We need to be realistic about our housing crisis, and its different causes

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By Eamon Delaney

The Government’s director for homelessness in Dublin, Eileen Gleeson, (above) has created major waves with her straight-talking comments on our ongoing housing crisis. Coming on top of the continuing insistence of the Government that Ireland’s housing crisis is ‘not much worse’ than that of many other countries, it suggests that the Taoiseach’s much-vaunted spin machine may need even more emollient and balm.

Ms Gleeson, director of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, said long-term homelessness resulting from years of ‘bad behaviour’ cannot be solved by the efforts of ‘ad hoc’ unauthorised groups.

‘Let’s be under no illusion here’, she told Dublin City Council’s policing committee ‘when somebody becomes homeless it doesn’t happen overnight, it takes years of bad behaviour probably, or behaviour that isn’t the behaviour of you and me.’

‘These homeless, she added ‘are afraid to come in, they’re reluctant, they’re quite happy to continue with the chaotic lifestyle they have. If somebody provides them with some sort of halfway shelter they’ll willingly take it.’

As someone who lives near to a dozen tents by the Royal Canal where street people are now dwelling, along with their dogs, I can relate to this observation. And to the fact that these are a different sort of homeless to those who just want a house in which to live.

But it speaks volumes about sort of cotton-wool discourse we have in this country that Gleeson was immediately slammed by Opposition politicians, the far left and assorted quango heads. She stated what would be plainly obvious to the rest of us, and which most off us would observe on a daily basis, especially in the bigger towns and cities.

Our political/media bubble too often prefers soothing language and endless empathy instead of actual hard facts and solutions. Yes, Gleeson’s views came across as insensitive given the nightly spectre of families staying in hotels, at public expense. And yes, the Taoiseach could have let his point be said, in deep conversation – or by someone else – that Ireland does not have especially high homeless figures, statistically speaking, compared to others.

Leo didn’t have to say it himself, right after the Ard Fheis and in the face of new and ever higher homeless figures. But this is the Presidential-type system of governance, and utterance, he especially seems keen on and it does no-one any favours.

The reality is that even if the Government is doing the best it can, and feels that it is being unfairly whipped by critics and opponents with few ideas of their own, you don’t say this. You take the punishment and get on with it – that’s the reality of politics, and Government, however unfair.

What it looks like is the Government saying ‘this housing crisis happening in lots of places and it will be with us for a while yet’. Suddenly, the emergency lights goes off and everybody can take their foot of the gas. And a lot of homeless can be moved towards the charities and soup kitchens and be sort of taken off the State’s watch.

However, this doesn’t deny that what Gleeson said was right, and indeed Mike Allen, of Focus Ireland, defended her and acknowledged that some voluntary groups were not simply helping the homelessness situation. Yes, she could have chosen better language, he said, but a lot of the voluntary groups did not know the correct protocol for accessing services and sometimes operated in isolation, even with a degree of rivalry with official teams.

Above: Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy

But the bigger picture here, is that we are confusing a homeless crisis with a housing crisis. And this confusion is deliberately sustained by those who seek to profit politically from painting the State as an uncaring monster which has ‘forced’ families to live in hotels.

The reality is that we have a massive housing shortage, causing people who would never be near homelessness in usual circumstances- the people Fr Peter McVerry looks after – suddenly finding themselves without anywhere to live.

And so marginalised ‘street people’, who as Gleeson correctly said, often have long term addiction problems and resist institutional help, are counted in with families, or lone parents or maybe even professional types who just cant find an affordable home. This is a very mixed set of different elements to lump together and homeless experts should be honest about it, instead of using an overall crisis to advance the cause of their respective organisations.

Our housing shortage is a perfect storm. With ghost estates littering the land, we built too few homes after the crash, and the banks wouldn’t lend. So property prices soared as so rents. Meanwhile, the population grew quickly and the recovery brought in more immigrants and returned emigrants. And bedsits were foolishly abolished.

Successive Governments can be blamed for a lack of long term planning – and perhaps for selling off overly large land banks to overseas investment funds. But this is complex and may featured crisis and silencing the likes of Eileen Gleeson, or getting hung up on ‘the right sort of language’, is not helping us to have a full and honest debate about it all. We have had enough of blame games in this country and its time we pulled together.

This article appeared in TheTimes.ie on 16 November