A few weeks before Christmas last year, a group of activists called Home Sweet Home, occupied Apollo House – a vacant state owned building in the city centre, that used to be the home of the Department of Social Welfare. They turned it into a dry (as in no alcohol or drugs permitted) shelter, offering accommodation, food, and support to homeless people. The conditions were far superior than those offered by the homeless shelters funded by the government. They did this, not only to offer support to vulnerable people but also to address the growing homeless catastrophe that is convulsing Ireland, and to try to pressure the government into dealing seriously with Ireland’s housing emergency.
The courts declared that they were trespassing (even though it was a state owned semi-derelict building) and ordered them to vacate. Before they did, they extracted a promise from the Minister for Housing, Simon Coveney that there would be no families living in emergency hotel accommodation by June 30th 2017 (at the time there were thousands).
Apollo House is being demolished in the coming week – the government wants it removed to allow the site be developed. Its continued presence is a reminder of how our leaders have failed so dismally in addressing Dublin’s housing crisis. Apollo House will be replaced by a shopping and business district with some luxury apartments.
The Fine Gael government moved Simon Coveney from his position as Minister for Housing, a few days before his self-imposed deadline to have zero families remaining in emergency accommodation. On July 1, 2017 there were still thousands of families living in these conditions. In typical Fine Gael style, they rewarded Coveney’s abject failure, by promoting him to Minister for Foreign Affairs. (It hardly bodes well for Ireland during the Brexit discussion that a minister whose name symbolises undelivered promises, will be representing us during such turbulent negotiations. )
Almost a year on from the occupation of Apollo House, the housing crisis lurches from bad to worse. There are now over 8,500 officially homeless people in Ireland – including 3000 children. This figure is worse than last year. The Peter McVerry Trust estimates that there is at least another 50,000 hidden homeless people (those relying on the goodwill and sofas, of friends or families to avoid the streets).
The government recently embarked on a policy of trying to normalise homelessness, when the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar made the claim that Ireland’s rate of homelessness was one of the lowest in Europe. Upon investigation by journalists it was shown that this comment had no basis in actual fact. However the claim was repeated by several other government ministers and state officials (Eileen Gleeson of the Dublin City Council for example, decided it would be a good idea to blame homelessness on people’s own anti-social behaviour – as if homelessness was completely divorced from the complete lack of housing supply, the truly terrifying cost of rental housing, and the way international vulture funds are buying up mortgages in the thousands and turfing people onto the streets.)
No need to look at causes of homelessness says the government. It’s easier to point the finger and blame the homeless themselves.
Blame, demonise, marginalise.
They assure us that the free market will sort the problem. Carefully avoiding the reality that the free market in relation to housing in Ireland, is failing so miserably. They also don’t like to discuss how many parliamentary representatives are landlords, and thereby benefiting financially from this mess. Apparently one in three politicians is a landlord.
I live in the north inner city of Dublin – probably the place where the ravages of this crisis are most visible.
After seeing ‘Let the right one in’ on Monday night, I counted eight people sleeping in doorways in the 250 metre stretch between the Abbey Theatre and bus station, on Abbey Street. If I had popped round the corner onto Marlborough Street, to the Pro-Cathedral I would have seen several more sheltering in the church doorway in their tents.
Or over to the GPO on O’Connell Street – that emblem of Irish freedom – where there would have been people sleeping under the pillars.
Or underneath the shop window displays on Henry Street, where the sleeping bags of the rough sleepers would be huddled together in a long line, for warmth.
These daily, visible reminders of Ireland’s housing disaster expose the lie that Ireland’s housing situation is normal.
I am now going to engage in an activity that tends to produce rage, defensiveness or aggression among certain Irish people. It may even provoke the response ‘Well why don’t you leave if you don’t like it?’
I am going to compare Dublin with a similarly sized city in a far more densely populated, and spatially smaller country.
I lived for many years in Amsterdam – a city also under severe pressure to supply sufficient housing for the numbers who want to live there. Amsterdam seems to be dealing with the issue. Affordable houses are being built. The rental market is regulated. And the most vulnerable always have protection from the elements if they choose to avail of it.
That’s not the Irish way though.
Unless we make it so.