There are no positives about pandemics, but our response as a society to the Covid-19 crisis has certainly taught us a great deal about what we can achieve when we work together for a common cause. Statutory bodies and organisations dedicated to the fight against homelessness have collaborated this year in a tremendous effort to keep people safe.
Together, we have secured homes for more than 800 families who were previously homeless or at risk of homelessness and we have reduced the number of people who are homeless from more than 10,000 to 8,737 – the lowest figure we have had for some years. That is far too many people without a place to call home and we still have a severe homelessness crisis, but it is nevertheless a remarkable achievement and an indication that homelessness can be alleviated and eventually defeated – if we decide to set our minds to it.
Our challenge now is to build on what we have achieved in this terrible year and use the experience of coping with a pandemic to create a turning point in our national struggle to defeat homelessness. As the country emerges from lockdown, we face much uncertainty. Even as the pandemic hopefully recedes through 2021 as vaccines come on stream, it will leave havoc and destruction in its wake: not only the sad bereavements that families all over the country have suffered but also job losses, the closure of businesses and, very likely, a recession. These are classic circumstances for a rise in homelessness – an outcome we desperately need to avoid.
Such an outcome can be avoided, but only if, as a people, we make a clear, positive and unshakeable commitment to eradicating homelessness. Back in 1987, the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless, I was hopeful we would be able to defeat homelessness in Ireland within a few years. That didn’t happen. In fact, the problem got much, much worse. And the reason it didn’t happen was the government reneged on its commitments.
We cannot let that happen again. We have a duty to look after all our citizens, especially those who are most vulnerable. In a civilised, developed country like ours, no family should ever have to experience the trauma of losing their home. No child should ever be born into homelessness in this country.
But this has been happening on a large scale and it continues to happen. The main reason it happens is that people can’t afford to pay their rent or their mortgage. We have always had people who have fallen into homelessness for reasons such as illness or family breakdown, but we now also have the phenomenon of the “new homeless” people who fall into homelessness for purely economic reasons – and those should be the easiest reasons of all to tackle, if we choose to do so.
Homeless organisations and State bodies, with the kind and generous support of the public, are working tirelessly to end homelessness – and we believe it can be ended. The temporary ban on evictions and the rent freeze brought in by the Government to prevent homelessness in Covid-19 times made a big difference in cutting the numbers of people becoming homeless. This is a precious achievement that we cannot allow to go into reverse. As the country opens up, we cannot revert to a situation where homelessness is part of the new normal.
Effective as the short-term measures to prevent homelessness have been, we now need to look to the longer term. The Government has already committed to certain actions in its Programme for Government:
– To hold a referendum on housing as a constitutional right .
– To establish a housing commission with the aim of providing social and affordable housing to rent and to buy.
– To develop a strategy to prevent and alleviate youth homelessness.
This is positive to see and we now need more action in 2021. Additionally, we urge the government to develop a strategy on family homelessness that can move us from managing this crisis towards ending it.
We urgently need to move beyond short-termism on the one hand and the aspirational on the other. That is why Focus Ireland is soon to launch a campaign calling on the Government to set a deadline to end homelessness altogether, backed up by a realistic plan and timeline to achieve its eradication. In the past, we had a government commitment to ending long-term homelessness by 2010 and this led to the lowest-ever level of homelessness in Ireland.
Unfortunately, that success was swept away by the economic crisis, but we can do it again and we can do better next time. No country has ever managed a significant reduction in homelessness without having a clear commitment to ending it. And so, we will call on Government to set a clear and firm deadline for the ending of homelessness in this country.
This campaign will be launched over the Christmas break so please add your voice to our petition so the country can work together towards ending homelessness.
Sister Stanislaus Kennedy is founder and life president of Focus Ireland