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Fintan O’Toole: Government must wake up to the toxic narrative it is creating on homelessness

Homeless people should be treated as refugees in a radical conceptual shift

I sometimes wonder whether the Government is actively attempting to create a far-right political movement in Ireland. Is it looking at the rise of proto-fascist parties around the democratic world and thinking: we should have one of those too?

Last April, when refugees from Ukraine were beginning to arrive here and the Government was blithely suggesting that we might take up to 200,000 of them, I pointed to the danger that the State would treat their plight as an emergency, even while it continued to disregard homelessness among the existing population.

“We cannot say”, I wrote, “that all sorts of things are suddenly possible — like the rapid building of homes on church and public land — for refugees that we couldn’t be bothered to do for thousands of families already here ... This kind of implicit or explicit prioritisation is socially disastrous.”

This was completely obvious. The Government was saying that it could, in short order, create enough housing for an incoming population the size of Limerick or even Cork.


The question asked itself: if we could indeed do this, why have we not done it already? Why should anyone be homeless if the Government has the power to house them whenever it decides to get its act together?

The more fundamental question that underlay these other ones was: what is an emergency? Clearly, the war in Ukraine is one — but so, supposedly, is homelessness in Ireland.

Dublin City Council officially declared a housing emergency in January 1999. One way or another, we’ve been living in and with this crisis for a quarter of a century. It’s that Irish speciality: the nonurgent emergency.

Ukraine, by contrast, was to be an urgent emergency. There was a big shock to the global system and Ireland was going to galvanise itself to create an adequate response.

This two-tier idea of what constitutes a crisis is morally, socially and politically untenable. It is wrong in itself, but it also the perfect way to breed resentment.

Yet it’s what the Government has proceeded to do. It has seen a big hole marked with flashing signs — do not fall down this hole. And it has marched straight for it.

Last week, the Department of Housing issued its figures on homelessness for the month of September. They are, or ought to be, shocking.

The number of people in emergency accommodation reached 10,975 last month — the highest number ever recorded. Even worse, we have 3,342 homeless children.

Five years ago, in September 2017, the number of homeless children exceeded 3,000 for the first time ever. It felt at the time like a national scandal, a wake-up call that could not be ignored.

But the Government hit the snooze button. These figures have become normal now.

The system is inured to their regular appearance. The shrug of the official shoulders is now a muscle memory.

Thus, last week, even as these milestones of national disgrace were being passed, all the talk was about the crisis in accommodation for Ukrainian refugees and people seeking asylum from other countries. If the existing homeless population was mentioned, it was as an afterthought.

There is clearly something wrong with our language. We seem to have forgotten what displacement means, and how it relates to people who are still living in their own country.

For a child, homelessness is traumatic. The Ombudsman for Children has reported extensively on the experiences associated with it: sleeplessness, loss of any sense of privacy, shame, embarrassment, kids feeling the need to lie to friends about where and how they are living.

To be homeless is like being a refugee in your own land. It is to have nowhere you belong in, no sense of security or stability, no firm ground under your feet.

Everyone accepts, of course, that having to flee your own country and to worry about your family back home as it faces a barbaric assault, is even worse. But the existence of grimmer possibilities does not make the trauma for indigenous Irish children and families any better.

Far-right nativists don’t actually give a damn about the plight of the Irish homeless. But they are being given a very soft target. There is far too much truth for comfort in the notion that Irish officialdom has a far greater sense of urgency about the needs of refugees than those of the homeless.

We have reached the point where there has to be a radical conceptual shift: homeless people should be treated as refugees. I mean this quite literally: they must be understood by the system as people who need safety, security and a roof over their heads in the same way that those fleeing Putin’s war do.

This should never be about us and them, the natives and the incomers. It is not about “looking after our own first”.

But it is vital that the State wakes up to the toxic narrative it is creating. It cannot go on treating one kind of displaced person as a national priority requiring extraordinary responses but another as a familiar social problem with which it is too bored to engage.

The arrival of an external emergency must force us to end the one we have come to take for granted.