Modular Housing, Homelessness, & Repeating Irish History

Last week on RTÉ’s Today with Sean O’Rourke show, leading homelessness campaigner Peter McVerry gave his reaction to the 500 ‘modular units’ that might soon – that is, next year – be made available to homeless families. The Peter McVerry Trust has been fighting homelessness and aiming to reduce deprivation since 2005, while McVerry himself has provided temporary accommodation for young, homeless people since the late 70s. So of course, McVerry was fulsome in his praise of these modular units. Speaking to O’Rourke, he called them “ideal,” and said that he would be “supporting them one hundred percent.”

McVerry then went on to say that these units would provide practical accommodation for homeless families – who might be currently living in hotel bedrooms without any cooking amenities or other necessary facilities – on a temporary basis. “Not forever.” Now, those last two words are the ones that are concerning. The “not forever” ones.

Peter McVerry -
Peter McVerry

It’s probably true that modular units are a lot better than hotel rooms, but they will not be able to fully address the nation’s homeless emergency. McVerry says that the latest figures he has to hand tell him there are 659 families currently homeless; most of which are living in hotels or bed and breakfast accommodation. Of that number, 609 families are Dublin based. In July alone, the figure for newly homeless families rose to seventy.


In one month.

And probably another seventy in August. And again in September. And October. And every single month through the harsh Irish winter in the lead up to some undisclosed time next year before all of our modular units finally become available. Although Dublin City Council have announced plans to ensure that at least 22 modular homes will be in place before Christmas, economic forecasters have warned that the numbers of homeless families are only expected to rise even higher.[pullquote]There are 659 families currently homeless. Of that number, 609 families are Dublin based. In July alone, the figure for newly homeless families rose to 70.[/pullquote]

Where are we going to put them all?

McVerry wants the government to enact emergency legislation to get past all the planning and other issues around setting up the units. When will this happen? Will it happen at all? We will have to wait and see. It perhaps depends on whether they are listening to him. I mean, really listening.

Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy – activist, founder of Focus Ireland, and another veteran of the campaign for the homeless – has also been warning that Ireland is in an emergency situation. She says that in her thirty years of working with Focus Ireland she could never have imagined that there would be so many families in emergency accommodation by the end of the year. “It’s worse now than it ever was” she says, “Each day the numbers of homeless people is increasing and now needs an emergency response.” After thirty years of experience in the crisis of homelessness, Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy should be a good judge of our status of “emergency.”

Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy -
Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy

But perhaps she has been talking so long about homelessness that nobody is listening to her either.

Is anyone at all listening to Mick Wallace?

Just what is ‘Project Arrow?’ It’s only the largest portfolio sale by Nama of over 8 billion euro worth of non-performing loans. But according to Wallace, Project Arrow is comprised of 90% Irish real estate – 50% of which is residential. The Independent TD wants a “forensic examination by independent experts” of Nama’s transactions… And surely, we ought to at least consider the merit of his demand. If he is correct, then we will have sold a lot of greatly needed residential properties.

And yet, the government doesn’t seem to be listening to him, or anyone else involved with this homeless emergency. History so often repeats itself. And it’s probably about to do it again.

One of the saddest things I heard on Irish radio in the weeks before Christmas last year was a woman who spoke about how her children, experiencing homelessness for the first time, were most worried about Christmas. They asked her how Santa would be able to find them now that they had no house to live in.

How does a parent deal with that?

Homeless - HeadStuff.orgChildren are the ones who suffer most because they suffer confusion. They do not understand that they have no chimney for Santa because the powerful men in some bank very far away from their house did very bad things. And they don’t understand that nobody will help them.[pullquote]Children do not understand that they have no chimney for Santa because the powerful men in some bank very far away from their house did very bad things.[/pullquote]

Peter McVerry often speaks of Irish parents who choose to put their children into care because they refuse to bring them onto the streets. Hobson’s Choice indeed. Similarly, Sr. Stan has declared that this crisis has brought shame upon our nation. It’s history repeating itself, again.

‘Our Shameful Past,’ when thousands of Irish were put out onto the streets, is taught in our schools. I know this. I taught it. I taught kids about the Famine, about land agents and landlords, about rent arrears, about land clearances, about emigration and about death. The word ‘Eviction’ had to be explained to the kids I taught. They learned how to spell it. Nowadays, I doubt it takes much teaching. They can live it as well as spell it.

Modular units -
Modular units

In class, we learned about how there was no state care back in those days for the homeless and the helpless and the sick and the dying. The children were wide eyed at the notion that you could just be left somewhere to die.

The term ‘Rack Rent’ should be easily explained to a lot of kids today too. This isn’t confined to the pages of their history books either.

No kid could ever understand the cruelty of burning a family’s home following eviction to make absolutely sure it could not be reoccupied. Taking a house off those who needed it and putting it beyond their reach. “Why?” they asked. Why did the people have to leave if the landlords were so well off that they didn’t need the houses for themselves?

I thought I was teaching history. Perhaps I wasn’t.

Today, we have elderly people thrown out on the street in their night clothes by burly ‘official’ men, the locks changed on their homes to prevent re-entry. They can go wherever the hell they like.

Evicted -
Violet and Martin Coyne were evicted from their home last year

We have no homes for people. Even to rent. As Sr. Stan pointed out on the radio last week, we were able to provide social housing when we were poor; right up to the 80s, and even the 90s. Very few were built during the wealthy Celtic Tiger years. Despite the fact that 20% of every building development was supposed to be for social housing “the politicians didn’t see it through.” Consequently, today, we simply have nowhere to put people.

I once taught about ‘Absentee Landlords.’ Well, they haven’t gone away either, you know. If Mick Wallace is correct and only a “US vulture fund” is likely to have the wherewithal to buy the Project Arrow portfolio (over 8 billion, remember), then we can expect that a lot of these landlords won’t have Irish accents either.

It is often said that “History teaches us nothing except that history teaches us nothing.”

Many voices have been calling for a revolution in Ireland. And they don’t just mean a 1916 re-enactment kind of one. Revolution never goes too well for the people either though. Show me one where nobody got hurt. However, we need to be aware that sooner or later, people will cease to be content with having nowhere to live. People will become angry that their loved ones are going to die on city streets. They already are.

Perhaps we will have our history repeated. Perhaps Ireland will indeed see another revolution.

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