1. Opening Lines
‘My friend Herb McGinnis, a cardiologist, was talking. The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin.’
So opens an early version of a Raymond Carver story ‘Drinking gin and talking about love,’ that would later, after edits by Gordon Lish, be published as ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. In the subsequent, edited, version, the story opens differently: ‘My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.’ I prefer the later version, and not just because I like the name ‘Mel’ better. There’s something about the reference to the ‘right’ to talk that hints at the relationship dynamics within the story, and to the dark underbelly of love. Herb/Mel is a cardiologist, and no one can dispute that he’s familiar with the physical entity that is the human heart; but it turns out that although he may know plenty about cardiology, he knows almost nothing at all about love.
Let’s rename Herb/Mel one more time and give him a new job:
‘My friend Conor Skehan was talking. Conor Skehan is Chairman of the Housing Agency, and sometimes that gives him the right.’
2. Dirty Realism
On October 29th 2017 the Sunday Business Post carried an article on its front page about housing charities entitled ‘State to launch housing charity value-for-money investigation’. Inside the newspaper was what was billed as an ‘interview’ with Conor Skehan, outgoing Chairman of the Housing Agency. Skehan said housing charities ‘amplified’ the problem of homelessness. He said ‘there’s a very real risk of us giving attention to the wrong issues because people who have a vested interest in seeing this as an industry make it appear to be an unusual or a great problem.’ The article references a ‘2015 audit report by Mazars’ and refers to Mazars as ‘independent auditors.’
Once, when one of my short stories was being edited by an American magazine, the fact-checker emailed me a picture of the railings around the duck pond in Stephen’s Green. The fact-checker was based in New York City, and had no personal knowledge of the railings, but she’d sourced an image via Google Maps. Your story refers to the railings being gun metal green, she wrote, but it would appear that they are black? I confirmed that yes, the railings were indeed black, but I had my reasons for preferring to make them green for the purposes of the story. I very much appreciated the question, and everyone concerned was happy for the fictional railings, once checked, to remain green. In fiction, a fact-checker’s job is to interrogate the accuracy of what is presented as fact, to catch any slips that might undermine the credibility of the story, that might unintentionally hijack the reader’s attention and divert it from the truths toward which the story is, hopefully, headed.
I thought about those railings as I read the Sunday Business Post article. I was familiar with that 2015 Mazars report, and knew what it had said. About Mazars themselves, I know roughly as much as Herb/Mel McGinnis knows about love. They’re an accountancy/taxation consulting firm that count among their clients Irish public sector bodies. In the Sunday Business Post interview, reference is made to findings of ‘overlapping and duplication of services,’ and it quotes Skehan as saying the sector was ‘bloated and inefficient.’ The Mazars report of December 2015 didn’t find overlapping and duplication of services. Before going on to talk about what the report did find, I’d like to signal briefly those things that it didn’t consider, as well as the circumstances in which the report came into being. Readers of fiction, and particularly short fiction, will appreciate that it’s from what is not said that the most important insights are often to be gleaned.
In the 2015 report, Mazars explain how they were engaged by the Department to carry out an Independent Review of Homeless Services following a competitive tender process. They state: ‘Although interviews with key players in the sector and collecting management information were initially outlined as aspects of the RFT requirements, and consultation with service providers and other stakeholders was suggested by Mazars in our original proposal with a view to collecting service and financial information in a standard and thus comparable fashion, in view of the timeframe within which this report was required to be produced the Department requested that this Report be prepared solely on the basis of available information in the public domain and information provided by the Department and the HSE. (italics mine) This has meant that we have been unable to complete the review in accordance with the full terms of reference. In particular we have been unable to: …’ There follows a list of things that Mazars state they’d been unable to do, too many to include here. However among them was ‘identify potential gaps and/or duplication in the provision of services.’ They also said they’d been unable to assess the degree to which value for money was being achieved. This is entirely different to making a finding on any of those things.
The report is available to read online here.
At various points Mazars set out what they’d planned to do, and what was actually done. What we’re left with is essentially a report which recommends that there should be a report. There’s a lot of collating of information taken from third-party websites. It’s worth noting that while the Skehan interview questions the work of charities, the Mazars report was actually about ‘homeless services’, including, for example, statutory service providers such as Dublin local authorities, the Health Office – Dublin South City, as well as private landlords. Mazars also mention how funding figures quoted in the report include ‘funding for related services including disability, mental health etc. which it has not been possible to separate based on the data available.’
3. Magical Realism
‘…Ireland’s national conversation about housing is riddled with unquestioned “facts” that are not based in reality.’ (Conor Skehan in Surveyors Journal)
‘Herb, for God’s sake,’ Terri said. ‘This is depressing stuff. This could get very depressing. Even if you think it’s true,’ she said, ‘it’s still depressing.’ (‘Drinking Gin and Talking About Love’, Raymond Carver)
In the Irish Times last year, in an article headed ‘Housing plan shows welcome signs of joined up thinking,’ Conor Skehan said: ‘It is important to reflect upon our expectations about housing. Earlier this month, over 4,000 people rioted in Berlin about rents. Last week, London’s mayor vowed to deal with the city’s 8,000 rough sleepers. Other European cities also struggle with rough sleeping – Helsinki (4,000) Lisbon (2,000) Stockholm (1,500) and Glasgow (800). Dublin has an estimated 130.’
I’m not sure where he was going with the rioting, but let’s consider the figures. It’s difficult to compare figures relating to homelessness, due to uses of different definitions and different ways of collecting and presenting data, and because definitions change over time. For example, Skehan refers to Stockholm. Stockholm employs a broad definition of homelessness and defines a homeless person as someone without their own housing or a permanent home, who relies on temporary accommodation or sleeps rough: it includes people living in institutions or shelters with no permanent home to go to once they leave, and people staying temporarily with friends or relatives for more than 3 months. Skehan doesn’t say where he got his figures from, but the figure he’s quoted for Dublin looks like it might be a head count figure for people sleeping rough. In Dublin in winter 2016 there were 142 people sleeping rough, in spring 2017 there were 161, in winter 2017 (counted on November 7th) there were 184. These figures are based on head counts that are carried out a number of times a year on selected nights. They’re not to be confused with total numbers of people sleeping rough annually, or availing of homeless services annually, and they don’t include people in emergency accommodation or hostels or refuges, or otherwise in need of housing.
At 130, Skehan’s quoted figure for people sleeping rough in Dublin would have been more or less accurate at the time the article went to press (it has since increased). But what of the figures he quoted by way of comparison with other cities, the ones he used when telling us to reflect upon our expectations? London, based on Autumn 2016 figures, had a rough-sleeping head count of 964 people, not the 8,000 mentioned in the article. And statistics recently released by the Scottish Public Health Observatory for 2016/2017, indicate that on a typical night in Scotland 660 people are sleeping rough. Since this is the figure for the whole country, it’s difficult to see where Skehan’s figure of 800 for the city of Glasgow comes from. As to Lisbon, the website of the European Observatory on Homelessness in June 2017 gives a figure of 334 people sleeping rough in Lisbon, not 2,000. The figure Skehan quotes for Helsinki, at 4,000, is so far off course as to border on the bizarre. Finland, whose national homelessness strategy is based on the Housing First model, is one of the few EU countries where homelessness is in steady decline and where rough sleeping has been almost entirely eradicated.
In the Sunday Business Post article Conor Skehan also showed himself to have an unusual take on Apollo House, saying: ‘We saw how quickly it was abandoned because of the inability of people who had taken over a building to manage the tenants.’ I wasn’t in any way involved in Apollo House, but I seem to recall there being a whole court procedure thingy. Wasn’t there an injunction to vacate the building, rather than an ‘abandonment’?
‘Come on now,’ Terri said. ‘Don’t talk like you’re drunk if you’re not drunk.’
‘Just shut up for once in your life,’ Mel said very quietly. ‘Will you do me a favour and do that for a minute?’ (Carver, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’)
In an interview on Morning Ireland on November 13th 2017, during which he again referenced that Mazars Report, Conor Skehan said that the danger is we spend our money on the wrong things. Quite. At the Fine Gael National Conference on November 10th, Leo Varadkar had claimed that Ireland’s homelessness figures were low by international standards and Skehan was on the radio to say that the Taoiseach was right. The Housing Agency has expended significant sums on communication and media services, and so, listening to Skehan on the radio, I couldn’t help feeling that, as a member of the public, I’d paid for the privilege of being misinformed. Payments listed on the Agency’s website for the year 2015 refer to a sum of €85,000 payable to Carr Communications (figures for previous and subsequent years are not on the website at the time of writing). I can’t help thinking I’d rather that money had gone to one of the charities that the Housing Agency’s Chairman has so blithely undermined by his comments. And while the Government is happy to itself spend money on media consultants, it seems that it would prefer if housing charities stopped talking. That Sunday Business Post article quoted ‘a source’ as saying: ‘We do give them huge volumes of money and we feel that some of the criticism that Skehan puts forward would be justified and we need to figure out if that is factually the case. Is it going into getting people into homes or advocacy? If it’s going into advocacy it needs to stop, we don’t need to pay to hear views on the radio.’
Firstly, the Department of Housing needs to get its irony barometer fixed. Secondly, let’s consider for a moment the idea that advocacy funding must stop. Before the Mazars Review of Homeless Services in December 2015, there was, among other publications, the first report of the Homelessness Oversight Group, chaired, coincidentally, by Mark Kennedy of Mazars, and published in December 2013. Far from being of the view that homelessness was an inevitability, something that must be with us always, the group were of the belief that the goals of ending long term homelessness and the need to sleep rough could be achieved by 2016. When setting out points that needed to be acted upon urgently, the group said: ‘Advocacy and the provision of information appear to offer a significant opportunity to prevent individuals becoming homeless. We would welcome the extension of funding available under Section 10 of the Housing Act 1988 to advocacy and information services.’
A few days after Leo Varadkar had claimed that Ireland had a low level of homelessness, Eileen Gleeson, Director of the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive, made the claim that homeless people are homeless because of years of ‘bad behaviour’, behaviour that ‘isn’t like the behaviour of you and me.’ The comments caused much hurt and anger. David Quinn, writing in the Sunday Times on November 19th, came to the defence of Gleeson, Skehan and Varadkar in an article headlined: ‘Homeless need good ideas not compassion.’ Curiously, Quinn selected and named one particular homeless man in Denmark as an example of those engaging in the sort of ‘bad behaviour’ he believed Gleeson had in mind. The man had given an interview to the Copenhagen Post over five years ago. How this man felt about his name and life circumstances being dragged into service in defence of an Irish public servant in 2017, we don’t know. In the article, Quinn claimed that in Sweden the rate of homelessness is higher than that of Ireland. He also claimed that ‘both Sweden and Ireland have an expansive definition of homelessness.’ Below is an extract from an OECD report of 2015, one of the reports on which Leo Varadkar based his claim:
Even a cursory glance at the report will show that Sweden and Ireland employ different definitions of homelessness, Sweden’s definition encompassing a larger number of categories. Note the ‘Yes’ opposite Sweden and the ‘No’ opposite Ireland with respect to whether or not a broader range of categories of homelessness is included.
There is, though, something else disturbing about the figures in that OECD report. They don’t include Ireland’s homeless children. This is a set of statistics that, quite literally, writes children out of the picture. Currently in Ireland 3,194 children are homeless. According to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the number of households with children identified as being in need of social housing increased by 107% between 2005 and 2016 to 46,294 households. As part of the ‘Europe 2020’ strategy, Ireland committed to lifting over 70,000 children out of consistent poverty by 2020 (a reduction of at least two-thirds on the 2011 level). But according to the Social Inclusion Monitor report published by the government earlier this year, child poverty has increased since 2011. In order to meet its ‘Europe 2020’ target the government needs to lift 102,000 children out of poverty to meet the target by 2020.
More troubling than the government’s desire for housing charities to shut up, is media coverage that doesn’t ask questions, that accepts, dictation-style, whatever Government sources present. It’s a problem that goes to the root of which stories get to be told, or to put it another way, who gets to talk. And – to return for a moment to Carver’s narrator – what is it that accords them the right? For Mel McGinnis, it is his status as a cardiologist, even though this has no bearing at all on the topic under analysis, even though with every word that comes out of his mouth it is increasingly clear that he’s on very shaky ground. Some human beings, if they get listened to at all, are put to a level of proof befitting a criminal trial in respect of every tiny detail, while for others the approach is, quite literally, ‘no questions asked.’
In ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’, the questions just keep coming, tricky ones, too:
‘What do you do with love like that?’
‘Does that sound like love to you?’
‘Who can judge anyone else’s situation?’
‘You can grant me that, can’t you?’
‘What do any of us really know about love?’
‘Can you believe it?’
Questions – and not necessarily easy ones – lie at the heart of fiction, which is just as well, because it seems that elsewhere they’re in danger of being relegated to optional extras.
I’d like to ask Minister Eoghan Murphy some questions, such as: how much has the Housing Agency spent on media and communication consultants, and other kinds of consultants, since its establishment? Does he consider this money well spent? How much was paid for that Mazars report?
Promulgating inaccurate information about our housing crisis impacts most severely on the most vulnerable in our society. I’d like to ask the Minister how he thinks someone living in emergency accommodation with two small children, someone who doesn’t have access to media consultants, might go about getting a correction or retraction. I’d like to ask if he thinks they should have to. Finally, given the focus of the Skehan interview around issues of value for money and accountability, I’d like to ask him how come, if charities the Chairman is so disparaging of can manage to have their 2016 Annual Reports in the public domain by now, easily accessible on their websites, why his Housing Agency can’t do the same?
‘Surprise me, Herb,’ Terri said. ‘Surprise me beyond all thought and reason.’
‘Maybe I will,’ Herb said. ‘Maybe so. I’m constantly surprised with things myself. Everything in life surprises me.’ He stared at her for a minute. Then he began talking.’ (‘Drinking Gin and Talking About Love’, by Raymond Carver)
In the Spring 2016 issue of Surveyors Journal, Conor Skehan contributed an article entitled ‘Housing Myths – the Discomfort of Thought’. It opened with a quote from John F Kennedy: ‘The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie-deliberate – contrived and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.’
That article talks about how ‘the Housing Agency is trying to confront the sector, and the public, with surprising new realities.’ For Skehan, ‘surprising new realities’ include such things as Ireland’s reducing household size (which incidentally, increased according to the last Census), and Ireland’s move away from home ownership.
There’s no doubt that there are many subjects on which Conor Skehan might usefully offer an opinion, in the same way that Herb/Mel McGinnis could usefully offer opinions on cardiology. As well as being a respected academic, Skehan is a successful businessman and has sat on various State boards. I commend him for his willingness to take on a public role, but I’m not convinced of the usefulness of his opinions on housing. Skehan appeared in person before an Oireachtas Committee back in 2013 to have his nomination as Chairperson confirmed. There weren’t too many hard questions asked back then either, though to be fair, one deputy did raise the matter of Skehan being a sceptic on climate change, given the ‘Sustainable Communities’ element of his brief, and also asked if he was a member of Fine Gael. And there was a question about ghost estates, and another about what it was the Agency did.
On that day in 2013 Skehan told the Committee: ‘The intimidating thing about the agency is that it is full of people who know a great deal more about housing than me and who probably always will. All I can do is be the conductor of an orchestra which includes a group of very bright, talented and hard-working people.’ Sadly, somewhere along the line, he seems to have dropped the baton. In October 2017 at the Urban Land Institute Conference in Dublin, Skehan, Chairperson of our Housing Agency, said: ‘Our housing crisis is completely normal.’ During the Morning Ireland interview he reiterated this approach saying: ‘the poor will always be with us.’ As Carver’s character Terri said, speaking of the man she lived with before Herb/Mel McGinnis, a man who used to beat her and drag her around the living room by her ankles: ‘What do you do with love like that?’
This is a companion piece to Danielle’s essay ‘Mespil Revisited’, which is included in the special feature on housing and homelessness in our Winter 2017-18 issue.