
The lack of progress has given rise to a situation where there are now significant gaps in both Irish legislation and the Constitution, which itself deals almost exclusively with civil and political rights. At present it is impossible for citizens to uphold their rights as set out in the covenant, which has had wide-ranging consequences for Irish society.
Failure of the State
Peter McVerry Trust is an organisation that works with homeless youths and many others on the margins of Irish society deals on a daily basis with the failure by the State to provide for ESC rights. The majority of those with whom we work experienced homelessness not by chance, but because of the failure of the State to protect their rights. Simply put, the barriers which they faced in accessing education, employment, health care and adequate housing has led to many people experiencing homelessness.
In the absence of legal means by which to hold the State to account, individuals and charities are left to compete against one another to make their human rights issue a political priority. Even today, the fight against homelessness is relatively high on the list of political priorities yet there are over 5,000 people who are homeless in the State – with more people being added to the list on a daily basis. The vast majority of those who experience homelessness are provided with shelter but do not have security, privacy and a platform from which they can fully participate in society. They are disenfranchised and face barriers when seeking to access education, employment, healthcare and social security.
Developing a national housing policy
If the right to a home was enshrined in the Constitution then the State would need to develop a national housing policy with a right to a home at its core. This would ensure those without other means would be provided with a home by the State. The policy would ensure that the State acted as the primary facilitator and enabler when it came to housing supply and would be responsible for filling the shortfall that voluntary housing bodies and the private market can’t meet. It would ensure that if the State failed to provide housing to those who were most vulnerable it could be held to account, something which is vitally important if we are to eliminate homelessness.
In the past, access to legal recourse has led to major improvements in tackling homelessness. In the 1970s and 1980s there were significant numbers of children sleeping rough in the State. Following years of advocacy on behalf of those children the 1991 Child Care Act was implemented. The Act meant that the State undertook to provide appropriate accommodation for all children under 18 who were homeless. Initial resistance and lethargy from the then health boards meant that it took a wave of legal cases to the High Court by representatives for homeless children, many of whom where support by Peter McVerry Trust, to force the State to act and accommodate these children appropriately.
A society free of homelessness
The impact of the Child Care Act, the rights it recognised, and the subsequent enforcement through legal proceedings meant that there has been a significant cultural shift in how homeless children are treated. It also ended children sleeping rough on our streets. We now have a situation where out-of-home children are provided with a very high standard of care and the quality of supports for children is improving all the time.
We believe that, by taking this opportunity to place the right to a home in our Constitution, we can take a major step towards a society free of homelessness.