Homeless find comfort in a bandwagon


Environment minister Alan Kelly

‘BEDS for all!’, exclaimed environment minister Alan Kelly on Thursday. ‘Beds for all by Christmas! In Dublin at least!’ There might have been a little smattering of applause to greet this announcement but, if there was, no one could have heard it over all the craw-thumping.

A man dying on the street in the freezing cold, close to Christmas and close to Leinster House, has inspired the government to revisit some of its broken pledges to deal with homelessness. A man living on the street in the freezing cold, close to Christmas and close to Leinster House, was never able to do as much.

A high-profile emergency summit was convened; there were candle-lit vigils; the Archbishop of Dublin talked of throwing open doors; municipal funds were made to materialise out of nowhere; the spectre of lone men sitting by electric fires in squalid bedsits reappeared; personal moral inventories were taken.

“We are all to blame,” said various commentators, using no doubt much the same logic that has persuaded us we’re also all individually to blame for decades of institutional child sex abuse, global warming, and the collapse of the international banking system.

Are we though? Realistically, apart from donating to homeless charities, volunteering for soup runs and taking homeless people home with you, there isn’t a great deal that you or I can do to alleviate the crisis. Most of us lack the expertise and the experience and not least the budget. However, the dash to the moral high ground has become a stampede this week, so I ask the reader to please excuse my dust as well.

When I lived in Dublin, I often ‘rescued’ sleeping people from the freezing streets. The experience taught me a lot about the futility of zealous juvenile philanthropy. All you could do was give them a bed for the night, and a meal, and some cash if you had it, and then send them back to the same streets the next day. Unless you actually invite them to live with you, how much good are you doing?

And I recall with shame one case where my naive intervention actually made things worse. Because of being in my house, miles from where he needed to be, a recovering heroin addict missed the next day’s methadone programme appointment with his GP. His only recourse was to score some heroin or experience ferocious withdrawal symptoms that would include, as he put it, “losing bowel control”. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and littered with the supine bodies of the desperate.

Homeless agencies, knowing what they know, are sceptical about the plans to give everyone in Dublin a bed in time for Christmas. Brother Kevin Crowley of the Capuchin Day Centre, which provides hot meals for the homeless, wasn’t invited to Alan Kelly’s emergency summit and was inclined to be cynical on the whole subject.

“Homeless people have been dying on the streets for years but it took one outside the Dáil to get attention,” he was reported as saying. Brother Crowley said he’d like to see less talk and more action in any case.

Enda Kenny was in action on Thursday night, out on the streets with Inner City Helping Homeless and getting credit on two counts. He was praised both for the worthiness of the exercise itself, and for his magnanimity in not notifying the press of it. He should also get some credit for realpolitik, in that his failure to issue a press release didn’t lead to the sacrifice of so much as an inch of coverage in the next day’s papers.

The homeless people with whom the Taoiseach spoke on the streets must have been pleasantly surprised to find themselves comfortably accommodated for once, albeit only in the back seat of a bandwagon.

The coalition has now pledged to end long-term homelessness by 2016, hopefully before rather than after the next election. It might be churlish to remind them that they already pledged to end long-term homelessness more than three years ago, in the 2011 Programme for Government.

In November that year, former environment minister Phil Hogan, expressing himself in his characteristic, uniquely humanitarian language, outlined a new “client-driven” approach to homelessness, in which “the money would follow the client”. He wanted to enhance the role of the private sector in helping the homeless find “long-term housing outcomes”.

There were 168 people sleeping rough on the streets of Dublin at the last official count in November, up from 139 in the winter of 2013, and 87 in winter of 2011, when Hogan made his announcement. That’s almost a 100% increase in rough sleepers in Dublin since the coalition assumed office. How’s that Programme for Government working out then? Money still following the client and all that? Outcomes taking shape?

There are no ‘typical’ homeless people, and the reasons for homelessness are complicated and various, touching on addiction, family breakdown, mental illness, and the transition from institutional care, as well as the sheer brutality of economics. One thing seems fairly clear though, and that is that it is not a problem that can be solved by seasonal grandstanding – or indeed, by successive governments stifling the work of homeless agencies, whose funding was cut by 20% between 2008 and 2012.

Mental health is a huge factor: as many as 50% of homeless people in Ireland are reported as having a mental health problem. Causation is unclear but the correlation is all too evident. Mentally ill people are more likely to become homeless, and the mental health of homeless people is more precarious. Nevertheless, spending on mental health services has dropped from €937m in 2006 to €733m last year.

Ireland’s mental health strategy is set out in a high-minded 2006 document called ‘A Vision for Change’, which we’re spectacularly failing to live up to. We were supposed to increase mental health spending to 8.24% of the overall health budget. Instead it languishes at a little over 5%. The European average is closer to 12%, and even in Ireland it was 13% back in the mid-1980s.

In a Europe-wide survey in October this year, the Economist Intelligence Unit described Ireland’s mental health strategy as “a good policy implemented very slowly”, which may perhaps be of some comfort to someone.

The turning on of the Leinster House Christmas lights was postponed on Tuesday last, as the Ceann Comhairle believed it would have been “inappropriate” to do it only one day after Jonathan Corrie’s body was found. The lights are scheduled to be turned on next week instead, a week or so after Jonathan Corrie’s body was found. It’ll be much more appropriate after a week. And by then a little festivity will be in order in the corridors of power, as the government will be able to congratulate itself on having dispatched the homelessness crisis yet again.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 7 December 2014