Fr. Peter McVerry was the keynote speaker at Tearfund Ireland’s recent conference on “Poverty and Urbanisation” and a special guest at the Rubicon conference in November. Through the Peter McVerry Trust, he has been responding to the needs of homeless people in Ireland for the last 40 years. Today, he is more concerned than ever before about the growing crisis. Here, VOX Magazine brings a summary of what he had to say at the two conferences:
You cannot love someone who is suffering unnecessarily without being angry with the causes of their suffering. When channelled properly, anger can be productive. We have an enormous homeless problem [in Ireland].
I get angry at the way homeless people are treated. I get angry when we marginalise people and write them off, when we look down on people and tell them they are second-class. For me, love and anger are two sides of the same coin.
When I was 30 years of age, I went to live in the city of Dublin. I became angry at the housing conditions. Kids were leaving school at the age of 12. By the time they got to 16, they were going to prison. I said, “I want to do something about this.”
I began working with homeless people when I came across a nine-year-old kid sleeping on the street. We opened a small hostel for children in the city. One thing led to another. I never planned anything in my life, and I look back and I’ve spent 40 years serving the homeless.
Now we run 14 hostels and have about 130 apartments where we can give a homeless person a key to the door. We have three drug-treatment centres and a drop-in centre.
I’m both a priest and an activist. I’m an activist who sees his role as a priest as central to activism. The link for me between faith and justice is the concept of dignity. Every single human being is a child of God. If I’m not working throughout the week to make that a reality, what I say on Sunday morning is empty words.
Housing is a fundamental right, because without adequate housing, your other fundamental rights are almost impossible to access. For a society, providing housing for a population is one of the core functions of a government.
The homelessness crisis we have today is not primarily due to the recession but to a dysfunctional housing policy. During the Celtic Tiger, the number of homeless people doubled. Today, the crisis is getting worse by the week as a result of reliance on the private sector to provide social housing.
[Things will not change] unless the government makes a conscious decision to invest in housing. How is the government going to house 120,000 families in the next five years?
There is a growing divide between those who own their own home and those for whom owning a home is an unreachable dream. Homelessness is the most extreme and visible consequence of a dysfunctional housing system and rough sleeping is the most extreme and visible example of homelessness.
The outlook for the future suggests a red alert. It is predicted that 25,000 homes will be repossessed over the next 12 months. Five new people are becoming homeless every day. Even more worryingly, the number of families who have become homeless has increased substantially.
In 2013, 20 families a month became homeless. In 2014, that rose to 40 families a month. In the first six months of this year, 60 families a month became homeless and now the numbers are increasing month on month.
Those families are being accommodated in hotel bedrooms. We are dealing with one family: two parents, an 18-year-old, a 16-year-old and three younger children who were all living in a single hotel bedroom with no cooking or laundry facilities. The three younger children have to get two buses to their school, which is on the other side of the city. At times, they have to leave because the hotel is fully booked. The stress on relationships is enormous. The stress on the children is enormous. Focus Ireland has described the situation as a child welfare crisis.
Today, there are 700 families living in hotel bedrooms. That equates to 1500 children living in appalling situations. Other families have put their children into care. One couple was living in their car and the Gardaí were going to take the car away because it did not have its NCT in order. We have a huge problem!
So often, homelessness is accompanied by hopelessness. People see no way out. Some families have been in a hotel bedroom for two years. Other homeless single people are going from hostel to hostel. Many of the people coming to us are in total despair. Some are suicidal.
Landlords are interested in maximising profits. They are not social workers. Putting homeless people into the private rental sector is a recipe for disaster.
In a family, they all share whatever rooms are available to them. Each one of those homeless people is God’s beloved child. No parent wants to see their children living on the streets.
The core value of the Gospel is solidarity. Jesus dreamt of a world where no one would be hungry and not be fed, where no one would be thirsty and not be given a drink, where no one would be naked and not be clothed, where no one would be in hospital and not be visited.
The little that you can do for homeless people means so much to them - I find joy in that. More and more homeless people come in and I can’t solve the problem - even then, they will say “thanks for listening to me” - that gives me joy.
One of the things homeless people have taught me is to be grateful. I continue to receive so very much. God is the giver of the gifts and I’ve received so many gifts.
Too often, the church has proclaimed a God of the law: obey these laws and you’ll be rewarded. Young people are searching for a God of compassion and a God who cares. People were absolutely enthralled by what Jesus said. They did not come to listen to Him laying down laws but because He talked about a God who cared for them. If people are walking away, we have to ask ourselves, what God are we preaching?
Find out more at at www.pmvtrust.ie.