Homelessness is the new normal


The Facebook post from a cafe wondering why their milk delivery is being intercepted every morning.

The complaints from out-of-town shoppers that they no longer like to visit the city, because they are accosted by beggars on every street.

The queues outside rental agencies when a new property goes up on their website.

The children who refuse invitations to their friends’ homes, because they have no home where they can return the invitation.

The adults who spend their days in public libraries and fast food restaurants to keep warm, because the B&B won’t let them in during daylight.

Is it still a crisis when we are used to it? Is it still an emergency when all of us, now, are immune to the reports of deaths in tents or on doorsteps, and the rising numbers of children whose futures hang in the balance?

When, on hearing of a pregnant woman with nowhere to have her baby, we no longer think of the Christmas story but of the last similar case we were aware of?

When I first hosted the Cork Simon Women’s Christmas lunch three years ago the combined effects of vulture funds, repossessions, lost jobs and the stoppage in building had only just begun to show their results. But three years later the crisis has been allowed to spiral out of anyone’s control.

A succession of housing ministers have made promises so unambitious they didn’t even hope to fully address the problem, and even those promises haven’t been kept.

Two women have died on the streets of Cork since September and still groups of desperate volunteers do their best to turn the tide with gloves, soup, sleeping bags.
Another housing minister promises another programme.

This Christmas it’s notable that there are fewer promises floating around about homelessness. The passionate commitments of previous housing ministers to ‘solve’ the homelessness problem are no more. They have moved on to other portfolios and the current minister is not making such rash promises.

The head of the Housing Agency, in a sort of Orwellian attempt to make us all believe the unbelievable and accept the unacceptable, has said the housing crisis is “completely normal”.

The new normal involves two sick women dying on the streets of our beautiful city in 2017.

The new normal makes every one of us ashamed, but instead of living up to our aspirations we live down to our shame. We bow our heads and shuffle past, we avoid the city and we do our best to act ‘normal’, because walking past our fellow citizens on the street, and blaming them for it, is the new normal.

We need to live up, not down. Every one of us needs to do more. Kathleen O’Sullivan, who died in December not far from the Cork Simon shelter, deserved more from us, her fellow citizens, and from the services that were supposed to support her. Family and friends say she knew how ill she was, and questions must be asked about why someone so vulnerable was not looked after better. Jennifer Dennehy, a young woman who had been homeless for a very short time but suffered from a number of health problems, when she died in September in a tent in Gilabbey Street, deserved more from all of us.

Human beings are not perfect and support services are not perfect either. There is always more that can be done and it can always be done better.

The new normal, it seems, means that Cork Simon supported 219 women across its services in 2017. The emergency shelter has now become a temporary home for both men and women, with 22% of its occupants now female. Among first-timers attending the shelter in 2017, 26% were women.

The homeless population has gone far beyond the stereotypical troubled individual with addiction or mental health issues as the housing problem engulfs mortgage-holders who have fallen foul of the banks, students and people who rely on housing assistance but find the gap between this income and rental costs is unbridgeable. Housing insecurity is an issue for huge parts of the population and it really could be any one of us sleeping in our car or a tent if the dice falls the wrong way.

So in 2018 it really is up to each one of us to try and make this crisis a memory. To lobby politicians, to work towards the development of new housing and set aside nimbyism, to support charities and services that help people out of homelessness and back into the old ‘normal’, with the dignity and respect that were denied to Jenny and Kathleen. May they rest in peace.

Cork Simon’s Annual Women’s Little Christmas lunches will be held on Saturday 6th January in two locations in Cork city and West Cork. For more information see www.corksimon.ie.

 

 

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