‘Walter Mitty’ administration in denial about homeless crisis


Comments this week by the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and others in the Dublin government have sparked outrage among homeless charities and housing campaigners.

Varadkar has refused to withdraw comments which claimed that Ireland’s level of homelessness, which has been rapidly increasing in recent years, is still acceptable by international standards. His claim was based on two independent reports, both of which insist international comparisons are questionable, and one of which specified that the data used was two years old.

Varadkar drew uncomplimentary comparisons with US President Donald Trump when he insisted it was “a good thing in Ireland” that “we have a low level of homelessness compared to our peer countries”.

Homelessness charities and opposition leaders who asked “what planet is he living on” as 8,000 people are currently homeless, by far the highest level in modern Irish history.

Inner City Helping Homeless chief executive Anthony Flynn described the Taoiseach’s comment as “a Walter Witty remark”.

The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children insisted Ireland’s rate of child homelessness, which has risen by 287 per cent in three years to more than 3,000, is unmatched anywhere in Europe.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said Mr Varadkar’s remarks were “deeply insulting”. He added: “The Taoiseach either doesn’t care enough or hasn’t grasped the scale of the crisis.

However, the government’s top housing adviser only added to the controversy when he said homelessness “is a normal thing”.

Speaking on RTE radio, Conor Skehan, who is chair of the Housing Agency, said we need to move from a situation where we use words like ‘homeless’ and ‘crisis’.

“Homelessness is a dreadful thing when it happens to someone, but it is a normal thing, it happens,” he said. He insisted Ireland’s housing crisis is “completely normal”.

Separately, junior minister for housing, Fine Gael Damian English, complained that reports about homelessness in the national media were “damaging to Ireland’s international reputation”.

The remarks came in the week figures emerged which indicate that less than 1 per cent of the social housing units required to provide homes for households on waiting lists across the 26 Counties have actually been built by local authorities or approved housing bodies since the start of last year.

Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Ruth Coppinger accused Fine Gael of being “homelessness deniers” and that people were “bewildered” by the comments that have emanated from Fine Gael.

She said: “The party’s members were not willing to debate the most pressing social issue at the party conference, meaning that the main government party was sending out the message “Crisis? What crisis?”

“This was followed, disgracefully, by a well-paid government adviser, Mr Skehan, whose services are paid for by the taxpayer, going on national radio to say that the poor will always be with us.

“It is quite incredible and these stark examples bring it home to people that nobody in the government seems to care or to recognise the scale of this crisis.”

But another top official -- Eileen Gleeson, director of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive -- insisted long-term homelessness was due to “bad behaviour” and volunteer groups who provided food and shelter were “not helpful”.

“When somebody becomes homeless it doesn’t happen overnight, it takes years of bad behaviour probably, or behaviour that isn’t the behaviour of you and me,” she told a Dublin City Council committee.

“They’re afraid to come in, they’re reluctant, they’re quite happy to continue with the chaotic lifestyle they have. If somebody provides them with some sort of halfway shelter they’ll willingly take it.”

Brother Kevin Crowley, who runs the Capuchin Day Centre in Dublin which provides meals to the homeless, said he was appalled at the attitude, while the President of the St Vincent de Paul charity, Kiearan Stafford, has described any attempts to normalise homelessness as ‘insulting’.

Speaking during a parliamentary debate on homelessness, Deputy O Broin said: “The idea that homelessness is a result of ‘bad behaviour’ displays a set of values from a Victorian era that I thought was long gone. The truth is they are victims of a housing crisis and a government who have presided over a 300% increase in family homeless since taking office in 2011.

“The most disturbing set of comments this week however were from the Taoiseach. We have all seen the report the Taoiseach spin office used to base his claims on.

“There is not a shred of evidence in that 2017 OECD report that allows the Taoiseach to make the claim that our levels of homelessness are low by international standards.

“On that basis I think the Taoiseach should withdraw his comments. It is not acceptable for the leader of the country to deliberately down play the levels of homelessness to hide his own Governments failure to meet the housing need of thousands of people.”

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