“He was clearly a man of intelligence, depth and insight,” the Taoiseach said mournfully. “He was also a man of great dignity and I believe the best way we can honour his life is by acting, once and for all, on this issue of homelessness, right now in the emergency shelter, in the long-term housing plan, in addressing the causes of pain and alienation in our society.”
It was December 2014 and Enda Kenny was leading a Dáil discussion on homelessness, which had been flung onto the public agenda by the death of Jonathan Corrie. The Kilkenny native was found dead after sleeping on a doorstep, through a bitterly cold night, barely twenty steps from the front gate of Leinster House. (It is a doorstep TV reporters know well: it’s the one usually used when reporting outside the Dáil gates.)
The maxim touted at the time was that homelessness and rough sleeping were not simple issues to fix – they are rather the final symptom of a series of other failings. It is the final manifestation of financial distress, or of mental health trouble, or any multitude of other complicating factors, such as addiction: illustrating the complexity of the problem, Corrie’s parents had bought him two homes to ensure a safe lodging for him, but in the midst of his addiction problems, he had sold both.
The 50 months since Corrie’s death have seen homelessness remain at the top of the agenda. It reminded us of a pledge made in 2011, when the junior minister for housing Jan O’Sullivan (in the same role now held by Damien English) promised that homelessness would be ended entirely by 2016. Will 2019 be the year when we find out for certain whether it will ever truly be tackled?
It is certainly the topic that came up most during the Christmas break. Anywhere your columnist went during his time off, there was only one question asked of him: do they actually get it? Do they understand how tough it actually is out there? The unfortunate conclusion is that they might not. The stated target of producing 25,000 homes a year will only bring supply back in line with present demand, and won’t address the shortfall of housing that has emerged in the last few years. Realistically the State needs 35,000 homes each year for a few years, in order to clear the backlog – but it appears petrified to ramp up so much building, for fear that it cannot wind it back again and that we repeat the errors of 2007.
Some will often point to the fact that one-fifth of TDs are themselves landlords, suggesting this implies a vested interest in homelessness. The more relevant stat – one not available – is how many TDs are renting their own homes. Given their general income, the answer is quite few. Even those who do rent, by virtue of their public position, are unlikely to be given the runaround by an opportunistic landlord.
This gets to the nub of the trouble Ireland faces. Many commentators will point out that things are pretty good economically at the moment, and the yare. But things are only fine (largely) for those who have mortgages and can afford to pay them. For those who can’t, stable wages and minor tax cuts are of limited use, when work might be precarious and the roof over the head could be taken or made unaffordable at any corner.
This government will live or die by how well it can begin to successfully turn the levers of the housing market. But to do so, it must first show an empathy that it understands what life is like when the average person is getting by, and the less-than-average person is only just hanging on.