There are huge challenges ahead for Ireland in 2017 due to the start of the Brexit process and the Trump tax plans, but the Irish story which grabbed most attention over the Christmas period was a local one. This was the occupation by activists of the vacant Apollo House office block in Dublin city center to house homeless people.
It was a smaller scale story than Brexit, but it rang bells with a lot of people here because of the national housing crisis we are going through. The story got wide coverage not only at home but across Europe and even in the U.S. It was a perfect tale for Christmas, pressing all the right emotional buttons.
On the one hand there was the vacant office block, a casualty of the property crash, and the uncaring authorities with all their legal complexities. On the other hand there were the people sleeping rough in the city center, and the activists determined to cut through the red tape (and kick in a few doors) to help them. For some people here, angry about the housing crisis, it wasn't hard to decide who the good guys were.
The Apollo House occupation began a couple of weeks before Christmas and quickly developed into a cause célèbre, with overtones of people power and even flower power. A few high profile musicians gave their support, holding a concert outside the office block, the high point of which was Glen Hansard singing an Apollo House version of “This Land Is Your Land” (you can see the video on-line).
The celebs, including a film director, brought glamour to the action. Hundreds of ordinary people with time on their hands turned up to show solidarity, donate clothes, food parcels and bedding, and to join a march on the Dail to demand "action" on homelessness.
Within days, 40 people who had been sleeping rough were living in Apollo House. The occupation was well organized by a committee, with tight security, no alcohol or drugs inside the building, a kitchen providing hot meals, volunteers offering medical assistance and counseling, and so on.
The current owner of the building is Nama (the National Asset Management Agency), the state-backed body set up in 2009 to take billions in bad property loans out of the banks after the crash, a necessary first step back to economic revival. Nama has dealt with thousands of properties and has now sold much of what it was holding back into the recovering market. The activists behind the occupation of Apollo House believe that some of what it has left -- like Apollo House -- should be used to tackle homelessness.
A few weeks ago, within days of the occupation beginning, lawyers for Nama went to court pointing out that the occupation was illegal, there was a safety risk, and insurance for the building was inadequate should anything go wrong. But the judge (probably wisely, given the public mood) decided to allow the homeless to stay until after Christmas, setting Wednesday of this week as the deadline to vacate.
The latest news is that the movement behind the occupation, which calls itself Home Sweet Home, has agreed to obey the court order on the basis that the 40 homeless will now be given other accommodation and that the City Council is also to provide two new homeless hostels to deal with future demands. This follows intense involvement by the minister responsible for housing here over the past few days.
So this colorful episode is now ending peacefully and is being seen as a win by the activists involved, a mixed bunch of idealistic student types, some hard men from the far left, one of whom has a violent criminal record, and a radical trade union leader.
But the idea that this is a breakthrough on housing and homelessness resulting from people power and direct action is an illusion. It would be great if it was that simple, but it's not.
The Apollo House occupation was always a statement rather than a solution. The purpose was political, to embarrass the government.
It was more a publicity vehicle for radical chic activists than a practical long-term answer to homelessness. And right from the beginning there were worrying aspects to what was being done.
The first was the narrative being put out by those involved, which in the same breath talked about the "growing number" of people sleeping rough and the official figure of over 7,000 homeless people across the country. Conflating the two implied that all these people are either on the street or going to end up there.
The reality is that most of the homeless are in emergency accommodation of various kinds, including hotel rooms paid for by the state. It may not be perfect, but it's not sleeping in a doorway. Most of those on the streets are rough sleepers who are there by choice.
This was pointed out in very blunt language by the Dublin City manager who said that some of those involved in Apollo House were publicity seekers and that Irish people were "suckers for celebrity endorsements."
He said beds were available in the existing homeless hostels right through the Christmas period so there was no need for people to go to Apollo House. On one night recently there were up to 100 empty beds in the existing hostels.
This was supported by an experienced social worker in Dublin who was also unimpressed by the Apollo House action. She pointed out that, although the number does vary, on an average night there are between 100 and 150 people sleeping rough in Dublin. In a city of over a million people that is not a huge number, and proportionally not any worse than cities like London or Paris or New York.
This social worker said that around half of the rough sleepers in Dublin have an alcohol problem, a quarter have a drug problem and the other quarter have mental health problems -- and these categories often overlap so that many rough sleepers have multiple issues.
Caring for them is not simply a matter of offering a bed for the night. It requires complex, continuing involvement by trained staff who are experienced and know what they are doing, like those who work in the hostels provided by both the City Council and the charities supported by the state.
When the truth about hostel bed availability became known, the Apollo House activists switched their story to one about the homeless not wanting to go to the existing hostels because they were unsafe, dormitory-style accommodation. But this is not the full story.
In the last few months the council has spent €5 million refurbishing three of the biggest hostels in the city, which now offer quality beds, good facilities and are staffed by experienced, qualified people. The old-style dormitories are gone and most accommodation now is in two, three or four bedrooms. In most cases clients are no longer required to leave in the morning and there are secure lockers, washing and cooking facilities.
For those who don't like hostels there is also an all night cafe for the homeless where people can sleep on mats on the floor as well as other outreach programs to keep people off the streets.
The bottom line is that no one in Dublin now has to sleep rough on the streets or in doorways, unless they choose to do so. Some do make that choice, and that has to be respected.
The fact is there is very little overlap between rough sleepers and the wider problem of homelessness at the moment in Ireland. That wider problem is a result of the collapse of the construction industry here after the crash, with very few social housing or private homes being built over a number of years. That has caused the present lack of supply, which is driving up both prices and rents again.
When people cannot meet their mortgage or pay the rent they can end up homeless. Finding somewhere new is then very difficult.
In most cases they stay with relatives but in a minority of cases they end up sleeping in a car or even on the street. Such cases are usually identified pretty quickly, especially if there are children involved -- and there is help available.
In a very small minority of cases, some homelessness is contrived, with the aim of being bumped up the housing list. There have been a number of cases of single mothers who declare themselves homeless even though it is clear they could stay with relatives. And this does not stop them complaining to the media about having to live in a hotel room with their children.
One case in an RTE documentary last year featured a single mother with a 10-year-old daughter who was homeless and had been living in a hotel room for a couple of years. In spite of this she had got into university and her case got a lot of attention for that reason. In the documentary she and her daughter talked tearfully about the difficulty of living in one room in a hotel.
But it subsequently emerged that she had been offered two apartments by the council and had turned both down for various reasons. She did not mention that in the documentary.
Some of the stories about rough sleepers that make headlines are also not as simple as they seem. An example of this was the case of the man who was found dead in a doorway within sight of the gates of the Dail, a story that got massive publicity two years ago and led to outraged demands for immediate action on homelessness.
Months later it emerged that the man had died from drugs, not exposure, and that his family had done all they could to help him, including buying him a house which he later had sold.
The overall reality is that the wider homeless crisis here at the moment is due to a lack of supply of homes, either to buy or rent, and there is little the government can do about this in the short-term. The government has intervened with limited rent control, an expanded social housing program and some new help for homebuyers.
The market will eventually come right, but it will take us a few years to catch up because it takes time to build houses. In the meantime we have to manage the situation as best we can, and the happy clappy stuff we have seen from the Apollo House activists does not help because it suggests simplistic solutions that won't work.
The other demand they have made is that more vacant Nama properties should be used to house the homeless. The inconvenient truth is that Nama has offered nearly 7,000 homes to local councils for social housing since 2002, but only around 2,000 have been accepted. There are a variety of reasons for this, including location, the social-private mix now preferred by councils, running costs and so on.
Plus the fact that, as we have seen, some of the homeless can be picky about where they want to live and are not always good at keeping up with rent payments, even though these are very low in social housing.
The Apollo House activists say they now want to turn their movement into a national campaign. Presumably that is why they have decided not to register as a housing charity, even though they have received around €170,000 in donations from the public.
It seems the money will be used for political action, not providing beds for the homeless. They would be better off donating it to the organizations running the existing hostels.