VIEW editor Brian Pelan talks to the veteran homelessness campaigner and Jesuit priest Fr Peter McVerry at his home in Ballymun, Dublin
The sun has decided to make a rare appearance as I stroll through the vast Ballymun housing estate in Dublin. Quite a few families are sitting outside their front doors enjoying the heat as a few helmeted teenagers speed past me on their scrambler bikes. I’m on my way to visit the veteran homelessness campaigner and Jesuit priest Fr Peter McVerry who has been living in the area since 1980. Before moving to Ballymun he lived in a tenement flat in Summerhill in the inner Dublin area.
“If you live a middle-class lifestyle you can only administer to middle-class people,” said Fr McVerry. “I think you have to live amongst the people you are going to be working with. I want to stay here. My next move will be into a nursing home.”
His living room is full of books, papers and dog treats for his Jack Russell called Tiny. My first question to him was about the housing crisis in the Republic?
“It’s been a housing crisis for years,” replied Fr McVerry. “I would say that it’s out of control now. I think that coming down the line is a catastrophe.
“The catastrophe is that there are about 40,000 mortgages which are in arrears of more than two years. 28,000 of them are owner-occupied and about 12,000 of them are landlords’ mortgages. The Central Bank estimates that at least half of them are going to be repossessed. If even a fraction of those who are evicted become homeless then this country won’t be able to cope.
“You are going to see families living on the street. You are going to see families sleeping in police stations and in parks. We have our head in our hands and nobody is talking about it.
“The only alternative to the Government’s housing policy is to build social housing. But they don’t want to build social housing now. The government claim that when you put a lot of people on low incomes together you create a ghetto and that causes problems.
“I would argue that doesn’t cause problems. What causes problems is concentrating a lot of low-income families together with few services. When they built Ballymun for around 16,000 people there was just one swimming pool for teenage kids to use. Of course, you’re going to have problems.
“They’re building some social housing here and there, but they don’t want to build mass social housing. In 1975 the Republic of Ireland built 8,500 council houses. In 1985, when we had a recession, we still built 6,900 council houses.”
And what about now? I asked him.
“In 2015 this country built 75 council houses. In 2016 it built 264 council houses. It’s nowhere near what we need to address the housing and homelessness crisis in this country.”
I asked Peter McVerry if he was in charge of housing and had a cheque book in front of him, what would he do to address the situation?
“Firstly, we got to go back to rebuilding. Relying on the private sector has failed. The only alternative is government owned and controlled housing. We have to go back to providing social housing on the same scale as we did in the 1970s and 1980s. We need to build 7,000 to 10,000 council houses every year.
“Also every town and every street in Ireland has empty houses and empty apartments. It’s obscene to have an empty house in the middle of a housing crisis. The government has given grants to the owners to bring them back into use but only a few hundred owners have accepted grants and done it.
“I would say to the owners that we’ll give you the grants but if you can’t do it we are going to compulsorily purchase it. The census in 2016 identified 186,000 permanently empty, boarded up houses.
“There is another issue, apart from housing those who are homeless and on the social housing waiting list, is how do we prevent more and more people becoming homeless? Because until we stop that flow into homelessness, trying to house homeless people and people on the housing waiting list is like trying to empty the bath water with the taps full on. We have to stop that flow. Where are these people coming from? They are coming from the private rented sector. The vast majority of them are getting evicted. Rents are too high but the biggest cause of evictions is the landlord saying they are selling the house.
“My proposal is that for three years, to deal with this emergency, it would be illegal for landlords or banks to evict people into homelessness.”
The Peter McVerry Trust (a charity set up by Fr Peter McVerry to reduce homelessness and the harm caused by drug misuse and social disadvantage) has around 300 to 350 houses and apartments in total. “It’s a drop in the ocean,” he said.
Fr McVerry’s final words to me are sombre and pessimistic. “I see no signs that this housing catastrophe is going to be averted.”