COMMENT: Conor Skehan pissed off nearly everyone in the homelessness sector but they still won't let him leave his job
No matter how hard Conor Skehan tries, they will not let him go...
The chairperson of the Housing Agency planned to retire from his position. He handed in his notice, the end was in sight.
No one thought much of it. The role is unpaid, despite its €103 million budget. A new chairperson would be appointed and the homelessness crisis would continue to lurch from one bad story to another housing minister and an accompanying policy change.
In his final month in the job, a time traditionally spent winding down and having goodbye lunches with colleagues, Conor Skehan, the outgoing chairperson, gave an interview to the Irish Times.
It could have been a run-of-the mill, homelessness is bad, the government isn’t doing enough, charities are the bright lights, people are very generous over Christmas, kind of interview. Instead Conor Skehan released a dragon into the wild fires of activists and homelessness sympathisers.
“We unwittingly created a problem by prioritising self-declared homelessness above all other types of housing need, which created a distortion in the waiting list system and may have encouraged people to game the system," said Skehan.
Skehan casted no aspersions about the morality of those who are “gaming the system”, rather he pointed to a reactive policy decision of Alan Kelly as the reason for a spike in the numbers of homeless people.
Kelly's policy was announced following the death of Jonathan Corrie, a rough sleeper who died on a doorstep opposite Leinster house. Under the new policy 50% of social housing in Dublin City and County was allocated to people who were already homeless. Prior to this, 10 per cent of social housing was allocated to homeless families or individuals in Dublin city and 4-6 per cent in the rest of Dublin.
At the end of 2014, 331 families were living in emergency accommodation, By the end of 2015, 683 homeless families were living in emergency accommodation, that figure has now reached over 1,530.
Based on these figures, Conor Skehan said the Government may have encouraged people to exploit the social housing allocation system.
In response to Skehan's comments, on Monday night Dublin City Council passed a motion calling for the him to be removed from his position.
At the same meeting, a majority of Dublin city councillors voted to lower and reface a flood defence sea wall in Clontarf by 30cm, at a cost of up to €500k, purely for aesthetic reasons. A night well spent.
Skehan might have intended his Irish Times comments as a mic drop. As a top housing advisor to the government, why not give his informed and experienced opinion in an interview, why not say, as he had previously, that "homelessness is normal" and point out that Ireland has a particularly low rate of homeless people in comparison to the rest of Europe?
Why not say that having 28 homelessness charities in Dublin is too many and a waste of government funding and public resources?
In response to a request for an interview for this story a member of Skehan's communications team said, "I'm afraid Conor is doing no media at the minute". That reluctance is understandable as what has followed Skehan's previous interviews has been a barrage of negative comments and reactions.
From far and wide politicians and interested parties have weighed in on Skehan, calling on the traditional vocabulary of emotion- disgrace, outrage, shock, horror- to express their dissatisfaction with his comments.
Sinn Féin’s Daithí Doolan, said Mr Skehan had “disqualified himself” by his recent comments on homelessness.
Dublin City Council want Conor Skehan to leave his position, Labour, Sinn Fein, Simon Commmunity, Focus Ireland, People Before Profit want him gone and Conor Skehan could not have made it clearer he wanted to leave.
And yet the minister for housing, Eoghan Murphy, has reappointed Conor Skehan to the role, so there Skehan must remain until the end the year at least.
Eoghan Murphy, the administer of employment and power in this play, has said Skehan is entitled to his opinion on the matter and it was "fair enough" that he comments on the implications of previous housing policies.
The Department of Housing did not respond directly to Skehan's comments, but said in a statement, "Homelessness is a highly complex issue. The Department will continue to work with all stakeholders in order to provide the appropriate supports and accommodation to those who need them."
It seems nothing Skehan can do will allow him safe passage out of his role.
And so we have entered a farce.
Let Him Go, say the chorus. Let Him Go, say the crowds. Let Me Go, says the internal monologue of Conor Skehan.
Dublin City Council's motion on Monday won't have much effect. "The motion was designed to give him a bit of a kicking but that’s all really," one councillor said. "The council have no real authority on this.. or anything really."
At present it seems the Housing Agency chairperson is one voice in a slowly changing tide of public opinion around homelessness, but Skehan is not saying anything revolutionary or working off assumptions. His comments come after five years as a government advisor on the issue. He is, in his own way, simply reflecting the complexity of an issue everyone accepts is complex.
Time will tell whether his voice will remain solitary or if the next year of his tenure will bring greater support for unpopular opinions and the government's role in perpetuating a crisis. In the interim, the farce continues.