The Avondhu - By The Fireside
THE RIGHT MESSAGE
Peter McVerry, nationally respected as a champion of the people most of us ignore, talks with Donal O’Keeffe about helping the homeless, why homelessness is a political issue, and his thoughts on Christmas.
“I don’t like Christmas,” chuckles Father Peter McVerry, gently and slightly apologetically.
“Christmas is a time of enormous stress, financial and also emotional, on a lot of families, and certainly on homeless people. Homeless people, they want - like everybody else - to be wearing new clothes for Christmas, but they can’t afford them. They’d like - like everybody else - to give a little present to their brothers and sisters, if they have any, or to their mother or father if they’re on good terms with them, but they don’t have the money to do that.
“It’s a time they feel under huge stress. Many tell me they would like to fall asleep on 1st of December and wake up on the 1st of January. It’s not just financial stress, it’s also emotional stress because the image we have of Christmas - it doesn’t apply to all families - but the image we have is that families are at home enjoying themselves, pulling crackers, eating turkey, and homeless people can’t do that, and so they feel excluded from Christmas and they feel their own aloneness at Christmas more than at any other time of the year.”
Born in Belfast in 1944, Peter McVerry grew up in Newry, where he was educated by the Christian Brothers. He later attended Clongowes Wood College, entering the Society of Jesus in 1962, and in 1975 he was ordained a Catholic priest. Working in Ballymun and Dublin’s North Inner City, he encountered young homeless people, and in 1983 he established the Arrupe Society, subsequently renamed the Peter McVerry Trust.
I ask if there is anything the general public can do to make Christmas a slightly more bearable time for homeless people and rough sleepers.
“I think that’s the worst thing to do, actually,” he replies. “I think what we need to do, we need to do all year around. If we’re doing something specifically at Christmas, what does that say to homeless people? It says ‘We care for you because it’s Christmas, but we don’t care for you for the rest of the year’.
He says he appreciates the kindness and the compassion that people show in offering to do something for Christmas, but feels that kindness and compassion should not just occur at Christmas. He says people sometimes ask him whether he can recommend a homeless person they can bring home for Christmas dinner, and he always replies, emphatically, “absolutely not”, believing this gives a terribly negative message.
“It tells homeless people you care because it’s Christmas, but you’re salving your own conscience, ‘You don’t care for me for the rest of the year.’ That’s what comes across to homeless people, and it’s not intended, obviously, by the person who’s caring and kind, but that’s what comes across.”
Asked recently on the Tommy Tiernan Show whether people should give money to people begging on the street, Father Peter gave an interesting answer.
“My answer was, look, sometimes I think you should, sometimes you shouldn’t, but there’s something that’s far more important than giving money: when you pass by, say hello.
“Just stop and chat for a few seconds, because if you can imagine sitting there begging, thousands of people passing you by, very few of them actually looking at you, and that makes you feel like a non-person. So, if somebody says, ‘Hello, how are you, what’s your name?’ they’re acknowledging them as a person, and that’s very important.”
He says he might say ‘Look, I’m sorry, I don’t have any change on me’, and the answer is often ‘That’s okay, thanks’, and he believes the ‘thanks’ is for not ignoring the person.
When I ask whether we should offer somebody begging food instead of money, he says he thinks that’s not a good idea.
“Some people say ‘I’ll buy them a sandwich’ and I say, ‘How do you know they want a sandwich?’ Just go up and ask them what they want. And it’s actually the asking is the most important thing, because you’re treating them like a human being, saying ‘What would you like?’
“If they say ‘I’d like a sandwich’, terrific, off you go and buy them a sandwich, but they might say ‘I’d prefer the money’. And I say ‘Why don’t you give them the money? You were going to spend it anyway on a sandwich’, and people say ‘But they’re only going to spend it on drugs’. I say ‘So what?’
“If you have a drug problem, you have to get money for your drugs one way or the other. Isn’t it better they beg for their drug money, than go out and rob some poor lady’s handbag? I have no problem giving somebody a euro or two, even if I’m fairly sure they’ll spend it on drugs. I think begging is actually a far more moral way of getting money for drugs than going out robbing.”
Homelessness doesn’t come about because of bad decisions made by homeless people, he says, adding pointedly “although that was stated by a major decision-maker in the homelessness sector”. Homelessness is a political problem, he contends, and it has to be solved politically.
“Homelessness exists because of wrong government policies. The problem is that governments stopped building social council housing and delegated responsibility for housing for low-income families to the private rented sector. And that has been a very costly disaster.”
Under the housing assistance payment, he says, we daily pay €2 million to private landlords to provide low-income housing, and he believes we have to get back to building council houses. He feels we need, as a priority, to enshrine in the Constitution the right to housing.
“That doesn’t mean that the day after the referendum, every homeless person can demand the keys of a house, of course not, but it does give housing a priority over almost all other issues of government policy, and it counteracts one of the arguments we constantly come up against when we propose effective measures to reduce homelessness, (that) it’s not compatible with the right to private property in the Constitution.
“For example, we want a freeze on a ban on evictions from the private rented sector for at least three years. We’re told that’s not compatible with the right to private property. If we could get the right to housing into the Constitution, at least we would have a level playing field, and the right to housing becomes just as important, and indeed would be in terms of the Supreme Court more important than the right to private property.”
He singles out Fine Gael as a “quite explicit” opponent of a constitutional right to housing, and although making housing a constitutional right is in the current programme for government, there has been no movement on the issue yet, and McVerry is sceptical there will be.
“In my view, unless Fianna Fáil do this before the role of Taoiseach is handed over to Fine Gael (in
December 2022), it’s not gonna happen. It’s in the programme for government, but I’m disappointed it hasn’t even raised its head.”
HOPES FOR CORK AREA
The Peter McVerry Trust has opened and is planning to open a number of housing units in the greater Cork area, he says.
“We are committed to housing for homeless people. Our commitment is to provide long-term permanent housing for homeless people. We’re dependent obviously on the local authority giving us funding to either build, purchase or renovate properties and bring them in to use. We will provide as many housing units as the local authority are willing to fund for us.”
He mightn’t like Christmas, but Father Peter McVerry says it contains a very important message.
“Christmas reminds us that Jesus was born into a poor family from a discredited part of the country, Nazareth, and he was a nobody. The Son of God was a nobody, a poor person, a marginalised person.
“It should, I think, dominate our spirituality that those who are poor and marginalised are, in fact, privileged in the eyes of God and therefore they should be privileged in our eyes too.”