With Christmas now truly gone, Ciara Leacy looks at how the problem of homelessness is here to stay.
During the busiest shopping period of the year, only a short walk from the steps of the Oireachtas, Jonathan Corrie, a forty-three year-old homeless man, passed away in a doorway on Molesworth Street. It was a shocking reminder of the vast inequalities that still exist in Irish society. The press and the wider public were rightfully outraged. Despite our recent economic difficulties, Ireland remains relatively speaking a wealthy country. The death of an Irish citizen on the side of the street is not an event that can comfortably be squared with our perception of this state as an advanced, civilised society. The number of people living on the streets of our capital city has been steadily on the rise, with the spike in housing prices over the last number of months compounding the problem. Corrie’s tragic death threw into sharp relief the reality faced by many of Ireland’s most deprived people.
It is common, even traditional by now, for media outlets to run stories on homelessness in the weeks before Christmas. Perhaps this is used to counterpoint to the consumerism of the festive season, or to evoke the Christmas story of the search for a place to sleep only to be met with the claim that there is “no room at the inn”. Charities such as Focus Ireland and the Fr. Peter McVerry Trust see an increase in donations towards their causes during this time. This year it was an even more prominent issue than in the past, due to the news of Corrie’s death. The countless memorial services, vigils, and fundraising initiatives held in his name dominated the national media. Promises were made by politicians that such a tragedy would not be repeated. 260 extra beds for the homeless were promised as the weather turned even colder, and as sleeping rough became an even more dangerous option. Enda Kenny walked the streets of Dublin to greet a number of homeless people, and expressed shock at both the scale of the problem and the true horror of the reality of life on the streets. These are people he walked past everyday but didn’t stop to look at. We don’t stop and look.
After the Christmas season, it is easy for the commuter to once again avert their eyes from those who are sleeping rough. Kenny’s visits to the homeless, and the increased focus being thrown on the issue of homelessness in society will remain merely tokenistic. This is unless a long-term strategy is put in place to reduce the numbers sleeping rough, and to prevent others from falling into the same trap. It is easy for politicians to pay lip-service to the issue of the day. However, sustained political pressure must be directed at them by their constituents in order to cause a long-term policy shift. The number of families facing homelessness is on the rise. People struggle to meet mortgage repayments, and pay rising rents with fixed rent supplement limits conspiring to leave many facing the prospect of losing their homes. Fr Peter McVerry, a long-term campaigner and fundraiser for the homeless, has warned of an approaching “tsunami of homelessness” in the face of these struggles. Many people are also faced with the prospect of “invisible homelessness”, as they are forced to “couch surf” or to live in B&Bs to avoid outright homelessness. This is increasingly a problem for middle-income earners, who struggle to find appropriate and convenient accommodation. To prevent this flood of homelessness we need long-term reform of the rental market to make it easier for those on a rent supplement to find appropriate housing.
In the days after his death, it emerged that Corrie was struggling with a severe drug problem, and had turned down several offers of help from his family and from charitable organisations. This highlights a different aspect of Ireland’s homelessness problem. Despite the high number of homeless people battling substance abuse, there are only 120 detoxification beds in the country, a number altogether insufficient in the face of the demand. Providing shelter in a hostel for the night only treats the symptoms of homelessness in many cases, rather than the root causes – mental illness and addiction. Although vital in many cases, simply providing a bed for a homeless person is not enough to treat Ireland’s growing homelessness problem. As a nation, our facilities for treating mental health and substance abuse issues are woefully insufficient. Tackling these problems is the key to combatting long-term homelessness.
The outpouring of sympathy towards Corrie’s family in the aftermath of his high-profile death is laudable. It shows a level of awareness in the Irish population of the struggles faced by the homeless, and a certain willingness to tackle the problems that lead to it. However, despite all the promises and pledges that Corrie’s death would not be repeated, in early January another homeless man was found dead in a Dublin doorway. Vytautas Virzintas passed away in Cow’s Lane in Temple Bar, rather than in the shadow of the Oireachtas. Although the story featured in some media outlets, it did not elicit the outcry inspired only a month earlier by Jonathan Corrie’s death. Whether this was a result of the less notable location of Virzintas’ death, or because he passed away after Christmas, when the media’s focus had moved to issues other than homelessness is practically irrelevant. Whatever the cause of his relative obscurity, his death is a poignant reminder of the fickle nature of public opinion in the face of a problem on the scale of the homelessness crisis. The best way to commemorate Corrie and Virzintas is not to hold candlelit vigils, but to ensure that no one else faces their lonely fate.