Organizing against the Irish housing emergency

  • February 20, 2017

City & Commons

The occupation of Apollo House in Dublin was the largest direct action in Ireland in recent years, but it did not materialize out of nowhere.

On December 16, 2016 media reporters and cameramen jostled each outside the carpark of Apollo House, a nine-storey city center office building in Dublin that had been lying vacant for over a year. The journalists were there to report on a “public intervention” into the ongoing homelessness emergency in the city, in which a campaign group called Home Sweet Home, led by well-known celebrities and musicians Glen Hansard and Damien Dempsey, occupied the empty building and opened it as a hostel for the city’s homeless.

In the face of a housing crisis that has been intensifying ever since the economic crash in 2008, visible rough sleeping on the city’s streets, rising homelessness statistics, soaring rent, and the large-scale purchase of property and mortgage loan-books by predatory foreign vulture funds, this collection of activists occupied the building, which is controlled by NAMA, the government-owned asset management agency set up at the height of the crisis to swallow the toxic loans incurred by the nation’s property developers and speculators.

Over three-and-a-half weeks during the coldest time of the year, Apollo House provided beds for over 90 homeless people, in a welcoming and safe environment that was open 24 hours a day and where they could come and go as they pleased. In contrast to the previous month, no homeless people lost their lives in Ireland while the occupation was going on. The campaign received 4,000 applications from people who wanted to help, and collected over €160,000 on the campaign crowdfunding page, as well as receiving countless personal testimonies from people whose own lives had been affected by the ongoing crisis — young families forced to move back into their parents’ homes with their children, or sleeping in their cars.

Above all, the Apollo House occupation generated an unprecedented amount of media attention on the homelessness and housing emergency in the face of government inaction, and forced Simon Coveney, the Minister of Housing, to the negotiating table to try to get the activists to leave peacefully.

Organizing a Network

But though it might have appeared spontaneous, this was a well-planned and well-organized campaign. The various actors were able to move fast when the opportunity presented itself only because the networks were already in place. “Organizing” is a word thrown about a lot by the left, as the essential step in the creation of powerful movements that can effect change, but often what “organizing” actually involves can be harder to pinpoint.

Examining how the Home Sweet Home campaign was built can help us get a clearer understanding of how strong social movements are built, and how the successes of the campaign can be emulated in other cities and towns in Ireland, or indeed around the world. A quick glance at the organizing work that went into Home Sweet Home shows us that it was following a long tradition of organizing grassroots movements of civil disobedience and direct action, such as that of the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Although Home Sweet Home was a new campaign, the organizations that made it up were not. It was an alliance of the artists and celebrities, who gave the occupation a massive public profile; the militant Unite trade union; and the Irish Housing Network, a decentralized and grassroots network of housing action groups located throughout the island of Ireland that has been agitating on behalf of people affected by the housing crisis for several years.

The occupation of Apollo House was not the first use of direct action by the Irish Housing Network: in 2015 they squatted another vacant building (this one owned by Dublin City Council) and opened it as a hostel for the homeless — the Bolt Hostel. They have been involved in organizing resistance to evictions, such as the eviction of homeless families from emergency accommodation on Mountjoy Square in February 2016. So the occupation of Apollo House did not come out the blue, but grew out of years of experience of similar occupations and resistance.

The main difference this time around was the huge amount of publicity generated as a result of the public support of a few well-known figures.

A Broad Coalition

The very structure of the Irish Housing Network also reminds us of older social movements. Like the SCLC and the SNCC in the American South in the 1950s and 1960s, it is not a single, centralized organization, but rather, as its name suggests, a network of affiliated housing action groups from throughout Ireland, grassroots groups that defend the rights of tenants and homeowners in the areas they operate in. The unification of diverse actors in a broad campaign was another tactic reminiscent of previous successful movements.

The filmmakers, musicians and other celebrities played a vital role in the campaign, bringing it very quickly to the public eye, and adding by way of their profile to the popularity and perceived legitimacy of the occupation. Among the Irish household names associated with the campaign were musicians Glen Hansard (who starred in the film Once), folk-singer Christy Moore, dubliner Damien Dempsey, and filmmakers Terence McKenna and Jim Sheridan.

Another group whose involvement was crucial were the up to 200 volunteers who came in to Apollo House to help with the running of the hostel, many of them ordinary citizens who were motivated by the social media campaign to try to help in whatever way they could. Finally, Home Sweet Home had from the beginning strong involvement and input from people directly experiencing homelessness.

The demands and concerns of the residents of Apollo House were the primary focus of the campaign during the running of the hostel and in the negotiations with the government. The decision to leave Apollo House at the end of the occupation was a decision reached by the residents and supported by all the staff, whose concern was primarily for their safety, and not for their utility as pawns in a confrontation with forces of the state.

An effective and well-organized division of labor among the volunteer staff was central to the functioning of Apollo House as a homeless shelter. There was a sixty-strong security team, a social care team working directly with the residents, as well as kitchen, cleaning and maintenance teams. On the seventh floor, the administration, finance, legal, outreach and media teams had their offices, including professional lawyers, journalists and social media strategists who gave their time to the project. Though residents were kept at the centre of decision-making, staff were clearly differentiated from service users by hi-viz vests. The media team played a key role in coordinating the message that went out to the press and on social media as the glare of public interest fixed itself on the campaign.

The campaign focused on both short and long-term demands, from demanding that the immediate needs of residents of Apollo House for secure, safe, long-term accommodation be met, to calling for the basic Human Right to Housing be enshrined in the constitution (Ireland opted out of Article 31, which acknowledges the Human Right to Housing, when it ratified the European Social Charter). Representatives of the trade union Unite, experienced at negotiation, played an important part in talks with the government where these demands were articulated.

Republican Tradition

Home Sweet Home was, however, also strongly rooted in the tradition of Irish left-activism. Many of the activists come from the Irish republican tradition, a tradition that has been central to almost all left-wing activism from the creation of the state. The Irish Housing Network is a 32-county network. Its spiritual precursor, the Dublin Housing Action Committee, which agitated in the 1960s for an end to the housing crisis that was plaguing the city then too, was formed by left-republican elements such as Mairín de Burca, a Sinn Féin activist linked to the socialist wing of the republican movement, which would later split to become Official Sinn Féin.

The key element of the success of the movement was the willingness of all involved to operate outside of formal legality. This was the biggest act of civil disobedience and direct action in Ireland in recent memory, and yet it was enormously popular — the general public realizing that if the government was not going to act, to turn the huge number of empty buildings in its control through NAMA to use, then it was up to the ordinary people to do something.

Nonetheless, the forces of the state and law-and-order were quick to condemn the action as illegal. Mazars, the receivers appointed by NAMA for Apollo House, claimed that their “immediate priority and concern has been the health and safety of the homeless people seeking shelter there,” while at the same time seeking a High Court order to have the homeless residents thrown out on the street. The High Court ruled against the occupiers, but with an eye to the optics of the situation put a stay on the injunction until after Christmas, allowing the hostel to remain open until January 11.

When an extension was sought in January, however, Mr Justice Gilligan, the conservative High Court judge in charge of the case, claimed that homelessness “was not an issue for the courts,” saying that “if this had been allowed to drag on it could be interpreted that the attitude of the courts was to facilitate people to occupy other properties and that the court would take a benevolent view, that would lead to an intolerable situation in a democratic state, so I am not going to get involved in an argument as to whether or not Dublin City Council have provided suitable accommodation.” Once again, the Irish state had privileged private property over the basic right of people to safe and secure accommodation.

This attitude is reminiscent of that of Minister for Housing Simon Coveney, who said that “to occupy a building and try and put supports together in an ad hoc way is not the way to deal with this,” and that “there is an emergency bed for everyone who wants one.” The emergency beds he was referring to were not like the beds in Apollo House that were accessible 24 hours a day, and were kept for each resident. Instead homeless people using these official emergency services are forced out on the street in the morning and have to ring a homeless helpline to look for a new bed each night.

Furthermore, many of the beds the minister was referring to were not private beds suitable for couples, or for people who don’t take drugs or are attempting to recover from drug addiction. One resident who was offered such a bed came back to Apollo House with a story of blood on the walls and the mattress and syringes on the floor. In contrast, Apollo House was a dry and safe environment.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., during the increasingly radical turn he took towards the end of his life, wrote a Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he addressed liberal moderates who disapproved of the movement’s tactic of civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action: “You deplore the demonstrations taking place… But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.”

He could just as easily have been speaking to people such as Irish Times columnist Kathy Sheridan, who derided the occupation as an immature stunt, or failed Fine Gael candidate William Whittle who demonstrated his compassion for vulnerable by calling for services to be cut off and the occupiers “frozen out” and claimed the activists were “an absolute disgrace trespassing on state property.”

Today, direct action movements committed to using civil disobedience as a tactic in the struggle, such as the Home Sweet Home campaign in Ireland or the resistance in Standing Rock that forced the Obama administration to suspend the Dakota Access Pipeline (since restarted by Trump), are timely reminders that we need not wait for elites to condescend to make the necessary changes, and that ordinary people have the power to play a role in the political sphere and effect change in the world.

However, as an analysis of the Home Sweet Home campaign indicates, strong social movements such as this do not materialize out of thin air. Instead, they are the results of the slow, painstaking work of organizing and movement-building, and the construction of allegiances between networks of preexisting groups with similar goals and aspirations.

Tomás Lynch

Tomás Lynch is an activist working with refugees and migrants in Greece and Serbia. Back home in Ireland, he is involved in the Home Sweet Home campaign, and the media collective.

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