Focus Ireland Director of Advocacy, Mike Allen, considers how inflammatory comments on rising homelessness – and the consequent backlash against those comments – causes unnecessary distraction and confusion. It also dilutes the sense of urgency required to tackle the problem.
The recent comments by Dublin City Council CEO Owen Keegan that people become homeless because of improvements in homeless services, resulted in a pattern of media huffing and puffing that has become as predictable as it depressing.
It goes like this: a senior person with responsibility for solving the homeless problem makes simplistic insulting comments about people who are homeless, the media gives huge coverage to remarks in the name of ‘debate’, some volunteer homeless organisations call for resignations and apologies, Focus Ireland says let’s not get distracted by all of this, some new statistics are published to ‘prove’ an entirely different and non-controversial point. And we all move on, a little bit more confused, polarised and discouraged.
So, let’s not get distracted. But let’s explore a little of what is going on here.
It is a worrying reality that many of the senior public servants with responsibility for tackling homelessness have now made public remarks which characterise the problem of homelessness as being primarily caused by the behaviour of people who are homeless (they exhibit ‘bad behaviour’, ‘game the system’ and become homeless because homeless accommodation is so attractive). In fairness, it is worth noting that notable exceptions to this trend include Minister Eoghan Murphy, who has not made such remarks and has occasionally distanced himself from them.
Despite (or perhaps even because of) the Minister’s silence on this issue, some people see a planned and sophisticated strategy to “change the narrative” about homelessness and undermine the widespread public concern and sympathy that exists for people who are homeless. Personally, I feel that the lack of any joined up plan on any other aspect of the housing/homelessness crisis makes this hypothesis unlikely. I also think it unlikely that any of the highly paid PR staff employed by Government would believe they could really transform public attitudes with this sort of crude tactic. Fear of dispossession runs long and deep in the Irish soul – as does sympathy for the dispossessed, along with a rather inconsistent history of actually doing anything to tackle it.
The truth is that this “narrative” of people in authority blaming people when they most need our help is nothing new. They have been saying it since the Victorian era. You will find comments very like these in the records of the workhouses. People were queuing up outside because of the easy life the workhouse provided and the best way to reduce the queues would be to thin the gruel or make life inside a bit more difficult or humiliating.
It might be more accurate to say that those who want our public services to help the people who need them are the ones “challenging the narrative”. We want our public servants to treat people with dignity and respect; we want public services which solve problems. But we also require that they ensure public money is not wasted. We must recognise that this is complex and officials must balance both objectives if public confidence is to be maintained.
To achieve this two things would be helpful:
- A less sensational discourse on these issues
- More respect for evidence.
The less sensational discourse would be helped by senior officials taking greater care with the language they use and how it will be understood. It is reasonable for us to expect our most senior officials to have these skills and show this respect. It would help if media coverage could be more informed and less polarising. This, of course, is part of a wider challenge of how we treat controversial issues including Traveller accommodation, immigration and welfare.
We know the pattern: careless remark, I demand an apology!, I’m being silenced!, you are a racist – so resign! It’s not helpful and it’s also boring. This pattern is so ingrained it gets written up no matter what you say. This week Focus Ireland were reported by several media outlets as ‘demanding an apology’ from Mr Keegan – even though we had said he would be better occupied delivering housing then drafting apologies. And there is clearly a responsibility on all organisations working with the homeless to reduce the tone of offended outrage in the public debate. We can’t expect others to take these things seriously if we don’t. In Focus Ireland we try to take this responsibility seriously. Of course we don’t always get it right, but that too should be part of a discussion.
Respect for Evidence
There appears to be a serious contradiction between the personal view expressed by Owen Keegan that people become homeless because of improvements in homeless services and the recent evidence presented by his Director of Housing, that the overwhelming majority of families become homeless due to evictions from the private rented sector. The evidence is of course collaborated by extensive Focus Ireland research.
The report on people becoming homeless leaked to the Irish Times as the evidence on which Mr Keegan ‘based his comments’ does not actually resolve the contradiction. How can DCC simultaneously claim that homelessness is caused by enforced eviction and also that it is a matter of choice?
The explanation lies in the very different understandings of what it means to be homeless that are being used. As Mr Keegan uses the term, you are only “homeless” if you are in emergency homeless accommodation (hence his “joke” that if you closed all the emergency services there would be no homelessness). But most people understand that our housing and homeless problem is now much deeper and widespread than that.
It is perhaps understandable that the CEO of Dublin City Council is tempted to think in these siloed terms (dividing things into my problem/somebody else’s problem) but this thinking leads us towards a profound misunderstanding of homelessness and what we need to do to solve it.
Focus Ireland evidence shows that, after eviction, many families spend long periods ‘doubling up’ and overcrowded, staying with family or friends. Thousands of families across the country know this from first hand experience. Only when this becomes unsustainable for them or their hosts do these families register as “officially homeless” and enter homeless services. It is reasonable to assume that if homeless services only comprise tiny hotel rooms and cockroach infested lodgings, people might try to hang on longer sleeping in their sister’s front room. But whether they are sleeping on a sofa or emergency accommodation they are actually homeless, with all the damaging effects on them and their children.
Solving homelessness is not a matter of moving people between sofa surfing, hotel rooms and Hubs, it is about providing an adequate supply of affordable, secure homes, with support where needed.
This confused thinking is evident in the state’s response to homelessness. The primary response has been to build new homeless shelters, hubs etc. Millions of euro have been poured into these. Over 1,000 new “emergency” homeless beds have been opened in the last few years. DCC plan to provide 300 more each year, and there is a clamor for even more. The Minister, DCC and the organisations which provide these facilities have expended considerable effort in telling everyone how wonderful they are and what quality of life they offer. Organisations such as Focus Ireland which have been critical of this approach have been characterised as “negative”. Now the CEO of the organisation which is responsible designing and delivering this expensive response goes public and criticises homeless families for the entirely predictable (and predicted) consequence of these policies.
In the meantime DCC has worked to totally inadequate and unambitious social housing targets. It claims to have met these targets but more then half of its output has been to renovate voids which it had allowed to become derelict in the first place. Between 2015 and 2017, 2,866 of the 4,812 social houses “delivered” by DCC were in fact homes they had allied to become void. Only 322 were newly built by the council. During all the interviews and commentary on whether Mr Keegan’s remarks were “insulting”, nobody asked him to justify this failure to deliver homes.
The major problem about Mr Keegan’s comments is not that some people felt insulted or upset, but that they distract us from the fact that Dublin City Council needs to do a lot more, with a much greater sense of urgency, to deliver quality social housing. No wonder he was feeling jocular.
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