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Housing is a ‘sacred right’

‘Homelessness is worse now than at any time in recent memory’ says Peter McVerry SJ in the May 2015 issue of Working Notes, the journal of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. In his article he draws attention to some of the serious problems being faced by tens of thousands of households in Ireland today in terms of housing access, affordability and security.

Fr Peter McVerry SJ, who has worked with homeless young people for over thirty years, describes the Irish housing system today as ‘dysfunctional’, with all three sectors – the private housing market, the social housing sector and the private rented sector – in crisis at the same time. The most visible and extreme consequence of that dysfunctionality is the significant increase in homelessness, especially over the last couple of years. Peter McVerry writes: ‘Homelessness is now worse than at any time in recent memory’, with the number of individuals, and of families with dependent children, rising sharply. By March 2015, there were nearly 500 families, including over 1,000 children, living in emergency accommodation in Ireland, with the vast majority in Dublin. For a family, emergency accommodation means living in one room, with no access to cooking facilities, no quiet place for children to do their homework and no place for them to play.

Behind the increase in homelessness lie serious deficiencies in Irish housing policy over several decades and especially a failure to ensure an adequate supply of social housing by local authorities and voluntary bodies. Instead, the State has relied on subsiding landlords in the private rented sector to ensure housing for those who in the past would have been provided with social housing. But now, as more and more people who previously would have aspired to own their own home have found themselves priced out of the market, they too are compelled to find accommodation in the private rented sector. The result is a sector where demand far outstrips supply, especially in the major urban areas, and so those on lower incomes, and particularly those dependent on Rent Supplement, are unable to afford the rents demanded.

Furthermore, there are many instances of individuals and families who have been living in a rented home for several years suddenly finding themselves facing a demand for a sharp increase in rent which they simply cannot afford – but they may also be unable to afford the rents being demanded elsewhere. As Fr McVerry points out: ‘Many of the ‘new homeless’ have never been homeless before, and until this current crisis would never for a moment have thought they could become homeless’. He adds that the policy measures so far announced in response to the crisis, while welcome, fall far short of what is required. In particular, the goal of eliminating long-term homelessness and rough sleeping by the end of 2016, which is still the official commitment of Government, is simply not achievable with the policies and funding currently in place.

Another of the contributors to Working Notes, Gerry O’Hanlon SJ, theologian and staff member of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, outlines the contribution which Catholic social teaching can make to our thinking about how housing policy should be framed. He points to the relevance of the core values of that teaching – respect for the dignity and equality of all persons, solidarity, and the promotion of the common good – to the question of housing. He notes that the social teaching documents again and again speak of housing as a universal human right – and indeed that Pope Francis has referred to housing as a ‘sacred’ right. It is clear also that Pope Francis views housing not just in terms of providing shelter and meeting a basic human need but wishes to highlight how it is inextricably linked to establishing and maintaining a family, building communities, and ensuring access to services such as schools, health centres and sports facilities.

Gerry O’Hanlon points out that during the years of the economic boom in Ireland it was all too evident that housing was seen not in terms of responding to a need and a right of every person; rather, it came to be viewed as ‘a commodity to be traded like stocks and shares’. In other words, it was the values of the market which prevailed. As Ireland emerges from its economic recession, as house prices once more are rising, but as many individuals and families face serious problems in terms of housing affordability and security, what values will determine our  response these immediate problems and to the long-term planning of our housing system?
All of the articles in Working Notes, Issue 76, ‘A Dysfunctional Housing System?’, are available on the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice website.