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Ireland’s homeless have a right to be angry at our response to Ukraine

The following is the full text of a short email Gript received last week, from a reader. I’m publishing it here, but removing the sender’s name to protect her privacy:

I’m 37 years old, 14 year old son. I’m homeless, have been for 3 weeks now, staying on the couch of a relative. I’ve paid tax in this country for 22 years,same job since I was 17, even worked after my daughter died in 2014. My local td told me to leave my son with a relative and go in to emergency accommodation which is not an option,the council told me to come back in 2027.

I am one of many, we are tired, we are defeated hearing the news that thousands of foreign nationals will be housed and looked after before us. Obviously some people need help but this is so unfair.

In times of major international crisis, emails like this, and complaints like this, tend to get dismissed, for some reason, as selfish. After all, we’re all caught up in the violence and misery being inflicted on the people of Ukraine. Nobody in Ireland, for all the problems in this country, is in any imminent danger of seeing their home, or their town, demolished by artillery fire, or having their town besieged and cut off from the power supply, or the water supply, like the citizens of Mariopol.

But is this woman’s complaint, and her frustration, not valid? Ireland has – magnificently – mobilised in the last few days to accept a number of refugees which, according to our most excitable politicians, may ultimately reach 100,000 people. All of those people will need roofs, and schools, and clothes, and assistance into jobs, and language teaching, and financial support to live here. It is understandable, and right, that we would try to offer it.

It is not, however, unfair to ask why we cannot do the same for our own people.

It is true to say that there are some homeless people in Ireland for whom help is difficult to offer. These are the cases cryptically referred to as “complex” by our hundreds of housing charities, and they tend to involve people with psychological problems, addictions, and all the rest. Perhaps those cases – the complex ones – form a disproportionate part of our sense of who Irish homeless people are. Perhaps it is because of this that there’s a kind of unspoken national attitude that “these people can’t be helped”.

But the lady above does not fall into that category. She’s just one of the thousands of Irish people who face an impossible mathematical equation: How to make a low income stretch to pay for the welfare of a child, food, clothing, heat, and also rent. She is not a victim of her own choices, but a victim of the ever-increasing cost of living, left sleeping on the couch of a relative.

The response to the Ukrainian crisis does tend to demonstrate that when it comes to helping people like the lady above, the problem is not one of resources, but political will. And of course, political will does not come from politicians: It comes from the electorate. In the case of Ukraine, it should be noted that politicians moving heaven and earth to bring refugees here have the full support of a clear majority of the public who feel that it is our solemn duty to provide humanitarian assistance. In the case of the homeless, let’s also be honest: Politicians simply do not have sustained pressure from the public to solve the problem.

Part of that, at least, comes from a wider cultural problem in Ireland about our attitudes to those who struggle. Acres of coverage, over the years, has been devoted to Ireland’s attitudes in decades past to single mothers and fallen women and children born out of wedlock. That coverage tends, in general, to depict a cruel and heartless country which was content to consign people to abuse and misery. That is, of course, inaccurate: It would be much truer to say that we were content for the church to deal with “charity cases” and to not think much more about them. There have always been – and perhaps always will be – two distinct categories of people in need of help in the public mind: The deserving, and the undeserving.

In this case, the Ukrainians are widely seen as the deserving poor. This terrible thing has been done to them, and they had no control over the outcome. Our own homeless, by contrast, are often cruelly regarded as the undeserving poor: People who have ended up in a bad place as a result of their own choices. Sure, we’ll pay lip service and demand that politicians “do something”, but there’s no feel-good moment to be had from a truly national effort to address their problems.

Isn’t it remarkable, really? We are, as a people, willing to make ourselves poorer to help Ukraine. There is (as there should be, lest I be misunderstood) a willingness to mobilise on a national scale. But to help those in need here at home, there is nothing like the same level of public engagement.

Perhaps it is just a human failing: After all, we see the same pattern in the UK. Outrage at Boris Johnson’s Government for a perceived laxity in processing Ukrainian refugee applications, but little comment at the surprisingly large number of Britons who live in relative poverty, and could be helped.

What it comes down to, in the end, is how helping makes us feel: Helping Ukrainians makes us feel good and righteous and as if we are making a big difference in the world, banding together in a global effort to defeat the Russians. Helping our own, by contrast, just feels like a bit of a chore. That’s what it comes down to, when we think about it, isn’t it? And that’s why, at a time like this, voices like that of the lady who emailed me last week get shouted down.

 

 

 

 

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