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Spotlight on the Housing Crisis

The dramatic occupation of Apollo House, a NAMA controlled property in the centre of Dublin, over the Christmas period could mark the beginning of a new stage in the housing struggle, reports Éilis Ryan.

On 15th December 2016, rumours surfaced on social media that a group of unnamed activists had taken control of a NAMA-owned building in Dublin’s south city centre to house rough sleepers. Shortly after grainy camera phone footage was being shared, showing people bringing in mattresses to Apollo House, an empty nine story office block little more than a couple of hundred meters from O’Connell Bridge.

Over the next 24 hours, a slick website, logo, Facebook page and a long line of celebrity names including singers Glen Hansard, Damien Dempsey and director Jim Sheridan emerged to endorse the initiative and proclaim the launch of the ‘Home Sweet Home’ campaign.

As Christmas drew closer the ‘good news story’ of Apollo House spread rapidly, receiving an outpouring of public support on social media, an impromptu public meeting was necessary to coordinate the 1500 applications to volunteer in providing assistance during the occupation. This was not going to be an initiative any government, especially one keen to pretend that making some more homeless hostel beds available had solved homelessness for Christmas, could ignore.

What followed was four weeks during which Appllo House, whether in reports of the courtroom fight to keep it open or articles both lauding or condemning the initiative, dominated the media. LookLeft spoke to Apollo House resident Harry, and Freda Mullins Hughes, a Home Sweet Home volunteer and trade unionist, about their experiences and reflections on the occupation.

Our primary objective was always to provide a secure place for people to stay over Christmas

Explaining what motivated her to spend Christmas in an occupied NAMA-controlled office block, Freda said, “Our primary objective was always to provide a secure place for people to stay over Christmas,” but there was nonetheless a constant, deeper political motivation at play.

“We chose Apollo House precisely because it’s a NAMA building, owned by the state, and as such it highlights how fundamentally the government is responsible for the present crisis. We wanted to change the conversation – and bring back into view the fact that the government could do something about homelessness – especially through properties controlled by NAMA.”

The Apollo House initiative – “an act of civil disobedience,” says Freda – was not without risks. It was for that reason, she explained, that the original focus was not on seeking out a high profile in the media. Residents, volunteers and organisers first set about establishing a structure they were comfortable with before directing their attention externally.

Freda said: “The key thing with Apollo is that it was a broad-based people’s movement with a view to changing the conversation about homelessness. That meant it had to be ‘affected-led’ – that is, led by those experiencing homelessness themselves.”

Freda emphasises the non-hierarchical nature of the project. Decisions were taken by a flat structure of teams and, crucially, key decisions at each juncture included residents themselves. Similarly, Home Sweet Home itself operates on a non-hierarchical basis, has members involved from trade unions and the Irish Housing Network, but nonetheless primarily operates through the same team-based organising that emerged from within Apollo House.

After the phenomenal success of the mass non-payment of water charges campaign, it was natural that mobilised and politicised activists would turn their focus to the housing crisis.

During 2016, a number of marches had been organised by the National Homeless and Housing Coalition, a campaign group which included leading housing charities, trade unions, community action groups and political parties. While the breadth of the Coalition remains its best asset, there was a sense across the left that mobilisation on the issue of housing was not as great as possible – or as needed – given the scale and depth of the housing crisis.

In that sense, perhaps the greatest achievement of Home

Sweet Home was achieving this spark of public attention, and the scale of public mobilisation and support which Apollo received.

“We had over 4000 offers from volunteers – so many we couldn’t take them all,” says Freda. “There were a couple of hundred volunteers working in constant rotation, across their areas of expertise – anything from medical care to social services, cooking and admin.”

Harry has been amazed by the support: “No matter who I meet, people on the bus, elderly people in the streets, everybody supported us. People realise ‘this could happen to me,’ now – that it’s not just something that could happen to other people.”

For Harry, the major difference between Apollo House and his previous engagements with homeless services was the respect with which residents were treated. Like many people, he never expected to find himself homeless.

Having successfully completed a stay in a treatment centre, he speaks about “leaving a safe place for the street.” He was brought to Apollo House by a friend, and immediately he felt it was a home. “People were pushing in, almost fighting about who is going to help you first … I can honestly say I have never met so many genuine people in the same place at the same time.”

This respect was accompanied by very practical supports in filling in forms and submitting them to the relevant social services’ offices.

“People in support services, somehow they don’t understand that when you come to them, it’s an emergency. How can you have all these documents when you’re homeless?” said Harry.

It’s a familiar story of service users being sent from one building to another to another, in an endless line of bureaucracy and red tape, and a nightly lottery of calling a freephone line to be offered what hostel beds are available – it contrasts with the ease of access which Harry experienced in Apollo House.

Almost immediately, parallels were drawn between the Apollo House occupation and the Dublin Housing Action Committee (DHAC) campaign of the late 1960s. Both struggles shared a philosophy of direct action and a practical focus on directly helping people in need of housing.

It was a linkage highlighted in a letter to the Irish Times on 20th December by DHAC founding member Máirín de Burca – “As a founding member of the old Dublin Housing Action Committee, I applaud the actions of the Home Sweet Home group and others who have taken over Apollo House for the homeless,” she wrote.

It is possible to support the short-term option while fighting fiercely for the basic right of citizens to a permanent secure home

“I am sure that they know quite well, as we did in the 1960s, that this is not a long-term solution but in the short-term it puts a roof over the heads of families. There is absolutely no reason why support is an either-or proposition. It is possible  to support the short-term option while fighting fiercely for the basic right of citizens to a permanent secure home.”

She added: “In an era when it seems that only self-interest will bring people out on the streets in protest, it is heartening to see that there are still some who look beyond the cost to themselves and will fight for right and justice for those less privileged.”

However, the DHAC and Home Sweet Home differed in their composition, the former’s organisation driven by a political party, the later strictly non-political party.

Following 28 days the Apollo House occupation came to an agreed end on 12th January when a court order demanding activists vacate the building came into force. The action came to an end with a high profile argument in the media between Home Sweet Home activist and Unite trade union official Brendan Ogle and the Minister for Housing, Simon Conveny. At contention was whether more quality hostel accommodation for rough sleepers had been secured as result of the protest or not.

After its dramatic emergence into the public debate on the housing crisis, the longer term plans for Home Sweet Home are still unclear. For some, more direct action is necessary, and Freda says that Home Sweet Home “have not ruled out further occupations.” However, she emphasises the need to ensure long-term solutions to the housing crisis are found.

“Every document, press briefing, statement from the campaign, emphasises that you cannot deal with homelessness in isolation from the housing crisis as a whole. The use of a NAMA building was an opportunity to put the question back to the government – that homelessness and the housing crisis are political choices.”

There is also an opportunity for Home Sweet Home from the generosity of those who donated some €200,00 to the campaign during the occupation of Apollo House. Some of these funds have gone into providing accommodation to thirteen residents who were still being accommodated in the building when it was vacated. There are plans to put some of the funds towards a “one stop shop” drop in centre and information centre for the homeless. As Harry says, “There should be some sort of place where someone can sit with you, talk to you about what caused your homelessness, and what you need to do next. And that’s what happened in Apollo.” Harry intends to continue his work as a Home Sweet Home volunteer, offering his graphic design skills wherever possible.

On the issue of providing a new homeless drop in-service Freda says, “That’s not to take away from the brilliant services that are already there, but they’re working with what they have, to full capacity. There’s always room for more services, and better services.”

An outreach run to rough sleepers will also continue, using both donations and new supplies.

However, Freda adds: “We’re not a charity and we’re not a political campaign, we’re a civil society movement working to tackle the homeless crisis”

What are their hopes? For both Freda and Harry, it’s a question both of getting more public housing built but, just as importantly, much greater respect for anyone affected by the housing crisis – particularly from state services.

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