Statement by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference to mark International Human Rights Day on 10 December 2015

09 Dec 2015


Bishops express concern that the fundamental human right to housing is not being adequately protected.

Urgent intervention is required to prevent more families becoming homeless this winter.

In Laudato si’ Pope Francis outlines a vision for an environment, at both local and global level, that supports integral human development.  A core element of this environment is the home: “Lack of housing is a grave problem in many parts of the world, both in rural areas and in large cities, since state budgets usually cover only a small portion of the demand.  Not only the poor, but many other members of society as well, find it difficult to own a home.  Having a home has much to do with a sense of personal dignity and the growth of families.  This is a major issue for human ecology” (152).

A fundamental human right

In 2014 the Constitutional Convention voted in favour of including explicit recognition of the right to housing in the Constitution.  Although Ireland has already ratified international treaties that include housing rights, a constitutional amendment would make an important contribution to the legal and policy frameworks required to address the inadequacies of the current system, which can only be resolved through a coordinated approach across a range of government departments.  The right to adequate housing is outlined in Article 25 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and supported in Catholic Social Teaching, notably in Pope John XIII’s enumeration of fundamental human rights in his 1963 Encyclical Letter Pacem in Terris (11).  It is central to the protection of human dignity as so many other rights depend on having a secure home, such as health, education and work.  Homelessness and housing insecurity have a major impact on wellbeing, affecting health, relationships, access to education and employment and a person’s ability to participate in society and contribute to the community.  Serious long-term consequences can arise from the impact of this insecurity on children.  Housing issues can be both a major cause and a consequence of family breakdown.  Unsuitable emergency provision – such as the housing of families in a hotel room – leads to serious child welfare and safeguarding concerns.

A question of values

As we work for economic recovery, protecting the common good and promoting social cohesion need to be prioritised in policy decisions.  Increasing numbers of individuals and families registering as homeless this year points to serious failures in social policy and inadequate social protection.  In Dublin more families have presented as homeless in recent months than at the height of the economic crisis, or indeed at any time in modern Irish history.  The problem is not limited to Dublin, however, and there are families in trouble across the island of Ireland.  For those living in a property in mortgage arrears, the family home has become a source of constant worry and insecurity.  We need a strategy for dealing with mortgage arrears which recognises that a family home is much more than a property or asset.  It is vital that the policies of banks and financial institutions in relation to homeowners and tenants not only conform to the highest standards of ethical practice, but support the common good by working with families to enable them to stay in their homes.  Urgent intervention is required to prevent more families becoming homeless this winter.

Pushing people to the margins of our society

Some groups of people experience particular obstacles in accessing housing, which can lead to feelings of isolation, alienation and a perception of rejection by society.  The tragic loss of life experienced in the Travelling community in October this year highlighted the particular vulnerability of many Traveller families resulting from the failure to honour commitments to address the cultural needs of that community in relation to housing.  The outpouring of concern in the wake of this tragedy needs to be followed by urgent action to ensure the safety of families.

We have repeatedly expressed our concern for the damaging impact of the Direct Provision system on people seeking asylum and those who have been granted leave to remain in Ireland, but are unable to find accommodation to allow them to move on.  As we prepare to welcome new waves of refugees from Syria and Eritrea, this situation needs to be resolved urgently in a way that will support integration and social cohesion.

For many vulnerable people such as those leaving prison, or young people leaving institutional care, our society can appear unwelcoming and unsupportive.  This is putting people at risk and preventing them from participating in society and making their contribution, with significant long-term costs.

A global challenge for the future

Across the world, we can see that inadequate protection for the right to housing is causing humanitarian crises, and laying the foundation for further crises in the future.  As the current refugee crisis has demonstrated, no country can evade its responsibilities to address the situation of those displaced from their homes through conflict, poverty or environmental degradation.  In the spirit of the Encyclical Letter Laudato si’ we remember that the earth is our common home.  Our disregard for the responsibility to care for creation is endangering the homes of vulnerable communities throughout the world.  We need to show leadership in our parish communities, examining how our lifestyle, attitudes and our consumption of goods and resources impact on the rest of the human family.

A Pastoral Concern for the Church

In this season of Advent it is important that we, in our local church communities, reach out to those who are living with the painful reality of homelessness or housing insecurity.  Pope Francis has expressed grave concern about the situation of those who are without a home, often going to meet with them and bring them a message of hope and solidarity in their suffering.  Addressing homeless people in Washington in September 2015 the Pope said “The Son of God came into this world as a homeless person.  The Son of God knew what it was to be a homeless person, what it was to start life without a roof over his head.  We can imagine what Joseph must have been thinking.  How is it that the Son of God has no home?  Why are we homeless, why don’t we have housing?  These are questions which many of you may ask daily. Like Saint Joseph, you may ask: Why are we homeless, without a place to live?”

Addressing the Catholic charities supporting the homeless people of the city, Pope Francis underlined the importance of their work, asking ‘Why do these, our brothers and sisters, have no place to live?’ and assuring them that Christ is close to them in our work.  We pay tribute to those organisations in Ireland, from the faith-based and community and voluntary sectors, working to address and prevent homelessness both here and throughout the world.  This is demanding work, where need is far exceeding capacity, and volunteers are bearing witness to terrible suffering.  These organisations need and deserve our support.

There is still a terrible stigma and shame attached to homelessness, which can cause people to feel even more isolated, and may prevent them seeking the help they need.  We can help address this situation in our church communities by informing ourselves about homelessness and ensuring that our parish communities are welcoming and supportive environments for those who find themselves in this situation.

An opportunity to re-build lives and communities

In the words of Pope Francis: “We can find no social or moral justification, no justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing,” (24 September 2015).  Housing is an area where we can make a profound difference to people’s lives, with significant long-term benefits.  The present situation requires:

A redoubling of efforts by all relevant statutory and voluntary agencies in order to pool resources to prevent the death of homeless people on our streets;

Investment in social housing to provide sustainable solutions to the housing issues in our communities;

A strategy for dealing with mortgage arrears which enables families to remain in their homes;

Urgent intervention to address the housing needs of the Travelling Community;

A coordinated response to the refugee crisis, in partnership with local communities, which ensures that the needs of those who are already here seeking asylum in our society are not overlooked;

Support for those charities working in Ireland and throughout the world to support those who have lost, or are at risk of losing their home.

For media contact: Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Martin Long 00353 (0) 86 172 7678 and Brenda Drumm 00353 (0) 87 310 4444