No room at the Inn
As most of us prepare to bask in the festive season and all its luxuries, An Phoblacht's MICHAEL PIERSE has been finding out that Ireland's dispossessed have little to celebrate this Christmas.
This Christmas, Dublin, a relatively small capital city, will have more people sleeping on the streets than in Oxford, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham and Liverpool combined
Christmas time, a commercialised spending spree and season of plenty for some, always tends to bring the adverse reality of social exclusion and poverty into sharper focus.
We will probably, nay... definitely, see some merry, glassy eyed retail mogul on the news this Christmas, expounding on the virtues of the `Celtic Tiger' and the unprecedented spending that has made his or her festive season more profitable than ever. We will hear politicians and those who've surfed the economic boom talking up the `new Ireland', the `little star of Europe', a place where opportunity and excess abound.
Just like the Santa Claus at your local supermarket, all that's keeping the myth of the Celtic Tiger alive for those sitting on his knee is the cloudy material that covers his true face and the self-deluding hope that something the other kids didn't get will emerge from his bag.
The reality of the Celtic Tiger, as evidenced by the extent of the poverty and alienation that it has brought in its wake, leaves little to celebrate for many Irish people, particularly for the homeless.
Rising inflation, low pay and the parasitic manner in which a small number of speculators have exploited the housing market, have left those at the lower end of the economic scale far less likely to find themselves with a home of their own. This, plus the willingness of successive governments to allow social problems such as drug addiction, alcoholism, poverty, and the lack of adequate housing to spiral out of control, has left Irish society increasingly divided and a dangerous place for those living on the margins.
The 1999 assessment of local authority housing needs found a total of 5,234 homeless people in the 26 Counties, more than double the 1996, pre-economic boom figure of 2,501.
Estimates for homelessness in the Six Counties are not comparable, as they are compiled differently - with a much more liberal interpretation of what homelessness entails - but this year, 10,997 people presented themselves as homeless to the Housing Executive, with 4,065 coming to the Simon Community. While these figures represented a 5 per cent rise for the Six-County Simon Community, the Housing Executive's figures had fallen by 5 per cent.
In 1987 there were 18,000 households on local authority housing waiting lists in the 26 Counties. In 1996 this figure was 30,533. By 1999, the total had increased by 49 per cent from the `87 figures, to 45,578.
Local authority housing lists have jumped by 17% in the past year, according to figures released by Focus Ireland. Almost 6,500 more people are now seeking local authority accommodation than there were in 1999. Focus Ireland believes its figures indicate that over 100,000 people in the 26 Counties are in a vulnerable situation.
The organisation also fears the accommodation shortage will add to the number of homeless people in the 26 Counties, this year estimated to be around 6,500.
All but three of the 26 Counties' 39 administrative areas recorded increases in the number of applicants for local authority housing in the past 12 months.
Meath County Council recorded the largest increase, with its waiting list rising by 140% to 1,416 families. Two other local authorities also saw their waiting lists more than double in the past 12 months. Cork Corporation's housing list rose by 120% to 2,872 applicants and Roscommon registered a similarly spectacular rise, with a 107% increase.
Waiting lists in Dublin showed an average increase of around 45% across the city's three councils, Fingal, South Dublin and Dún Laoghaire/Rathdown. No comparative figures were available for Dublin Corporation. The total number of applicants now on waiting lists across the four administrative areas in the capital is almost 14,000.
Only Cavan, Kerry and Longford recorded falling waiting lists for local authority housing. No comparisons with 1999 figures were available from county councils in Clare, Galway and Wexford and corporations in Dublin, Galway and Clonmel. But it doesn't take an overwhelming stretch of the imagination to assume that these councils and corporations have seen similar increases in their housing shortfall over the past year.
Added to this are this year's depressing figures from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), which says that inflation has reached its highest in the 26 Counties since 1984 (now 7%), and is only likely to fall sightly next year. Tax cuts, adding to disposable income, will have a significant inflationary impact on housing costs, they say.
For the year 2000, new house prices are expected to have risen by between 14 and 18 per cent in the greater Dublin area, according to the two largest estate agencies specialising in the market. Next year, the shortfall between supply and demand of houses is expected to reach 8,000 units, while prices should rise, despite new governmental measures, by around 10 per cent.
``The situation in Dublin is chronic, and people are becoming very angry,'' says Sinn Féin Councillor Nicky Kehoe. Visitors to his and Councillor Christy Burke's Dublin Central Advice Centres have, for the most part, only one thing on their minds - housing.
``There needs to be an injection of political control over the housing market,'' Nicky advocates. ``As it stands, a small number of property speculators are manipulating the situation to their own ends, while the government stands idly by.''
It is true that homelessness is not just a question of housing. For many people, it is the by-product of a whole myriad of socio-economic problems and the instigator of a great many more. It should be obvious, however, that housing is the best place to start.
This Christmas, Dublin, a relatively small capital city, will have more people sleeping on the streets than in Oxford, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham and Liverpool combined. For these people, Christmas is a very hollow and meaningless word.