Derry has avoided making the same mistakes as the government in the south when it comes to tackling homelessness because the city continues to build social housing.
This is the view of Jesuit priest Father Peter McVerry who visited the Veritas shop in Shipquay Street on Thursday to launch his book ‘The God of Mercy, the God of the Gospels.’
Father Peter who is a tireless campaigner for the rights of homeless people, said that the southern government has effectively abandoned the building of social housing. In Dublin 45,000 households are on the social housing list while there 42,000 permanently empty houses and apartments.
“If I was in government I would simply compulsory purchase the whole lot of them,” he said. “I would tell people, look you have a house there, you have done nothing with it for 12 months, unless you are prepared to bring it back into operation as a home for a family within the next six months, we are taking it off you.
“I think it is utterly absurd to have empty buildings when there are people living on the streets.”
He said that he’d been told that in Derry there are currently 1,000 social houses being built.
“You have avoided making the mistakes we have made in the south,” he said. “For people to be living on the streets in a country as wealthy as Ireland is a total denial of their dignity. And the church which should be affirming the dignity of every human being, should be screaming from the rooftops about the obscenity of a society which has left people to live on the streets.”
The Peter McVerry Trust, he says, plays a small part in dealing with homelessness.
“We accommodate 500 people at any one time in 14 hostels and 150 apartments,” he said. “We have two drug treatment centres and a drop in centre.
“But it is a drop in the ocean. As well as homeless people we also have families living in hotel bedrooms.
“I know of one family which includes a mother, a father, and 20 year-old, an 18 year-old and two children all living in one hotel room. And these are no five star hotels.
“It is intolerable and causing a huge pressure on families. It is probable that it is even causing families to split up. But there are solutions.”
Father Peter explained that he wrote his new book because the homeless young people that he worked with had challenged him in so many way.
“One of the ways was in my understanding of who God is,” he said. “I grew up with an understanding that God was a God who laid down all the laws and our purpose was to obey these laws so we would merit a place in heaven.
“When I was working with young homeless people in the inner city Dublin, that image of God became totally irrelevant.
“We had young people say, who had runners that were torn. They had no money to buy new ones and they would go down to Dunnes Stores and rob a pair and I was saying - is that wrong?
“People would say ‘would you not give out to them because robbing is a sin.’ I would say yes, but if you want me to give out to them for robbing I would have to give out even more strongly about a society that puts them into a position where they have to go and rob.
“So for me working with those young people, God became very clearly a God who was a God of compassion, a God who cared about them and the terrible lives they were living. A God who cared about the terrible experiences they had suffered as children. For me the idea of a God laying down laws became irrelevant.”
He said he wrote ’The God of Mercy, the God of Gospels’ over a period of time to detail the God of Compassion.
“I based it on the gospels that Jesus was revealed as a God of compassion not only by his words but also his actions,” said Father Peter.
“Jesus reached out to the poor, to the sick who were ostracised, to those who were rejected, the sinners, the prostitutes, the tax collectors. Jesus revealed in his own actions the God of compassion. That’s the God I believe in.
“If God is a God of compassion it changes everything. If God is a God of the law, then sin is a breaking of the law. If God is a God of compassion then sin becomes hurting other people, and above all sin becomes not doing something to relieve the suffering of other people.”
The Jesuit priest opens his book with the line: ‘When young people tell me they don’t believe in God, I ask them to tell me about the God they don’t believe in.’
“They usually describe a God of Judgement,” he said, “and I tell them, sure I don’t believe in that God either.
“The only God that exists for us the God of Compassion, the God that cares about the suffering of people, who gives us the responsibility of reaching out and trying to relieve some of that suffering off their shoulders,
“If I get up in the pulpit on a Sunday and talk about the dignity of every single human being as a child of God, if I’m not struggling during the rest of the week to make that dignity a reality in the lives of people whose dignity has been taken away by society, then what I say are just empty words or hypocrisy.
“God doesn’t want to see God’s Children on the streets and therefore God’s concern is that we as a family of God would ensure that those children are not living on the streets.”
Father Peter’s book is available from Veritas.