Irish bishops call on government to address homelessness

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Credit: Marc Breneke via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

The bishops of Ireland issued a letter Oct. 1 calling on the government of the Republic of Ireland to do more to address the country’s homelessness crisis. Nearly 115 families became homeless in Ireland during August 2018 alone, according to advocacy groups.
“The dignity which, as Catholics, we recognise in every person, must be reflected in the reality of life in our society and it is our belief that safe, affordable and appropriate housing is a human right,” the Oct. 1 letter, “Room at the Inn?”, reads.

According to the advocacy group Focus Ireland, there were more than 9,500 people homeless in August 2018 in the country, and the number of families becoming homeless has increased by 18% since August 2017. According to the group, more than one in three people in emergency accommodation is a child, and nearly 1,700 families were homeless in August.

Some advocates say these figures are an underestimate of the true numbers of individuals experiencing homelessness.

“There are also a number of other vulnerable groups not included in the figures, such as women and children in domestic violence shelters, people in direct provision and others who are also homeless,” said Tony Geoghegan, co-founder of Merchants Quay Ireland, a homeless service provider with Franciscan roots.

While acknowledging the many ways that the Catholic Church in Ireland provides for the homeless, the bishops make it clear in their letter that greater government attention and intervention is needed. The letter urges the government not to treat housing “in the same way as any other commodity,” and leave it solely to the market; rather, housing should be treated as a human right, with housing policies crafted in a way that respects the rights of families.

“The current housing situation damages us all because we are part of one organism, one society,” they write. “Allowing a continuation of the disparity between those who have adequate and affordable housing and those who are poorly housed or without a home will create a more deeply divided society.”

Care for the homeless, they write, is a responsibility that all Christians share.

“Commitment...to people who are enduring homelessness or inadequate or unaffordable housing is not an ‘optional extra’ bolted on to the life of the Christian,” the bishops wrote. “Rather such commitment is an inescapable consequence of accepting God’s commitment to humanity.”

The bishops describe the stress that homelessness and a lack of adequate housing place on families, especially youth in their formative years.

“Recognising the dignity of all in our society is not an empty formula of words, nor is it a mere charitable posture,” the letter states. “The Catholic Church teaches that each person, regardless of his or her economic or social position, racial or faith background, must be treated in a manner which fully respects their dignity.”

“Pope Francis, in his recent visit to the Capuchin Day Centre for homeless people in Dublin, spoke to those who avail of the services of the centre, saying: ‘Do you know why you come here with trust? Because they help you without detracting from your dignity. For them, each of you is Jesus Christ.’ We must always strive to honour and uphold the dignity of every human person, created in God’s image.”

The bishops urged the government to take steps to make housing more plentiful and affordable, to increase social housing provision, to fix problems in the private rental sector, and to support cooperative housing. The bishops also suggested that “opportunities to use vacant properties and empty housing should be explored, in order to avoid speculation in the housing sector.”

Ireland’s rate of home ownership is below the EU average, they write, and rental regulations in the country are not strong enough to offer security to renters in the long or medium term, which disproportionately affects families and the elderly.

“The principle should now be adopted that long-term affordable and good quality social housing will be provided by local authorities, voluntary housing bodies, cooperatives or some new not-for-profit entities,” the bishops proposed.

The letter’s purpose, the bishops said, was not to necessarily to offer “technical insight” into the best housing policies, but rather to highlight the “gravity” of the situation and “draw attention to the values and principles which could inspire an effective response through improved public policies.”

Making high profits off land speculation and charing high rents are two activities cited as being contrary to these values.

“[Housing] provision should and can take account of environmental sustainability, the use of proper building standards to ensure quality of living for occupants, an awareness of rural and urban development policies, and a commitment to ensuring that those employed in the construction sector can work in safe, secure and fair working environments,” the bishops wrote. “The housing crisis is larger than provision of accommodation alone. Energy poverty is widespread in Ireland and many are living in substandard or minimal standards for accommodation.”

Father Sean Donohoe, co-director of homelessness charity Capuchin Day Centre in Dublin, was quoted in the Belfast Telegraph as saying Oct. 1 that it is not the responsibility of the Church to solve the homelessness crisis, but Church properties around Dublin have been donated and are used by homelessness charities.

Father Donohue also told the Belfast Telegraph that the Capuchin Day Centre distributes 300 to 350 breakfasts every day and distributes supplies to 250 families.

“Our youngest was about two weeks old and oldest is 92 and it’s everybody in between, for all different reasons,” he said.

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