Homelessness: Not intractable, not inevitable

It’s not news to anyone by now that there is a housing crisis. There is a homeless crisis. There is a rental crisis. There are 1500 men, women and children in Ireland homeless who need our help, today.

After the death of Jonathan Corrie before Christmas last year, we were told the Government understood there was a crisis and that they were ready to act. Since then, the problem has just grown. And up to now, all we’ve been hearing about from politicians and the national media is the crisis in Dublin.

But there are more than ten people per night sleeping rough in Cork city; men, women and children. That’s a seven-fold increase in the past three years. Emergency shelters are overflowing. This figure does not factor in those sleeping on couches, living tenuously in overcrowded family homes, or sleeping in their cars away from the attention of charities. Cork has the largest social housing waiting list in the country. Employers are finding it difficult to recruit staff from outside the city because they can’t find places to live.

Every week on the Opinion Line we hear from at least one person who has recently visited the city and is horrified at the number of people begging on the streets. We hear about anti-social behaviour, street drinking, muggings and a reluctance to visit the city because of the human tragedy that faces each of us as we try to go about our daily lives. Businesses and the life of the city are suffering because people feel, not just threatened, but helpless and deeply saddened at what has happened to our society.

We also hear – every single week – from at least three people who are about to become or have just become homeless. We’ve heard from single parents, families, young couples, young professionals and even disabled pensioners who are faced with the terrifying prospect of sleeping in cars, on couches or turning to the services for help. It’s most people’s last resort to ring a radio station to beg for somewhere to live, but despite being a last resort, we are flooded with requests on Facebook, Twitter, by email and phone, to help people find somewhere to go.

The hardest part of my job is telling somebody that yes, they are welcome to speak on air, but knowing that it will not do any good. Landlords’ hearts are hardened to hard luck stories, as are those of many members of the public. During a discussion on housing just this week, two people phoned to ask why we were talking about this “again”. We are talking about this “again” because it is not going away; it is getting worse every single day, and because the profile of homelessness is changing.

Up to recently it was easy for many to turn a blind eye to someone sitting in a doorway because it was easy to convince yourself they were there due to their own mistakes. Heroin addicts and alcoholics formed the majority of those who were homeless. That has changed, utterly. Now it is young families, professionals, people in mortgage arrears, renters with jobs, pensioners, the unemployed, people with disabled kids… it’s all of us. There is no social group untouched by this.

Now more than ever, the work of homeless organisations like Cork Simon is invaluable. As well as providing emergency accommodation, long term assistance with transition to housing and so many related services for those whose homelessness springs from more complex stories,  their services provide a crucial buffer between hope and hopelessness for those who would otherwise have literally nowhere to turn.

An exhibition of photographs by Cork native Bill Walsh, currently on view at the Evening Echo office on Oliver Plunkett Street, is an important reminder to all of us that every person facing homelessness is a unique individual, with a unique story. The beauty of these photographs is that without a label, we have no idea who’s who. Staff, service users, volunteers; each of them is just a person. From fun on the faces of two friends embracing, to the inner sparkle clearly visible in a man gazing straight into the camera, each of these people is someone you could know. Right now, there probably is somebody you know struggling to meet mortgage payments or arguing with a landlord about a rent increase.

This is not an intractable problem, and it is not inevitable in what is still one of the richest countries in the world. What is inevitable is the loss of dignity, respect and security that comes with losing a home. People deserve better.

For Simon Week 2015, Simon is running a Homeless Forecast Campaign, asking people to sign their letter to An Taoiseach and An Tánaiste urging them to bring the homeless and housing crisis to the top of the Cabinet’s agenda. Over 5,000 people have already signed the letter.  They are also asking people to share their video with friends and family to increase awareness of the crisis and the need for action.  The letter can be signed and the Homeless Forecast with TV3 presenter, Martin King can be viewed and shared at www.simonhomelessforecast.ie
**This piece was published in the Evening Echo, 1 October 2015***

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