Homelessness in Ireland is at crisis point, and the vitriol shown towards homeless people is just as shocking

It would be difficult not to capture someone homeless if you took a picture more or less anywhere in Dublin city centre. 

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Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was on the campaign trail for the upcoming elections when he offered his hand to Tadhg McMahon, a charity worker for Homeless Help and Support Cork. But in light of the Varadkar government’s appalling record on homelessness, McMahon refused to grant him a handshake.

Homelessness has haunted Varadkar these past weeks. A picture of him grinning in Dublin’s city centre captured a homeless person sitting a few feet away, looking over at the cameras through his hands. Of course, it would be difficult not to capture someone homeless if you took a picture more or less anywhere in Dublin city centre. 

Micheál Martin, leader of the Fianna Fáil party, has accurately accused Varadkar of allowing homelessness in Ireland to increase by 60 per cent since the last government was formed. This is an election where people are increasingly sick of both establishment parties. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are divided by history but are today almost indistinguishable in their centre-right stance, and derided for their failures in health care and housing. Sinn Féin has gained in the polls.

The Irish housing crisis has been a commonly discussed national topic for years, but lately the conversation has taken on new urgency: perhaps because, in January, a number of incidents too grim to ignore took place in quick succession in the capital. A woman in her twenties died in emergency accommodation. A photograph of a homeless elderly woman eating from a bowl on a window sill on the street went viral after the volunteer group Homeless Street Cafe posted it to Facebook, describing its work as “a plaster… on what is just a horrific wound”. And, in an incident so depressing and telling it seems almost farcical, a homeless man was left with life-changing injuries after the tent he was sleeping inside was cleared by a Dublin City Council vehicle with a mechanical claw during a clean-up operation.

Concerns around this crisis have also peaked as 4,000 children in the country are now thought to be homeless: the idea of homeless children sparks particular outrage from the public. It is perfectly understandable why. But I also believe that Ireland must readdress attitudes towards the other, less immediately sympathetic kind of homelessness. 

The official figure of Ireland’s homeless wavers around 10,000, but experts say the actual number is far higher (this statistic does not include the “hidden homeless”, or those in squats or women’s shelters). When I lived in Dublin, I was shocked by just how many people spoke about the homeless people they walked past every day with disdain. Of course, many kind people live in Dublin, who help whenever possible, but many more are not just unmoved by but actively vitriolic towards the homeless. 

I see this as being related to the casual hatred directed at the addicts who are visible in the city centre. Otherwise superficially liberal people will happily rail against “junkie scum”. Comfortable office workers sigh and roll their eyes when asked for change outside a pub, as though this minor interruption compares in hardship to the need to ask for it. 

Perhaps many people find it psychologically necessary to dehumanise the homeless. If we believed they were like you and me, surely the aspirational capitalism we’re spoon-fed by the likes of Varadkar would no longer be our guiding ethos? The Irish are encouraged to perceive our historical penury as an aberration, and the Celtic Tiger boom era as the natural state of affairs. The recession that followed is astonishingly easily forgotten, hushed by insistent, grinning assurances that we can have it all, that we’re on the up. Anything is possible with hard work, pull up your socks. And if that’s true, then it follows the homeless people who make up so much of Dublin’s landscape just aren’t trying hard enough. Maybe they even want to be where they are, because don’t you always get what you want in our brave new world, as long as you want it badly enough? 

Varadkar is practised in manipulating the impulse of ordinary people to identify with their oppressors rather than their peers. “It’s a group of people who often feel that they contribute a lot to the economy and a lot to society, but maybe they don’t get as much back for it as they should,” Varadkar has said of the middle class. He once claimed on the TV show Tonight with Vincent Browne that 70 per cent of Irish people describe themselves as middle class. When reasonably asked to justify the figure he had pulled out of his backside, he changed course and said that 60 per cent of those polled aligned themselves with his party’s aim of representing “people who get up early in the morning”, and that he was also addressing those on the minimum wage and low pay. 

It’s a wonderful sleight of hand – anyone who is middle class works hard, anyone who works hard is middle class. No wonder most people can barely stand to look at the homeless population they have to step over while hurrying to work. Surely if regarded too closely, with too much humanity, they would reveal Varadkar’s fictions. 

How else could we go on believing that Ireland is bright eyed and brand new, the success story of Europe, the counter to Brexit and Trump and all the nastiness that happens over the water? 

It’s a lovely dream, that we’re better than everyone now, having been looked down on for so long. But it is a dream, and a dream it will remain, so long as we continue to eat up the fantasy. The social justice gains made in our referenda on gay marriage and abortion rights in recent years were meaningful and joyous. But they don’t change the fact that Ireland has been poisoned with the same grasping, solipsistic greed that its neighbours are dying from.

Ailbhe Rea reports from Dublin

Megan Nolan is a writer of essays, criticism and fiction born in Ireland and based in London. She writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 07 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Europe after Brexit