The Pillars of Ireland’s Homelessness Policy

We are less than a month from the first anniversary of Jonathan Corrie’s death, and as the reality of winter nights set it, it is becoming obvious that the crisis is worse than ever, as NGOs and charities cry out for Government action yet again.

The resources available to these frontline defenders proved insufficient many, many months ago, through no fault of their own, and the scale of failure of the Government’s “solutions” has, up until now, only been concealed by the summer and a relatively mild autumn. Homeless people have still been dying as a result of their circumstances, and as winter descends in earnest, we can only wonder what the toll will be this year.

You have to remember that Jonathan Corrie was not the only homeless person to die last winter. Most were considerably less high-profile, but Mr Corrie died in a very inopportune location for the Fine Gael/Labour administration, right out on their very doorstep. Writing last August, Gene Kerrigan set out explicitly how the Government’s homelessness policy was working to tackle the visible elements of the issue, rather than the root causes. One of his most notable comments bears repeating eternal: “if a set of circumstances persists for years, it is not a problem, it’s a policy.”

Since Mr Corrie’s death we have seen Minister Alan Kelly tasked with ensuring a solution to the problem was found. His solutions were welcomed at the time, with the caveat that they were short-term measures and long-term ones would need to be put in place. This autumn we were treated to a public disagreement between Kelly and the homelessness charities on the frontline of the issue, and in particular Peter McVerry. Conventional wisdom would suggest that if you are in a public disagreement with a campaigner the calibre of Peter McVerry, it might be worth re-evaluating your position.

However, Alan Kelly is not attempting to solve homelessness. That was never the task he was assigned. Alan Kelly is simply the public face of the Government’s attempts to negotiate a path through the homelessness crisis and appease public ill-will, without having to disturb or dismantle the pillars on which the crisis is built. It is my contention, following Kerrigan’s logic, that homelessness cannot be effectively tackled because of its intersection with three particular, often unadmitted Government policies. Specifically, the policies I am referring to are:

  • Devalued labour
  • Inflated property prices
  • Reduced public transport spending (which a view to privatisation)

In effect, these three pillars of the homelessness crisis are so bound up in the ideological underpinnings of the current Government and their devotion to free-market capitalistic ideals that it becomes functionally impossible for them to solve the homelessness crisis; homelessness is not a problem, it is the end result of policy.

The first issue here, that of devalued labour, has been a clear Government policy since its inception. When schemes like JobBridge and Gateway are providing what amounts to Government-mandated indentured labour, the effect on the workforce is blatant. Not only does it create mass amounts of essentially free labour, but it drives up competition for paying jobs in an economy that was, until recently, performing poorly in terms of job creation. When a surplus of workers clamour for jobs where pay is already devalued by sanctioned free labour schemes, wages could only ever go into free-fall. This was not an unforeseeable consequence of the internship culture inculcated by the Government. It was the intended result of their political policies.

The fact that wages are slowly beginning to creep back up, that jobs are being created again, that Generation Emigration is slowly trickling its way home, and that we can finally talk seriously about ending the monstrosity that is JobBridge doesn’t take away from the fact that the Government bartered our economic recovery on the backs of a generation forced into one of three unenviable options – providing their labour for nothing, seeking work and stability abroad or languishing in the soul-crushing destitution of unemployment and social welfare. Of course, we also decided that under-25s we not even entitled to the safety-net of full social welfare payments, which further fuelled the race-to-the-bottom devaluation of young people’s labour and their contribution to both society and the economy. Forced engagement with internships and the ensuing weakening of wages across the economy was sold on the back of an idea that young people needed to “learn” how to work, how to apply their skills to labour, but realistically this was only ever spin. We can see from the nature of so many of the available “internships” that they were far from “honest”; the idea that office workers, bio-chemists, chipper cooks and janitors all need “work-experience” in order to perform their daily tasks is a fairly derisible statement at the outset – once you add to this that the initial term for JobBridge labour was nine months and was later extended to eighteen, it becomes clear that people, particularly the young, were being asked to provide their labour for nothing, and that the “experience” ostensibly paid back to them was, and remains, poor compensation compared to a real wage.

We must be absolutely clear, creating free labour was a Government policy. Lowering wages was a government policy. Mass emigration was a Government policy. Devalued, exploitative labour made us an attractive market. Emigration kept the social welfare budget under control (and took away the voting rights of thousands upon thousands who won’t get a say in next year’s election). In a very real, tangible way, those of us who left and those of us who worked for little or for nothing purchased the economic recovery that the Government parties scramble to claim for themselves.

Now that we have purchased it, it wouldn’t be absurd to think that some effort at meagre recompense might be considered. Something extravagant would be tantamount to admitting this is what happened, so don’t expect that, but it wouldn’t be out of bounds to imagine that after re-floating the economy, the least our Government might do is ensure that we had adequate access to housing and other essentials. That the jobs we do have would be sufficient to purchase the shelter and food and amenities that we need for at least a basic standard of modern living should not be a radical concept.

But here we come directly into conflict with the next pillar of Government policy, inflating property prices. The argument will, I’m sure, be that these prices are simply still rising to their real level, their natural pre-crash state. However, given the number of people currently being priced out of the Dublin housing market, even for rental properties, we can safely suggest that the Government are far more concerned with the upper-middle class to upper-class property developers who are their core interest groups. They are concerned with allowing NAMA to dominate the housing market, creating an artificial bubble for banks and developers to recoup the money they didn’t make following the recession. In order to allow this to happen, no controls on rent or building or lending can be mandated, and certainly not ones which force down the price of houses. This is policy, not accident.

If we were to introduce much needed rent caps in Dublin city, what would be the outcome do you think? I imagine, for one, developers who are currently milking profits from the scarcity of available units might turn their collective attention to building new ones. After all, what profits cannot be achieved with a stranglehold on the market, could quite possibly be achieved by widening the availability of the product to more of the market. That’s not an insane proposition.

Where would these units magically appear from, someone will be wondering? Well funnily enough, many of them exist or are close to existing. Ghost estates litter the country, and empty fallow land still remains in many parts of Dublin itself. Some of these are, of course, slowly being exploited, but not so quickly as to ease the pressure on the market or slow down rapidly escalating house prices. If rent controls were set to keep rents reasonable inside Dublin you would likely find many of these properties utilised, new ones developed. Most importantly however, building outside of Dublin city, particularly on the fringes of the city’s catchment zone, would become a viable (or necessary) economic reality.

There is a caveat, though, to the concept of building outside of Dublin, and it is centred on the third pillar of the homelessness crisis that I have highlighted; public transport spending. This might seem like a tangential topic, but it intersects more specifically than is superficially obvious. In order for any new-built estates outside of Dublin to be effective in servicing the Dublin labour market, it is necessary to move the population into Dublin from far beyond the current expectations. It is unlikely that personal cars are the necessary solution. Firstly, cars are a luxury, though one made almost compulsory given Ireland’s transport infrastructure, and unless wages continue to scale upwards not always open to everyone. London is a perfect example of the less well-off being priced out of city locations, and London has far more real-estate than Dublin, even if it also has a much denser population. With the M50 is approaching is maximum capacity again and there being little or no more expansion possible along much of the route, road use cannot be relied upon to bring the necessary workers into the city regions. Even if the funding existed, even if the will existed, it might not be possible to create another high-capacity Dublin road route because there may not be anywhere to build it.

It seems likely that rail would provide a more realistic solution, if married with bus, metro and tram options, like expanding the LUAS far beyond its current projections. This kind of building project would actually generate a reasonable number of jobs and it makes sense right up until the moment you consider that the Government has been scaling back on bus and rail funding (a disputable but realistic claim), is engaged in constant legal and industrial disputes (via the proxy of “management” with workers, and has almost no realistic transport plan that envisions the increase in the Dublin catchment area. A number of further routes are expected to be privatized this year, and it seems likely that much like in Britain, the Government are engaged in tactics meant to underfund and devalue the transport system so that they can make a case to sell it off to private operators, much like they have done with waste collection and are trying to do with our water. In terms of public transport privatisation, it does not follow that privatisation is the same as complete de-regulation. It is far more likely that a huge de facto monopoly, which would bleed subsidies from the State for decades, would be sold off to private hands and kept in existence for as long as possible before any other competitors were even allowed into the market. Waste collection costs us more than ever, but there has been no new social or Government service that has sprung up since privitisation that we can point to and say, well at least we know where that money is now going. Instead we are paying the same and getting less and less. In some cases we are even paying more, as we lose services.

So in order to give the population of housing estates (that can’t exist because of one policy) access to the city, the Government would need to engage in a building programme that flies in the face of another policy. In order to give workers the ability to negotiate the kind of improved working conditions like flexible hours or working from home, or increased wages that would allow them to live inside the city itself, our politicians would be required to renounce a third policy, ending the glut of free and/or cheap labour. The result of maintaining all three policies, I hope I have managed to illustrate, projects definitively towards creating the conditions for a homelessness crisis that cannot be managed. As waged workers fill up more and more emergency accommodation, as better paid workers snap up the available rental and for sale properties, the more vulnerable are pushed further and further down the line, with only the overwhelmed frontline charities between them and living on the street. As the capacity of these services is swallowed up with people who should be in a position to see to themselves but cannot because of economic policies, the most vulnerable become the most likely to slip through the deepening, widening cracks spreading across the face of our society.

Just remember – remember, remember, remember – “if a set of circumstances persists for years, it is not a problem, it’s a policy.”

Remember that homelessness is, if not active Government policy, still the product of the political policies instigated and continued by Fine Gael and Labour. Homelessness is a choice that our officials are making, day in, day out. When the next person dies on our streets, remember whose policies made it inevitable.