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Homelessness Abroad: Seeking Solutions to a Complex Problem in Ireland



“Some people look down on me because I am homeless. But who are they to judge? For I bleed the same blood, and I breathe the same air, so how can anyone judge me? For no one in life is perfect. So if you can help in any way, I will be very grateful.”

Those are the words artist Steven Meaney etches in the chalk of Dublin’s renowned Grafton Street, a hub for performance artists, travelers, and tourists. As Meaney presses his nearly depleted chalk rod into the ground, ornately outlining his powerful poem in shades of sapphire and yellow, many stop by to take a picture or throw a few euros into his frayed styrofoam cup. They stop and stare, ‘oohing’ and ‘ahhing’ at the spectacularly drawn script and poignant message it evokes. After a few moments, they sheath their cameras back in their black camera bags, take one last glance, and continue shuffling down the crowded street.

For Meaney, 28, and countless other people in Dublin’s city centre, this is life. Wake up, create art, hope to God you rake in enough money to buy a night in a hostel, and (if you’re lucky) grab a decent bite to eat. It’s a seemingly endless cycle, and a vicious one at that.

Despite being drug-free for four years now, Meaney claims, he cannot get a job because he does not have a permanant address. Any money that would go towards buying a house of his own instead goes to everyday living expenses like food, water, and temporary shelter.

“It’s a catch-22,” Meaney says, flashing his slightly yellowed teeth. “People tell me I should be working, but there’s not enough proper housing, it’s too expensive for the housing that exists, and it’s expensive to eat in the city. It’s hard to climb out.”

Start of a Journey

Before I even met Steven, Keith, or any of the other individuals on the streets of Dublin, I was sitting in front of a panel of UT professors, Honors Program director Dr. Gary Luter, and the widow of Timothy M. Smith. Smith was a lawyer who dedicated his life to chronicling his spectacular travels, using his writing to inspire both himself and the people around him. After his passing, his family forged a partnership with the Honors Program, cherishing Smith’s memory by offering honors students the chance to enhance their literary aspirations by travelling abroad.

While sitting in that room, nervousness levels at an all time high, I explained that homelessness was an incredibly pervasive issue in Tampa, with over 16,000 people reported homeless in 2012, 20 percent of whom were children. I explained that I had been researching cities across the globe that had been experiencing similar conditions, such as Budapest, Rome, Rio de Janeiro, and Dublin.

The fact that Dublin is experiencing a similar root causation as Tampa prompted me to redirect my sights on the capital of Ireland. Not to mention that I am a quarter Irish myself and was enlivened at the prospect of returning to the land of my forefathers.

At the time, I knew that the underlying reason that so many were devoid of adequate shelter and resources in both Tampa and Dublin was the skyrocketing price of housing and lack of affordable social care. I also knew that in order to truly grasp the situation, I had to travel there myself. I wasn’t trying to save the world. I just wanted to remind people that every person on this planet at this very moment has a story.

A few weeks later, I received the grant. The adventure had begun.

The Cause

It’s tricky to accurately measure the number of people who classify as homeless, but the number in Ireland stands at about 5,000 today, according to Peter McVerry Trust, a homeless charity and social housing provider. That figure still surprises many citizens, considering the sheer amount of homes built in the past decade that are currently unoccupied.

“During the housing boom the Government and local authorities stopped building social housing units, the numbers of which had been in steady decline since the 1970s. This meant that either you bought a house or you rented one. But during the boom years rents became unaffordable and the cost of living skyrocketed,” says Francis Doherty, a spokesperson from Peter McVerry Trust.

Like the United States, Ireland was hit with a vicious recession in 2008. Hundreds of thousands emigrated, leaving Ireland with a temporary surplus in the private rental market. Because of this massive opening, landlords were forced to lower rent prices, meaning people previously without affordable housing now had it–briefly.

“Property prices in the Irish capital are rising by an average of €6,600 a month,” says Doherty.

The surplus did not last long, and rents steadily began to rise once more. According to Doherty, this had a profound impact on the rate of homelessness.

“As the surplus evaporated, homeless figures began to rise and are now rising faster than any time during the history of the State,” she said. “This is driven by unaffordable private rents, low levels of welfare support, and complete absence of social housing.”

Defining Homelessness

It seems that “homelessness” would be fairly easy to define. What makes this such a difficult, though, is just how many variations of homeless individuals there are. Some have stable jobs but aren’t able to afford rising rent costs, others are street performers and artists that “busk it,” as they say in Ireland, a few are steeped in apathy towards their situation, and then there are those tangled in the constricting vine of drugs.

Focus Ireland, a local non-profit whose tagline is “seeking to end homelessness,” is aggressively trying to handle what they believe is a national crisis. There’s a new kind of homeless person, they say, and it’s much different from the preconceived societal idea of what a homeless person should look like: tattered coat, stained shirt, grizzly beard, and a wool cap to match. The “new” homeless have jobs, have families, and blend into everyday scenery. As a result of the recession and lack of rent regulation, an alarmingly high amount of families have been forced onto the streets, temporarily taking refuge in crowded, one-room hostels.

“Ireland is experiencing homelessness that is increasing on a monthly basis,” says Michelle Moran, a spokesperson from Focus Ireland. “It’s [become] a national emergency. Over 350 families became homeless in the first month of this year, whereas the total was 450 for the entirety of 2014.”

Within that figure of 350 is an even more depressing number: 1,000. An estimated 1,000 children (ages 0-17) are currently facing homelessness or extreme poverty in Dublin alone, and the mental effects on them are devastating.

Moran has witnessed this first hand.

“I went to this hotel where the whole family, a family of five, was living in this one room. It’s a total state of limbo and you can imagine the social issues that comes with that. The teenager is frustrated and embarrassed…they can’t bring their friends home for fear of judgement. It has an effect on their health and produces social strain,” she said.

Her organization has been ardently lobbying for rent controls and regulations, which currently don’t exist in Ireland, so that no one sifts through the cracks of society.

An article published in the Irish Times on Aug. 12 stated that “Legislation to ensure no child sleeps rough must be introduced urgently, [according to housing charity Focus Ireland.] Mike Allen, the organization’s director of advocacy, made the call after three children under the age of six slept rough in Dublin for three nights.”

Finding a Solution

Peter McVerry Trust is employing a multi-faceted approach to cover all aspects of the situation, but their main priority is simply finding people a home.

“We recognize that the first thing a homeless person needs is a home so we are working hard to increase our housing stock. We buy, build, renovate and lease housing units, mostly 1 or 2 bed apartments to ensure we can provide permanent homes to homeless households,” Doherty said.

It seems their plan has paid off thus far. Since 2008, the organization has increased its number of social housing accommodations from 10 to 140 and expect that number to grow to 200 by the end of the year. In addition to offering social housing, PMV Trust provides over 75,000 meals annually, assists minors (under 18) grappling with poverty, and attacks the issue at its core through prevention programs.

The famed Irish brew Guinness is made up of four primary components: barley, hops, water, and yeast. The intricate process is performed seven days a week for 24 hours each day to ensure that the worldwide consumers of the legendary stout are never without their favorite brew.

What if the same could be said when addressing homelessness? What if there was a magic formula that, when applied the same time every way, would create a perfect, permanent solution? Unfortunately, this complex issue lacks a distinct “cure-all.” Much like defining what homelessness actually is, applying a solution is comparably as difficult.

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