Editorial: Irish housing policy is unjustifiable

Decisions made at a local and national level have costs that are measurable in human lives

In the last week of October, five homeless people died on Irish streets. The number of homeless people who have died in this country since the beginning of the year is now at least fifty. Their homelessness was by no means incidental to their death, and their homelessness cannot be considered an accident.

According to the Department of Housing, there were 8,656 people in emergency accommodation at the end of September. This is slightly down from a peak of more than 10,500 in October of last year, it is still some 126% higher than the homeless population was in July of 2014. These figures aren’t even the extent of the problem – Dublin alone has a social housing waiting list of 30,000 households. The number of people at acute risk of homelessness in Ireland is hard to estimate but it is undoubtedly in the high tens of thousands.

This is especially serious as winter begins to set in properly, but it’s also an unusually big problem this year; on top of all the other difficulties of being homeless, it is effectively impossible to self-isolate properly when sleeping rough or living in hostel-style emergency accommodation. Those in homelessness simply have no way to protect themselves against Covid-19.

This represents a catastrophic, almost unimaginable failure. It’s a failure of government primarily, but it’s also a failure of our society that we continue to allow our representatives to get away with it.  In a sense, the numbers are unimportant because allowing any real amount of homelessness in the country with the fourth highest GDP per capita in the world is unconscionable. In another sense, the numbers are necessary to appreciate the monstrous scale of our collective sin.

To act on any problem, three things are needed; knowledge, capability and will. Knowledge is easy; there is a huge amount of information on this issue being constantly collected by both government and NGOs. The housing crisis has been in progress for at least five years now, and arguably more than a decade. We know there’s a problem.

Capability seems, initially, more difficult to establish. Asked last year about Fine Gael’s record on housing, then-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said: “Rather than ashamed, I’m encouraged by some of the progress that has been made in the last couple of years.” This was about two months after homelessness had peaked at 10,500 people, a figure which, it’s worth noting, does not include homeless people who are not in emergency accommodation. The impression is usually given that those in local and national government are doing their best, but it is ultimately a complex problem over which they have limited influence.

This is false. There are numerous proven solutions to homelessness, the most notable among them being “Housing First”, a model whereby those in homelessness are given long-term accommodation upfront and then subsequently worked with to help solve other issues they may have surrounding mental health, addiction, or job training. Finland has managed to achieve a reduction in homelessness almost every year since 1987. There is effectively no rough sleeping in Helsinki, and only one 50-bed shelter is still needed in the city. Much of this is thanks to Housing First.

Ireland officially adopted a Housing First strategy in 2018 but given the tens of thousands of people on the social housing list, never mind those in emergency accommodation, this is clearly not an approach we have actually enacted. Some would shoot back with “homes take time to build”, but this conveniently overlooks the almost quarter of a million homes that were empty at last count. Effectively no effort has been put into bringing these homes back into use, either through purchase by public bodies or heavily penalising the possession of empty property. If we could make use of even one in every 28 of these houses, we would solve homelessness.

Some would then argue that there simply isn’t the money to deal with the problem. There are many ways to illustrate the emptiness of this argument (chief among them the €13 billion tax windfall from Apple the state spent €7.5 million in legal fees trying not to accept) but ultimately it comes down to something much simpler; how expensive does it have to be before it’s acceptable to let someone die?

Simply put, we do have the capability to solve the problem, or at least to make almost infinitely more progress than we currently are. So that just leaves will. Dublin City Councillor Anthony Flynn wrote on Twitter in the past week that “’nobody is to blame’ is not good enough in my eyes or the eyes of the bereaved”. He is correct. The reason the government makes so little progress on homelessness isn’t because it doesn’t know how or can’t, it’s because it does not want to. I’m sure those in power do believe in their hearts that each death of someone sleeping rough is a tragedy, but they don’t care enough to devote time or resources to prevent it happening again.

To read about these deaths and those overflowing waiting lists in the news and to make no meaningful change in housing policy is a choice. Our political leaders have weighed up the effort they’d have to put in versus the value of human lives, and decided that the economic argument won. In that sense, the story of Irish housing policy in the last decade is not a failure, but a success; they saved the money they’d otherwise have spent and paid almost no political cost, even as real people have died. It worked exactly as intended.

If we think the government has any kind of duty of care to those under its jurisdiction – and most people would agree that a liberal democracy does – then that concrete decision to do nothing while dozens of people per year perish on Ireland’s streets constitutes an act of violence. The Irish state is killing people because it considers it too much effort and too expensive to keep them alive. It’s not violence that we instinctively recognise because it’s systemic and structural, but it is no less violent for that.

This is what is being done in our name, and this is what the political status quo represents. For how long will we let it go on?