A new approach is needed to housing crisis, not the same old failed policies

As has so often been the case a single photograph has put an ongoing humanitarian crisis into stark perspective and galvanised the public.

The ongoing housing and homelessness crisis has been in the news for years now with harrowing stories of hardship emerging from every county on a near daily basis.

Despite this the majority of the public have, until very recently, paid scant attention to the issue.

Hotels and hostels the length and breadth of the country may have been full of homeless families but, to a large extent, the general public seemed not to care all that much.

Out of sight out of mind, as they say.

The lack of public outrage has given the Government an excuse for inaction. With no public outcry the political consequences of ignoring the problem were relatively minor.

Hard-left parties made noise in the Dáil but their supporters were hardly likely to vote Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil in any case.

Cold electoral thinking came into play. Why waste time and cash pandering to people who won’t vote for you anyway?

Given the number of landlords in the Dáil – who have vested financial interest in the status quo – there has also been a limited appetite among TDs to seriously address the situation.

Last week the situation changed, literally, overnight.

The photos of Margaret Cash and her children sleeping on benches in Tallaght Garda Station shocked and appalled the public.

The images – which were appalling – showed the human impact of the crisis in the starkest possible terms.

Whatever your opinion of Ms Cash – and plenty of anonymous Internet trolls have attacked her in the vilest terms since her story emerged – no one can deny that the sight of a little boy in his school uniform, huddled on a plastic bench in a garda station lobby is anything other than heartbreaking.

Images of suffering children have a powerful way of galvanising public opinion. Think of the dead baby on the beach that parked the Syrian rescue efforts; the naked, napalm-scorched, young girl in Vietnam or images of child starvation in Africa.

The Cash family’s situation is not as serious – they aren’t fleeing war or starving to death – but they, and many others need our help.

The photos of the Cash family sum up how the State continues to fail its most vulnerable. For years the Government have been allowed get away with utterly failed policies that have done almost nothing to deal with the housing crisis.

The developer focussed approach has been an abject failure and it needs to be ditched. NAMA’s remit should be changed to encourage it to provide development lands to councils and housing bodies that can and will provide houses to those who most need them. Most importantly the Government needs to start spending.

Wishful thinking hasn’t worked and the private sector – eyeing enormous profits – hasn’t offered up a magic solution. It is clearly time for a fresh and more aggressive approach to this crisis.

Perhaps Mr Varadkar and Minister Murphy might look to Franklin Roosevelt for inspiration because, right now, thousands of Irish families desperately need a ‘New Deal.’

The case of Margaret Cash, the Dublin mother of seven who slept in Tallaght Garda Station last week when the homeless family could not secure accommodation, has been a widespread source of debate in the past week.

The image of her children huddled up asleep on the station’s waiting room benches was a harrowing sight and you would have to have a heart of stone not to feel for them.

Since she hit the headlines, and said that the State has failed to house her and her children, she has been the target of much abuse and criticism for her parenting and lifestyle choices which have only served to distract from the issue at heart.

Slating the woman for her personal choices, and situations where she may have had no control over, does not change the fact that no child in this country should be sleeping on a garda station bench.

There seems to be a disturbing view that by helping this family and the many others like them, society is somehow enabling them to ‘play the system’.

This is a load of rubbish, because, regardless of whether a parent can afford to house a child or not, that child still needs to be accommodated.

Nobody should have the view that they should sink or swim alone, and when there are children involved, particularly, the State has a duty of care to them.

It is understood that Ms Cash has been on a social housing list for 11 years. If this is true and she has not been housed in all that time then the system is even worse than many of us thought.

While she has taken plenty of abuse since she went public after that night, what do the critics say about the dozens of other families in Dublin alone who also presented to garda stations?

They are not all playing the system or creaming off the State. If anybody had any sort of means to pay for suitable accommodation, of course they would secure it privately for the sake of their children rather than having the face the shame of presenting as homeless in a garda station.

We all know the problems with the lack of housing, extortionate rents and a list of housing applicants which is growing far more rapidly than properties can be sourced or built.

Blaming those in need, however, is never going to be a solution.