Erica Fleming interviewed by Ingrid Casey


I.C: How did you come to be involved with the RTE documentary My Homeless Family? Would you say it set you on your current journey?

E.F: When we became homeless, there was no-one talking about it; it was a traumatic time. I found a meeting organised by Ruth Coppinger of AAA that was to be held in Huntstown, Dublin 15. At the meeting, I didn’t want to hear the stories presented, I was only at the start of the process. I was nervous, I had gone with a colleague and there was a big group there. Peter McVerry was forecasting how bad it was going to ge. Then they opened up the floor; RTE was there and we had signed a waiver to speak. I took the mic and told them a horrific story of when we first presented as homeless, and of how myself and my daughter were mistreated. We had been placed in a BnB that was more like a halfway house; we had no access to our own food. We were locked out after ten pm, we had to submit in writing to have leave for the night. I went to contest it as I knew the place was known for drugs, I didn’t want my child there. At the meeting with the council official, my daughter got so frightened that she lost control of her bowels. So when I told this story at the meeting in Huntstown, that was when RTE came after me. Initially I said no, but they asked me again. I was worried about the exposure for Emily, but she agreed to do it. So it went from there.

 I.C: When did you become conscious of the gravity of you situation? Can you describe how you have become politicized?

E.F: I don’t see myself as political, I’m certainly not tied to any political party. I’m willing to talk to anybody who is interested in helping to raise awareness of the housing crisis and take action. I got trolled for working with SF; this didn’t happen when I was involved with AAA, or when I met with members of FF. When I addressed the Dáil committee, I asked all of them to put the idea of groups aside and come together for housing solutions, regardless of party affiliations. The appreciation will be afforded to whoever helps in the end, you know? My overall message is to try to get co-operation. I think it was a game changer, when I was willing to meet with FF and FG too. What’s very important, with each week that passes, with my sidebyside campaign, is that more people are hearing about it. People are coming to me for hope. Hope is very important, in this situation. It’s very easy to give in and your mental health can suffer. At the end of the day, alone in a hotel room, once your child is asleep, you can’t leave, you can’t turn the light back on, you’re literally sitting alone, in the dark. I never thought I’d take on the voice for the homeless. Like, how has this become my life? I don’t know why people come to me for comfort. A family came to me this week with seven kids; the wife has cerebral palsy. Their landlady had died and so the house was sold, they need a bungalow for wheelchair access and so on. They had explained to DCC, and were told to come back when they’re homeless. A hotel room with seven kids? So I sent out twenty-six emails on behalf of them, one to Finian McGrath, the disabilities minister. In this particular situation, timing and prevention is key. A couple of TD’s have contacted them since, but I can only take them so far on the journey. I don’t have the power of the council. There’s a heavy burden on me; I lie awake thinking what to do next. It takes a community to help one another.

 I.C: What’s your view on the 230,000 houses currently available?

E.F: It doesn’t shock me, the council have been playing down the amount of vacant properties – they KNEW and KNOW what they have in stock, yet they chose not to renovate them. It is clearly government policy not to house low income earners.

 I.C: Tell me about your experience in Brussels; do you think that the Irish government has consciously hushed up the escalating crisis during the past five years, and if so, why?

E.F: So, in Brussels, I’m sitting there, telling my personal story and talking about the larger homeless crisis, and the woman’s mouth literally opened and she cocked her ear. I thought there was a language barrier, so I repeated myself. They were gobsmacked; their figures were that there were 800 homeless. I was really annoyed with the response because it was very much ‘ We don’t have any legal way to force Ireland to do more’. Their advice was for me to keep on doing what I’m doing. I started to get cynical after that. We’ve given two billion debt; the EU forced that on us, so why can’t they force the Irish government to take action? They also suggested for me to go to the UN. Housing is not a human right in Ireland. I went all the way to Brussels to hear that! It was disappointing. It seemed like a last resort, to shame our government. But if anything came of it, the determination had a light shone upon it.

 I.C: What impact has the prolonged hotel living arrangement had on your family?

E.F: Life is stressful from the minute my eyes open. Walking through reception with my daughter in her uniform; it’s embarrassing. As time has passed, my face is recognized. The affect on Emily is sad; she’s growing up too fast. She’s been let down by the State along with so many other children. They’re supposed to have a childhood. She used to be funny and away with the fairies, now she’s fed up and constantly asks how much longer we’ll be where we are. A home should be relaxing; a hotel is not a normal upbringing.

 I.C: Why, in your opinion, has Minister Alan Kelly fallen so short on his vow to build mroe social housing?

E.F: ‘Cos they don’t care; the Ministers are not held to account and there’s no political will. For some reason, the public just keep believing their lies.

 I.C: Are you in contact with NGO’s to lobby the EU’s Social Pillar, to honour the fiscal treaty’s social targets to reduce poverty?

E.F: No, because my question still stands; what can the EU do? When they shut that down…I don’t know yet what to do with that information. There were really good questions raised by the Housing Delegation – Lynn Boylan, local councillors, travelling community reps, addiction counsellors – a great mix of people. The feelings and perspectives have come together. Anthony Flynn from Inner City Helping Homeless was very astute and said what we were all thinking.

 I.C: Do you feel that in the Irish government’s presentation of recovery to the EU, there has been a been a sidestepping of liminal sectors such as lone parents, and why?

E.F: A million percent! It’s all bullshit. They’re cooking the books left right and centre with jobs, social welfare…Jobsbridge was a total farce.

 I.C: Dr.Rory Hearne of TASC has written in the Irish Times that Ireland should ask for flexibility in the EU fiscal rules, to enable social investment for housing. Would you agree with this model, and how can we best make it happen?

E.F: I would agree. Rory Hearne is superb. He came to my protest outside the GPO. Ireland could ask; could demand! But the government won’t do it. He’s on the ball about what needs to be done. Personally, I don’t know how. Perhaps the Icelandic situation is one to emulate, there was an Icelandic representative in Brussels who really impressed me.

 I.C: Are there any individuals, historical or otherwise, who have influenced you, or inspired you to fight for your daughter?

E.F: The history of 1916 was prevalent in my family life growing up; we are Dubs. If anything, they are the only people I’d say are heroic and made an impression on me. I was very proud to speak at the Árdfheis. This is my time!  

 

 Ingrid Casey

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