The Kids Aren't Alright
by MARCEL KRUEGER
When I hear the word "homeless", the first thing that comes to mind is the somewhat romanticized image of a solitary bearded man, free from the constraints of society; what the Germans would call a Landstreicher – a vagabond. But this image is really just a fantasy, overshadowed by conditions of the homeless on the streets of Europe today, and especially in Ireland where I live.
Here, homelessness affects the most vulnerable of society. The latest figures show there are close to 2,800 children without homes in Ireland. In total, 1,312 families with 2,777 children were staying in emergency accommodation in May of 2017.
Why is that? One example: Abigail is a 42-year-old single mother with a teenage child. She is originally from outside of Europe but has lived in Ireland for 13 years, living in privately rented accommodation. She has never been homeless before and has never been in receipt of a rent supplement as she is employed – currently in a part-time job. In December 2016, Abigail’s landlord decided to sell the property. She was unable to find alternative accommodation due to limited financial resources and found it difficult to avoid homelessness in her current situation.
Such a case would be preventable, had the Irish government not adopted a hands-off policy approach regarding regulation of the rental and property market. Currently, the capital Dublin is one of most expensive cities in Europe, with rents increasing 12.3 percent on average each year. In most cases, the price hike is not associated with better standards of accommodation nor living. An average one-person bedsit in the centre of Dublin can easily set you back over 1,000 Euros a month. For the rest of the country, rents have increased by 13% since 2012 – after an initial slump in prices following the financial crash of 2008 – and there are no signs of this trend stopping.
Rents might just be affordable if you are part of Ireland's new business elite, one of thousands of junior managers at a multinational company attracted to Ireland's low corporate tax rate. If you are a single mother working in a café, however, the situation looks quite different. For the kids, the situation is frankly not alright.
When looking at social housing in Ireland, it is easy to see there is simply not enough of it. Once upon a time – 2014 to be precise – a spokesperson for the Irish government stated that they would “eradicate homelessness” in Ireland by 2016. The opposite is true. The current Fine Gael government recently announced grandiose plans to build a mere 800 new social houses, when in total 8,160 people, including dependents, were recorded as homeless in figures for July 2017. You can almost guess where the majority of the budget to fight homelessness goes: into paying hotels and B&Bs due to an insufficient stock of long-term social housing. Nearly € 700,000 alone were paid to B&Bs in the North East region, where I live, between January and June 2017.
The general consensus in Irish politics, heralded by a succession of governments, seems to instil the principles of a trickle-down economy: the creation of more liberties for the free market will result in greater benefit for the general population. This is plainly wrong. Ireland’s highly unregulated housing market is causing an intensified and nationwide housing crisis. A change in current economic policy seems distant: Fianna Fáil, now an opposition party but in government during the last property bubble, recently defended a proposal to cut value-added tax for builders that would cost the exchequer € 240 million, saying "real urgency" is needed to fight the housing crisis. As if tax reliefs for builders would automatically lead to more social housing, and not commercial property that offers a better return on investment.
When the current Housing Minister, Eoghan Murphy, was asked in May of 2017 whether an extension to the July deadline – set by his predecessor, Simon Coveney – to rehouse all families out of hotels would be met, he did not give a direct answer. Instead, he stated that the number of families in hotels was “of course too many” and that officials were continuing “to deal with an emergency situation”. He also introduced another plan to build so-called "family hubs", group homes for homeless families. “Family hubs are an important first response for families who become homeless and who have no alternative other than commercial hotels”, he said. Even the hub strategy is failing: Victorian houses are bought and lengthily renovated for a price that could buy ten new semi-detached houses – if there were ten semi-detached houses available to buy, that is.
Thankfully, many homeless families are supported by not-for-profit and church initiatives like Focus Ireland, The Simon Community or the Peter McVerry Trust, which provide invaluable services like soup kitchens, emergency shelters and administrative support for vulnerable families. In late 2016, Home Sweet Home, a campaign to end homelessness in Ireland occupied Apollo House in Dublin and, with the rallying help of artists and celebrities, converted the space into a shelter to raise awareness for the scale of vacant buildings in the capital. These initiatives need more official support, otherwise their efforts may be in vain.
So what is needed to get homeless families with children off the street and out of emergency accommodation? Affordable rents and social housing – not the proposed 800 homes, but more like 20,000. This, unfortunately, is nothing the Irish government is willing to tackle. Instead, vast sums of money are poured into quick fix solutions, like the family hubs, with no plans to address the root causes of homelessness. The result is an Ireland set for higher rent and property prices in the coming years, with more families and more children on the streets.
The system is still just about functioning, but it is close to breaking point. As long as the Irish government focuses attention on meeting its economic targets and austerity obligations to the EU, then who will care for the invisible children who are left without a room, without a permanent school, without a place to call home?