Homelessness is caused by flawed policies not flawed people

Published: 03.09.2018

Focus Ireland Director of Advocacy Mike Allen writes about the challenge facing Eoghan Murphy, and how the Minister needs to set a trajectory that can eliminate homelessness in a realistic timescale.

One of the biggest mistakes that is often made about homelessness is to try to understand the issue solely through scrutinising the individual life stories and personalities of the people who experience it.

Anyone who is homeless and comes to public attention immediately has every aspect of their life dissected and every choice they ever made examined.  Swift judgements are made and verdicts are passed.

The story of homelessness is most frequently told as one of personal frailty, suffering and, sometimes, redemption.

Too often the story is told without sympathy and the listener is given to understand that the person who is homeless only really has themselves to blame. Even when the verdict is sympathetic we are left with a highly complex issue being told through the story of one person or family.

Sense of Achievement

There are people with their lives in the media spotlight right now. But there were such stories last year and the year before. If the person has their particular problem resolved there is a sense of achievement and the fact that the problem continues for thousands more is forgotten for a while.

It is vital to remember that homelessness is not caused by the people who suffer it.  It is caused by a range of choices which we as a society make.

Choices such as whether or not resources are put into building social housing, or how we balance the rights of tenants against the rights of landlords.  At an individual level it is often about how our vote is influenced by tax promises and other factors, about whether we object to the plan to build new social housing in our neighbourhood.

Every person makes some poor choices from time to time.  But whether these are just a set-back in their lives or lead to the catastrophe of homelessness depends upon the sort of society we build, and the sort of policies that weave it together.

I am not dismissing the importance of the stories of people who are homeless. Of course we need to hear them. We in Focus Ireland work with our customers to help empower them to have their voices heard every day. Understanding other people’s aspirations and challenges is part of what makes us all human, it helps us to make the right choices about where our priorities should lie.

Without the human stories the crisis can become just a matter of numbers and we lose sight of the people. The stories can be crucial in putting a spotlight on individual situations such as illegal evictions, having to stay in a Garda station or all the daily injustices of life when you have no home.

However, if the individual story becomes the only part of the story we hear, we tend to look for the explanation for homelessness in the individual. People tend to say: I lost my home ‘because I couldn’t pay the rent’, ‘because I was depressed after my wife died’ or ‘because the apartment I was renting was sold’. They don’t say ‘because the rent control policies were not enforced’, ‘because of underinvestment in mental health services’ or ‘the bank sold my landlords loan to a vulture fund’. This can be damaging for the people involved and is also damaging for our understanding of the deeper problems.

So, if we understand that it is not the failings of individuals but failures of policies and practice which create homelessness, we also need to understand that the housing and homeless crisis is not the result of the personality, education or rolled-up shirt-sleeves of the Minister for Housing.

Flawed policies not flawed people

Homelessness is caused by flawed policies not flawed people – and that must go for ministers too.

Over the last year, the housing and homeless crisis has been turned into a series of set-piece action pieces – the snow, the storm, the sun, the Pope, will the figures hit 10,000?… now this month’s set-piece is the Minister’s personality.

We have become used to these short stories with a neat narrative of build-up, crisis and resolution. We are rather good at these things. Unfortunately, they are totally irrelevant to the task of finding lasting solutions. We cannot keep on treating homelessness in this agitated and distracted manner and expect to sort it out. These are complex problems and they need perseverance and attention.

If, at last, there is now widespread recognition that the policies in place to tackle the housing and homelessness crisis are insufficient to the task, we need to have a debate about what additional policies and resources are needed. A debate which centres on the personality of the Minister is a distraction from this more serious consideration.

A new Minister with the same policies would not make things better. In fact it would make things worse. We would have months of getting to know the job, we would have at least a year of ‘well as you know I am less than a year into this job and things take time.’ And then we would be facing into an election.

We have had six Ministers for Housing from three political parties in just seven years – Michael Finneran, Willie Penrose, Jan O’Sullivan, Alan Kelly, Simon Coveney and Eoghan Murphy. In contrast, there have been just three Ministers for Finance. If changing the Minister for Housing delivered homes, the skyline would be filled with cranes.

The Government’s fundamental mistake is that it seriously misjudged the scale of the crisis we face and so underestimated what needed to be done.  They continued to believe they were right and it was just a matter of time. It is true that government policy is delivering what they said it would, but it is now clear that it falls far short of what we need.

So let’s use this opportunity to talk about policies: What is working? What needs to be done faster? What needs more resources? What is holding us back?

Let’s be clear, no policy can be said to be working while things are getting worse. But we need to be more ambitious than that. We need the Minister to set a trajectory that can eliminate homelessness and a realistic timescale to achieve that.

After a year trying to make his predecessor’s policy fit the task, nobody in this Government knows this better or is better placed to rise to the challenge than Minister Murphy.

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Tags: Challenges, Housing, Policy

Author: Mike Allen

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