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Fifth Year Runner Up: Alan McLoughlin of St. Mary's CBS, Co.Kerry

The Responsibility of Growth

The concept of responsibility is most significant when dealing with crises. Who will calm the chaos, help the damned, fix the broken? Who gets the blame? Upon typing the word ‘responsible’ into Google, two somewhat conflicting definitions materialised. The first told me that responsibility was the ‘duty to deal with something’. The second involved ‘blame’ and ‘accountability’. Can we assign the duty of providing Irish citizens with shelter to a charity? Are charities culpable for being ill-equipped and underfunded? No. I’m afraid the notion that charities hold the responsibility to single-handedly combat the housing crisis is ludicrous and obscured. Undoubtedly, the relationship between this government and homeless-charities has led to complacency.

Charities act as unified voices for those who suffer and those who are silenced. The idea of charity stems from the purist forms of human kindness. We must, however, face up to the reality that charities run on both good will and money. We must therefore question our approach to funding these non-for-profit organisations.

A review of State-funded homeless agencies, carried out by a consultancy firm commissioned by Environment Minister Alan Kelly, found that government money was not being spent efficiently by such organisations. The report found that 95.9 million euro was allocated to over 75 agencies. The report used data from 2014, and at that time, there was around 5000 people homeless. This means that in 2014 the state spent nearly 20,000 euros per homeless person. Figures for 2015 suggest the state spends upwards of 32,000 euro per homeless person. I am not in any way suggesting that charities are bad or purposefully wasteful. They have simply been overburdened. In the race that is “combating homelessness” the state has passed the baton to these agencies, and so far, they have stumbled towards a distant finish line.

I am not blaming charitable organisations; I simply think that some are ill-equipped in terms of administration to deal with this crisis. The government is throwing money at the symptoms of a larger problem and expecting a cure. This problem, of course, is a lack of available, affordable housing. We have, here, in Ireland, a case of ineffective demand. Consumers are very much willing to buy and rent property, but do not have the necessary purchasing power to do so. The housing market is dysfunctional and imbalanced.

The reason for this lack of supply is in part down to a lack of rental accommodation. Thousands of landlords are leaving and have left the private rental sector. The decline in the number of landlords is connected to the rise in the cost of owning rental property. According to the Irish Independent, “erosion of homeowners rights, the difficulty of getting rid of bad tenants and ever tighter rental regulations”, causes landlords to say goodbye to property-providing.

Another key issue when discussing the supply of housing is the strict rules imposed on lending. The central bank has had to clear out the cage of the Celtic Tiger, and to do so meant tightening mortgage and borrowing regulations. The opinion of many, including those from property-related sectors, is that these rules are choking the market and causing the housing shortage. The view of the government and the central bank is that these rules will continue to stabilize the market. For the near future these rules are going nowhere.

So what will happen in the meantime? The trend of homelessness will continue to grow in Ireland. Landlords will continue to leave and supply will continue to dwindle. The government holds responsibility to enact change and it is time they acted accordingly. Firstly, a decision must be made with regards to homeless charities. The aforementioned report stated the ‘duplication’ of services, amongst other things, was a substantial problem. If the government thinks that they can allocate funds and wash their hands clean of an issue, they are mistaken.

Secondly, Sr. Stanislaus was correct in saying that rent supplements are too low. I agree that a considerable increase is in order. This solution, however, would be short term unless the underlying issue of the housing shortage is addressed. Property-letting is a business and should be treated as such. Many of the landlords, nowadays, who are leaving, don’t have the proper background or expertise to enter the property sector to begin with. The spectacle of the Tiger drew them in. Now the show is over, and many want out. What the industry needs is skilled and proficient entities, individuals or, indeed businesses to provide decent, reliable housing. The government should incentivise such entities and, furthermore, make state-owned sites available for construction. NAMA’s plan to build houses is a strong one, yet like all government institutions, their progress will be undoubtedly hindered. This entire plan, for example, has come under the scrutiny of the European Commission. The government promise of housing may remain a promise for the immediate future, without private establishments competing to provide housing.

I am not so naïve as to think the homelessness crisis is not influenced by other factors. Drugs, unemployment and other social issues have a great impact. No, this crisis is not cut-and-dry supply and demand. I will certainly commend the government on taking steps to reduce their impact. Despite the onslaught of aversion towards the Fine Gael-Labour coalition, unemployment is declining; progress has been made in tackling illegal narcotics and, most importantly, in helping the victims. We can only hope the next government builds on their success.

We all share responsibility, be it blame or duty. Our citizens are homeless; therefore, it is our problem. The government is responsible for not only building houses, but indeed improving every aspect of the market to ensure sustainability. Charities hold the responsibility to be value for money, proactive and resourceful. Now is not the time for blame. When I was researching for this essay, every article or news item was concerned with fault. Solutions, real applicable and realistic solutions, were as scarce as housing itself. We are faced with a challenge, a challenge of responsibility. Are we going use our fingers to point blame or use our hands to lay the foundation of a better society?