Why Homelessness Exists in Ireland and How We Can Eradicate It

Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash.

It was September 1972, and Steve, a wide eyed 17-year old with aspirations to change the world, was a student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Steve had had a difficult childhood, but college was going to be his ticket out of poverty and into prosperity. When he was born, his mother, an unwed college graduate, made him available for adoption. She wanted his adoptive parents to be wealthy, so that Steve would be able to go to college. Steve’s mother eventually found the perfect couple to raise her baby son, but things were not as they seemed.

It turned out that Steve’s adoptive parents were not wealthy at all and did not have college degrees. When Steve grew older and enrolled in an expensive college, his parents’ finances were stretched to the limit. Moreover, Steve did not like what he was studying, and, after six months, decided to drop out. He didn’t see the point in bankrupting his parents for what was, in his view, a meaningless degree.

Steve didn’t have a place to stay; he couldn’t afford it. He slept on the floors of his friends’ dormitories. He walked 7 miles once a week to eat a free meal at the Hare Krishna temple. He exchanged bottles of Coke to buy food. He stopped going to the classes that didn’t interest him and attended those that did. Steve’s story is unusual, and does little to dispel the stereotype of the crazy university student. What is undeniable, though, is that lacking a place to live deprives us of autonomy and the possibility of a decent existence. There are many people who have to take alternative measures as a result of homelessness, and Ireland is not an exception.

There are numerous entities in Ireland who do exceptional work with our homeless community, such as the Peter McVerry Trust, Focus Ireland, the Cork Simon Community, and many more. As of 2020, the Peter McVerry Trust provides over 7,800 people with essential social services, and provides social housing in 28 of the 31 Irish local authorities. The group provides about 61% of all homelessness services in Ireland; the work that they do is remarkable. The trust has estimated that about 86.8% of individuals that were provided with a home in 2014 were still living in permanent accommodation five years later.

Unfortunately, as homeless organisations are willing to admit, too many people are still being left behind. In May 2020, about 8,876 people were impacted in some way, mostly as a consequence of familial conflict or addiction. About 8,475 Irish people needed to use emergency accommodation, according to research conducted in September 2021. This figure includes 2,344 children, and 3,333 under 24-year-olds. About 140 people have to sleep on the streets in Dublin City Centre at night. An investigation by RTÉ noted that in one 14-week period in 2017, 8 people lost their lives after being forced to sleep on the streets of Cork, Dublin, Bray and Drogheda. There are many options that we could explore to alleviate the crisis, and exploring all of them is beyond the remit of an article such as this one.

It has been well documented that the right to an adequate home is not enshrined in the Irish constitution. This is a violation of basic human decency and absolves the State of blame for homelessness. It also goes against the will of the Irish people.  A 2020 study that was published by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) notes that 82% of Irish people consider housing to be a basic human right, the same figure that an identical 2018 poll yielded. About 66% of respondents believe that the right to a home should be a part of the Irish constitution.

The Constitutional right to housing will not solve our housing and homelessness crises, but it will set an important precedent. Moreover, it will bring the issue to the forefront of contemporary discourse. As the Chief Commissioner of the IHREC, Sinéad Gibney, put it to RTÉ, “Housing represents more than just the costs of bricks and mortar, it’s where our children grow, where our families gather, and where generations should feel safe and secure”.

It is unfortunately true that many TDs (Teacht Dála; members of the Irish Parliament) are influenced by powerful interests who would not benefit from an affordable housing market. In 2019, roughly one quarter of Dáil members were landlords. These include 4 cabinet members, and 5 members of state.  It is not difficult to see why conflicts of interest may arise, and why cynicism is so rampant. Too many people feel abandoned by the dominant neo-liberal order, with its effects disproportionately impacting the young and the vulnerable.

Fortunately, things don’t need to be this way. We need only expand our horizons and look at the steps taken by other European countries, to catch a glimpse of what a more people-oriented approach to housing would look like. Consider the case of Finland, to cite one well-known example, and the steps that the country took to defeat homelessness. The overlying statistics paint an impressive picture, yet their methods are remarkably simple.

Finland has a “Housing First” policy. It is built on the basic principle that having a permanent roof over our heads makes it much easier to solve any other issues that we may have, such as alcoholism or mental difficulties. Homeless Finns are given their own place to stay, and are provided with individually tailored services to suit their differing needs.

There are many reasons why people end up in the streets or in damp hostels, and we should not put it down solely to laziness or fundamental flaws in their personalities. Allowing this homelessness apartheid to continue is convenient; it’s another contentious problem that officials don’t want to worry about. People may get divorced, they may be unjustly evicted from their homes, or they may suffer from underlying mental health issues. Finnish authorities recognise this; they get to the root of the problem, and they don’t demonise their fellow citizens. As Albert Einstein once quipped: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”.

People are entitled to assistance with regards to sorting out their finances and paying their bills. They are provided with counselling services and help, often from the comfort of their new homes. Flats are purchased by the Finnish state from the private market, and they subsidise the construction of new homes if needed. In 2020, Tatu Ainesmaa, a formerly homeless Helsinki native who found a place to live through the scheme, admitted that, “It’s a big miracle. I’ve been in communes, but everyone was doing drugs and I had to get out. I’ve been in bad relationships; same thing. I’ve slept rough. I’ve never had my own place. This [his new home] is huge for me”.

The savings associated with using a Housing First model are immense. According to the Y-Foundation, a not-for-profit agency that provides social housing across the country, housing one long-term homeless person can save up to €15,000 annually. The savings on services amount to about €9,600 per person per year. The Y-Foundation, and other people-focused landowners, has done extraordinary work in helping to give people a place to live. As recently as 1987, over 16,000 Finns had no home. In the 30-year period that followed, about 12,000 people were housed. The drive to fight the scourge of homelessness has been a resounding success, yet there is plenty left to do.  ARA, a group that provides social housing in Finland, reports that there were 4,341 homeless people living alone in Finland at the end of 2020, with 201 homeless families and couples left without their own dwelling places.

As recently as the mid-2000s, a ‘staircase’ approach was used by the Finnish Government, whereby homeless people in Finland would only be given a home once they have proven themselves to be “socially acceptable”. People needed to abstain from drugs, alcohol, and other intoxicants before being granted a permanent place to live. However, a major shift in Finnish housing policy occurred in 2007, at the behest of then Housing Minister, Jan Vapaavouri. Vapaavouri, a member of a centre-right party, Kokoomus, played a major role in implementing the Housing First policy across Finland. As the CEO of the Y-Foundation, Juha Kaakinen, has noted, when radical ideas are championed by conservative politicians, “it’s very difficult for others to oppose it”.

Vapaavouri helped to set up the Group of the Wise, whose remit was to work with social housing groups and municipal bodies to confront the crisis. The activists and the administrators were brought into the same place, to exchange ideas and to deliberate. Cities all over Finland were involved in negotiations, to their collective betterment. Take Tampere, a city in the southwest of the country. In 2011, about 250 people were housed in newly built homes, and it is believed to have saved the city about €250,000 in that year alone. I’m not even taking the social and moral benefits of giving people an invaluable stake in their community into account here.

On May 13th and May 17th 2019 on his Fox News programme, professional white supremacist, and self-proclaimed “trust-fund baby”, Tucker Carlson, ran a series entitled “Homeless in America”, with producers turning up unannounced to interview people in West Coast cities. He predictably attacked the homeless population, describing them as “drug addicts” and “menaces to society”. He even suggested that “normal people” were the real victims of this crisis. As usual, Carlson and the Fox News propaganda cult are wrong on so many counts here. It is despicable to treat the poor and the vulnerable in this way, especially when more humane avenues are open to us. Moreover, unnecessary stigmatization creates hate and division where there ought to be love and compassion.

Carlson would do well to take note of the words of his American counterpart, progressive activist, and homelessness expert, Jonathan Kozol, who stated that “The cause of homelessness is lack of housing”. Kozol’s words sound really simple, but the obvious solution is often the right one.

As you may already know, the housing market in Ireland is in a terrible place. Trinity College economics professor Ronan Lyons estimates that at least 50,000 new homes must be provided every year for the “foreseeable future” to house new emigrants and young workers. As Lyons notes, Ireland does not have a shortage of places to live, the necessary infrastructure already exists. However, it is missing about 500,000 apartments. Only 12% of all available dwellings are urban apartments, a dreadfully low percentage. Dense urban living is critical for us to achieve our climate goals, and to foster a deeper sense of community. By extension, the necessity for more places to live extends to the homeless. Smaller dwellings are also necessary when we take the decreasing sizes of households into consideration. In the 1960s, the average Irish household contained 4.2 people. The equivalent figure now is 2.7, and will reduce further to about 2.2 by 2060. This is to be expected, as more and more people choose to have fewer children and delay parenthood.

At the beginning of this piece, I told the story of Steve, a college dropout without a home. Steve developed new interests. He took classes in calligraphy, a type of visual art in which letters are drawn in differing styles. He moved back home to live with his parents once again. Later, he met another Steve, Steve Wozniak. They started a company in the garage next to Steve’s family home, and they called it Apple. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak would become very famous, changing the world of personal computing as we know it. They released the first Apple Macintosh in 1984, a move that would spawn one of the most famous ads ever. When Steve Jobs died in 2011, he had a net worth of $10.2 billion, a far cry from his undergraduate days. He had achieved world domination, something that his younger self would have approved of.

Steve Jobs had to scrape a living whilst he did not have a permanent place to stay. We can do better than that; we don’t have to live rough or sleep on a friend’s couch every night. We have the capacity and the need to house our homeless, and we must do it. Pope Francis once asked why “it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?”. We can do it, so why don’t we do it? Let’s get our priorities in order and act.