Changing our minds about homelessness

Stephen reflects on the normalisation of a certain media portrayal of ‘home ownership’, and the implications for thinking about the crisis of homelessness in Ireland and the UK.

It is one year since Home Sweet Home campaigners took over Apollo House in Dublin to provide food and shelter to 40 of the city’s homeless, an occupation that last from16 December, over the Christmas period, right up until the Dublin High Court evicted them on 11 January 2017.

The NAMA-owned Apollo House is due for demolition but Home Sweet Homes’ act of compassion and defiance continues to resonate, not least for its profound symbolic importance, bringing the issue of homelessness and the housing crisis in Ireland into sharp focus. But also politically, it showed what is possible where there is a will, while on a purely practical level, we can surmise that it saved at least someone’s life who might otherwise have died on the cold streets of the Irish capital over the festive period. RTE reports that 14 people died in Ireland between 31 August and 6 December this year.

Yet Ireland’s housing crisis goes on unabated with over 8000 people homeless in the south of Ireland. In the north the number of homeless has risen by 32 per cent in the last five years, with nearly 12,000 households – individuals and families –  accepted as homeless. Across Britain, 300,000 people – the equivalent to one in every 200 – are officially recorded as homeless or living in inadequate homes, according the charity Shelter.

These figures are alarming enough but they merely belie stories of personal distress and family hardship. They stand as a measure of systemic failure rooted in an infuriating adherence to free-market economics, underscored by a set of ideological, cultural assumptions about home ownership that Ireland and the UK articulate separately, and which posits home ownership as an essential national characteristic.

Conor McCabe draws attention to the myth that owner-occupancy is somehow in the ‘Irish gene’; an innate part of the Irish character because of a history of plantation, land wars and famine. In his book, Sins of the Father: The Decisions That Shaped the Irish Economy, McCabe argues that it was in fact the privatisation of urban public housing throughout the 1960s and 70s that pushed forward home ownership, with public ownership becoming a ‘byword for poverty and violence’ (2013: p 58)

There was nothing politically benign about the push for owner occupancy. In 1952, James Tunney, a Labour Party senator, told Dublin County Council, ‘I am a firm believer in private ownership, because it makes for better citizens, and there is no greater barrier against communism’ (quoted in McCabe, 2013, p 29). Such sentiments were echoed five years later by the Bishop of Cork, the Most Reverend Dr Cornelius Lucy, who encouraged the conversion of the country to property ownership to ‘prevent social unrest’ and ‘revolutionary change’ (ibid: p 30).

The UK in the 1980s home ownership was framed as the duty of all good patriots, loving parents and free citizens. The Conservative government’s environment ministered at the time, Michael Heseltine, was a cheerleader for the ‘right to buy’ Housing Act of 1980:

There is in this country a deeply ingrained desire for home ownership. The Government believe that this spirit should be fostered. It reflects the wishes of the people, ensures the wide spread of wealth through society, encourages a personal desire to improve and modernize one’s own home, enables parents to accrue wealth for their children and stimulates the attitudes of independence and self-reliance that are the bedrock of a free society.

The media’s response to this new domestic dispensation has been a proliferation over the last 37 years of house buying, DIY home improvement and domestic lifestyle programmes, such as Location, Location, Location, Grand Designs, Room For Improvement, DIY SOS, and many television series dedicated to cooking and entertaining at home, fronted by the likes of Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson. At last count, Channel Four had twelve ‘property programmes’ and last year it was reported that it is threatening more.

On the one hand, we might see these shows as trivial entertainment, but on the other, their sheer ubiquity has normalised home ownership. At the same time the melodramatic structure of property shows, with their emotional highs and lows in the quest to build, find and improve, portrays the home as the fulfilment of desire; an achievement of the deserving, not the of the right of every human. And if there are people who are deserving of a home then there are by implication others who are not so.

The home is viewed as a measure of our moral value – residence of the conscientious and meritorious domestic citizen. The parade of home owners on our screens, coupled with the omnipresence of advertisements that seek to inspire copious, conspicuous domestic consumption, renders homelessness a mere aberration in an otherwise glossy parade of new builds, well appointed interiors, fitted kitchens and conservatories.

Changing housing policy will require a change in how we think about homes and homelessness. For at the moment the lack of political conviction to tackle the housing crisis finds its cultural corollary in the plethora of banal forms of light entertainment that validate home ownership.

How can we tolerate people dying for want of a roof over their head? Maybe it’s because we have been encouraged to see the home as an extension of the self; a state of nature; a measure of moral superiority. In which case the homeless are easily reduced to the abject, inferiorised, eccentric objects of charity or contempt.

Stephen Baker

11 December 2017