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Suffer little children

PAULA NOLAN :: The protest in Dublin on Saturday 1st December against the burgeoning homelessness crisis in Ireland saw 10-15 thousand people (reports differ) from every part of the country take part. Never in my history of attending public protests have I seen so many children walking alongside their parents. They made a caravan along the streets of Ireland’s capital, no different in composition to the caravan recently snaking up from Honduras to the Mexican border with the United States, no different to the exodus out of Syria and other places no longer fit for habitation. Men, women and children of all ages sharing a day of grief, rage and despair. A show of strength that begged for resolutions. We are a country in search of a moral compass.

The Irish Constitution ensures “…the ability of the State to intervene when parents fail their child (Article 42.5)”. But what about the ability of parents to intervene when the state fails their child? There was a tragedy of small children amongst the numbers protesting, and the Irish government is failing them miserably.

As a graphic designer, I love symmetry. My daily work involves putting shape and composition on text and images. But not all that is pleasing to the eye is pleasing otherwise. A Focus Ireland graph on homeless figures is an almost perfect diagonal line, rising with uncanny symmetry from left to right. It begins in July 2014 at over 3,000 people homeless, and ends in September 2018 with almost 10,000 people homeless. The number of children homeless at the end of 2018 is almost 4,000, a breathtaking, staggering, indictment of a society gone rogue.

A further numbers crunch shows that the majority of this increase in homelessness is, by a long shot, in the 0-18 and 25-44 age brackets. But I’m guessing what’s hidden in any survey is that many of the 18-24 age bracket are deprived of the choice to live independently of their parents.

Deprivation is more than a lack of material things. It is the removal of the ability to make personal choices. This frequently includes the ability, or lack thereof, when in dire straits to make choices that could improve your situation. There is a hardship line that once you dip below it, getting above it again is not easy. Once tied into ‘the system’, escaping out of it is a matter for Houdini. The computer says ‘no’. Logic is buried in bureaucracy, enough to drive any sane person mad.

Homelessness can be profitable. This cashing in on misery is a likely contributor to the response to this housing crisis apparently lacking not just compassion, but also common sense; for the absurdity of reacting to an emergency with spurious long-term plans, all the while not stemming the flow which sees one person in Ireland become homeless every eight hours. In terms of availability, there are more than enough vacant houses to go around, whether a house in a ghost estate, an unused local council house, or one owned by a vulture fund but as yet unoccupied. It’s as if you are starving while being told you cannot eat the sandwich in your hand.

How close is the average earner to becoming homeless? If someone earns €46,000 a year (the supposed average), their take-home pay is €3,306 a month after PRSI, Tax and USC. Taking an average mortgage/rent for a small family, say mother, father and two young children, this leaves about €1,700 for living expenses, around €400 per week. So, you have a phone, you have a TV provider, home insurance, mortgage life insurance and, let’s say, health insurance. All that will come to around €500 per month minimum. This leaves €275 a week for food, travel, car, clothes, shoes, doctor visits, dentist, so no, we are not saving anything!

You lose your job. If you’re lucky, you get a redundancy that will cover your mortgage for three to four months. You contact your bank, and they agree to a moratorium for a year, or interest only payments. You cannot get a job because at barely forty, nobody wants you. They want younger people for less pay, or free interns. You send out twenty applications a week, and get maybe one reply a month saying ‘sorry’. You are forced to do a completely irrelevant Jobpath course, along with a motley crew of mainly uninterested people.

After many threatening letters, meetings with MABS and a couple of sleepless years, your mortgage has been sold to a vulture fund for a fraction of its value. They are looking to make payment arrangements with you that you have zero capacity to meet. Hop, skip and a jump, and you and your family are in a ‘hub’, living in one room, miles from the kids’ school, no car and ultimately out of choices. You have, as the singer Tom Waits put it, “worn the faces off all the cards”. You have run out of rope. So who is benefiting from this story?

  • The banks
  • The private company, Seetec Ireland, in charge of Jobpath
  • The vulture funds
  • The private companies who run some of the homeless hubs (most are run by charities, a whole other conversation)
  • Hotels who put up homeless families
  • The employers who can employ interns for free
  • Private developers who are using the ‘housing emergency’ to procure land rezoning in prime locations, or procure public land, with promises to include a small percentage of social housing, in some cases, and in other cases an agreed number of years at reduced rent.
  • Landlords who can change what they like
  • Landlords availing of the Social Welfare HAP Scheme tax relief
  • Estate agents

The list goes on and on.

When we talked about lessons being learned from the Celtic Tiger, we didn’t mean lessons on how to be yet more clever, more conniving, more ruthless. The financial crash in 2008 revealed that banks and developers had a lot more power than we knew, and now it would appear they use that power in lieu of brown envelopes. This time around, government announces with terrific spin and fanfare schemes that are fundamentally flawed and immoral. And this transparency, this sanctioning openly of deals with more holes in them than a sieve, is the new normal.

It’s frustrating to barely scrape the surface of how and why Ireland finds itself in a situation where people are forced out of their homes in a grotesque parody of the biblical exodus from Egypt. Children are enslaved to homelessness, leaving them in a wilderness, a childhood not fit for children. There is a global trend to forsake an innocent majority for the benefit of a vested interest minority. Look to Yemen. Look to Syria. Look to the US invasion of Iraq. In a 1980s episode of Dallas, the infamous American soap opera, the villainous J R Ewing announced that the best way to make sure their oil remained valuable was to destabilise the Middle East. Making money out of misery is nothing new. Parasites need hosts.