Homeless adults and children are victims of an uncivilised society
The State’s response to homelessness has been ineffective, harmful or deliberately weak
In a civilised state having a home – a private space for personal expression, a place to escape from a hazardous world and a place that ensures our wellbeing and economic security – is a right. Photograph: PA Wire
Homeless people are not just locked out of the market as a recent Simon Community study made clear – they are also locked out of full citizenship. Banished to the edge of Irish society and denied access to the security and comforts of a home, there is no collective will to pay attention to their plight and impose an obligation to end their social exile.
With the tragic death of three homeless people in the past week, and a record number of homeless children in Dublin, the Irish State is failing to honour its obligations under the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989.
The Irish State, as a signatory nation to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989, has committed itself to developing and implementing policy based upon “the 3 Ps (provision, protection and participation).”
Homeless adults and children are victims of an uncivilised society. Civility is the quality mark of a society. It sets the standard for what most people see as an even-handed way to deal with others. It allows us to share public spaces and trust strangers. Civility promotes wellbeing – it makes us feel better about ourselves and our environment.
It is manifested in our day to day interactions at home, at work and in public. At a basic level civility is simple actions like giving up a seat on a bus or the Luas to an elderly person or a pregnant woman, smiling and greeting strangers, respecting neighbours and being amicable to work colleagues.
Not so visible but equally important is respect in less public interactions which we engage in at home and with workers who provide us with goods and services in supermarkets, call centres and our homes. Volunteering and caring activities are the hallmarks of a deeper more committed civility.
Civility is fundamental for a human future. It is not simply a form of social box ticking or tokenistic nods in the direction of a tolerant society. Living in changing societies requires that we do more than passively keep strangers at a safe distance. Civility requires us to mindfully identify with each other’s needs, and to adapt our behaviour in the light of these needs.
The benefit of civility for wellbeing is substantial. Civil behaviour makes us feel better about ourselves and allows us to develop trust with others. Trust in the comforting safety of others is distilled from the multitude of minute civil contacts that occur daily. Active civility, in the form of kindness and reaching out a helping hand, is personally rewarding – it allays anxiety and boosts self-esteem.
The spontaneous and ubiquitous nature of civility supports the argument of biologists studying theories of evolution that our brains are hardwired to sociability.
In a world of increasing mobility, disconnection from others and a lack of common purpose and values is a growing trend.
Technology in all its forms impinges on our civility. Mobile phone usage in public spaces denies us the opportunity to fully engage with each other. Online interaction gets in the way of sociability. A culture of narcissism is developing here too. New technology, mobile phones, automated libraries and checkouts are rendering civility obsolescent. Individualism expressed as consumerism coupled with a demand for cultural recognition in place of a “good society” is still a driving force in Irish society.
Civility serves a vital function in establishing limits on human conduct. Rituals of civility establish a non-negotiable baseline of decency in our society. Civility acts as an ethical social lubricant for relating to strangers. However, civility does not occur in a vacuum.
At times like this the State has a role in legislating for civility. In a civilized state having a home – a private space for personal expression, a place to escape from a hazardous world and a place that ensures our wellbeing and economic security – is a right.
A home functions as a base camp for civil engagement with wider society, and is the main space in which children are reared.
The absence or loss of a home is one of the most significant and damaging crises within the span of human experiences. Essentially homelessness is a symptom of state incivility – a lack of demonstrable care for its citizens. There is no civic virtue in exiling homeless people to hubs, hotels and the mercenary spaces of private landlordism.
The State’s failure to deal with the root causes of homelessness – growing social inequality and lack of public housing – suggests that it primarily serves the interests of homeowners and rental investors over and above that of disadvantaged and less well-off groups.
Government short-term interventions focused on meeting individual assistance needs rather than addressing supply-side shortages that lead to homelessness are undermining civility and the common good. Current policy responses to homelessness have been exposed as ineffective, harmful or deliberately weak.
Civility – a decent way to deal with others – must be the starting point for all housing policy.
Dr Colm O’Doherty is a lecturer in applied social studies at IT Tralee