Can you leave when you have nowhere to go? That was the question that I was left with as the speakers moved away, the stand was taken down and the crowds begun to disperse. For most it was an easy decision for their next destination, for others not so.
It is the closing moments of a demonstration regarding the issues behind the housing crisis. Representatives from various different political and non-political groups deliver orations to the gathered crowd, whilst the authorities try to ensure that traffic gets by without too much problems. It is the words of two of the speakers that mean the most to me however.
Gary Coleman is one of the people actually caught up in the crisis. Their stories are a reflection of what that means. Nobody wishes to be homeless. People seem to believe that believe that this is a voluntary decision. Rough sleeping, surviving in squats or living in poor or overcrowded housing can impact negatively on a person’s physical and mental health.
People become homeless for a wide variety of different reasons that cannot be applied in every situation. Some are escaping problems at home from their parents or partner, losing their job leading them to being in a position where they are unable to pay their rent or mortgage, some could be people moving to another country or city who were unable to get a job or others that have left institutions such as prison. Too often, people consider the homeless to be the stereotypically person who is abusing substances or someone that is experiencing mental health issues. Generally it will not be one factor alone but a combination of a few that cause this to happen.
What is a common factor is in relation to the jobs and housing market.
The economic crisis in this country has had a massive impact on the homeless situation. This can be seen by the amount of new people asking for assistance from the Penny Dinners charity. People may be just about able to have enough to pay bills to get by week by week but are often left with little else to afford in terms of food. When talk is about an upturn in the economy, statistics showed that nearly 70 new families presented themselves to Focus in Dublin in one month.
Families are still feeling the effects of losing jobs and the added problems of cuts in social services and new imposition of charges. The commitment to create a working minimum wage is of course very welcome, but when many companies use this as an excuse for lay-offs and cutting people’s hours in the week, the benefits are negated.
The housing situation does not help matters either. While the government parties are disagreeing over the correct solution to this, more and more people are being affected. Rent caps or control have been mentioned but what needs to happen is the construction of affordable and social housing. The National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) have stated that they are going to be building 20,000 new units by 2020 on land that they currently own that was not being used. The buildings of houses have help with addressing the problem but it does not actually solve it. The issue of resourcing and financing is still to be resolved.
It is also a mistake to be going back to the days of building up large scale estates without proper plans being put into place. Some people may not be able to afford the price of travelling to and from where they live to access services that they need. There should be an incentive for property holders to make use of buildings left idle. It is too easy at the moment for them to be left in limbo. They could easily to put to use to create housing in the centre of the city for people that need to live there. If households are placed outside the city, it is essential that proper facilities and amenities are provided for. This is especially the case if they are not serviced well by public transport. This could result in a situation where these estates begun to get isolated and cut off.
In the meantime, while all these decisions are being debated and discussed, people are trying to find a place to sleep for the night in the increasing cold. And remember, behind all the statistics and figures, is a real person like Gary.