Why Louise Phillips turned from a life of crime writing to tackle homelessness
The award-winning author felt an outsider growing up in a rough part of Dublin. Now she sees this reflected in the hidden homelessness of families forced to live in hotels
Louise Phillips: “Homelessness may never go away completely, but as a society we need to do a lot better. I have seen the homeless people on the streets of Dublin, but the homeless crisis goes beyond the visual, it’s now behind closed doors in hotels across the city. I can’t help think that as a society, apart from failing these families, we are creating social problems into the future. Young children cannot but be affected by this”
Award-winning crime fiction novelist Louise Phillips has written a short story to highlight the plight of the 1,881 homeless children in Ireland, a State she feels has “failed” families.
The story, Homeless Hotel, is based around the life of seven-year-old Keeva, who finds herself living in a hotel with her mother and father.
The story contains the lines: “I don’t have a proper home...Before we came here, we slept in a car for three nights. When it got dark, we were freezing, and Dad said it was an adventure, and made us laugh.
“He used to laugh a lot, but he doesn’t do that anymore.”
Phillips, winner of the Irish Crime Novel of the Year 2013, has written several bestsellers, including Red Ribbons, The Doll’s House and Last Kiss. She has just released her latest psychological crime novel, The Game Changer.
Writing a short story from the perspective of a homeless child is a departure from the author’s comfort zone but something she felt she was compelled to do by the anger she felt at the lack of action to deal with the burgeoning crisis.
Phillips said she felt she could relate to how a child living in a hotel might feel because she knew what it was like to be “an outsider”, having grown up in a “no go” area of Dublin, the Mount Pleasant Buildings in Rathmines, in the 1960s.
“In an effort to shield us from tougher elements, my mother didn’t allow us to mix with other children from the flats and at school we were told to lie about where we lived,” the writer said.
In the short story, Keeva tells how she is too “ashamed” to draw her home, like the other children in class, because she knows a hotel is not a family home.
The story reads: “I understand what ‘ashamed’ means. It means not being as good as everybody else, being different, but not in a nice way. I’d like to be ordinary again, instead of being a homeless person.”
Phillips said she had “a very early sense of being an outsider, in a world where not being part of the norm marginalised you”.
“In so many ways, we as a society have failed, which in part is why I wrote this story. In this fictional account, the young girl can’t remember what her old home looks like, but she does understand the word ‘ashamed’.
“After school, like the little girl in the story, our world was indoors. I remember once my mother creating a swing with some rope and a pillow in the door frame of the bedroom, the one myself and my sister shared with our parents.
“For long periods of time, my imaginary world was far less scary and confusing than the real one.”
The author chose to write the story to further highlight the issue, which is at crisis level in Ireland, with another 85 families becoming homeless last month.
As a writer she felt compelled, she said, to mirror what is happening in Irish society in her work and homelessness was the biggest issue of our time.
“I wanted Homeless Hotel to explore the concept of ‘home’ outside the normal perception of it,” Louise said.
“I used the voice of a child protagonist because it needed to be both simple and compelling. I was trying to unravel social deprivation through examination of one fictional life, one in direct contradiction to this extract from the proclamation.”
The writer felt that in 2016, during the centenary of the Easter Rising, the State was not living up to the promise of the Proclamation: “equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally”.
“Having a place to call home, a place where you feel both valued and equal, should be a basic human right,” she said.
“Homelessness may never go away completely, but as a society we need to do a lot better. I have seen the homeless people on the streets of Dublin, but the homeless crisis goes beyond the visual, it’s now behind closed doors in hotels across the city.
“I’ve listened to many of them being interviewed, families trying to do their best, and I can’t help think that as a society, apart from failing these families, we are creating social problems into the future. Young children cannot but be affected by this.”
Focus Ireland has called for the Government to arrange the building of 40,000 social houses over the next five years and a rise in rent allowance to curb the crisis as rents remain high in the capital.
There have been reports of so-called “bidding wars” in Cork for rental properties due to a shortage of homes. This is coupled with the rules that the average first-time buyer must come up with on average €51,000 to buy a home.
Phillips said: “With the centenary of the 1916 Rising, it seemed like the right time for all of us to reflect on the kind of Ireland we wanted to be part of. We have reflected long and hard over the last few weeks, and rightly so, about the aspirational legacy rooted in the 1916 Proclamation, that of ‘cherishing all of the children of the nation equally’.
“The girl in the story understands that there are facilities in the hotel that she is not allowed to use, because she isn’t a paying guest, and is therefore different to everybody else. Like my fictional protagonist, I understand being both different and ashamed and also the need and desire to be like ordinary people, instead of a life on the margins.”