Ways that Jonathan Corrie’s death can bring about change

Question: How do other cities deal with homelessness?

Anna Haynes, a homeless encampment occupant, collects her belongings as authorities break down a massive homeless encampment known as “The Jungle” in San Jose, California,  this week.  Photograph: Beck Diefenbach/Reuters

Anna Haynes, a homeless encampment occupant, collects her belongings as authorities break down a massive homeless encampment known as “The Jungle” in San Jose, California, this week. Photograph: Beck Diefenbach/Reuters

 

The tragic death earlier this week of Jonathan Corrie on Molesworth Street, just yards from Leinster House, focused the national conversation on the issue of homelessness.

In a country the size of Ireland, homelessness is a particularly pernicious problem: as a small society that largely defines itself by its sense of community, the creeping acceptance that homelessness is an intractable and depersonalised problem is corrosive.

The shocked response to Corrie’s death, then, is an important assertion of those communal values and an opportunity to humanise the issue in a critical way.

Other cities have adopted various strategies in tackling homelessness and those approaches illustrate the different attitudes people have towards the homeless.

Notoriously, anti-homeless spikes were installed last summer in a sheltered alcove outside a luxury apartment building in London, a city where rough sleeping has risen by about 75 per cent in the past few years. The parallels with the spikes used to keep pigeons from congregating on significant buildings were all too obvious, and caused an uproar that saw the spikes’ removal.

Meanwhile, in Madrid, the mayor recently announced plans to put seat dividers on the benches in the city’s bus shelters to prevent people sleeping rough on them – a contentious use of public funds in a country that has seen a rise in homelessness due to the economic crisis.

Multilayered response

In the US, the unsheltered homeless population has fallen by nearly 32 per cent since 2007, a remarkable statistic given the economic crash.

This is partly down to a 2010 Obama administration initiative called Opening Doors, an ambitious plan that aims to end chronic homelessness by 2016 by combining housing with support programmes for mental illness, substance abuse and other issues.

Many cities however have also adopted punitive approaches to the issue. On Thursday, authorities cleared “the Jungle”, a 15-year-old tent city in San Jose, California, that was the largest homeless encampment in the US.

Most heartlessly, dozens of cities across the US have resorted to restricting good samaritans from offering food to the homeless.

Just this week, 90-year-old second World War veteran Arnold Abbott was before the courts in Fort Lauderdale for refusing to comply with an order to stop serving food to the city’s homeless. The ostensible logic here is that the provision of free food somehow entices people into homelessness.

Such an approach only reinforces the sense that the homeless are a nuisance to be removed rather than people in need of assistance.

Experimental approach

While such an experiment might not travel well beyond an affluent country with low levels of homelessness to start with, it at least signals a willingness to tackle the issue by focusing on the needs of the homeless.

After this week’s tragedy, there is acceptance that we have to implement some important remedies, and fast. But as Eoin O’Sullivan, an expert on homelessness and professor in social policy at Trinity College Dublin, wrote in these pages last October, it is important to recognise “that Ireland has a relatively limited problem of homelessness and one of the most detailed strategies to end it in the EU”.

Above all, the death of Jonathan Corrie has served to reinforce the point that a society as small and interconnected as ours has an obligation to make sure that all its residents, especially the most vulnerable, are treated with dignity and respect.