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The dire combination of homelessness and imprisonment

We are more than individuals, but part of a community with shared moral responsibilities

In ‘Down and Out in Covent Garden’ – from his collected pieces in The Dog’s Last Walk (2017) – Howard Jacobson asserts: “Sentimentality works by our seeing only what we want to see.” This thought was prompted as Jacobson left the Royal Opera House grieving for a victim of operatic tuberculosis, “only to have to pick my way between the homeless camped out in their cardboard boxes….” Jacobson veers from aesthetically pleasing imitation suffering “into misery which no great composer has laboured over and no singer rendered exquisite”. How could such jarring disparities be addressed? Jacobson wasn’t sure.

The philosopher L Susan Stebbing (1885-1943) argued that social change was determined by economics, power and… ideas. The most important of these, Stebbing wrote, was ideas. But which ideas? First, some facts. According to Focus Ireland, there were 8,060 people homeless between 22-28 March 2021 across Ireland, including adults and children. And when Moloney et al investigated ‘Homelessness amongst psychiatric Inpatients: A cross sectional study in the mid-west of Ireland’ they reported in the Irish Journal of Medical Science (15 February 2021) that homelessness can contribute to, and be a result of, mental illness; and “[w]ith homelessness at unprecedented levels, there is a need for the development of tailored programmes aimed at supporting these vulnerable groups”.

And it is the well-chosen word “need” in the previous sentence that is of the utmost importance and which must be used to remind those in government – ie power (see Stebbing’s social change triumvirate above) – of their responsibilities. A need was said dismissively to be “something you want, but are not prepared to pay for”.

But as Baroness Mary Warnock pointed out, when she addressed the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh on 30 June 1995, “[i]n a perverse way there is truth in this.” If we accept the principle of equality, common goods such as education or a health service generate necessities, “needs,” which are more than “wants”. It is axiomatic that such needs, being matters of entitlement in an equal, civilised society, generate rights. Thus, Moloney et al’s “need for… tailored programmes [to support]… these vulnerable groups” asserts the rights of these vulnerable groups; rights, moreover, which those in government are duty-bound to address. In the context of social change being wrought through economics, power and ideas, the susceptibility of economics and power to err, let’s call it… mishandling, is demonstrated by a quote from Fintan O’Toole’s Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic tiger (2009, p117): “The State ended up subsidising – to the tune of around €2 billion in all – the building of houses whose purpose was to provide shelter, not for real people, but for the taxes of their builders.”

Returning to ideas, on 27 July 2004, in a speech to the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama said: “If there is a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child… it is that fundamental belief – I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper – that makes this country work.” Obama’s idea identifies the kernel of a truth that we are more than individuals, but part of a community, a community with shared moral responsibilities. And his choice of words in claiming that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers is particularly apt, especially in the context of a review from the University of Limerick and Trinity College Dublin recently published in the International Journal of Prisoner Health.

In ‘From Nowhere to Nowhere. Homelessness and Incarceration: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis’ Bashir et al evaluated 18 studies from the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, and Australia: “The estimated prevalence of initial homelessness was 23.41 per cent and at time of discharge was 29.94 per cent.” The study’s senior author and project supervisor Prof Gautam Gulati of the University of Limerick said: “Homelessness in prisoners is an issue of international concern and one that encompasses fundamental human rights. In Ireland, nearly one-in-six people committed to prison are homeless. These individuals face an uphill struggle in reintegration with society, often with additional challenges, such as severe mental illness.”

For a society that might aspire to be one with shared moral responsibilities, as Obama suggested, the dire combination of homelessness and imprisonment begs the question of whether we have lost our sense of outrage. It is a sign of hope that ideas keep coming. For example, Prof Gulati says, “Every prison must have a specialist in housing and every prison mental health team, a dedicated social worker.” And the Peter McVerry Trust, Ireland’s national housing and homeless charity “has called for an extension to a deadline that applies to a key regulation that allows long-term vacant buildings to be reused as housing”.

A fruitful combination of Stebbing’s vision of social change through economics, power, and ideas can be achieved, but competent politicians committed to honouring the rights of society’s most vulnerable are needed to implement it.

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