Thursday, January 21, 2016

On Ghost Estates and Homelessness

From a photo-essay collection on
The prospect of homelessness is a nightmare rooted deep in the psyche of the Irish. Too many people died starving on the side of the road for modernity to have washed it from our minds just yet.

However. While our emotions are outraged by the current homeless situation, as brought vividly to light by that TV program after the Nine O’Clock News on Monday night, there is a big question that our logical selves should be engaging with. It is this: how can this small little country have simultaneous homeless crises and ghost estate crises?

Logic dictates that the one is the solution to the other. The country needs to house those unfortunates who, for one reason or another, have nowhere to live. The country also has to unload that all that worthless housing stock of which it has such a surfeit that it had to set up a National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, to keep count of the things.

The one is a solution to the other. You need a house? I have a house. Win-win.

But it’s not win-win. This isn’t what’s going on, or even being talked about. We’re talking about reality TV masquerading a current affairs broadcasting, modular (ie, flatback) housing and these extra-ordinary hotels that house the homeless, a kind of hotel that seems so seldom to appear on

Why can’t we use the ghost estates that litter the countryside to house the homeless? How is living in a ghost estate in Tyrrellspass, say, worse for a family than living in a room in a B&B?

It seems that, while homelessness is a national tragedy, for some people it’s not so tragic that they do not, in fact, grab the first shelter open to them. In a report last week, the Irish Independent listed certain reasons last why people refuse social housing, with the absence of a garden or the fact the proposed house is not in an area of choice being leading reasons.

This should raise eyebrows among people who themselves would prefer a house with a garden, or more parking, or in a different area. Consider the sprawling estates in the Dublin commuter belt – how many people are living there because a sprawling estate in the commuter belt is their idea of an area of choice?

Look at the roads out of Dublin on the Saturday morning of a bank holiday weekend – all those families are on their way back to their own actual area of choice, because in this world getting to live in an area of choice is a perk, not a feature.

Homelessness was always going to be an election issue once Alan Kelly promised the Christmas before last to take it on and then didn’t. The ghost estates have returned because Fine Gael are eager to beat Fianna Fáil over the head with them.

But who, in the coming election, speaks for the people who don’t get to live in an area of choice but get on with it anyway, because it’s a get-on-with-it world? Who speaks for those who are appalled and heart-scalded by TV shows like that on Monday night but who don’t understand why these families can’t be moved into all those empty homes all around the country that country, through NAMA, already own?

Joe Higgins and his gang like to talk about the working class. Who speaks for what Bill Clinton called the coping class, those who have been beaten up and shaken down by the events of the past eight to ten years, but who hung in there and did their best? Who’s speaking for them? If anybody plans too, now would be a good time to start clearing the throat, before the whole thing starts over again.