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Do we need another Jonathan Corrie to die before our government will take the homeless crisis seriously?

The homeless crisis in Ireland is crying out for politicians to do the right thing, not the political thing, writes Donal O’Keeffe

Donal O'Keeffe

WANTED: HOMELESS PERSON TO DIE

“WANTED: HOMELESS PERSON to die (ideally a child or adult who has suffered a litany of abuse and neglect and who has been let down again and again by those charged to protect them) preferably of cold and/or hunger at a symbolic location, so as to stir – if only briefly – the conscience of the Nation.

“Dying alone across the street from Leinster House is very 2014, so the successful candidate would need to look at a more imaginative choice this year such as, for instance, dying in the doorway of a locked church, starving to death outside the gates of Áras an Uachtaráin or freezing behind the bins at the back of the IFSC.

“Being found dead outside the GPO would be an excellent combination of location, poignancy and symbolism but for the timing to be perfect, it is suggested that this should ideally occur in 2016. Unsuccessful candidates this year might consider re-applying in January when the coincidence of dying, unloved and unwanted, at the site and centenary of the Rising would be irresistible. Opinion writers – such as this one – could reach for ‘cherishing all the children’. Again.

Pointless

“The successful candidate will not be generously rewarded as they will, of course, be dead, but their name will be known – for a short time, at least – as their pointless, predictable and preventable death will serve to stir the Irish people and their Government into caring but not caring very much and not caring for very long.

“It is to be hoped that the needless death of a vulnerable human being will cause their fellow Irish citizens to be temporarily upset about homelessness but not upset enough to actually do anything serious or long-term to fix it.”

Jonathan Corrie died one bitter morning last December. You remember him. He was found dead across the street from Leinster House. Hundreds of people had walked past him as he lay dead in that cold Molesworth Street doorway, before Sophie Pigot happened to notice how uncomfortable the position of his body looked. You’d wonder how much longer Jonathan would have laid there if not for Sophie’s kindness.

So near to Christmas, on the front doorstep of our national parliament, Jonathan Corrie’s death shocked us, shamed us and somehow moved us to action in a way that previous homeless deaths had not. Environment Minister Alan Kelly held an emergency meeting of all interested parties. An extra 260 beds were promised in the run-up to Christmas and a night café was established to give homeless people somewhere safe to go. For a heady moment, it looked like the Government’s 2013 promise to end long-term homelessness by 2016 seemed about to be revived.

Genuinely shocked

The Taoiseach went out one night with Dublin’s then Lord Mayor Christy Burke. To be fair to Enda, he seemed genuinely shocked by what he saw that night last Christmas, down among Dublin’s homeless. He expressed his horror at “rats skittering across sodden blankets and beds of needles”. Christy Burke says he still texts the Taoiseach every few days with homelessness figures and he swears Enda remains very engaged on the issue.

In a fairytale Ireland, Jonathan Corrie would not have died in vain. That doorway on Molesworth Street would now be a shrine to the man whose death shook us all into ending once and for all the scourge of homelessness.

26/6/2015. Homeless Couple Protests

In the grubby, real-world Ireland to which we are condemned, a plaque to Jonathan was removed from that door earlier this year and the problem of homelessness has only worsened.

According to the Department of the Environment’s most recent figures, we now have 3,258 individuals, 620 families and 1,318 children homeless. That’s a 55% national increase in homeless families since January. We have families sleeping in their cars and sleeping on benches. Brother Kevin of the Capuchin Day Centre told Joe Duffy this week that two families have been sleeping in the Phoenix Park in recent days.

Limbo

Those figures are shocking and they’re only the people who are in the system. Those figures don’t include those sleeping rough. They don’t include the homeless who couch-surf and depend upon the kindness of friends and family. They don’t take into account either the people stuck in the limbo of emergency accommodation.

In preparing to write this column, I spoke with some of the people who are on the frontline of helping those struggling with homelessness. Every person with whom I spoke identified the rent supplement and rent certainty as key problems. The rent supplement remains frozen at 2013 levels but, since then, rents have risen by 18%.

Earlier this year, Alan Kelly promised to address the issue of rent certainty. He hasn’t done so yet and he’s away on his holidays now. Meanwhile, every one of those stakeholders says homelessness has now spiralled to crisis levels.

There’s an election a-coming. Conventional wisdom is that – barring Events, Dear Boy – the Taoiseach will wait until spring. If I was advising him (and I’d love the money) I’d tell him that he needs something big if he wants to keep his job.

That whole “Best Small Country In The World In Which To Do Business By 2016” thing he’s been spouting since he got the job is a punch-line. A joke.

Embarrassment

It’s an embarrassment, Taoiseach, I’d say, and you’re better than that. Okay, you’re not the best man for details, and God knows how much longer you’ll be able to duck having an actual, proper debate, but even your harshest critics would admit you have a real moral strength when you speak from the heart.

Not those schmaltzy “I met a man” stories, mind – they drive everyone nuts – but the fire-in-the-belly, heart-on-your-sleeve passion you showed when you excoriated the Catholic Church in the Cloyne speech and the heartfelt emotion you displayed when you apologised to the Magdalene survivors (although, Taoiseach, to be frank, your Government’s follow-through for those poor women has been nothing short of disgraceful).

If you want to stay Taoiseach, Enda, you need a big idea. Here it is: Don’t wait for the next Jonathan Corrie. Get passionate about homelessness and do it before we’re all wringing our hands at another doorway.

Acknowledge right now that homelessness has spiralled out of control and is at crisis point. Phone the Simon Community’s Niamh Randall. She’ll put you straight. Ask Sister Stan and Father Peter and Brother Kevin what they would do to end homelessness if they were Taoiseach.

Enough platitudes, Taoiseach, enough working groups and enough reports. Here’s the real silver bullet to homelessness: these people are the experts. Listen to them. Act on their advice.

It won’t guarantee your re-election but it would be a hell of a legacy. And it would be the right thing to do. Honour your Government’s promise. Forget the auld Best Small Country In The World In Which To Do Business By 2016 guff, Enda.

Be the Taoiseach who ended homelessness by 2016.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can follow him on Twitter here

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