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Irish Churches issue call to action on homelessness

Resources launched for church communities

The Irish Inter–Church Meeting has issued a call to action on homelessness and housing insecurity. The organisation, which brings together church leaders from across the island of Ireland, has launched new resources to help people engage with the issues surrounding homelessness and housing insecurity.

The resources were launched yesterday (Wednesday, September 18) in Christ Church, Dun Laoghaire, where the rector, the Revd Ása Bjork Ólafsdóttir, opened the Dining Room to combat social exclusion and isolation in 2014. She, along with retired businessman William Blackall and Fr Peter McVerry of the McVerry Trust, spoke at the launch.

The resources include a Bible study for church groups to promote critical reflection on the factors and attitudes that perpetuate the problems of homelessness and housing insecurity. There is also a prayer and liturgy resource and a list of questions for voters to put to canvassing politicians.

Irish Churches issue call to action on homelessness
Irish Churches issue call to action on homelessness

The tagline for the campaign is ‘In six months a lot can change – When faced with homelessness decisions become more black and white’ and it highlights the traumatic effects that housing insecurity brings to many people and the true value of a home in ensuring a flourishing life.

Almost 10,000 people are homeless in Ireland and living in hotels and emergency accommodation, although Fr Peter McVerry who spoke at the launch estimated this figure to be closer to 15,000 when rough sleepers, sofa surfers, families fleeing domestic violence, and refugees who have been granted asylum but can’t leave direct provision are included. There are about 80,000 households on social housing lists but the government built just 750 social houses in 2017 (compared with 8,500 in 1975). In Northern Ireland, between 2012 and 2017 there was a 32% increase in statutory homelessness and at least 6,000 children in Northern Ireland live in unsuitable, unstable housing.

“This is not just the result of political decisions, but also moral failings. We need to identify the causes and decisions behind the problems and to work together to plot ways towards a more just system where the home as a fundamental requirement for fruitful and fulfilling lives of both individuals and communities is given the priority and resources it deserves,” the Revd Brian Anderson, Co–Chair of the Irish Inter–Church Meeting and President of the Irish Council of Churches, said at the launch. He added that their initiative was intended to complement the existing work of Churches and provide the foundation for a call to action.

William Blackall spoke courageously about his own experience of homelessness. He said that for many the word ‘homeless’ conjured up a vision of people lying on the streets who may have issues with alcohol and drugs. However, he said there was a broader issue with people, like himself, who become homeless due to circumstance. His problems began when the family business collapsed and he sold his house to settle his business debts and found himself homeless.

“I felt isolated and ashamed. I couldn’t contact my friends because I didn’t want to be a burden,” he recalled. He said he had terrific help from doctors, therapists and spiritually as well as from his rector, and said he was extremely important to have someone to talk to and because of this he was still here to tell his tale. However, his friend Peter, who he met in Dun Laoghaire, was not so lucky. He had become homeless following the breakdown of his marriage but had managed to get a job as a gardener. Unfortunately, the owner of the home decided to sell, leaving Peter with the prospect of becoming homeless again and he took his own life. “We have to listen to homeless people. They come from all backgrounds. Homelessness can happen to anyone,” he concluded.

The Revd Ása Bjork Ólafsdóttir read from Matthew 25 and said that this was a fundamental passage for what we as Christians are called to do. She talked about setting up the Dining Room in the parish hall in February 2014 after seeing the amount of rough sleepers in the seemingly affluent area of Dun Laoghaire. She received huge support from neighbouring churches and the wider community and the project has since been taken over by Crosscare.

“What we learned is that it is all about dignity – talking to people and being with people,” she commented. “Working with those less fortunate has made us richer as a church. We know we can’t just walk past [homeless people]. I don’t believe in giving money but I will always talk to people.”

Fr Peter McVerry estimated that there were up to 700,000 people in Ireland for whom their living conditions were causing distress. Rising rents, mortgage arears and young people forced to live with their parents because they cannot afford to move out all contributed to housing insecurity. He said that our perception of homelessness needed to change. Rough sleepers are a visible sign of homelessness but they are in the minority, he said. “The typical homeless person now is someone who does not have the key to their own door because they do not have the money for it,” he stated.

He suggested three things that church communities could do. Firstly, when you meet a homeless person, say hello. “This sounds silly but for a homeless person sitting on the street, when thousands of people pass you by and don’t even look at you, it makes you feel invisible, a non–person. Saying hello means you are treating a homeless person as a human being,” he explained. Secondly he encouraged church communities to fundraise for organisations who work with homelessness. Finally, he stated that homelessness is a political problem which has to be solved politically. He urged people to lobby the government and their TDs to make having a home a fundamental human right.

“The government won’t refer to having a home as a fundamental human right. They call it a fundamental human requirement. This is not semantics. With rights come obligations. We would like to get the right to housing into the Constitution … This would impose an obligation on the government to ensure, over the next 10 to 15 years, that everyone has a home,” he stated. “We as Churches have to see how we can respond to make a difference … We have to rediscover the social dimension of the Gospel.”

The resources are available by contacting the Irish Council of Churches which has hard copies to send out to parishes – contact damian@irishchurches.org

The resource is also available online at www.irishchurches.org/homeless

Report by Lynn Glanville, Communications Officer for Dublin & Glendalough