On August 7, housing activists, including members of Take Back Trinity, entered a house at 35 Summerhill Parade, and began occupying the building. Less than ten days later a High Court judge had ordered the protestors to vacate the premises. Thus started the whirlwind of action you might have caught wind of, with Summerhill popping up all over your social media, along with friends, and friends of friends in Leo Varadkar masks. On Tuesday, the group was also ordered to leave a second place of occupation at 34 North Frederick Street. All in the protest of unlivable housing prices and government inaction in the face of the homelessness crisis.
“When Irish politicians talk about the crisis, it’s almost as something that has been done to us, rather than a problem which is supported and propagated by the way we govern our country.”
From the outside looking in, I know this might seem strange. Why? I suppose homelessness has always been a part of Irish life. Homelessness is a fixed concept, ingrained in the Irish psyche. Does it seem massive, distant, too widespread, too complex of an issue for concerned citizens to change? When Irish politicians talk about the crisis, it’s almost as something that has been done to us, rather than a problem which is supported and propagated by the way we govern our country.
This perspective doesn’t just belong to politicians: it is most of us. When I was a kid, I spent Sundays volunteering in a soup kitchen called Penny Dinners, although I was rubbish at cooking anything so was regularly assigned to potato peeling duty. I remember coming in one morning and the regular donors of the potatoes had let us down – they were all rotten. Thankfully we had piles of carrots, which we peeled and mashed. I smelled like carrots for days and I loved it. It was a real community. But not once in that place did the volunteers or the visitors talk about things changing for the better. It was accepted that we would always be there, another charity patching up a problem our government had created and had no intention of fixing. So often, essential public services such as childcare, health services, care for the elderly, and indeed homelessness are blindly entrusted to the charity sector for regular citizens to scramble after.
Things have only been getting worse over the last decade, due to an unpleasant combination of Celtic Tiger blues and the same greed which created it. According to Focus Ireland, in July of this year there were 9,891 homeless people in the country. Compare this to 8,160 in 2017 and 4,668 in 2015, and the increase is staggering. In Dublin, it is worst, of course. Figures from the Dublin Region Homeless Executive show that, as of June, there are 1,352 families who are homeless in Dublin, with 2,858 children. Those are just the official statistics, and that is what we are accepting.
“Homelessness shouldn’t be an impossible problem to solve. In fact, regulation for housing would likely be the simplest solution the Dáil has seen in a long time.”
We shouldn’t be thinking in this way. Homelessness shouldn’t be an impossible problem to solve. In fact, regulation for housing would likely be the simplest solution the Dáil has seen in a long time. Specific rent controls for high pressure housing areas should not be hard to write. Council housing for struggling families should not be a breathtaking demand. Children shouldn’t have to live in hotels. So why was I shocked when the protestors occupied the Department of Housing offices, demanding a total ban on evictions, and for vacant land to be used as space for public housing construction?
Perhaps because I can’t easily envision those demands ever being met. As a result of that attitude of accepting failure, that status quo. Empty and overpriced buildings are tolerated because speculation by landlords has become a higher priority than basic human rights. What else can we conclude from the trauma we are witnessing? This fact is a hard pill to swallow and should make us ashamed of how our country is run.
Let’s talk about barriers to solving the crisis, because there are a few worth mentioning. The fight to reduce and end homelessness in Ireland is not helped by the fact that, according to the 2017 Dail register of interests one in four TDs is a landlord, Fine Gael having the highest proportion at 36%. How can we expect our elected representatives to vote responsibly on housing, in the interest of the Irish people, if they have every reason to want the housing market to skyrocket? This is a small insight into a larger systematic issue. With almost half of TDs being millionaires, according to the Sunday Independent’s Political Rich List, how can we expect them to vote in the interest of ordinary people, full stop? The disconnect is worrying, and has lead to sickening statements, such as the one made by Eileen Gleeson, Director of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, last November. Shockwaves rang out after she attributed the homelessness crisis to personal faults and “bad behaviour…behaviour that isn’t the behaviour of you and me,” when speaking to Dublin City Council’s policing committee. Where is the empathy? How can we call this representation?
Part of me is fearful, remembering the occupation of Apollo House last year, and how it was stamped out. Permission for that site to be demolished and redeveloped with a €50 million office scheme has been granted, a perfectly ironic iteration of the problem. Drawing attention to an issue only for it to fade from public consciousness within months helps only a little. If this campaign is to succeed, concrete action must come of it, which we may see in the relaunch of the Irish Housing Network on September 8. Eliminating homelessness in Ireland might seem like a monster of a task but – and I do truly believe this – it is possible. Armed with the almost incredible idealism of the people in the occupation and some well planned political strategy, I think things can and will change. Accepting that some lives are worth less than others is the alternative.