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Opinion: The two homeless tragedies this week mean the Irish electorate is alert to this issue

There are votes out there for politicians with ambitious and credible plans on housing, writes Focus Ireland’s Mike Allen

Mike Allen

WE ALWAYS HOPED that the housing and homelessness crisis would feature strongly in the General Election.

But not like this.

Just three days into the election and there have been ‘life-changing injuries’ to a man who was sleeping in a tent beside the canal and the tragic death of a woman living in emergency accommodation.

As a result of these two terrible events, the media consensus is that homelessness is dominating the early days of the election.

The extraordinary public reaction is a reminder, if one was needed, that the Irish public are not willing to accept that homelessness is normal – and it demands solutions.

And for the next 23 days, the ‘Irish public’ is having its once-every-few-years transformation into something much more formidable – the ‘Irish electorate’.

Every candidate and every political party must now be fully alerted to the fact that there are many votes out there for those who have ambitious and credible answers to our housing and homeless problem.

But being top of the election agenda is not what we thought it would be. All of us who care deeply about the housing and homeless crisis wanted it to be an election issue because that would allow serious discussion about what we need to do as a society to solve it.

Because it can be solved. And voters need to hear the real issues discussed if they are to use their votes wisely.

They’re missing the point

What has happened instead is party spokespersons shouting numbers at each other and finger-pointing. We have had rows about ‘blame’ when we need to be talking about responsibility.

We have had discussions about why the injured man was in a tent rather than in an emergency shelter, when we need to ask why he was in a tent rather than sleeping in his own bed in a secure home.

It is early days yet and we need to hope that a more serious debate may emerge.

To help that happen it might be useful to explore why the debate ends up like it does.

There are a number of reasons, and I want to draw attention to two, which I think we can change.

Rough sleepers

The first is that we still confuse the overall homelessness problem with one specific aspect of homelessness – rough sleeping.

People having to sleep without a roof over their heads is, without doubt, the most extreme and dehumanising form of homelessness. But of the over 10,000 people who are homeless, only a few hundred sleep rough at any time.

Nevertheless, newspapers endlessly refer to the 10,000 people as ‘being on the street’ and news articles about homelessness are usually illustrated with pictures of people in sleeping bags.

This confusion has real and damaging consequences – if we think that our problem is rough sleeping then we end up thinking that more emergency shelters are the answer.

And that is what we have done – over the last four years our local authorities have opened more emergency homeless beds than they have built homes. They are spending a lot of money on things that won’t solve the problem.

Division won’t house anyone

The second point is that deep public concern about the housing and homeless crisis has not been mobilised to drive solutions but instead has driven division and blame.

For instance, fierce public criticism about rough sleeping has led successive ministers to make sure that ‘there was an emergency bed for everyone who will take them up’ – which shifts responsibility for rough sleeping onto the homeless person, rather than the providers of emergency accommodation (for failing to make people feel safe) or onto public policy (for not providing enough homes.)

On the other hand, passionate public demands for new housing, including social housing, turn into angry objections from local residents to every new development.

Homelessness has risen at catastrophic rates in recent years.

While it rose on the watch of the current Government, the seeds were sown in the policies of the previous ten or twenty years. Perhaps, given this unprecedented increase, this unproductive conflict was unavoidable.

Question your representatives

But this election could be a moment for change.

Focus Ireland is running a #FocusOnHomes campaign during the election, looking for the new government to develop a dedicated Family Homelessness Strategy and a new Youth Housing and Homeless Strategy, to give greater housing rights in the Constitution and to build at least 35,000 new homes a year.

We are also looking for a National Commission to take a 20 year look at our housing system, so that when we get out of this housing crisis we do not start to fall into the next one, as so often happened in the past.

We are hoping that the many thousand Focus Ireland supporters around the country will raise these issues with their candidates.

Underlying all these points is a common theme. The housing and homelessness crisis needs good Government policy, but will not be solved by a Government alone.

No matter how good the policies of an incoming Government, they will only be effective if they are able to work collaboratively with the voluntary groups, housing bodies, councillors, builders – and the broader public.

That broader public will be the electorate on 8 February. We need to turn the electoral demand for solutions into an optimistic public welcome for new building developments, and all the policies which will allow us to build new localities where people will want to live.

That’s not easy, but history shows that that sort of re-alignment of public attitudes and public policies can be achieved by tragic events. It all depends upon how our leaders respond to those events.

Elections are the periods when leadership is perhaps under the most scrutiny.

With the right leadership, the two homeless tragedies which have blighted the election so far, may yet prove an opportunity for the solutions-focused public discussion we need.

Mike Allen is Director of Advocacy in Focus Ireland, one of Ireland’s leading housing and homelessness charities. He is a Chair of the European Housing First Hub and a member of the European Observatory on Homelessness.

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Mike Allen

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