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Dublin: 12 °C Friday 28 February, 2020

'Action on homelessness would do more for our international reputation than chastising commentary'

We should be concerned that discussions around homelessness this week were marked by a moralistic judgementalism, writes Kevin Hargaden.

Kevin Hargaden Theologian, Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice

THE BITING COLD in the mornings reminds us that winter is upon us. It is entirely appropriate that our public discussion would, at this time of year, turn to those who are homeless. Yet in the last week, we have heard the plight of those without homes described in ways that should cause us serious concern.

At the Fine Gael Árd Fheis last weekend, the Taoiseach claimed that Irish homelessness figures were on a par with international levels. He was quick to add that any homelessness is too much homelessness, but the message appeared clear: there is no homelessness crisis and this situation is regrettable, if inevitable.

Normalising a scandal

The implicit point was made explicit by the head of the government’s Housing Agency,  Conor Skehan, who spoke on RTE’s Morning Ireland on Tuesday morning. He told the commuting public that homelessness “is a normal thing, it happens”. It is rare that an attempt to normalise a scandal is as brazen as this.

On the same day, the Junior Minister for Housing, Damien English, argued in the Dáil that the talk of a crisis is problematic because it might make us look bad. English worries that those trying to draw public attention to the homelessness crisis are “talking down our country”.

This is a problem because it might damage the flow of capital, since discussing this social emergency “is damaging to Ireland’s international reputation.” On Wednesday morning, news coverage prominently featured the words of Eileen Gleeson, the director of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, who has argued that “chaotic” lifestyles are the cause of homelessness.

What is striking about these interventions is how they avoid the problem they appear to be discussing. The Taoiseach and Conor Skehan’s argument about statistics are flawed because there is no shared definition of homelessness across OECD countries – a point repeatedly made in the report that they are citing. English’s contribution amounts to a call to silence criticism of the government’s failed market-orientated response. Gleeson’s comments are marked by a striking paternalism.

Not just a rough sleeping problem

None of these much-reported remarks wrestle with how Ireland’s homelessness crisis is not just a rough-sleeping problem. The largest factor at play in becoming homeless in Ireland today is an inability to pay the rent or the mortgage. Indeed, a full accounting of the issue would reveal that it is a housing crisis.

From every angle, housing is dysfunctional. Counting those in mortgage arrears, those in negative equity, those priced out of an inflating property bubble, and those burdened by unsustainable rent prices leads to hundreds of thousands affected by the long-term failure to provide affordable housing in Ireland.

When we consider those worst affected – the more than 90,000 households on the housing waiting lists and the more than 8,000 who are homeless by our narrow definition – we are dealing with something far more urgent than a squabble about international comparisons.

We should be concerned about these discussions because instead of describing the real problems faced by massive numbers of people in Ireland, they are marked by a moralistic judgementalism. Gleeson’s words are worth considering in this light. There is no shred of nuance or complexity in her assessment.

Splitting the world into two

“Let’s be under no illusion here,” she advises. Continuing, she explicitly splits the world into two groups of people – folk like you and me and the different class of person who ends up without a home: “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.”

Skehan advises that “emotion is the enemy” in this conversation, but there is a striking lack of emotional empathy in these various discussions. Moralism makes poor policy.

The solution to the wider crisis – both for those without homes and those struggling to hold on to their homes – is large-scale government intervention. A full range of options should be deployed, from supporting housing bodies and co-operatives, to cost-to-let schemes, to robust public housing initiatives.

Adopting these policies will begin to address the problem systemically. Such constructive action would do a lot more for Ireland’s international reputation than chastising public commentary.

As a theologian who studies the economic aspects of Jesus’ teaching, I was on high alert when Conor Skehan suddenly cited the “the man from Nazareth.” While it is true that Jesus (repeatedly) taught that “the poor you will always have with you”, what that means is exactly opposite to what Skehan infers.

He concluded that there will always be those struggling with addiction who have no home to go to, or a woman who has “been hit for the last time by her abusive partner and finds herself out on the street with no plans” and hence there will always be homelessness.

Here we get to the nub of it: an over-emphasis being placed on the personal and relational causes of homelessness, when in fact the overwhelming reason for homelessness today is affordability and the ability to pay rent or mortgage repayments.

Kevin Hargaden is a theologian with the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice who teaches at Dublin City University.

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Kevin Hargaden  / Theologian, Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice

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