What about the homeless?
I’ve always had an issue with whataboutery.
Urbandictionary.com defines “whataboutism”, or whataboutery, as “when you deflect criticism by pointing out flaws in your opponent, specifically using the phrase “what about x?” This is an attempt to excuse you from changing your behavior by painting your opponent as a hypocrite.”
It’s annoying, a terrible debating strategy, and it usually manages to suppress a discussion by just ignoring the vast complexity of most issues.
There are a lot of problems in the world and topics to be discussed, and most of them are worthy of some discussion. Fixing one problem doesn’t always mean doing so at the expense of another.
WHAT ABOUT THE HOMELESS
In my line of work, for a long long time, the most common response to almost any topic we have covered, or any debate we have had, has been “what about the homeless?”.
Talk about Love Island, refugees, veganism, climate change, traffic, public art… and the response from a certain sector will be “why are ye talking about this and not our own homeless”.
We do talk about the homeless. Most days on the show, we speak to someone who is homeless or someone who is about to become homeless. They ask for help. We try and find them some help. Volunteer groups step in, because usually they have been set adrift somewhere in the official system and need an advocate by their side to try and get back into it.
And, over the years, I have responded to the “what about our homeless” argument, mostly, by saying “well, why not do both?”. In many scenarios this is possible.
But I have reached a tipping point, because, while we do talk about the homeless, day in, day out, it seems that the people in power are just not listening.
They are busy reupholstering the deckchairs on a sinking ship instead.
For a large portion of our society – thousands upon thousands of people – the ship has sunk. And there are too few lifeboats.
Two local councillors – people for whom I have a lot of respect – spoke on our show on Thursday about issues they wanted to highlight.
Cllr Joe Kavanagh would like to see a boardwalk built on Patrick’s Quay, to highlight the beautiful amenity of our river, make the best of the newly refurbished Patrick’s Bridge and the new Mary Elmes Bridge, and provide an attractive leisure space in an area that – to be fair – needs it.
Cllr Oliver Moran, not to be outdone, spoke about the listening posts further down the quay at Penrose Wharf. They’re a lovely bit of public art highlighting the heritage of the area as a working dock. And they’re broken.
My usual response to both these suggestions would be an enthusiastic yes.
The city is in tatters. Dereliction, broken streetlights, badly replaced paving stones where works have been done. No functional public toilets. An alarming amount of petty crime.
Years of austerity, cutbacks to maintenance budgets and lack of staff to keep an eye on all the little things has added up to a city that does not show itself off to best advantage. In some ways the beautiful new elements make the rest of it look worse.
But what really makes Cork look bad is more serious than paving stones or litter.
It’s the tents. The detritus of life lived out in full on the streets – food containers, whiskey bottles, and human waste on our pavements. Broken bodies and damaged souls living exposed to the elements.
The increase in violent crime, as – according to Penny Dinners’ Caitriona Twomey – the desperation among our homeless spirals out of control.
A new boardwalk would be a fine location for the homeless to hang out as they wait for the Simon hostel across the river to open for the night, and sure, they can sleep there if it’s full, as it so often is. They have already colonised the other side of the river, and, further down at Penrose Wharf, the spot where those listening posts Cllr Moran is so worried about are located.
USE THE POWERS YOU HAVE
Local councillors have limited powers. But one of the remits they do have is in housing. And while so many people are forced to live on the streets, in cars, and in tents, talking about improving the cityscape with nice little installations and public realm works is a fantasy.
A new installation just becomes something to hang a tent off, and another boardwalk will become another location for drug taking and drinking. Not that I blame anyone living on the streets for drinking. I’d drink myself into oblivion if I lived on the streets, because why would you want to face reality when your reality is cold, wet, violence and fear, interspersed with the odd positive of a volunteer group giving you dinner?
Perhaps, just perhaps, if all our local representatives focused their efforts on the homeless issue, some of the other problems they are so concerned about would solve themselves?
If they spent their time ensuring that City Hall drew down the millions of unspent euros in the national coffers allocated to Traveller housing, and put an end to the travesty of the Spring Lane halting site (12% of homeless children in Ireland are Travellers). If they thought creatively about accessing European funding to build social housing. If they worked on getting compulsory purchase orders against speculators sitting on derelict property in their areas. If they put more pressure on the officials they work with and on their Dáil colleagues to get this crisis under control before a generation of children is lost to us (children who experience homelessness are far more likely to be homeless themselves as adults). Or – just a thought here – if they supported the building of social housing in their areas, instead of objecting to it on paper-thin grounds.
Fewer people living on the streets means no excrement to be cleaned off lovely new bridges. No unsightly tents. More public spaces available for art instead of tents. No piles of broken bottles and beer cans in the usual spots.
Homelessness isn’t a simple issue. Trauma, addiction, mental health and family breakdown all feed into it. But the best available evidence is that if you provide housing first, then you can address all the other problems that have led to someone ending up on the streets. And if you house the people who live on our streets, perhaps then we can work on making the streets look nicer for the rest of us.
Usually, making public policy decisions is not a zero sum game. But in this case, none of the tinkering will do a damn thing until the fundamentals are fixed. Housing first. The rest will follow.