Dublin, Ireland – Propelled by the ever-worsening homeless crisis in Ireland, a group of 100 “concerned citizens”, including famous musicians, actors, trade unionists and members of housing charities took over a vacant building in Dublin before Christmas in order to provide shelter for the vulnerable.
In an “act of disobedience”, the coalition called “Home Sweet Home” occupied Apollo House, a disused civil service building in the heart of the city to create a roof over the heads of some 40 of the capital’s 250 rough sleepers. The group have also raised over 160,000 euros ($166,000).
The 10-storey Apollo House is part of the ample property portfolio of National Assets Management Agency NAMA, formed in 2009 in response to Ireland’s banking crisis and burst property bubble.
In an impassioned speech in front of the General Post Office, Dublin, on the night of the takeover, Oscar-nominated film director Jim Sheridan, who directed In the Name of the Father, called the homeless situation a “disgrace” stating the government was not doing enough.
“It’s got to stop, it’s unacceptable. In these cruel times of austerity, of banking crisis, of people paying debt, can we not just bail out someone who is in the gutter?” he asked.
According to the Department of Housing, there are 7,000 people officially homeless in Ireland due to a combination of reasons including a housing shortage and high rents.
Members of Home Sweet Home want to shine a light on the fact that, paradoxically, there are 20,000 empty buildings in Dublin, yet more people than ever before are sleeping in doorways or staying in temporary accommodation.
Minister for housing, Simon Coveney, said there were enough beds available in the capital. “I don’t think that it’s a solution for people who are homeless to actually be accommodated in a building that’s probably not suitable for that,” he added.
A high court judge ruled that those occupying Apollo House must leave by January 11, stating that they were “trespassing”. Permission has been granted for demolition of the building. Over 3,000 people offered to lend a helping hand at Apollo House over Christmas. Residents of Apollo House, who spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Apollo House, are marching to the Department of Finance in Dublin on January 3 with members of the public calling for a response to their request for homes.
They will present the minister for finance, Michael Noonan, with an open letter about their concerns of having to return to the streets come January 11. On New Year’s Day, residents released a video calling on the government to respond to their request for homes following the eviction.
Al Jazeera visited Apollo House, where 40 homeless people currently reside.
Mark Warner, Apollo House resident
Mark Warner is a 33-year-old homeless man, who has been homeless for over two years.
“I’ve only just found out about Apollo House.
“People can stay here all day, unlike all other emergency homeless shelters, where you get kicked out onto the streets in the morning.
“Some of the shelters are so bad; I’d rather sleep rough.
“I’m a heroin addict, and I’ve pretty much alternated between sleeping rough and being in prison my entire life.
“I’m looking for long-term accommodation, but it’s hard. There aren’t enough houses and there aren’t enough beds.
“Its insane that a group of actors are doing more than the government, and they’re not even being paid.”
|Terry McMahon, film director, actor, screenwriter|
Terry McMahon is a film director, actor and screenwriter and member of Home Sweet Home
“The night the NAMA building was taken over something magical was born.
“What happened at Apollo House was a pragmatic execution. This is a reaction to the strangulation of the property market and the dehumanisation of noble people.
“This year, the centenary of 1916 Easter Rising, more people have died by their own hand than were killed in the entire Easter Rising, where great people fought for the freedom of our country.
“In the last eight years of austerity, more people have committed suicide than died in the 30 years of the Northern Irish troubles.
“As long as our government continues to do nothing, we will fight to ensure nobody else dies in a doorway. We wanted to make a gesture and give citizens a collective sense of hope. In return, we got nothing short of an outpouring.”
|Mary Fleming, homeless|
Mary Fleming from Dublin, 37, has been homeless her entire life
“What’s amazing at Apollo House is how many random people come up to the door to hand over supplies.
“We’ve had times where no one cared; now the world is looking on.
“Volunteers are standing outside in the rain, giving sandwiches and tea to homeless people passing by.
“I’ve been homeless my entire life and the alternative to staying here is dying on the streets. I’m not staying here myself, I’m staying in a HIV shelter for women, but it’s not great.
“The homeless situation is worse than I’ve ever seen it.”
|‘Mitzalo’ , Apollo House resident|
‘Mitzalo’ is a 56-year-old resident of Apollo House, who does not want to be photographed
“This is by far the best homeless experience I’ve ever had.
“I’ve been homeless for six years in total, but ever since I arrived here at Apollo House, an incredible community has embraced me.
“The residents in the house have their own rooms; normally we have to sleep on mats in dormitories.
“There are TV rooms, Christmas trees, excellent food. Its incredibly well-organised.
“At Christmas, there was a sit-down meal with musical entertainment from Glen Hansard. “These people gave us a light. I don’t want to leave.”
|Father Peter McVerry, founder of the Peter McVerry Trust|
Father Peter McVerry, founder of the Peter McVerry Trust, which helps homeless and vulnerable people in Dublin.
“This action is born out of sheer frustration.
“Homelessness is not just about mental health, it’s about economics.
“There are over 2,000 children in this country without a home. The rental crisis and lack of affordable housing is pushing people on the streets and the government is favouring the landlords over tenants.
“This movement has awoken our sense of outrage, which is good, but Apollo House only offers a short-term solution.
“We’re the 14th wealthiest country in the world, so this doesn’t make any sense.”
|Conor Whelan and Kevin Gillian, concerned citizens|
Conor Whelan, 27, and Kevin Gillian, 26, came to Apollo House to see if they could help
“Apollo House is turning away volunteers, because there are so many. It’s got huge momentum and it’s important for this initiative to get as much airtime as possible.
“You can’t rent an apartment or house in this city anymore, if you are on rent allowance or one a low income. Even people who work full time can’t afford to live here anymore. It’s chronic,” Kevin says.
“Apollo House is a mini-victory. Long term, sure, they are breaking the law, but at the same time, the musicians and artists are doing more than our governments.
“A lot of people do give out about singers and rock stars getting involved in charities and causes, saying they are doing it out of vanity, but at the same time, they got the attention on the issue and it’s gone around the world, which is a good thing,” Conor adds.
|Niamh McDonald, member of Irish Housing Network, Apollo House co-ordinator|
Niamh McDonald is a member of the Irish Housing Network and a co-ordinator at Apollo House
“I’ve been part of this project since the planning stages several months ago.
“The night we took over the building, we had a full maintenance team with us so that heating and water were turned on.
“Since then, there’s 24-hour security, a medical team, trades people working around the clock pro bono, legal aid, volunteers and the homeless people themselves are working inside in the library and looking after food stocks.
“Its very well-managed. Every day is better in here.
“Come January 11, who knows what will happen, but there will probably be a public reaction to residents having to leave again.
“This project has touched the hearts and minds of the Irish people.”
|Daniel O’Reilly, student|
Daniel O’Reilly is a 17-year-old Dublin schoolboy from Belvedere School in Dublin, who, along with a group of other boys, is sleeping rough for two nights to raise money. This year their school raised over 225,000 euros ($265,000) for the homeless.
“There are over 70 of us sleeping out and fasting in aid of homeless charities.
“Students from my school have been doing this annually for over 30 years. Last year, we raised over 192,000 euros ($200,000).
“I think Irish people have been mobilised, and the generosity we have seen knows no bounds.
“The homeless issue has really come to the forefront of people’s attention, because you can’t ignore it anymore. It’s omnipresent.
“Our homeless issues are not a good selling point for Ireland and, in recent years, the rental market has left people at the bottom out in the cold.
“They should just cap the rents and don’t allow landlords to be greedy.”