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Coverage of homelessness crisis 'damaging to Ireland's reputation' - minister

His comments follow controversial remarks on the topic by Leo Varadkar at the weekend.

THE JUNIOR MINISTER at the Department of Housing has hit out at coverage of the country’s homelessness crisis, saying some of the commentary around the issue is damaging to Ireland’s reputation.

Damien English, who was speaking in the Dáil yesterday, also defended comments by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the weekend.

Answering questions from TheJournal.ie on Saturday, Varadkar said that Ireland had “one of the lowest levels of homelessness” – despite a record number of people living in emergency accommodation.

90432614_90432614 Junior Minister Damien English Source: Sam Boal

Speaking yesterday, English, a Fine Gael TD, said it was “not good enough that more than 3,000 children are without permanent homes, that families are residing in hotels or that individuals are sleeping on the streets of our cities”.

He added:

“However, neither is it acceptable to hear commentators talking down our country. Over the past two years we have seen this narrative reflected in the national media. It has been claimed that homelessness in Ireland is at its worst since the Famine and that we have a crisis that is the worst in Europe.

“Assertions have been made to the effect that homelessness in Ireland is at such crisis levels that we should be excused from the requirements of EU law in responding.

Some of this narrative has seeped into international coverage of our housing system, and it is damaging to Ireland’s international reputation that our social response to this issue is being portrayed as dysfunctional.

English’s comments appear to reference remarks by campaigner Fr Peter McVerry, who said earlier this year that the number of homeless people in Ireland was now greater than at any stage in the country’s history since the Famine.

The junior minister went on to reference “a number of readily available international comparative studies on homelessness” which illustrate Ireland’s position.

“One such report is that produced recently by the OECD, which sees Ireland in the top tier of 30 international nations.

“One of the most comprehensive EU comparisons ever carried out by the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless found Ireland to have one of the lowest rates of homelessness among member states.

Of course, these comparisons need to be contextualised. Direct international comparisons are difficult because of the availability, type, quality and consistency of data in different countries.

A spokesperson for the Peter McVerry Trust said this morning:

Minister English’s comments imply that some organisations are talking down Ireland in an inaccurate manner and it comes across as an attempt to silence dissent.
In actual fact we are simply highlighting accurate information and seeking sustainable solutions to the current housing and homeless crisis. Our only agenda is to make Ireland’s housing system work for everyone.

The Peter McVerry Trust and others, the spokesperson said, “have regularly put forward evidence based proposals to create a more functional and affordable housing system that could make Ireland a much better place to live”.

‘Not helpful’

Elsewhere this morning, comments by the director of Dublin City Council’s homelessness body are reported on the front page of today’s Irish Times. Eileen Gleeson of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive said that homelessness often resulted from years of “bad behaviour” and cannot be solved by unauthorised groups handing out food

“Let’s be under no illusion here, when somebody becomes homeless it doesn’t happen overnight, it takes years of bad behaviour probably, or behaviour that isn’t the behaviour of you and me,” Gleeson told the Council’s policing committee yesterday.

“If they’re only getting a cup of soup and they’re homeless it isn’t helpful,” Gleeson said.

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Speaking this morning, Anthony Flynn of Inner City Helping Homeless, which provides outreach services on the streets of Dublin each night, said that while he didn’t think Gleeson’s comments were helpful, he didn’t “disagree in certain aspects” when it came to her specific remarks about groups handing out food in the city.

Inner City Helping Homeless, in addition to providing food, sleeping bags and hot drinks to rough sleepers, also runs a day service which helps people find medical help and housing. Their goal, he explained, is to get people into medium-term accommodation so they are not looking for an emergency bed each night.

Flynn, who said there was a need for 150 extra beds in Dublin this winter, said he had observed “an overpopulation of groups” solely handing out food in the city.

“When it comes to voluntary groups I think those people are trying their best,” Flynn told TheJournal.ie. 

Responding to the comments by Leo Varadkar and Minister English, in addition to those of Gleeson, he said he was concerned there was an orchestrated effort to play down the homelessness issue “from senior management and government level”.

Speaking to the News at One, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said that what guides those who are in government is “the concerns of people who are homeless, of they don’t have a home or don’t have accommodation”.

While acknowledging that while Ireland’s rate of homelessness might be low by international standards, Donohoe said ”that’s no comfort to us or to the families that are homeless”.

Figures: Number of homeless children in Ireland passes 3,000

Related: Government’s top housing adviser: ‘Homelessness is a normal thing’ >

Read: Leo Varadkar: ‘Ireland has one of the lowest levels of homelessness’ >

About the author:

Daragh Brophy

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