Challenging the decision-makers: Three housing questions to ask canvassers
Inter-Church Meeting reminds that Jesus knew what it meant to not have a home
Homelessness is usually the result of one or two life events that could happen to anyone, like a relationship breakdown or the loss of a job. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Homelessness is affecting every parish in the country. With 40,000 households more than two years in arrears on their mortgage payments, one in 10 households paying more than 60 per cent of their income on rent, thousands of grown adults still living with their parents and more “sofa-surfing” and staying with friends, we can see that homelessness and rough sleeping, like the tip of an iceberg, represent only the tiny, most visible part of the story.
How are we to respond to the situation? A first step would be to believe we can make a different story. The current system is not a natural disaster but a result of decisions that have been made by various policymakers over a long period of time.
The history of our country shows that in the first 70 years since independence the State was busy building houses, and in the last 30 trying not to – now we seem to believe that the private sector can do it, if only it is properly incentivised.
The fact that we used to do it in a different way means that we can change how we do it again. We can make decisions to break the cycle, to create an alternative reality; and if we can, we must, as Pope Francis points out: “[T]here is no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing.”
Those of us who benefit from the current system must be prepared to accept that... we have gained at the expense of others
For this to happen though, we have to work out what that could look like. There are other models to follow, like the Housing First approach (which is notionally Irish policy) that Helsinki has adopted.
It costs money, but so does housing people in emergency accommodation, which we are now doing for about 10,000 of our brothers and sisters. However, for change to happen, those of us who benefit from the current system must be prepared to accept that, perhaps without realising it or thinking about it much, we have gained at the expense of others.
Winners and losers
There are both “losers” and “winners” sitting in the pews of every church in the country.
Another step in responding is to do our part in conversations and actions to destigmatise homelessness. Fr Peter McVerry points out that most people are homeless not because of addiction issues, or “bad decisions”, but because they don’t have enough money to pay the rent.
Homelessness is usually the result of one or two life events that could happen to anyone, like a relationship breakdown or the loss of a job. In six months a lot can change, and we are (almost) all vulnerable.
Therefore, it would be good to promote a sense of solidarity with those who are homeless, rather than stigmatising and excluding them.
Recognising that the vital work of changing attitudes begins with our church communities, the Catholic Church, as well as producing its own pastoral letter, “A Room at the Inn?”, joined together with other Christian Churches through the Irish Inter-Church Meeting to develop a set of resources (available at irishchurches.org/homeless).
They include a document for local congregations, entitled “In Six Months a Lot Can Change”, which prompts people to reflect on the meaning of home as revealed in God’s interaction with his people that we read of in the Bible.
We can’t allow our imaginations to be closed to hope by the constant messaging that current arrangements are 'the only game in town'
Jesus’s preaching of the Kingdom of God was directed to creating a world where people felt cherished, protected and secure. His earthly life knew episodes of homelessness.
There is also an election resource which suggests three questions to ask oneself, as well as three questions that can be asked of canvassing candidates at the doorstep:
1. Will you call for the State to prioritise building houses for social housing (not “having peoples’ housing needs met” through HAP rentals)?
2 . What will you do to address “vulture funds” buying up new properties in bulk, making it harder for people to buy their own home?
3. Will you work for stronger regulations to improve security of tenure, prevent excessive rent increases and protect people from eviction?
We can’t allow our imaginations to be closed to hope by the constant messaging that current arrangements are “the only game in town”.
State action to increase supply through building and owning social housing, cost rental schemes and working with housing co-operatives is essential, but must also be accompanied by engagement throughout society in practical demonstrations of solidarity.
Our hope is that the resources the Inter-Church Meeting has put together can play a part in stimulating engagement in local communities and helping people to advocate that the structural injustices in the housing system that cause so much harm to so many can be righted.
Catholic Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leahy is co-chair of the Irish-Inter Church Meeting which represents the Churches in Ireland