Brian O’ Boyle
There are currently 130,000 families on the social housing waiting list – some for periods of twenty years or more. At the present rate of public building, this list will not be cleared for more than 100 years. On top of this, 80,000 mortgages are in arrears with 56,000 unpaid for more than 90 days.
This risks a wave of private evictions, particularly now that the market is recovering. The presence of vulture funds in the Irish market is yet more cause for concern, with 90,000 families facing the prospect of having their homes flipped to the highest bidder. At the sharpest end of the spectrum, 6985 people are officially homeless of whom 2,500 are children.
Across the country people are being forced into couch surfing or worse still, onto the streets. Bodies are strewn in the doorways of all of our major cities with no solution in sight.
This is what made Apollo House so inspirational. On December 16 a group of activists, trade unionists, homeless people and well known celebrities took over the building in a bid to give shelter to rough sleepers around Dublin.
The operation took place in the dead of night and was planned with military style precision. Within 24 hours, they had thirty beds, running water and electricity. They also had a compelling story for the media.
The aim of Home Sweet Home was to look after the most vulnerable people at Christmas, capture the imagination of the Irish public and shame the government into action.
The occupation took place at the end of a centenary year that had publicly celebrated the occupation of the General Post Office. What better way to commemorate the men and women of 1916, than to occupy a building in the name of social justice.
Added to this, was the ‘Christmas factor’ and the bitter cold sweeping the city. People Before Profit have been agitating on housing issues for many years, but the audacious nature of the Apollo House Occupation proved to be the vehicle that finally delivered.
In just twenty seven days, the occupation raised €175,000 with 500 people donating supplies. Four thousand people volunteered their time, with 6,000 hours of free labour put into making the initiative a success. Because of Apollo House, 205 people have moved off the streets into more secure, long term accommodation. Like the Irish Housing Network and Home Sweet Home, we celebrate this as a major achievement. Indeed, many of our members were involved on the ground. Tom Ryan, the PBP convenor for Clondalkin spent many days and nights in the occupation. Reflecting on his experience, he had this to say,
Apollo House shone a light on the homelessness situation in Ireland like nothing before it. It forced the government to accept that there was a national emergency not just a housing shortage. In less than a month people power achieved more in this country that the last two governments have in nearly a decade.
When people came into Apollo House they were able to take off their coat of hopelessness, loneliness and despair and replace it with a coat of love, hope and solidarity. We got 90 six months beds when the government said there were none – this shows people power works when we push in the right direction.
As inspiring as Apollo House was, it would be wrong to assume that we should merely replicate it. Taking on the physical and care needs of some of them most vulnerable people in the state is extremely onerous and is not a model that can easily be generalised. Instead, it is best to see Apollo as a major first step in a longer campaign.
Like Right2Water, the Apollo Occupation can be a lightning rod that helps us to generalise in two important directions. On the one hand, we should seek to bring as many people as possible into grassroots self-activity.
R2W was so successful precisely because it mobilised hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets. If we are to capture the full potential of Apollo House then it should act as part of a wider movement for housing justice in the state. The end goal here should be a mass movement with democratic structures and the maximum input of all of the stakeholders.
To achieve this we should also generalise out from the issue of homelessness. Without forgetting our obligation to eradicate homelessness this means looking at the wider issues of rising rents, endless waiting lists and mortgage arrears.
Direct action has proved an effective method that can now be spread. This means assessing the potential to stop evictions and/or to occupy NAMA buildings. One practical step in this direction would be to draw up an inventory of NAMA owned property in your local area and work with likeminded people to take them over. Alongside this we should be relating to tenants being gouged by their landlords, people stuck on the housing list and anyone else being hammered by the states policy on housing.
Politically, the most important legacy of Apollo will be the movement that it helps to deliver. Apollo was an inspirational act of civil disobedience that we should look to generalise as soon as possible.