Ireland (NM) – Since the housing crisis hit there have been a number of grassroots campaigns fighting the influence and effects of austerity in Ireland. There are currently around 100, 000 people on social housing waiting lists, while, in the space of just two years, homelessness in the country has risen by 91%.
At midnight on the night of 16 December 2016, a group of activists, artists and trade unionists announced the occupation of Apollo House, a city centre office block. The announcement came through social media, a speech by acclaimed film director Jim Sheridan and songs by Glen Hansard. The action aimed to highlight Ireland’s homelessness crisis through turning the abandoned office block into accommodation for the homeless.
A week before the action, Irish Minister for Housing, Simon Coveney, stated in the Irish parliament: “I first want to give a little bit of good news… Today we have the November figures on homelessness in Dublin and for the first time in a very long time the number of adults and families who are homeless in Dublin has actually reduced, month on month.” Behind this good news was the fact that two homeless people had died on Irish streets in that same month, while, in Coveney’s first eight months of office, the number of homeless individuals had risen by 12.9% (it has risen by a further 2.9% since). Thus far, the Irish government has dealt with the crisis by playing down its disastrous impact and attempting to rush a bill through parliament late last year that gave extra grounds for evictions and allowed further large developments to be built with almost no public consultation. This gap between government rhetoric and the reality of the situation was where action needed to be taken.
Home Sweet Home.
From the start, the Home Sweet Home campaign used its celebrity supporters to its advantage. Popular Irish artists like Glen Hansard, Kodaline, Hozier, Saoirse Ronan and Jim Sheridan being present at the building from the start of its occupation and speaking on different media platforms throughout the campaign ensured the message of this radical action was spread far and wide.
Crucially, the campaign had a clear target in the form of the National Asset Management Agency (Nama). Nama was created by the Irish government in 2009 to absorb the bad debts accrued through the nationalisation of the banking debt. Its objective is to recoup as much of the bad debt as possible and for this it sought the help of direct foreign investment, otherwise known as the ‘vulture funds’. Nama’s property portfolio has long been identified as a symbol of the financial crash in Ireland, its buildings the physical manifestation of the €64bn the Irish taxpayer has paid to keep the banks afloat. And while, for years, these buildings have laid vacant, homelessness in Ireland is at a record high and rents have risen exponentially.
An unprecedented success.
The Nama building occupied by the campaign, which is set to be demolished, is a nine-storey former office block located in Dublin’s city centre. Over the course of 27 days, 90 people stayed there receiving food, shelter, medical facilities and the ability to come and go as they pleased. A further 115 people were assisted at the gates, as it wasn’t possible to give them a bed. These people were given food, sanitary goods, clothes and were advocated for on the homeless free phone system – the means by which one-night hostel beds are allocated to rough sleepers. Through the work of roughly 250 daily volunteers, a vacant building was transformed into a highly efficient accommodation service for those worst affected by the crisis. Even the High Court recognised the popularity of the occupation and granted the campaign an extension of stay – not out of sympathy, of course, but for fear of irking the unprecedented public support that saw €130k raised in less than a week.
It took the combined effort of the Irish Housing Network, a number of trade unions and a collective of artists to prepare, occupy and run the former office block as a fully functioning hostel. This was more than just banners flying from windows, this was a collective effort in which groups were working towards one objective: the functioning of Apollo House as a high standard homeless accommodation and to offer the most vulnerable the right to have a secure home. An alternative means of dealing with the housing crisis was being broadcast: one that placed those most affected at the forefront. There are no examples in Irish history where a state building has been occupied for nearly a month. What makes the situation more unique was the strong media presence that further encouraged the wider populace to become involved to the point that over 4,000 people volunteered over the 27 day occupation.
The occupation ended on 12 January, a day after the High Court ordered the building to be vacated. In just one month, the campaign had become the most potent interjection into the housing crisis, which, up until then, had only been dealt with using hollow rhetoric. In just 27 days, 84 people were given six-month beds. To put this in context, in all of 2016, the two largest homeless charities in Dublin, City Focus and Peter McVerry, put 70 into that same accommodation. The archaic conditions of Dublin’s hostels have been brought to the fore with the government promising monthly briefs with the campaign to ensure standards improve; while the council have promised two further homeless hostels.
On 10 January, the judge rejected the appeal by occupiers to grant them a few days grace period on the grounds that the trespassing of private property would lead to “an intolerable situation in a democratic state.” For one section of society, this “intolerable situation” leads to loss of profit, for another it leads to loss of dignity, security, and, in many cases, life. This is the first far reaching radical political measure that has been successful in redefining the meaning of home. It has not only redefined home for those who lived in Apollo House for the four weeks over Christmas, but for all those that have worked in the building too.
What happened at Apollo House shows that direct action is not just the preserve of a radical minority, but can be a powerful tool for wider political resistance. The sense of powerlessness is crumbling, even as such startling stats emerge of the crisis, such as the revelation that, in January, one child was made homeless every five hours. Slowly, we are equipping ourselves with the means to challenge all that we find intolerant. Watch this space – it might just be taken again.
This report prepared by Sean Finnan for Novara Media