One extreme case of homelessness sheds light on overall Irish housing crisis - collapse of house building, the present shortage, what the government IS doing and the fact there is no instant solution.
With the housing crisis continuing, one story which seemed to illustrate just how bad the homelessness problem here has become made big headlines across the Irish media last weekend. The word "seemed" is necessary because the story turned out to be much more nuanced than initially appeared.
On Wednesday evening of last week Margaret Cash, a 28-year-old mother of seven, turned up at the garda (police) station in the sprawling suburb of Tallaght on the west side of Dublin saying she had nowhere else to go for the night. With her were six of her children, all boys aged from one to 11. (The other child, a daughter aged nine who had been in hospital with an infection, was staying with friends.)
Cash told gardai she had been unable to get emergency accommodation and had been referred to the garda station by one of the housing charities. It was either stay there or sleep on the streets.
This is what the housing charities in Dublin advise people to do when the various options for emergency beds have all been tried and nothing can be found. Staying overnight in a police station is the last resort, but over 40 families had to do so in June, the last month for which figures are available.
So the Cash family spent the night sleeping on the plastic chairs in the station's waiting area. In fact this was the third night over the past year that Margaret Cash and her children ended up in a garda station.
Nobody had paid any attention to their plight before (or to the other families who had to do the same thing), but this time it was different because she took pictures, one of the homeless charities put them on line and they went viral.
The pictures were then used by TV and newspapers, and the sight of the children curled up on the hard chairs touched the hearts of many people all over the country. The result was a tsunami of outrage at the end of last week that this kind of thing could be happening in Ireland in 2018.
The media piled into the story, which was all over the papers, TV, radio, online news sites and social media. Opposition politicians and homeless organizations added their voices to the public anger and heaped scorn on the Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy (who happened to be on holidays last week).
As the media storm continued Cash was interviewed repeatedly, usually surrounded by her children. Despite the intensity of the coverage, however, there were many unanswered questions about her background, her wider family and how she had ended up in the situation. Instead, all the interviewing focused on her present circumstance, how awful it was trying to cope with kids on the street, and the failure of the council to provide her with a house.
What she did reveal was that she had become homeless last September after the private house she was renting in Tallaght was repossessed. Unable to find another house to rent in the area, even with the state housing assistance payment of up to €1,300 a month, she registered as homeless and went into the emergency accommodation system, the state safety net that keeps homeless people off the streets by paying for emergency accommodation for them, mainly in hotel rooms and B&Bs.
There are close to 10,000 people in the system at present, including several thousand children. It's far from ideal, especially for families with young children, but it is successful in keeping almost everyone who is homeless off the streets.
Those who fall between the cracks tend to be people with problems or unusual needs. The system is "self-accommodating,” which means that when a family registers as homeless the state undertakes to pay for them but they have to find the accommodation themselves. With seven children Cash is unusual and it is difficult for her, or the charities who help the homeless, to find a hotel with suitable accommodation for her.
Since September when she became homeless she has been in the system and has had to move on numerous occasions, depending on the availability of rooms. The longest period the family got in one place was five weeks. But she and her kids have not been on the streets, even though they ended up in a garda station on three separate nights.
She was quite forceful in the interviews about the duty of the council to house her, saying that it was her right to be housed. She said that she has been on the council housing waiting list for 11 years. (As readers of this column will be aware, very little social housing was built here in the period since the crash 10 years ago because the state had no money.)
Most interviewers did not ask her why she had so many children, given her uncertain situation, or about her partner and whether he was helping (such questions are no longer considered to be politically correct journalism).
The fact that she and her partner come from the traveler community where larger families are not unusual may also have been a factor in this. She was dismissive of questions about her partner, simply saying that "he's not around."
The mainstream media, homeless charities and opposition politicians were sympathetic to her situation, avoided any intrusive questions and used the story as a platform for attacking the government for failing to deal with the housing shortage.
It was a different matter on the online news sites like Journal.ie and on social media, however, where there was a deluge of questions, skepticism about her story and accusations that she was exploiting her children to get pushed further up the public housing list.
Some of this commentary was vitriolic, pointing out that her Facebook page showed evidence of a lifestyle that was not exactly poverty stricken. As is common among the traveler community, there were glam pictures with lots of fake tan, a box of beer and what looked like an expensive First Communion dress worn by her daughter.
It was also pointed out that with children's allowances for seven kids, unemployment benefit for her and her partner, housing benefits and other welfare payments, she would have been getting over €40,000 a year from the state. Some comments made the point that an ordinary working couple would have to earn at least €60,000 to have that much after tax, would not be getting any benefits and would be limiting their families to one or two kids because of childcare costs.
In addition, young working couples providing their own accommodation would be paying rent or a mortgage. Other comments asked whether she or her partner had ever had a job.
It was also pointed out that she had said she had been on the housing list for 11 years. Since she is now 28 and her oldest child is 11, this meant that when she had her first child at the age of 17 she immediately put her name down for a council house.
Further information to emerge was that her partner, who she says she separated from last September, is currently in prison on charges of assault in Dublin city center in June in an incident in which he was carrying a sharpened spike. Cash herself has also been in trouble, having faced charges of handling stolen goods a few years ago. More recently she was charged with damaging a lock on a gate to private property where, she says, they were trying to park a caravan.
This outpouring of online questioning -- and in some cases outright abuse about the traveler lifestyle -- led to further stories in the media over the weekend about the "social media sewer" and condemning how little empathy some people on line were showing towards a young mother of seven in a difficult position.
Cash herself reacted angrily to the online comments, saying the situation was not her fault. She denied that the pictures of her children asleep on chairs in the Garda station were a stunt to bump her up the housing list.
She said the pictures on her Facebook page (which is now private) of the beer and the Communion dress were normal. “You have to do your best to live your life,” she told one reporter, adding that she shared the €16 box of beer with a friend who had helped her and that she paid for the Communion dress out of her benefits over many months.
She said she had never had a job because her job was minding her kids. She said that her ex-partner's situation was "not relevant" and it was her right to be housed by the council which had failed her and her children. She said her own trouble with the law was "a mistake" she had made when she was younger.
“At the end of the day, the homeless thing can happen to anybody," she told one reporter. "Why should my kids have to suffer?"
Whatever you think about all this, it is an extreme case which sheds little light on the overall problem -- the collapse of house building here, both public and private, after the crash leading to the present shortage. The government is doing what it can with available resources to ramp up house building again, including social housing. But there is no instant solution.
The soaring rents which have resulted from the shortage have priced many low income families out of the market. Some end up in difficulty but many more manage to find somewhere to stay thanks to relatives and friends.
We don't know whether that was possible in Cash's case. In fact the only one who really knows whether she had an alternative to putting her kids on chairs in the garda station one night last week is Cash herself. One thing that can be improved immediately is coordination between the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive (the official organization responsible for keeping people off the streets) and the charities who work in the sector. At present when there is no emergency accommodation available in hotel rooms, homeless people turn to these charities late in the evening for help.
Very often the charities manage to find somewhere at the last minute but they are not reimbursed by the state for the cost involved in doing so. That needs to change. And the DRHE needs to work much more closely with the charities concerned, like Focus Ireland or Inner City Helping Homeless.