Homelessness in Ireland is nothing new, nor of course is homelessness a uniquely Irish problem. Global figures show that the number of people without a home, or those living in sub-standard housing, is on the rise. While the Irish housing crisis reflects broader global trends, there are some specific features also. For example, compared to some other European countries, Ireland emerged well from the global financial collapse of 2008-2009. Before the outbreak of Covid-19, Ireland had once more reached full employment; the export market was performing very strongly internationally; wages were increasing; and a general sense of optimism had returned. But one issue loomed large over Irish society. The homeless crisis was worsening, and successive governments failed in their efforts to tackle the problem effectively. One could no longer blame dwindling national finances; as the country recovered economically, homeless figures continued to rise every month. There was, moreover, a new aspect to the crisis; growing numbers of families were becoming homeless. So, why was this happening?
Like many countries, Ireland’s homeless crisis is linked to an incredibly expensive housing market. Rent and house prices continue to soar. The ability to afford a home is beyond the reach of many, even often in the case of families with two incomes. An economy has been created that excludes thousands of people from their right to a safe place to live. As a result, there has been a growing call for stronger government intervention, appeals for a cap on rents and on the price of land, and for greater regulation of house prices.
We have all been living for some time now with the consequences of Covid-19. Within a very short time nearly a quarter of the world’s population is living in lockdown. We have seen infection rates sky-rocket in countries such as Italy, Spain, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. We have experienced greater state control over our lives than ever before, and seen communities and health services stretched to their limit. There have been remarkable asks of generosity and compassion. We have encountered moments of humor as well as fear. And in some countries we have been confronted by a staggering lack of leadership from our political representatives.
Interviewed on a local radio station at the end of March, Irish President Michael D. Higgins spoke of the “globalization of vulnerability”, and indeed we have heard much about “vulnerable populations” in these past weeks and months. We have responded to the human call to care and protect those most at risk, even if that means staying away from the people we love. We have had to rethink how we communicate, how we relate, how we can “be” with each other. The most ordinary human encounters have had to be suspended. We have all, in one way or another, had to acknowledge the fragility of this embodied life we live.
And there has been an enormous financial response to Covid-19. Trillions of dollars and euros are being set aside to assist people who have lost their jobs, to alleviate pressure on small businesses, and to bolster healthcare systems around the world. There has been tremendous collaboration within communities and between nations in the global effort to contain the virus. Reasons to be hopeful, perhaps.
Nevertheless, this global response has left me wondering about homelessness once more, and asking why we have repeatedly failed to mobilise the funds necessary to tackle this injustice. Covid-19 has proven that immense financial reserves can be summoned at short notice to protect the common good, and it has re-awakened within us a renewed sense of solidarity and sacrifice. We must wait and see if these civic traits last beyond the pandemic, and whether we will apply them as courageously to other forms of social injustice and exclusion.
What is the situation in Ireland?
According to latest figures, 10,271 people in Ireland are classified as homeless. Not included are people who are couch-surfing, people in prison or hospital, people residing in domestic violence refuges, and so on. The figure does include 3,574 children and 4,443 young people under the age of 24. Moreover, the number of homeless families has increased by 349% since May 2015.
The situation is exacerbated by the fact that spending on social housing was cut by 72% between 2008 and 2012, falling from 1.38 billion Euro to just 390 million Euro. The Irish government is now trying to address the shortfall in social housing but is playing catch-up with high demand. The construction of private homes fell dramatically during those years also. And now the presence of vulture funds in Ireland means that many new developments are being bought up before ever reaching the open market. The resulting shortage of property has led to very high house prices, and a cost of living that shows no sign of contracting.
Such is the scale of the problem that the New York Times reported on the crisis, noting that Dublin has become one of the most expensive cities in which to rent, ahead of Tokyo, Sydney, and Singapore. Furthermore, predictions suggested that rents in Dublin would increase by an additional 17% over the next three years. This, of course, may change in light of Covid-19, with some experts warning of a 7 percent contraction in the Irish economy because of the pandemic. Worse may follow if we do not see a strong economic performance in the third and fourth quarters of 2020. In any case, it is likely that the cost of renting or buying a home in Ireland will remain among the highest in the world for some time to come.
The Irish Bishops
In response to this, the Irish Bishops’ Conference issued a Pastoral Letter in 2018, entitled A Room at the Inn? In it they reject the argument that housing is simply a commodity like any other, and that its price should be left to the market to determine. Instead, the Bishops insist that it is the role of government to protect the common good, and that housing is crucial for human flourishing. They remind us that the economy is meant to serve the person and promote human dignity, not the other way around. They believe that safe, affordable housing is a human right, and that the provision of housing cannot be left solely to market forces. To think of housing purely as a commodity, as a way of maximizing profit, or as an investment opportunity, puts it at the mercy of the crude workings of market forces. To do this is to create a situation where this most basic human right is denied to millions of people around the world on the basis of an economic argument.
Adequate housing is fundamental to our wellbeing, safety and happiness, and plays a pivotal part in human flourishing. Its value is derived, therefore, not from bricks and stone, but from the human good that it serves, and it deserves special protection from the State. The Bishops go further. They point out that the right to adequate housing plays an essential part in the realisation of several other rights: the right to privacy, freedom of movement, freedom from discrimination, personal security, health, education, and the right to a decent and safe environment. And they insist that “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, rather such commitment is an inescapable consequence of accepting God’s commitment to humanity”.
As noted earlier, the Irish context is not unique. The right to housing is being denied to millions around the world, and the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to exacerbate this even further, especially in poorer countries. Based on national and regional reports it is estimated that approximately 150 million, or 2 percent of the global population, are homeless. A further 1.6 billion people, or 20 percent of the global population, are thought to live in sub-standard accommodation. Accurate figures are difficult to achieve, but these numbers will almost certainly increase as the global population increases, and as more people migrate to urban centers in search of employment.
As Irish theologian Ethna Regan argues, the provision of adequate housing is a matter of global economics and distributive justice. She says, “The mandate is that every society should protect civil and political freedoms, and the accompanying mandate is that every society – within its resources – should make provision for food, housing, education, and social security for ‘everyone’”. One obstacle to this is the level of corporate involvement in the property sector. Leilani Farha, UN Rapporteur on Housing, explains that many governments believe themselves to be more accountable to investors than to their international human rights obligations. Global real estate represents nearly 60 per cent of the value of all global assets (217 trillion dollars) with residential real estate amounting to 163 trillion dollars, representing more than twice the world’s total GDP. Farha calls on governments to ensure that markets serve the housing need of their citizens rather than the financial interests of investment companies, reiterating that states’ primary obligations are the protection and promotion of human rights.
When we emerge from the pandemic, more conscious of our shared vulnerability, and having witnessed the vast resources that can be summoned to fight a virus such as this, perhaps we might also have a renewed sense of solidarity and of belonging to one human family. We might hope to have acquired a far greater sense of compassion, and that might help stimulate more targeted action on behalf of people who are without a home. Perhaps the “globalization of vulnerability” that President Michael D. Higgins spoke of will awaken within us a stronger commitment toward the provision of safe housing for all.
 Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, A Room at the Inn? A Pastoral Letter on Housing and Homelessness, (Dublin: Veritas, 2018) https://www.catholicbishops.ie/2018/10/01/a-room-at-the-inn-bishops-pastoral-letter-on-housing-and-homelessness/.
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 10.
 Ibid., 17
 Ibid., 24
 Ethna Regan, “Human Rights, Human Flourishing, and the Right to Housing”, in James F. Keenan, Mark McGreevy (eds.), Street Homelessness and Catholic Theological Ethics, (New York: Orbis Books, 2019), 200.
 Ibid 201.