I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
"We have a low level of homelessness compared to our peer countries", according to our Taoiseach. That has no factual basis whatsoever. "It is damaging to Ireland's international reputation that our social response to the housing crisis is being portrayed as dysfunctional", according to the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy English. "When somebody becomes homeless, it does not happen overnight. It takes years of bad behaviour, probably", according to Eileen Gleeson, director of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive. "Homelessness is a dreadful thing, but it is a normal thing. It happens", according to Conor Skehan, chair of the Housing Agency.
Last week was a bad week for the Government on the issues of homelessness and the housing crisis. We saw an insidious, conscious campaign to normalise homelessness and to blame the victims of the housing crisis. The message clearly went out, from the top of Government, to set free the Fine Gael within. This happened. The callous, Dickensian approach of Fine Gael to those who are the victims of the housing crisis and those who are homeless was on full display. It was hard to conceive that it could get any worse, but it has. On the very day that record homeless-rough sleeper figures are released - 184 people, which is clearly an understatement - the Government is set to oppose our Bill. It is a simple Bill, which would mean that planning permission will be required for anti-homeless devices such as spikes, bars and sprinkler systems designed to discourage homeless people from seeking some shelter. It is a Bill which would allow local councils effectively to ban such devices through local development plans. I am awaiting the Government's reasoning for opposing such a basic, simple measure. Fundamentally, the Government has to decide if it is in favour of these anti-homeless devices. Is it in favour of sending a message to homeless people that they are not welcome and that they should move on? Is it in favour of making it even more difficult for rough sleepers to find some shelter from the elements that we have seen in recent days? That is what the Government's vote, and the vote of Fianna Fáil, will represent if they take that step, as I believe they will.
There has been a proliferation of these devices around our cities, and, shamefully, leading the charge was the Department of Social Protection, as it was known, under the then Minister, Deputy Joan Burton, which has perhaps 50 bars in front of Gandon House, across the road from Connolly Station, to prevent rough sleepers from sleeping or resting outside that public building. People walking around will see them in Henry Street, Grafton Street, O'Connell Street, Temple Bar and right across Dublin city, and in towns and cities around the country. The approach that lies behind them could sum up the approach and the attitude of the Government, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, which appears to be see no homeless, hear no homeless, help no homeless.
The way we are heading with these devices was demonstrated last week by Waterways Ireland, which gave a written notice to quit to homeless people, with nowhere else to stay, who were living in tents along the banks of the canal.
It then proceeded to flood the area, literally to force them on their way. Waterford Whispers News captured it perfectly: "Government Unveil New 'Homeless Plough' To Clear Streets During Winter". If only it was just a joke and not close to the truth of the approach this Government is taking. We are heading in the direction of cities in America like Seattle, which have homeless sweeps of areas of the city where there are homeless people and sweep them out of the way on a regular basis in order that people do not have to see them, despite the fact that people protest and mobilise against these actions. That is the approach this Government is driving towards and which is encapsulated by opposing this Bill.
I presume the Government will disingenuously ask: "Sure, is this the best that Solidarity can offer people sleeping on the sides of public buildings?" Obviously, it is not but in the past couple of weeks we have heard from homeless people, and from people active in fighting against homelessness, about the insufficient number of shelters, people only being able to access sleeping bags and the many people who do not want to go into emergency accommodation because of the difficult conditions in such places, especially in the form of drug use.
We put this Bill forward to deal with one part of a huge housing crisis that affects most people in this State in some way or another. The profit-driven property market, the refusal of the Government and councils to build public homes and the absence of real rent controls have meant most people have been forced down at least one rung of the so-called property ladder. Those who previously would have bought homes now cannot afford them and only the top 15% of earners can get mortgages to enable them to buy homes. Instead, they rent. Those who previously rented now cannot afford to do so because, to be able to rent a one-bed apartment in this city on an affordable basis, a person needs to be on a salary of €42,000, which is quite a bit above the average. The 500,000 young people in this category are trapped at home or forced into substandard accommodation like bedsits. Those who cannot afford rent for bedsits or substandard accommodation, such as low-paid workers, are forced into emergency accommodation. Right at the bottom rung in terms of the impact of this crisis are those who have been kicked off the ladder entirely, those 184 people who we have now heard are rough sleeping in Dublin.
We are concerned with the whole ladder and the whole of society. Tony Benn once said, "The way a government treats refugees is very instructive because it shows how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it." The same is true for how the Government treats rough sleepers and homeless people generally. It is also true of how this Government and previous Governments have treated Travellers, such as with the 90% cut in the accommodation budget in the course of the crisis, and refugees and asylum seekers in the open prisons of direct provision.
If people are being pushed down the ladder, there is another side where people are going up the ladder. There are 15,000 extra dollar millionaires in this country compared with last year and 63% of homes that have been bought in the past few years were bought by cash buyers, which include vulture funds and rich individuals. Cairn Homes owns 20% of residential land in Dublin and could build 12,000 homes but, instead, built just 94 in the course of 2017. Stephen Kinsella put it well in The Sunday Business Post at the weekend, writing that property owners were the people quietly benefiting from a crisis experienced by the young and the poor. He said our shortage was in housing and the result was misery for the poorest and happiness for the wealthy. Karl Marx put it more dramatically in Das Kapital: "Accumulation of wealth at one pole is ... at the same time accumulation of misery ... at the opposite pole".
There are winners and losers from this housing crisis. The winners are the vulture funds, the big landlords and the developers the Government represents and the losers are everyone else - the rough sleepers, those in emergency accommodation, those facing unaffordable rent rises, those facing evictions and those who cannot afford to buy a home. The Government is callously indifferent to the need of all those people for a home and it repeatedly puts the right to profit of the winners before the rights of the others to a home. Fundamentally the Government does it, in the words of the Minister, because of its neoliberal ideology which means an absence of money and resources to build public homes. Figures this week show the incredible situation that councils have landbanks on which 38,000 homes could be built but that, since 2016, just over 1,000 have been built, between direct council homes and housing associations. In the four Dublin local authorities, with a combined waiting list of 33,000 families, just ten homes have been built this year.
The answer is quite simple. As a small step, pass this Bill tomorrow, implement a Housing First strategy and recognise that the only solution to homelessness is for people to have homes. Build public homes, council and affordable homes, on a massive scale on public land to resolve this crisis.