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Fintan O’Toole: Let’s imagine the homeless have foot-and-mouth

Cattle disease outbreak showed how State can use every sinew to solve a crisis

The Sophia housing project on Cork Street in Dublin, which was set up to provide sanctuary for families living in crisis. Photograph: Alan Betson

We are imaginative and inventive people. So could we perhaps make use of these fanciful faculties to convince ourselves collectively of two necessary falsehoods? Firstly, let’s go back to Storm Ophelia last month. Let’s rewrite history so that instead of doing limited physical damage, it was catastrophic. It destroyed houses and left 8,374 people, including 3,124 children, homeless. Secondly, let’s convince ourselves that those 8,374 people have somehow caught foot-and-mouth disease and therefore pose a potentially ruinous threat to our beef and dairy industries.

If we just make these little imaginative leaps, the State might actually wake up and go into full crisis mode. Status Red. Hourly updates from the National Emergency Co-ordination Centre in Kildare Street. The emergency tsar Seán Hogan quietly radiating hands-on competence, steely assurance and total control.  Money no object. All the resources of the State. We’re getting through this together. Nobody left behind. And afterwards, Hogan declaring with justified satisfaction, as he did after Ophelia: “This is how it is. This is how our public service can be. I am very proud about what we did.”

‘Completely normal’

Last month, the Government’s chief adviser on housing policy, Conor Skehan, outgoing chair of the Housing Agency, told a conference in Dublin that “our housing crisis is completely normal. Every country in Europe has equivalent issues in terms of affordability, in terms of homelessness, in terms of the appropriateness of the mix.”

He followed up with an interview in the Sunday Business Post in which he blamed the voluntary organisations, who campaign on homelessness and do the hard work of trying to keep as many people as possible off the streets, for causing unnecessary “panic”: “There’s a very real risk of us giving attention to the wrong issues because people who have a vested interest in seeing this as an industry make it appear an unusual or a great problem.”

He went on to compare homelessness to, of all things, cystic fibrosis as a horrible but natural condition: “It’s not fair that a beautiful 14-year-old girl has cystic fibrosis, it’s just not fair. But she has it . . . It’s never acceptable that anybody is homeless but there will never be a day when nobody is homeless. We must completely acknowledge that [homelessness] will always occur.”

At one level, this is merely fatuous. If organisations such as Focus Ireland, Simon and Threshold have a vested interest in homelessness, they are pretty stupid to be campaigning, as they do, to eradicate it by pushing the State to build social housing and stop people being evicted. Fewer social houses and more evictions would be much better for their “industry”.

‘Panic’

And if homelessness is just a natural and inevitable condition, the equivalent of a genetically inherited and incurable disease, why has it increased so dramatically? In September 2014, Skehan was telling us that the existence of 387 homeless families was “not a crisis”. Now he’s telling us that having 1,455 homeless families is still normal. To use his own analogy, if the incidence of cystic fibrosis in Ireland quadrupled in three years, would that be a crisis? Or would it just be a “panic” generated by Cystic Fibrosis Ireland because it has a “vested interest” in making a vast increase in the number of sufferers “appear an unusual or a great problem”?

As for the claim that there will never be a day when nobody is homeless, who has ever said otherwise? People who work for Simon or Focus Ireland know far more than Skehan will ever do about the chaotic lives of some of the people who end up living on the streets, their histories of poverty, family breakdown and violence, of dealing with an inadequate care system and of falling into addiction. But the number of homeless families hasn’t quadrupled for these reasons. The rise and rise of homelessness is a result of political decisions to flog housing off to vulture funds, to stop building social housing, to leave people to the tender mercies of an often rapacious private market. Using the persistence of one kind of homelessness to dismiss the reality of another is very poor logic.

But at another level, Skehan is right. Homelessness is normal. It is normal because it has been normalised. There is no housing “crisis”, because a crisis, properly speaking is the moment when a problem reaches the point where it has to be resolved. Take a look at an RTÉ investigative report by Bill O’Herlihy for 7 Days in February 1972 on people having to live in appalling private rented accommodation in Dublin (rte.ie/archives/2017/0206/850512-dearth-of-dublin-dwellings/). And compare it with last week’s report by RTÉ’s investigations unit – the same suffering, the same exploitation of misery, the same official indifference. Crisis, what crisis?

So let’s drop Skehan’s analogy with human diseases and think of animal diseases instead. Forget cystic fibrosis, which, after all, we have a terrible record with.

Think foot-and-mouth – we’re good at that. Remember in 2001 when a foot-and-mouth outbreak was confirmed in Northern Ireland? Remember how every nerve and sinew of the entire State was brought to bear on making sure it didn’t spread? Just think of our homeless children as sick cattle and we’ll have ourselves a proper crisis.