Conventional political wisdom says there are no votes in fixing homelessness. Maybe that explains our spiralling housing crisis.
In 2011, 34 people slept rough for one night or more in Cork City. Last year, that figure was 284. As of the end of October this year, there are 311 people sleeping rough on the streets of Ireland’s second city.
By any measure, that’s a damning indictment of the Government which came to power in 2011. That said, horrible as it is, people sleeping rough is only the tip of a far greater problem.
Last week I visited the Cork Simon Community soup kitchen for a chat with the staff and to see first-hand the services they provide. A hot meal is given to anyone who needs it, in a warm, secure environment and most evenings up to fifty people call in. Almost half of them are in private rented accommodation. It’s no exaggeration to say that people who cannot afford to feed themselves are potentially only one rent payment away from homelessness.
The weeks around the recent Budget saw a lengthy stand-off between the Departments of Finance and Environment on the twin issues of rent certainty and rent allowance. The conflict centred on the seemingly unstoppable force of Labour’s Environment Minister Alan Kelly meeting the apparently immovable object of Fine Gael’s Finance Minister Michael Noonan.
Kelly was pushing for rent certainty and an increase in rent allowance. Noonan was reportedly having none of it, saying that rent certainty would interfere with the market and that landlords would just up rents to swallow up any increase in rent allowance.
The front line of homelessness
Now, if you wanted to find out about any issue, you’d talk to the experts, wouldn’t you? If you wanted to find out about – say – homelessness, you’d go to the people on the front line of helping the homeless on a daily, nightly, hourly basis.
People like Sister Stan of Focus Ireland, Brother Kevin of the Capuchin Day Centre and Father Peter McVerry. People like the Simon Community.
The people who know most about homelessness all speak with one voice on an immediate way to help prevent more yet people falling between the cracks: increase rent allowance and guarantee rent certainty. Rent allowance hasn’t increased in two-and-a-half years and in that time rents are up by up to 30%. Landlords would be prevented from increasing rents to absorb any rent allowance increase if tenants had rent certainty.
The Kelly/Noonan stand-off eventually resolved itself in the decision that rent supplement would not be increased but rents would be frozen for two years.
Speaking personally as someone living in private rented accommodation, the news of an impending rent freeze resulted in my getting a panicky call from my landlord suggesting that I might like to have a chat – as a matter of some urgency – about a 20% rent increase. Anecdotal evidence on Twitter suggests I’m far from alone.
The rent freeze was signed into law by President Higgins on the 4th of December. It certainly grants breathing room to those currently in private rented accommodation but without an increase in rent allowance it does nothing to help those currently stuck in emergency accommodation and those frozen out of a skyrocketing rental market.
As of September, there are 200 people in emergency accommodation in Cork. Those are the people who have fallen between the cracks, out of private rented accommodation but – to be simplistic – who are not yet sleeping on the streets.
Homelessness is a huge problem, one with myriad causes and one which – for Government – has no immediately obvious easy solution. We had a “Super-Junior” minister (Jan O’Sullivan) with responsibility for connecting the different departments involved in tackling homelessness – for instance, Social Protection, Environment and Health – but that position was reshuffled out of existence last year.
Talking with Simon staff as people eat their dinners in an environment of dignity and respect, I’m left with the impression that Jan O’Sullivan’s old position needs to be reinstated as a matter of urgency. I’m offered several suggestions as to how we might begin to get to work at fixing homelessness but they all seem to depend on political goodwill.
For instance, as of September, there are 424 social houses currently boarded up in Cork City and 268 more in the county.
Supply is an obvious problem in our housing crisis and it seems obvious that we need to look at new builds in social housing and – perhaps – incentivising landlords to rent to people living currently in homelessness. We also need to look at the type of accommodation on offer. Most of the accommodation currently available in Cork is two and three bedroom, but the majority of homeless people are single.
As in all politics, joined-up thinking is vital. As is goodwill. Again, it seems a “Minister for Homelessness” would be a godsend for some of the most vulnerable people in our Republic.
Alan Kelly and Michael Noonan’s “war of words”
Speaking of politics, surely given their bitter fight over the issue of rent and the fact that the day-to-day lives of real and very desperate people depended upon their decisions, tensions must still run high between Alan Kelly and Michael Noonan?
Miriam O’Callaghan certainly seemed to think so, on RTÉ’s Prime Time as the alleged hostilities raged.
“What will happen next in the war of words between the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly?” she asked. According to the Irish Times’ Miriam Lord, Noonan and Kelly were actually having a pint together in the Dáil members’ bar and watching the telly as O’Callaghan spoke.
It was Noonan’s round.
“Give us two more pints there, Peadar,” the Finance Minister allegedly said, “and turn off that auld shite while you’re at it.”
Conventional political wisdom says there are no votes in fixing homelessness. Maybe conventional political wisdom is right, but you’ll have a lot of people looking for your vote in the New Year.
If you want to fix homelessness, tell them your vote depends on it.
♦ Cork Simon can be contacted on corksimon.ie or 021 4278728
(Published in the Evening Echo, 17th December 2015)