Why can’t we pull out all stops for Ireland’s own homeless?

Who or what is going to pay for all this extra housing the State has suddenly been able to find, asks Ailin Quinlan
Why can’t we pull out all stops for Ireland’s own homeless?

A tent in a doorway on Patrick Street. Picture: Larry Cummins

THE number of homeless people in this country, that is, people categorised as homeless but not fleeing a murderous Russian rampage through Ukraine, was, last February, just under 10,000.

In other words, the number of people who were accessing State-funded emergency accommodation in Ireland at around the time Vladimir Putin’s armies began arriving in Ukraine, was, according to figures published by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, 9,492.

According to the Peter McVerry Trust, an organisation which definitely knows its onions, this figure DOES NOT include people who are sleeping rough, people who are couch-surfing, people who are actually homeless but who happen to be in hospital or prison, or those many, many people of non-national origin who have spent untold years in Direct Provision centres.

It does not include the homeless households sheltering in Domestic Violence Refuges. These people, who include 2,667 children, are NOT included in the regular monthly homeless figures because they are not accessing emergency homeless accommodation funded through Section 10 of the Housing Act.

Aside from the unbelievable hard work and dedication of a number of a network of key, incredibly good and hugely effective voluntary groups like Simon, Cork Penny Dinners and Focus Ireland, there was no hugely visible, pull-out-all-the-stops drive by the government to get Ireland’s existing homeless community, irrespective of nationality, housed safely indoors like the Ukrainian refugees.

Now we’re hearing about using former convents and hospitals, constructing modular homes, refurbishing buildings, finding vacant houses or, paying families €400 a month to house the refugees in private homes.

We’re hearing about the use of ‘powers’ to build a range of temporary facilities which will bypass planning regulations. We hear that a ‘public call’ will be made to identify vacant buildings suitable for repurposing. Consideration will be given to extending operating hours for constructing and a “clearing house” will be established to asses which of the 70,000 non-active planning permissions can be fast tracked.

The establishment of an “emergency vacant housing delivery unit” is on the cards and 500 modular homes are now planned.

For Ukrainian refugees. My, oh my. Helping Ukrainian refugees as much as we possibly can is exactly the right thing to do. It is the good and the decent thing to do. It is exactly what we should be doing. We must and should give back. Ireland has sent plenty of its own destitute sons and daughters overseas in harsher times, forcing them to throw themselves on the mercy of other nations. Ireland’s children have been well-served in some places , ill-served in others. It behoves u as a nation to treat incoming refugees the way we would hope our own would be treated if they were forced to throw themselves on the mercy of our international neighbours.

However, at the heart of all this goodwill there is a truly enormous White Elephant in the Room; a White Elephant which is not being acknowledged by Official Ireland. (1) We have a massive pre-existing homeless problem which was never effectively nor determinedly addressed by the Irish State. (2) The Irish State has, rightly, made a gargantuan, necessary and very effective on behalf of homeless Ukrainians - but only, insofar as I can see, on behalf of Ukrainians. (3) The State has continued to, generally, fail the pre-existing homeless community in Ireland. (4) The State has started making vague and indirect references to Ireland nearing its capacity level in relation to housing while at the same time indicating that it won’t cap the numbers incoming from Ukraine. It’s double-speak and I can’t follow it.

How on earth is a government which seemed so utterly flummoxed by its own housing crisis which had resulted in an “official” level of 10,000 homeless people by last February (but which is in reality possibly double or treble that figure) able to suddenly unearth all this emergency accommodation for 25,000 people arriving here from the Ukraine? Is it because the eyes of the EU are trained on Ireland? I thought the Exchequer was, like, broke after the Covid pandemic? 

Who or what is going to pay for all this extra housing the State has suddenly been able to find after years of sitting on its hands pleading poverty and inability to tackle?

What’s being done for homeless people in Ireland who are not coming in from the Ukraine? Homelessness was a national embarrassment here long before Putin got a rush of blood to the brain and sent his tanks into Ukraine.

Is Official Ireland saying that homeless refugees from Ukraine are in a different category of homeless to the pre-existing, diverse community of homeless people here, because Ukrainian refugees are fleeing from a war and the Ireland-based homeless community was not fleeing a war? Surely a homeless person is a homeless person irrespective of the reason for their homelessness?

Another question: will our pre-existing community of homeless people now find that its place in the housing queue is less certain now than it was at the start of the year through no fault of its own?

As we might recall to our enduring shame as a nation, back in January 2020, long before all this started, a homeless man was hospitalised with life-changing injuries after his tent on the Grand Canal was removed by an industrial utility vehicle during works being carried out by the authorities. There was a lot of outrage. I read later on that the Housing Minister’s election campaign poster, which had been photographed at the scene, was removed.

In October 2019, in Cork city, homeless Timmy Hourihane died in hospital after he was found with serious head and face injuries near his burning tent in a homeless encampment on Mardyke Walk.

Now in Spring 2022 Ireland is rightly working very hard to help Ukrainian people through the provision of diverse kinds of accommodation.

But where’s the talk of any real effective help for the thousands of officially and unofficially homeless people in this country who pre-date the arrival of the Ukrainian refugees? Why are there no big announcements of building modular homes or fast-tracking planning to house these untold “unofficial” thousands sleeping on streets, in tents, on friends’ sofas, in Direct Provision or in Domestic Violence Refuges?

If we can pull out all the stops for our Ukrainian brothers and sisters, why can’t we do it for our own homeless community?

Do you have to come wrapped in a blue-and-yellow flag for the Irish government to acknowledge your plight and give you help?

Why can’t the needs of all nationalities in either poor emergency accommodation or those rough-sleeping on streets and canal-banks or existing in the purgatory of Direct Provision or Domestic Violence Refuges get some real attention?

It’s looking a lot like optics to me, guys.

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