Opinion

It Should Be Easier to Empathise with Those Called Homeless

Emmett Scanlon portrait
Emmett Scanlon

Emmett Scanlon is an architect. His work is focused on the relationship between people and the built world. He pursues this through design, writing, pedagogy, research, policy-making and curation.

So many mornings waking to images of homelessness. So many evenings spent with families who are homeless being headline news.

Children, some of whom appear to be in their school uniforms, spending a night in a Garda station in Dublin. Others, climbing over their “luggage” through the boot of a car as a family drives down a red-brick street to find somewhere, somewhere else, to sleep that night.

I eat, I go out, I work, I come home. I put on the radio. Did he fix the system yet? Are those six boys still homeless? How many times did that family unpack and repack their car?

Those children. Those, not me or you, but them.

We have, it seems, reached the stage where citizens who are without homes are a distinct group among our population. They are “the homeless”, like “the elderly” or “the LGBT community”.  There is now enough of them – almost 10,000 officially – to have earned a preposition.

We are increasingly comfortable identifying thousands of people as homeless first, customers second, citizens last, as if they have little to do with us. As we watch them on TV or scroll past their images on our phones, their state, it seems, has little relevance to ours.

Perhaps this is because the housing system is so challenging to understand and navigate that it dehumanises and degrades those that are asked to engage with it.

Perhaps because our public and political discourse on housing implores us to take sides, to be for or against, to be public or private, low-rise or high, owner or renter, for big rooms or small, we are forced to adopt a specific side and therefore reject the positions of others.

Is it because we continue to be told that we can fix the housing system, that it is just a matter of time, that we are all in a constant state of anxiety because any analysis of the statistics show that this system is still not delivering enough houses quickly and is making those that already exist or those that are newly built too expensive to occupy?

Maybe our insistent and strident faith in fixing this system as the only way out of this crisis is exhaustively and emphatically quelling our capacity to care and to have any hope of making this Ireland a home for all.

But if indeed hope is lost, we will lose empathy. Without empathy, thousands of our fellow citizens who are homeless will become irretrievably, permanently other. 

But they are not other, they are us, we are them.

Not having a house or a roof over your head is, of course, the most extreme form of homelessness, the deep, dark end of a spectrum. In reality, though, you can have somewhere to live and still feel, in a sense, a state of homelessness.

In Ireland, we continue to conflate house and home, a mortgage being offered as a key to our identity and happiness.

We have Kate and Mick in that television ad, reflecting on their last day of their mortgage. Their sentimental, domestic history is projected on Mick’s open palm, a tea-cup, the outside face of the house itself – people and property persuasively presented as commercially co-dependent for life.

In another television ad, we see a child, styled to look like he is from the ’80s, from our youth. He cycles around, investigating the local character before meeting his father at a house viewing. Where once he might trade marbles in the schoolyard, this boy seems to already consider that a home, and with it perhaps his childhood, is something of value to buy and sell.

But home is not a built thing, it is no one’s property, not a commodity.

A complex thing, “home” might best be understood as the guardian of a series of dynamic relationships between people and their environment that change over time.

Each of us needs rooms, places to appropriate, to hold our stuff, to decorate, to make our notions of home physical and real because this ensures comfort, security, a place where I can be the most me, you can be the most you.

From this place of security, we find autonomy and confidence to venture out into the world. We can meet other people, form relationships, work, participate in the life of our neighbourhood, bring people home.

Participating – and crucially being afforded the opportunity to participate –  has been shown to be essential to our well-being and happiness and building sustainable communities.

If these relationships, fundamental to our identity and sense of home, cannot be formed or if they break down we are, in a sense, homeless.

If we feel lonely or threatened at home, we can feel homeless. If the line between private home and public space is ambiguous and leftover places are vandalised and we withdraw inside we can feel homeless.

If the rules prevent decoration and we cannot properly and fully occupy a room, we can feel homeless.

If we live in a centre but are not permitted to cook or work, even when we have the will and capacity to do so, we will, without doubt, feel homeless.

If we share rooms with others merely to keep a roof over our head but would rather be independent, we can feel homeless.

If we carry a heavy, silent anxiety about making rent, feel stigma that we are even renting at all, or daily depend on the kindness of landlords to stay put we can feel homeless.

Homelessness is a spectrum and, I would argue, we are each of us on it. Instead of taking sides, making judgments, embrace your position and act. We are in this one together.

 

Comments

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  2. Susan Leahy
    5 September at 11:17

    Very good points Emmet none of us know when we might need help in the future.

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