Fr. Peter McVerry on Homelessness and Capitalism
In an interview last weekend that attracted considerable media attention Fr. Peter McVerry warned of a “tsunami” of homelessness coming down the line in Ireland. The problem, he said, had “never [been] so bad” with at least six people being made homeless every day amid a record-low level of social housing construction and sky-rocketing rents. And it was likely to get worse.
Unsurprisingly, given their commitment to resurrecting an economy with property speculation firmly at its core, Fine Gael and Labour have continued Fianna Fáil’s policy of sacrificing housing to the market. The performance of the Labour Party is worthy of particular attention. The failure of a Labour housing minister to build anywhere near the level of social housing our own state recognises it needs is scandalous. There has been a 92% drop in the number of social housing units constructed since 2007 – when it was already insufficient – and Jan O’Sullivan plans to build just 700 more in the coming years despite 90,000 families being on housing waiting lists.
Add to this Minister Joan Burton’s insistence on the Week in Politics that the solution to the problem is to put more money in the pockets of private developers, and her department’s insistence that they will not even restore rent allowance to the level they cut it from to help people afford runaway rents and you get a picture of a party that just does not care that people are going homeless to prop up private profits. Remember, eighteen months ago this government was warned in no uncertain terms that these cuts would force people into homelessness. And they have done nothing to stop it. Rather, as Fr. McVerry says, they have spent their time “blaming the poor for being poor”.
In his interview Fr. McVerry lamented the failure of domestic policy to challenge the primacy of the market in housing provision, but he also did something more significant. In a move that was less remarked upon by the press he contextualised Ireland’s housing crisis within the context of an ideology and politics “imposed on us… by the global capitalist system.” This is an important contribution to public discourse that should be noted and expanded upon by the Left, particularly because his identification of globalisation as the motor engine of a race to the bottom is key – it is the dynamic we have to overcome if we are to build a socialist alternative.
Below I transcribe excerpts from his interview on Sunday with Miriam, beginning with the Irish housing crisis and ending with a discussion of capitalism.
Miriam O’Callaghan: Good morning Peter, you’re very welcome. I wanted to talk to you today because the situation right now in terms of homelessness is at crisis level, you feel, isn’t it?
Fr. Peter McVerry, S.J.: In all the years I have been working with homeless people it has never been so bad. We are, I would say, beyond crisis at this stage. There are six new people becoming homeless every day. Those are the official figures, it may be more than that. And the difficulty is that there is no exit out of homelessness any longer. The two traditional exits out of homelessness were, first, into social housing – but there is a dearth of social housing, the building of social housing dropped dramatically during the Celtic Tiger years and has never been recommenced; the other exit was into the private rented sector – but certainly in the cities, and particularly in Dublin, that’s out of reach now for homeless people because the rents are escalating, they are going through the roof, and the demand for rented accommodation far exceeds supply.
Not only can homeless people not get into rented accommodation but people already in rented accommodation are losing it because the landlord is coming along and saying, “the rent next month is going up by two or three hundred euros.” If you’re on social welfare that’s €50 per week, you can’t pay that. Rent supplement isn’t going to increase to allow you to pay that. So people in rented accommodation are losing their accommodation and becoming homeless.
MOC: Do you ever, therefore, despair that it’s forty years since you started out becoming a champion for the homeless, and forty years on you’re telling me it’s worse than you’ve ever known in?
PMV: It’s frustrating. I don’t despair because you have to keep going and often the little you can do for homeless people means so much to them. But it’s very, very frustrating. I now am in the situation, probably for the first time, where lots of homeless people are coming to me and saying, “look, I have nowhere to sleep, I was left out to sleep on the streets the last three nights because there were no beds, can you do anything for me?” And I’m saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t do anything for you. There are no beds.”
The typical image we have of homeless people are drug users or alcoholics or people with mental health problems. The new homeless people are ordinary people like the rest of us. For example, we had two young people – nineteen and twenty-one – who had left home because of their father’s violence, neither of them drank or used drugs or smoked, they both had Leaving Certificates, they went to get accommodation and were told, “sorry, there are no beds, here’s a sleeping bag” and were sleeping in a railway station. We rescued them and managed to squeeze them in somewhere into our accommodation but that’s the new profile of homeless people: ordinary people who just have no accommodation available and can’t access accommodation because they just don’t have the money.
The other typical homeless group now are families. Again I had a phone call at half-ten at night a couple of weeks ago, a mother was saying “I’m sitting here on a park bench with my three children and I’m told there’s no accommodation for me.” It has never been like that before. In all the years that I have been working it has never, never been so bad. And while we now have a crisis, I believe, of homelessness there’s a tsunami of homelessness coming down the road. There are expected to be up to 35,000 home repossessions over the next few years. That means the banks are taking over the houses and 35,000 families are going to be out on the street looking for accommodation. There are also 40,000 buy-to-let mortgages in arrears. The banks are going to repossess a number of those at least and the tenants are going to be turfed out because the banks don’t want to become landlords, they just want empty possessions so they can sell the houses and get some of their money back.
The tragedy is there are no exits out of it. There’s a dam at the end of the river and this torrent of water is coming down, and there’s no way out. I think it’s quite frightening. And ultimately, I think – because of the changed nature of homelessness, these are ordinary people who will vote and their families will vote – I think this whole issue of housing and homelessness could actually bring this government down.
MOC: How do you explain though, both to them [homeless people] and yourself, and you are a man of God and a Jesuit, how unfair this world is? If God is so good, why is the world such an unfair place?
PMV: That’s a deep theological question. I think we are made free. We’re free to love. Nobody wants to be loved by a robot. God had only two choices: he could make us robots programmed to love – but who wants to be loved by someone programmed to love? – or he could give us freedom to love. And, of course, if you give someone freedom to love then automatically they have freedom not to love. The pain in the world is caused not by God but by us and by spirituality God is asking each and every one us us to try to undo that unfairness, to take that responsibility, to reach out to people who have had a bad deal in life, to people who are suffering and on the margins, to try to change things for them. That’s the responsibility I feel and I believe that’s what God is asking of me.
MOC: But do you rail then against a system in western Europe that is becoming a more unequal society?
PMV: Absolutely. I really despair for the future very often. I think we are becoming a much more unequal society. We are blaming those who are poor for being poor. The values we live by are predominantly, it seems to me, imposed on us by the economy, by the global capitalist economy and that economy demands that governments and countries support big business. So that in Ireland if you had a left-wing government who were really concerned about the poor and were going to put money into the poor, big business would see Ireland as a country that was not favourable to investments and would disappear somewhere else. So really, I think, in this global capitalist economy governments are trapped. They have got to bow to big business or else they will go somewhere else. And that means that the poor are going to be even further marginalised into the future.