Market forces are dynamic, but they won’t solve homelessness

‘A hotel room is not a home. A family hub is not a home. A hostel is not a home.’

“Not only is reliance on the market to provide social goods a policy that is bound to fail – it is a policy that we always knew was bound to fail. And still we did it.” Photograph: The Irish Times

“Not only is reliance on the market to provide social goods a policy that is bound to fail – it is a policy that we always knew was bound to fail. And still we did it.” Photograph: The Irish Times

 

After working for decades, through the lean times and the boom times and under governments of various types, to try to alleviate and abolish homelessness, I am watching with horror what is happening in our country today.

This is the worst homelessness crisis I have ever seen, with almost 10,000 people homeless this Christmas in Ireland, 4000 of them children. As fast as Focus Ireland helps a family to settle into a new home – and we are doing this at the rate of almost a family a day – another three families fall into homelessness. No matter how hard and how fast we work, the misery keeps outpacing our efforts.

Many of you reading this will have seen for yourselves, in Roddy Doyle’s moving film, Rosie, the distress caused to ordinary families struggling to bring up their kids that is caused by our heartlessness and our ineptitude as a society. Homelessness may be on the rise all over Europe, but it is not like Brexit or the weather. We are not hapless victims of circumstances. Successive governments, voted in by successive generations of Irish people, have chosen to allow the market to provide a basic human requirement: a place to call home.

This is a policy that is bound to fail. The market has no conscience. The market – and particularly the unregulated rental market that we have here – has no commitment to families. The market couldn’t care less whether a child wakes up on Christmas morning in an overcrowded hotel room, whether a parent has a place to cook a proper meal for their children, whether a teenager studying for an exam has a quiet corner to work in, whether a baby is born into homelessness. That’s not the market’s business.

We chose to outsource housing provision to people whose interests are obviously financial rather than social

It is our business, as a people that professes values of decency and compassion, to provide a home for every family that needs one. And a hotel room is not a home. A family hub is not a home. A hostel is not a home. A home is a place where a family can close their own front door, spend time together in reasonable comfort, can cook a meal, put on a wash, watch a TV programme, read a bedtime story, play some music, have a discussion or an argument, make peace, make a cup of tea, play with the kids, have a laugh, invite a friend in.

Not only is reliance on the market to provide social goods a policy that is bound to fail – it is a policy that we always knew was bound to fail. And still we did it.

We simply stopped building social housing. We abandoned a practice that for generations had ensured that generally only small numbers of people with particular kinds of issues fell into homelessness. We chose to believe – we codded ourselves into believing – that private landlords could provide the accommodation needed to house those people who could not provide homes for themselves. We chose to outsource housing provision to people whose interests are obviously financial rather than social. We chose to allow a profit-driven rental market to escalate rents way beyond the reach of people on low or even average incomes. We have played the market with people’s basic human needs. And here we are at the end of 2018, wringing our hands at the monster we have created and looking for someone to blame.

It is we who are to blame. The results of our prolonged failure to develop and implement socially beneficial housing policy created the current severe housing crisis. It is responsible not only for mass homelessness but also for unaffordable rents for working people, widespread overcrowding and for limiting the life chances of a whole young generation who can barely afford to rent their own home, let alone aspire to buying one.

Unless we start taking our responsibility as a society seriously, we are never going to be able to undo the appalling damage that we have done. Taking our responsibility to provide homes for our people seriously starts with acknowledging that the market cannot solve this crisis. We have no developed ethic about the right to a home. The government said only last week that it has no intention of including the right to a home in the constitution. But if we do not recognise the right to a home as a human right, we have little chance of integrating this way of thinking into our policy-making.

Important though funding most certainly is, we can’t simply spend our way out of this crisis

In spite of some improvements in housing policy, the government’s Rebuilding Ireland is not delivering. The Taoiseach talks about the amount of work being done and the amount of money being spent in an effort to solve homelessness.

However, important though funding most certainly is, we can’t simply spend our way out of this crisis. We need a change of mind and a change of heart in order to have a change of policy. Rebuilding Ireland still relies way to heavily on the private rented sector. Delivery of social housing is still only a trickle, at only 601 newly built social homes in Dublin in the first nine months of this year. We certainly need to give fair consideration to mechanisms that speed up delivery as long as they are compatible with building decent homes in sustainable communities.

Meanwhile, we need measures to prevent homelessness. And we urgently need more effective measures to protect tenants from excessive price rises and to protect them when banks take possession of rental properties. Until our thinking about these things is rectified, we will undoubtedly repeat the errors of the past and homelessness will continue to rise.

Sr Stanislaus Kennedy is founder and life president of Focus Ireland

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