Shea: Strategies to aid homelessness, views on taxes differ between countries

Ane Dahlen poses on the coast of Ireland. Dahlen is an exchange student from Norway studying at the University College Cork and reflects on Norway’s homelessness population and policies.

Delaney Shea, Columnist

Ireland faces similar homelessness problems to U.S., Norway takes different approach.

I feel overwhelmingly guilty every single time I walk past a homeless person sleeping outside in the rain or asking for change. I feel guilty that I have the luxury of eating out whenever I want, when they might not get to eat at all some days, or that I love snowstorms so much, when the cold threatens their lives. 

I think that I am not alone in this. It is not fair. It is a salient problem, especially in Portland, Ore., a day-trip distance from Corvallis, in which a state of emergency was declared in 2015 due to the large population of homeless people. 

I see the gripping sight of people shivering on the sidewalk, with a cup in front of them, all over Cork, Ireland, and I saw it in London, England, as well. They seem to be quieter and more resigned here than in America, where I frequently get approached, or see people walking by with signs, but I am not sure why this is. 

The often desperate state that so many people have to face every day is by no means a unique problem, but different countries approach it in different ways. Let me be clear—I do not see these people as lesser, and I do not pity them. Empathy is what is important here, as well as the recognition that anyone can become homeless. It is an extremely difficult situation to get out of. 

One can argue that these people should have avoided drugs or alcohol, or worked harder, but the way I see it, everyone deserves the help they need to feel safe. It is not realistic to expect to eliminate homelessness, but that does not mean we should not try. 

Taking advantage of my current residence, I asked around to find out how Ireland attempts to help those experiencing homelessness, and to see if any of their methods might benefit America. I also learned about Norway’s homeless situation, because as a country practicing social democracy and equipped with a robust welfare state, it provides an interesting contrast to America, changing the whole dynamic surrounding poverty. 

After talking to one student and one adult member of the Cork Simon Community, an organization which focuses on combatting homelessness and the stigma against it, it seemed to me that Ireland’s situation is very similar to America’s. This makes sense, as the two countries have similar economic situations. 

Étáin Collins, University College Cork Simon Society Chairperson and second-year UCC student, has first-hand experience fighting homelessness in Cork. Like in America, charities in Ireland play a large role in helping out people who are low on options and receiving little to no government assistance. Many of those who are involved  in charities wish that the government would play a larger part.

“I think that it is up to organizations like Cork Simon and others to put pressure on the government to make small changes which will have a huge impact, for example a tax on empty houses,” Collins said via email. “Homelessness should be a solvable problem and can be eradicated if the government put more time and money into finding long-term solutions.”

Paul Sheehan is the campaign and community manager of the Cork Simon Community.

“We see the Simon Community as picking up from where the State has failed people turning to us for help rather than picking up where the Government leaves off,” Sheehan said via email.

 According to both Collins and Sheehan, the largest barrier to solving homelessness is the lack of affordable housing. Sheehan believes in the power of the Housing First”policy, which provides affordable housing to people who are on the edge of homelessness or are freshly homeless, and provides follow-up visits to help them work through any barriers they may have, whether there are mental illness, finding a job or learning to manage finances. This policy has had a high success rate, according to Sheehan, but depends on the Irish government to provide that housing. 

“We need a rapid increase of social and affordable housing– empty residential properties and empty social housing (in some cases lying empty or void for long periods of time) need to be brought on stream quickly,” Sheehan said via email. “The building of social and affordable housing needs to be ramped up quickly.”

Additionally, like America, Ireland does not guarantee a right to adequate housing in its constitution, leaving homeless people legally vulnerable, according to the New York City Bar Association and the Mercy Law Resource Center, respectively.

A more drastic contrast with America is that of Norway’s economic and social systems. 

Ane Dahlen is an exchange student from Norway who is currently studying at University College Cork. She knows that Norway, among other Scandinavian countries, is commonly used as an example by Americans who want to move toward socialism, or a larger welfare state, and that they reference those countries’ wonderful practices of “socialism” or “democratic socialism.” To Dahlen, her country’s system is just a regular government.

“I’ve only heard [the term socialism] when Americans talk about Norwegians,” Dahlen said.

According to Dahlen, she does not mind paying more taxes to take care of others. However, she readily acknowledges that since she grew up with it, she is very used to it, and it does not seem like a radical idea, much like in America.

 “I grew up knowing that you pay, I don’t know, 30 percent or more of your income. It differs, though; the less you earn the less you pay, but if you’re middle class, 20 to 30 percent… so that’s kind of all I know,” Dahlen said. “It helps people who have less, but it also means that you can go to the hospital without having to pay to get your medication, which is great for someone like me, who grew up with diabetes.”

While a large amount of federal expenditure in Norway goes toward health care, a large portion also goes to housing, according to Dahlen.

“If (homeless Norwegians) were to look for housing, they would get it,” Dahlen said. 

Norway provides housing for those who cannot afford it, as well as halfway houses for those working through drug addiction or mental illness, according to Dahlen. Charities are needed only in a complementary capacity, serving purposes such as collecting money to buy gifts for children in families too poor to purchase Christmas gifts.

However, the Norwegian social welfare system only applies to citizens. Thus, the majority of homeless people in Norway, who must resort to asking for money on the street, are people from Romania who are trying to find a better life. 

Even so, in Norway, the number of people who sleep outside at night is tiny compared to that of America, according to Dahlen, who has visited America twice. The Norwegian welfare system, which citizens have access to, includes a stepladder sort of approach to giving out money.

“There are different systems for that, for how much money you get,” Dahlen said. “It starts at when you lose your job or can’t find a job, it’s different steps. The highest one where you get the highest amount of money would be when you’re looking for jobs and you participate in these working skills teaching things. And if that doesn’t work if you’re sick or something, then you go to the lower level, and you get less money, because they want you to get a job. It is a small amount of money, you wouldn’t be able to pay rent, but you can also get housing from them. And I guess that’s why we’re called socialist.”

According to Dahlen, people do not like to think about their money being used to fund someone who has no desire to try and find a job, subsisting off of government funding alone. However, she thinks the good of the system outweighs the bad, even through the high taxes.

“When you see stories like that, that’s not what you want to pay for, but at the same time, there are a lot of people who have nothing,” said Dahlen. “They don’t want to live like that. So I think it’s a responsibility.”

It is perhaps unreasonable, however, for those in favor of a Norwegian-esque system to hope for one so robust in America.

“I learned in school that there’s too many people, and there wouldn’t be enough money to have the same system as we do in Norway, in the U.S.,” Dahlen said.

Of course, in my opinion, there is certainly room for the welfare state to increase, whether by cutting spending in other areas, by increasing the national deficit or by raising taxes. Many Americans, though, are extremely averse to raising taxes. Dahlen has a different perspective.

“I don’t see how paying taxes is a bad thing, because it will eventually benefit you,” Dahlen said. “But the thing is that since everything is organized that way in Norway, it is easy to see how you get the benefits of it. A lot of people in Norway are for less taxes, but I don’t really see why. Because then a lot of those benefits would go away. So ideally, I think (America) should increase the taxes. Help more people. I guess in Norway you could be born into a pretty poor family, but it’s easier for you to get out of it. It seems like if you’re born into a poor family in the U.S., it’s much harder to get out of it. And I don’t see how that’s fair.” 

I suppose, in the end, it comes down to priorities.

I actively work to walk my talk—I volunteer regularly with multiple organizations working in the fields of poverty and mental illness. However, I could still do much more. 

Additionally, I recognize that even the fact that I have time to volunteer, that I do not have to work full time to support myself and that I have money for transportation, is a sign of my privilege, and it is unreasonable to expect that from everyone. 

How much, then, should we expect from people, in terms of income and time, to take care of those around us? It is a conundrum worth pondering. I believe that we should try not to ignore the discomfort that bubbles up when we see people suffering the effects of homelessness—the discomfort that leads us to walk more quickly and avoid eye contact. 

The discomfort is there because we know something is wrong, and, in my opinion, we should let it motivate us to donate more, to volunteer more and sacrifice more.