The shocking story of a young family, forced to sleep in a car on the south side of Dublin, says it all about Ireland in 2014. The Government has to act decisively now or forever be shamed...
Ireland 2014. A young mother with her three children. Them in the back of the car where they had been living for a week. She looking wearily at the camera. Karl (5) tilting his head forward quizzically. Michaela (3) watchful. Chelsea (18 months), her eyes fixed on Karl. You look at the still from the video and wonder what can the future hold for these kids? And what sort of a society have we created that they are forced to sleep at the side of the road?
In the boot of the car, as reported by Kitty Holland in the Irish Times, are three suitcases, a buggy, nappies and baby wipes. On the front seat, a bag of clothes, bread rolls and milk. It’s a picture that captures the hopelessly tawdry, impoverished world we have shaped for so many Irish families.
Sabrina McMahon’s marriage broke down over a year ago. Originally from Tallaght in Dublin, she returned there in the hope of finding a new home. Her name was put on the housing list by South County Dublin. Over the subsequent 12 months and more, she has stayed with family and friends. But for a combination of reasons, that option is no longer available. At least she had a car to sleep in. Otherwise, Sabrina and her kids would have been out on the streets.
Her story is an increasingly common one. We will be hearing a tsunami of variations on this terrible theme of dislocation and dysfunction over the coming months, as the fact that the housing system in Ireland is horrendously broken becomes more and more glaringly inescapable. In Dublin alone, 170 families – including 500 children – are currently living in hotels because no accommodation can be provided for them.
Sabrina McMahon tried to get rented accommodation, but increasingly landlords are refusing to accept rent allowance and so there was nothing doing in that department. She went to Dublin Central Placement Service – the hub of Dublin City Council’s service for those who are homeless – to see what they could do. There, she was told that she had to go back to Kildare, one local authority in effect shunting the problem on to another. But Karl is going to school in Tallaght. And besides, she’d be even more isolated back on the Carlow border. She didn’t go.
Since Sabrina’s story was told first by Kitty Holland, there has been a generous response to the plight of the McMahon family. A number of members of the public offered to pay for accommodation on a temporary basis, including one man who arranged for her and her kids to stay in a hotel for a month. That much is encouraging. There are decent people out there who care about the fate of their less fortunate fellow citizens. Revealing that she had cried when she heard from her good samaritan, Sabrina explained that she was looking forward to being able to stretch out her legs – and sleep. The kids would be able to enjoy a bath for a change.
But of course, better as it is to be sleeping in a hotel, rather than in the back of a car, it is not a long-term solution. There is no security for families who are accommodated in hotels. When the tourist season gets into full swing, demand for rooms will increase and more people will likely find themselves with nowhere to turn.
Historically, homelessness in Ireland had to a large extent been the preserve of individuals who were down on their luck or dealing with addiction of one kind or another. Recently, however, those on the frontline confirm that this has changed. Increasingly, families with anything up to four or five kids are finding themselves without a roof over their heads.
There are currently 96,000 households on the housing list nationally. That is double the number that were seeking housing in 2002 and more than three times the number on the list in 1993. In certain areas, applicants are being told that they will not be accommodated for as much as ten years. It amounts to nothing short of a scandalous mistreatment of vulnerable Irish citizens.
It would be wrong not to acknowledge that a complex set of forces conspired to trigger a rapid escalation of the problem. Banks are not lending so people can’t buy houses. As a result, rents are rising. Not enough social housing is being built to meet the demand from lower income families. And for those most in need, rent allowance has been capped. On top of all that, with pressure on banks to “clean up" their loan books, increasingly there is the prospect of families being thrown out of their homes for non-payment of their mortgage, needing accommodation. It is a poisonous cocktail.
But good public policy-making is all about anticipating outcomes of this kind. Left to its own devices, the market will do what the market does. If the supply of housing falls far short of the demand, the price of accommodation inevitably rises. Blaming greedy landlords for this is nothing other than useless rhetoric – all the more pointedly so when we know that a huge number of so called buy-to-let owners have themselves been operating under the threat of repossession.
This is what makes the current situation seem so chronically absurd. Can it be true that there are tens of thousands of buy-to-let landlords who may have their accommodation seized by the banks – while simultaneously 96,000 families are looking for homes that the State cannot provide for them?
While housing comes under the jurisdiction of local authorities, it is quite clear at this stage that only effective Government intervention will alleviate a situation which is reaching crisis levels. Building new homes is one priority. But there has to be a potential solution also in finding a way – that works for everyone – of connecting the families in need of accommodation with those who have been finding it impossible to pay the banks the mortgages on the houses, flats and apartments they purchased during the bubble.
It is a backdrop against which we also might successfully negotiate the kind of fresh support from Europe to which we are certainly entitled, given the extent to which, as a society, we have carried the can for the excesses of European banks, as well as Irish ones. Already this year, the European Investment Bank has committed to loans of £1 billion a year, to support social housing in the UK. It is time for the Government to show their mettle by securing a similar level of support for a drive to provide affordable housing here.
Ireland 2014. A place where the needs of young families remain dependent on the generosity of anonymous individuals? Or a place where all of the children are cherished equally? It is make up your mind time. The government has to act – and to act effectively...
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