The housing crisis is a really a capitalist crisis. There are enough housing units for everyone multiple times over. Joe Conlon surveys the Irish housing movement and asks whether squatting is a short-term solution.
“Ours is a society in which, in every field, one group of people makes decisions, exercise control, limits choices, while the great majority have to accept these decisions, submit to this control and act within the limits of these externally imposed choices. Nowhere is this more evident than in the field of housing: one of those basic human needs which throughout history and all over the world people have satisfied as well as they could for themselves, using the materials what were at hand and their own, and their neighbors labor. The marvelously resourceful anonymous vernacular architecture of every part of the globe is a testimony to their skill, using timber, straw, grass, leaves, hides, stone, clay, bone, earth, mud sand even snow. Consider the igloo: maximum enclosure of space with minimum of labor. Cost of materials and transportation, nil. And all made of water. Nowadays, of course, the Eskimos live on welfare handouts in little northern slums. Man, as Habraken says “no longer houses himself: he is housed” – Colin Ward
The “housing crisis” we hear about so often in the media is a lie. Capitalism is the crisis; the housing problem is but one side effect of this cancerous system. The housing problem is getting worse and worse. People are forced to live in crappy cramped bed sits, cheap near-condemned B&Bs, live in uncertain rental accommodation, and some are living in a state of limbo in hostels waiting on housing lists (some aren’t even given this privilege). Even as I write this article in the 24 hour internet café on Talbot Street it is 11pm on a Thursday night the café is mainly being used by homeless people, they rent a computer for 1 euro per hour and lay across chairs and the floor trying to sleep.
No matter what time it is you’ll always find the less fortunate using the café to sleep and get out of the elements. If you walk around Dublin city no doubt you want have to walk long before you find someone sleeping in a doorway or under a bridge. These are horrible conditions in which people are forced to live. If you ever find yourself down on your luck and become homeless there is a good chance if there are no more beds left in a homeless hostel you will be give a sleeping bag for shelter.
Homeless people and those affected by the housing problem are starting to take the situation into their own hands because of the failures of elected officials and policy makers. Over a year ago in north Dublin a collective of radical mothers came together because of their disillusionment with mainstream politicians and formed North Dublin Bay Housing Crisis Community to help create change in the housing problem within their communities. As they get more organised people from other parts of Dublin come to them for advice and support.
On May 5th, Help the Hidden Homeless organised an occupation of the Dublin City Council offices. Homeless families and homeless individuals led the occupation. The homeless people included a heavily pregnant mother and her 1 year old child, a mother and her 3 year old child, a mother and father with their child and a homeless mental health patient – all were denied accommodation repeatedly. They were supported by other housing and homeless groups, which included North Dublin Bay Housing Crisis Community, the Hub, the Barricade Inn, An Spréach and Housing Action Now, to name but a few of the their supporters.
Strategically, it was decided to occupy Dublin City Council because it controls the bureaucracy of housing allocations throughout Dublin. After an hour of the occupation Dick Brady, manager of the City Council bureaucracy, agreed to meet and enter negotiations with delegates from Help the Hidden Homeless. All in all negotiations lasted over 3 hours, with demands eventually met.
Dick Brady told the delegates that it all boils down to the fact that there is no accommodation available. However, money is no issue – to pay for hostels, hotels, B&Bs and rent. Accessing accommodation is the problem. The supply of accommodation is left to private industry; to make matters worse rent is continually rising and most landlords in Dublin refuse rent allowance, which contributes to the rising homelessness.
Dick Brady believes the steps that can help to reduce the demand for accommodation are stabilizing rents, keep families in their properties, and rent caps. The delegates then asked what power Dublin City Council has. They were told Dublin City Council does not have the power to implement the steps; the government can only implement the steps. He said there is no money for building accommodation.
The heads of the homeless services were then negotiated with regarding the four cases mentioned above. It was agreed upon that if B&Bs or hotels would take them in, Dublin City Council would pay for the accommodation. Other points were mentioned to the manager of the Dublin City Council bureaucracy: the failures of the HAP scheme and the privatizing of social housing; the threats of children being took from families that are forced to roam the streets, and the system of only being able to present yourself on the day of being made homeless.
While the government says there is no money to build social housing they seem to forget the fact that there are over 270,000 vacant houses, flats and apartments scattered around the country, and over 30,000 in Dublin alone. There are over 90,000 people waiting on the social housing list in Ireland. These people could be housed in these vacant properties instead of letting them waist, rot and fall into disrepair. If Dublin City Council can’t do anything to help reduce homelessness and the government do not want to put funding into the creation of social housing what are people meant to do? Could a short term solution lie in squatting in these vacant properties mentioned above?
Squatting is a political act, it is a political occupation.
A housing action collective called An Spréach (which means ‘the spark’ in Irish) has tried to do just that. The collective formulated a plan to open up vacant flats in the Tom Kelly flat complex in Charlemont street in Dublin’s South inner city. All together there are 3 blocks of flats left in the Tom Kelly flat complex, the rest were demolished because of the failed plans to regenerate the area. Only a handful of the flats are occupied, so An Spréach set out to open a vacant flat to house a homeless mother and her 2 children.
But their plans were foiled when the Garda raided the flat and arrested eight housing activists while they were fixing the flat up. All eight were charged with trespass. After 8 months of the case being dragged out in the court the charges were eventually thrown out as the Garda could not prove that any crime was committed. The process of dragging cases out for as long as possible is a way of keeping activists out of action while the case goes on.
In the months between the start and the end of the case homeless people died on the streets of Dublin from exposure to the elements. One homeless man Jonathan Corrie froze to death only a few feet from the Dáil. He froze to death in a doorway while the Dáil – supposedly the building that represents the people of Ireland – lay empty and heated. This is one of the many contradictions of capitalist society.
Another collective of radical activists are squatting in a old hotel on Parnell street in Dublin’s city center which was laying vacant over 10 years. These activists came together for the political occupation to open up the boarded up building, which was left to rot, to create a social center. They desire to create a free space for youths, community groups, and all sorts of grass roots and non-hierarchical groups to use as they see fit.
The social center is named the Barricade Inn, it is organised on anarchist principles of anti-authoritarianism and mutual aid; it is a hub of resistance against capitalism, neo-liberalism, all forms of discrimination and rascism, and the state. There is an info shop where people can go and read radical books and literature, bike workshop and computer lab and vegan cafe which will be in use soon, screen printing workshops, movie nights, free shop, language exchanges, music classes, parkour workshops and much more.
It was created by the young and ever-growing squatting movement. The movement burns with the flame of desire to create free spaces for people to use instead of letting them fall into disrepair. They have squatted many buildings around Dublin and in other counties. Over a year ago they started to squat in Grangegorman which includes houses, warehouses and a massive yard that was transformed from waste ground to a community garden, which local residents use. There is a free shop set up in one of the warehouses where people can come and take stuff or leave donations.
In March, a private security company with backup from the Garda tried to illegally evict the squatters. The squatters with the help of activists and local residents resisted the illegal eviction. The resistance lasted all day and into the late night. Eventually the private security company and Garda left. This was after the resistors sat in front of the vans and cars of the security company to prevent them from getting in or out of the warehouse complex. Eventually the security company were allowed to leave after long negotiations between the Garda and the squatters. The squatter were then brought through the courts and were ordered to leave by the 4th of May.
Another squatting action that took place in broad daylight was when 40 to 50 squatters and supporters helped to squat a row of vacant houses which have been left unused for years, instead of letting them go to waste people now use them to live. These houses were owned by the HSE. Squatting could be a way to solve the housing problem on the short term and would help to reducing the levels of homelessness. The people that are homeless due to the financial crash could be using the 270,000 houses, flats and apartments which lay vacant. Most of these vacant buildings lay empty because of the massive foreclosures resulting from the financial crash.
Most people wouldn’t know where to begin if they wanted to squat. Luckily, these skills can be learned every Wednesday from 6pm to 8pm in the Barricade Inn – there are practical squatting nights where people with the same ideas can meet and discuss ideas and ask advice. These are just some examples of activists trying to create alternatives to the housing problem. These are radical activists agitating and executing direct actions without relying on party organisations.
These activists are proving there are alternative forms of living, organizing and working together. Likewise community based housing groups are starting to see the lack of progress being made by the parties in power and the parties competing for power. Some community and housing groups are moving towards these alternative ways of struggle, taking the initiative themselves.
The working class and community activists are becoming disillusioned with mainstream politics and are starting to resist these top down policies, which have been created by the EU, IMF and ECB and implemented by the state bureaucracy, which are causing so much inequality. We have seen this resistance with the anti-water charges campaign and are starting to see it in relation to the housing and homeless problem.
In order to help create change and help reduce homelessness, eviction and rising rent prices, levers must be found that can be used against local councils. Means of resisting and combating the ruling bloc which is represented by the Troika and the governing coalition which imposed the austerity measures that are creating so much inequality need to be created in order to struggle, resist and to create positive change.