Somewhere in the overlap of years where boom turned to bust, about a decade and a half ago, the Sunday Tribune was still chugging along on Baggot Street in Dublin.
A story from around that time crossed my mind recently. The Tuesday morning news conference was always preceded by journalists frantically trying to get our prospective stories together and hoping they would pass muster.
Someone had a pitch. There was a rumour going around that one or two men, thought to be Polish immigrants fallen on hard times, were living in a tent erected at night-time in the Phoenix Park. I recall more than a few eyebrows raising in the packed editor’s office. Really? People living in tents?
Two reporters were tasked with checking it out, Sarah McInerney and Conor McMorrow. The reason the tip-off was newsworthy was because it was deemed completely remarkable in the context. Were we really going to see a wave of homelessness? Could what happened in American cities, with their Skid Rows and encampments under bridges, actually happen here?
Sunday newspapers rely on narratives and trends to tell daily news stories, and everyone knew that if it could be firmed up, readers would be shocked. Perhaps the story, if proven, would even prompt political action.
McMorrow and McInerney were – and are – excellent journalists, but that didn’t stop the rest of the newsroom sliding into our default mode of communication, which was slagging them for taking on an inconvenient story.
While the rest of us were adjourning to Toner’s pub, they’d have to go to the park and trawl for this mystery tent. The first night, they found nothing. I remember McMorrow coming into work the next day, tired from the previous evening’s search, talking about his needle-in-a-haystack travails.
I probably slagged him off, ribbing him for the wild goose chase he had found himself on. The following night, they were off again. Again they found nothing.
The idea that there might be homeless people living in tents was unthinkable. I’ve been thinking about that story, because there is, in retrospect, a naivety to that era.
These days, there’s no need for reporters to go trawling the city to follow up rumours about people living in tents. They’re right there
The ensuing recession was devastating, but it would be a while before we would see the kind of destitution McMorrow and McInerney had gone searching for in the Phoenix Park.
In fact, it wouldn’t be until the economy “turned a corner”, when we were, apparently, a rich nation once again, that tents on streets and in parks became commonplace. That doesn’t make any sense. Or does it?
Last week, I passed the encampment of tents at the International Protection Office on Lower Mount Street in Dublin, not far from the old Tribune office.
While one may have become sadly used to the visual display of hardship in Dublin – made even more pronounced by the manifestations of corporate wealth as offices lie empty, and the other wealth on display called intentional dereliction and land-hoarding – the scene is still shocking. These days, there’s no need for reporters to go trawling the city to follow up rumours about people living in tents. They’re right there.
Of course, it’s not just people seeking asylum who are living in tents in Dublin city. A diverse range of people have been made vulnerable by the housing policies of this rich nation.
Because here’s the thing: when we talk in Ireland about the impact of the “refugee crisis” created elsewhere, what we’re really talking about is a home-made housing crisis. And when we talk about the housing crisis, what we’re really talking about is a housing policy crisis.
By last December, almost 5,000 people granted permission to remain in the State were unable to move out of the direct provision system because there is no housing.
In years to come, poor housing policies will be examined as a catastrophe not just related to homes, but to the society they failed
The far-right looks for schisms in society to disingenuously capitalise on. The housing crisis is real, but is obviously not the fault of refugees, asylum seekers, or migrants. It is caused by policy failures. The far-right is marrying racism with an underlying stress in Irish society to further a hateful agenda. The housing crisis has long stopped being merely about housing. It has infected much more than that.
It has also become devastatingly humdrum. Rents keep going up, the number of homeless people has reached 12,000, children are growing up in hostels, pensioners are pleading to be saved from eviction. Blame gets misdirected, scapegoats are conjured by nihilists. We talk about how other countries slide into disarray as though they are frogs slowly boiling in water. Well, what are we? What has this escalation been if not gradual but extreme, obvious yet unaddressed? Terrible policies and counterproductive interventions don’t lower the temperature, they merely stir the pot. Away it simmers.
When you break a social contract as profound as one that underpins shelter, this is what you get: an atmosphere that leaves people’s heads spinning, where they no longer recognise the outbursts of their compatriots as ones emerging from familiar shared values. In years to come, poor housing policies will be examined as a catastrophe not just related to homes, but to the society they failed.