Gene Kerrigan: ‘Where our children eat from the pavement’

Gene Kerrigan

20 October 2019

Simon Coveney got angry last Thursday, in the Dail. He spoke passionately, emotionally, and with apparent sincerity. This was Coveney at his best, speaking from the heart.

And it was all the more disturbing for being so obviously well-meant. Because there was nothing of substance there.

Coveney’s speech offered not a single word of hope, just the off-the-shelf good intentions we’ve grown used to. And more of the same remedies that have brought us to where we are.

And where we are is an obscene place. Coveney’s speech came after the notorious image appeared online and in the media of “Sam” – the five-year-old, sitting with his back to the camera on a Dublin pavement, with a sheet of cardboard on the ground in front of him. The cardboard is his table, from which he is eating a pasta meal.

The photo was taken by one of the volunteers who provide food to the poor. Sam’s mother is a young woman in emergency accommodation, where she is forbidden to cook for her child.

“We live in a country that does not accept this,” Coveney told the Dail last Thursday. This is not true.

We quite clearly do accept such obscenities, and have been accepting them for some time.

There was nothing in the rest of what Coveney said that suggested he or his government will end the obscenity.

We are a country where children eat their food off the pavement, food donated by volunteers.

There’s a phrase often uttered about such circumstances. It says: “We are better than this”.

But we’re not.

Walk up Grafton Street late in the evening, as the homeless seek shelter in doorways, and you will see who we have become.

Watch the homeless queue for food at College Green, or at the GPO, and see who we have become.

And we will remain what we have become, unless we do something about it.

Last Thursday, Simon Coveney – a former Minister for Housing, speaking as Tanaiste – offered not even a suggestion that the Government would know what change might look like.

We are in the middle of a property frenzy. Individuals and companies, some Irish, some from abroad, scramble to reap huge profits. They openly boast of pulling in easy money.

We already had a homeless problem that the politicians were unable to reduce. The property frenzy made it worse.

Apartments and houses are snapped up by the wealthy, as buy-to-let investments. This pushes up the price of accommodation, so that others can’t buy.

And when the rich put this accommodation on the rental market, the new owners are free to jack up the rents again and again.

Oh, but there are “rent pressure zones”, rules that…

Really? We have a history in this country of putting legislation in place without the infrastructure to enforce it.

Your accommodation crisis is my investment opportunity.

People work hard, they live honestly, they ask for nothing but the right to raise their children in decent surroundings.

But in the scramble to profit from a crisis, some innocents are run off the road. For a night or a month, or for some unimaginable stretch of the future, they find themselves pushed out of the market, on the streets, spinning in disbelief, desperate for shelter.

Those of us who have homes cannot imagine the fear, the desperation that is the nightly lot of those in that position.

Why me? Why us?

Who gets pushed out, and who doesn’t, depends on your stage of life, your income, your supports and a range of random circumstances.

And, no matter how caring or hardworking you may be, to have children in such circumstances must bring an unwarranted but inevitable sense of guilt. The responsibility must be crushing.

There is a housing emergency. But there are no emergency measures, beyond inadequate emergency accommodation. And that is mostly provided by throwing immense amounts of public money at the private sector. Where is the rent freeze; the emergency taxes on the beneficiaries of the crisis; the clampdown on profiteering? Where is the emergency building programme?

There was a time in this country, from the 1930s onward, when an emergency was an emergency. Conservative politicians, some of them quite primitive in their beliefs, recognised the emergency and acted on it. It was when the great estates that underwrote the workforce, and generated growth and prosperity, were built.

Today, our sophisticated, well educated leaders believe their job is to do no more than tweak “the market”. They create “incentives” in the hope rich investors will respond responsibly.

In the Dail last Thursday, Coveney pointed out that the budget for homeless services has gone up significantly. Yes, that’s the budget for keeping things ticking over.

Help-to-buy, rent pressure zones and other tweaks, including subsidised renting, have sent hundreds of millions into the pockets of the private sector gamblers who control the housing supply. To do more would be to interfere with the market, and that’s not allowed.

It’s an ideological position. It’s also a deep, personal belief.

And there is no argument, no amount of evidence that could convince Coveney or Varadkar, Murphy or Donohoe to act other than as they have so ineffectually acted. Like Stalinists from the 1930s or Maoists from the 1960s, their beliefs are not open to argument.

Last Thursday, dealing with the plight of a child, obviously moved and caring, Coveney could do nothing but mouth platitudes.

“It makes me angry that the supports being put in place are not succeeding,” he said. As though the supports haven’t failed again and again, year after year. As if responsibility for that failure lies with some unidentifiable persons somewhere beneath him in the hierarchy.

We will end this, he said, but “that cannot be done overnight”.

He and his mates have been in government for eight years, and the problem has been growing all that time.

The ruling parties – Fine Gael and Fianna Fail – take turns to ride in state cars, but are essentially two wings of the same party. They both worship at the Church of the Magic Market, and they enjoy over 50pc support.

To support either is to knowingly buttress an ideology that makes a small number immensely rich, makes the professional classes very well off, and consigns a great number to struggle.

And to accept as normal that there are thousands who must suffer the whims of the market, some of whom must watch their kids eat off the pavement.

Yesterday, Novas, a Limerick-based homeless support group, reported that they come across children who “are struggling to chew and swallow… In hotels, families have no access to cooking, refrigeration or storage facilities, so they cannot cook or prepare lunches… mums and dads haven’t been able to prepare proper food when they’re living in hotels, so the children are still on pureed food in pouches, at two and three years of age, because it doesn’t perish the same way fresh food does”.

In addition, in cramped accommodation “children are finding it difficult to learn to crawl and learn to walk”.

There are also, of course, emotional problems caused by insecurity and anxiety, due to “not knowing where they are going to sleep from night to night”.

We are better than this?

No, sorry, I think this is precisely what we have become – the country where children eat from the pavement.