IONCE saw Pat Kenny of RTE intervene to stop a brawl between two drunken, homeless men. I thought about that incident last week when reading the annual report of Focus Ireland and its views, with which I don’t agree, on the causes of homelessness in Ireland.
The incident with Pat Kenny took place about 1995. Pat was presenting his Saturday-night TV programme Kenny Live. Sunday Independent journalist John Drennan, who had written a fictionalised diary of a man on the dole, was a guest on the programme. So was Richard Bruton TD, then a government minister.
I was an invited member of the studio audience, as were a Focus Ireland worker and two homeless men she had with her.
The men were drinking from early on, as was obvious to me as I was sitting next to them and I was having to continually step out into the aisle to let them get past me to go to the toilet.
We audience members were there to partake in the discussion arising from Drennan’s book. The two homeless men blamed everybody but themselves for their plight. it was “society”, it was the “system”, the Government, the State, the social workers, media, you name it. one of the men, a Northerner, spoke of “establishment censorship” that prevented people such as himself from being heard. We all listened politely.
After the programme, everyone who participated was invited into the hospitality room, where Pat Kenny and his team made us welcome. there was drink there.
Probably unlimited drink for anyone who was sufficiently determined and gluttonous. I was chatting amiably with Richard Bruton over a glass of wine when the table full of drinks crashed over and the two homeless men fell on top of it, punching each other in the head. Pat Kenny jumped in and hauled the men apart.
With the room shocked into silence, Kenny spoke forcefully to the two men, whom he held at each arm’s length. “Men, for me, I want you to stop this, for me.” Pat’s words had the right effect.
As they left with their minder, I thought about how much more eloquent these men’s actions had been than their Focus Ireland system-society babble, in letting us know the true cause of their homelessness. They had been extended hospitality and they had rejected it, just as they had probably rejected everyone in life who had ever treated them with fairness and respect.
They seemed to have been homeless because they were the architects of their own misfortune.
Drink isn’t the only cause of homelessness, but it’s the main one. A close second is heroin. third, in my opinion, is mental illness. And the fourth, I can only describe as the condition of having had a tragic childhood.
When I was standing outside the Homeless Persons’ Office (it’s unmarked) near Dublin Castle last week, I decided to avoid the first three of these categories as best as I could. I wanted to hear some of the other causes of homelessness.
When a smiling, pretty, young woman with a healthy complexion petted my dog and spoke to me, I thought first that she was a member of staff. But Sonia, from Tallaght, was homeless. She had just got on very well in the Homeless Unit. (This was a refreshing change, after listening to junkies all morning telling me: “They do f***ing nothing for you in there.”)
Sonia had been in care since she was seven years old. Her mother, a heroin addict, died when Sonia was nine. Her father was in prison. in her life in care, she had met staff whom she hadn’t liked but had also met people whom she would never forget for all the help they had been to her. She hadn’t come through it all unscarred and had been a heroin addict in her early teens. Now that was behind her. She had now just heard she was on the point of getting a council flat and a home for herself for the first time in her 20 years of life.
I felt optimistic for Sonia.
I didn’t feel so optimistic for Gabriel, a young Romanian man I met during the week in the drop-in medical centre run by Alice Leahy and her Trust organisation.
For some reason, all the people I met sleeping rough last week were from Eastern Europe. The foreigners are not availing of the “night bus” service that the Irish are using to get to hostels.
At the Dublin City Council offices at 7.30 in the morning, I watched in amazement as a security guard walked through the shrubbery, rousing people from their sleep. Four men and a woman who would have been invisible to a passer-by stood up, stretched and shivered, and set about facing the day. all were East European.
Those who sleep rough typically turn up at Trust in the morning to take a shower and to get medical attention.
Gabriel is deaf. He lip-reads. He has been in Ireland for the last six years because, he told me cheerfully, he is better looked after here than he would be in Romania.
It was when I asked Gabriel about his family back home that his smile faded. He had been put into an orphanage at a young age and had had no contact with his family ever since. Gabriel, like Sonia, was homeless because he had had a tragic childhood.
But Focus Ireland says that “society” and the “system” are to blame, and that homelessness is getting worse because of the recession.
I don’t believe this.
In the Focus annual report Sister Stanislaus Kennedy tells us: “The sad reality is that, while there have been improvements in many areas over the years, the problems are getting worse.”
Her evidence? “Social housing waiting lists have shot up to a record total of over 100,000 households, according to recent estimates . . . these figures are a damning indictment of the continuing failure of both our society and our political system to protect the most vulnerable.”
But Sister Stanislaus is wrong in using the housing list as a measure of homelessness. Talk to people queueing at any housing office anywhere in the country and they will tell you they are on the list because they have to be on it in order to qualify for rent subsidy in private accommodation. People join the housing list not because they want a council house, but because they don’t.
Lest there be any doubt about this, just this month the Department of Environment published a report on why so much local authority housing remains vacant.
The report states: “There is a high level of rented accommodation available in the housing market. This accommodation is available to some prospective local authority tenants at a subsidised rent under the rental accommodation scheme. The accommodation is seen as superior and available in better locations. Prospective tenants are unwilling to accept what is perceived as inferior accommodation from local authorities.”
Got it in one. why should people take a council house when they are happy in having their private rented accommodation paid for?
When I asked the Department of the Environment if it was talking to its colleagues in Social Protection about the problem of vacant council housing, it replied: “The department is working with the DSP to develop proposals to reform the approach to dealing with people in receipt of rent supplement. at the moment, it is still a matter for the DSP alone.”
So, at the moment, if the length of the housing list is, to use Sister Stan’s expression, a “damning indictment” of anything at all, it’s of the practice of two arms of the State using our money in two contradictory ways to achieve the same end. Please, Sister Stan, don’t run a guilt one on us about not enough of our money going into social housing. The taxpayer is already paying twice over for the same service as it is.
I don’t accept, either, that recession causes homelessness. The boom years were a bad time for vulnerable people. Sub-standard flats that had been let out to social welfare recipients referred by the health boards were suddenly being upgraded as landlords discovered that there was more money to be made on the open market.
In the boom years, homeless people would tell you they were sleeping rough because Africans were now getting all the flats paid for by social welfare. The homeless would complain bitterly that we were not looking after our own people first. They were right.
For those landlords who did continue to take social welfare tenants, it made far more sense to accept refugee referrals from the health board than it did to accept homeless Irish people. there was no reason to suspect that the Africans would have had a history of rent arrears or anti-social behaviour or of having been evicted.
With recession, rents have fallen. with the cut in rent subsidies, rents have fallen even further. The claim by Focus Ireland last year that there was “no evidence” of rents falling for welfare recipients was wrong.
Which brings me to my last point, which is to ask whether we should ever rely on any lobby group, such as Focus, to get it completely right. Lobby groups need public money, which means they are never going to understate the extent of any cause. The Leninist dictum “the worse, the better” is fundamental to their existence.
Lobby groups are expert at throwing a soundbite to the media. thus Sister Stanislaus claims that this year homelessness is “worse than ever” and the media will duly report this claim. The public is less likely to see the basis of such a claim disputed in the media. all of which is good for the lobby group, but not necessarily good for the public.
Originally published in