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Column: Our economic crisis, and the misery is has caused, is rooted in the property market

The denial of the right to a home leads to homelessness – but is also leads to a society with massive mortgage arrears, rocketing rents, and families living in fear of eviction, writes Sr Stanislaus Kennedy.

Sr Stanislaus Kennedy

HOW OFTEN DO we hear people say that our Government does not have the ‘vision’ we thought we voted for?

At the last election we got a brief glimpse of political leaders setting out a vision of a renewed society, re-established on the values of sustainability and fairness rather than untrammelled greed. But, as so often happens, we have seen that hope turn to the pragmatism of day-to-day governing and the narrow ‘realities’ of modern politics.

At its worst, our process of government seems to lurch from political, economic and social crisis, overseen by an apparently closed and all-powerful executive. This worst sort of politics – the triumph of opportunistic pragmatism – has in recent years returned us to the old miseries we thought we had left behind: high unemployment, mass youth emigration, frightening levels of mortgage arrears and family debt, a housing crisis and more people sleeping in emergency shelters or on our streets.

Ireland as a business

Yet the commentators who see Ireland as a business – and talk of “Ireland Inc’ – are claiming to see green shoots in the finances of the nation. Those of us who live in Ireland as a society are not feeling any approaching thaw. But this should not lead us to despair

Now is the time for us to start nurturing hope. We need to start discussing the question which affects all us – what kind of society do we want to build? What can we learn from the crisis that engulfed us and the sacrifices that were made to overcome it? How do we guard that learning to ensure that it becomes a legacy for our children?

One of the places where this discussion is starting is the Constitutional Convention, where 100 citizens of this island have had the privilege of the time and space to work though some important questions, with a commitment from Government that their recommendations will be put to the people.

The Convention has produced many important proposals so far, but for their final two meetings they have been asked to set their own agenda. After hearing the voice of other citizens at public meetings across the country – they have decided that the key issues that need to be discussed are Dáil Reform and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The right to a home

We know what to expect on Dail Reform, but doesn’t ‘Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ sound very vague and academic?

Nothing could be further from the truth. Every day and every night, Focus Ireland sees the devastation which is caused for individuals and families when our society ignores such rights. When you realise that the ‘Right to a Home’ is one of those Economic, Social and Cultural Rights you realise that they are very central to what sort of society we live in.

The denial of the right to a home leads to homelessness – but is also leads to a society with massive mortgage arrears, rocketing rents, and families living in fear of eviction. Adequate housing is fundamental to our humanity and one of the foundations, along with food and clothing, without which all other human rights are meaningless.

While there are still no reliable official figures on the number of people homeless in Ireland, we do know that the depth and duration of recession means that more individuals and families are now homeless and at risk of homelessness. On an average day in Dublin alone more than five people present as homeless, with the number of families presenting as homeless doubling to 16 per month in Dublin between 2012 and 2013. We have also seen a sharp increase in the number of people sleeping rough in the city.

The real people behind the stereotype

Behind these numbers there are real people. When we think of ‘homelessness’ we often think of people sleeping rough who have long-term addiction problems and have been homeless for long periods of time. This group certainly exists among people who are homeless and they have their own, often tragic, stories, but they represent only a small number of those who are homeless.

For the majority of people who experience homelessness results from a particular crisis, and can be an episode in their lives, from which they can return to mainstream living, either with support or on their own. However, the longer a person remains homeless, the harder it is for them to escape it. Many of the problems we associate with homelessness – mental ill-health, addiction, behavioural problems – can be as much the result of prolonged homelessness as its cause.

Our economic crisis, and the human misery is has caused, has its roots in the property market. We came to see houses, not as homes for citizens and their families, but as investments and commodities. The deepest repercussions of this failure of values are still playing themselves out in the mortgages of thousands of families across the country.

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We need to make sure this does not happen again.

The foundation of change is our attitude

This will require a number of changes, some of them involving technical regulation in the banking sector, some of them in planning rules, some of them in our own attitudes. But one action that would set the foundation for such changes would be to put respect for the home at the heart of our governance, in the same way as it is at the heart of our existence as human beings.

On the last week of February, Focus Ireland (along with other housing and homeless organisations) will be trying to convince the Constitutional Convention to do just this. In this we would be joining over 30 other countries, in the developed and developing world, which have included such a right in their laws of their constitutions.

By putting the ‘Right to a Home’ into our national constitution, we would be making a fundamental statement about the sort of society we want to emerge from this crisis.

We hope that our fellow citizens who comprise the Convention and who have put so much time into their deliberations will agree with us – and so bring this discussion out into the broader society, to offer all of us the opportunity to make that change and leave a lasting legacy for future generations.

SR Stanislaus Kennedy is a social campaigner. In 1985, she founded the homelessness charity Focus Ireland and is Life President of the organisation. In 2001, she also set up The Immigrant Council of Ireland.

Read: Ireland’s housing crisis: Four women’s stories of facing eviction and homelessness

Column: Why are we still in denial about Ireland’s housing crisis?

About the author:

Sr Stanislaus Kennedy

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