Sunday, February 5, 2017

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Apollo House ‣ A Volunteer's Response: Part 1

Paul Bowman responds to an earlier series of pieces by Rowan Clarke on the Apollo House campaign. Paul Bowman is a member of Dublin Central Housing Action and the IWU, both affiliated with the Irish Housing Network, and volunteer with the Outreach Team in Apollo House.


I was at union branch meeting the other night when the editor of TPQ (who's also a committee member) asked me if I'd read Rowan Clarke's pieces about Apollo House. I said I'd been too busy with my time in Apollo House and the follow on work since the end of the occupation to read the pieces, but I’d look at them when I got a moment and respond if I thought I had a different point of view worth sharing. Having found the time to read Clarke's pieces, this is my response, which will be posted in three sections.

I want to make clear from the outset that this is a purely personal response. I am only one of the well over 750 volunteers who spent time in Apollo House and participated in the work we did there in the 27 days of the occupation. These volunteers came from all walks of life, with as wide a range of personal and political experiences and viewpoints as you can imagine. No individual viewpoint, least of all my own, can possibly hope to represent that diversity in any meaningful way. The Apollo House media team have already done a magnificent job of representing the general values and attitudes the project held in common. So my piece here instead represents my own, individual political interpretation of what Apollo House achieved.

I'm going to start my response with a brief summary of what I think we actually did achieve in the 27 days. Then, in the next section, we can look at Clarke's view on the achievements from the perspective of a non-participant. Then in the final section, examine the divergences between our views and try and tease out the possible origins of their differences.

I group the achievements of Apollo House into three areas: outcomes for homeless people aided by the project, increased public awareness and impact on general political discourse around homelessness and housing, and the operational achievement.

In terms of the outcomes’ achievement, the HSH media team have done an admirable job in publicising the stats for what was achieved for street-sleepers, to save re-inventing the wheel I'll just quote a recent press release:

Over the course of 27 days, Apollo House provided accommodation to over 205 people who were otherwise sleeping rough. It provided onsite support services, a medical team of 14 professionally trained volunteers and over 250 volunteers onsite. 90 people have received 6-month accommodation since December 21st, when housing services began to engage with volunteer support staff and residents at Apollo House. Members of the public collectively gave over 6,000 hours of free labour. Over 4,000 people in Ireland offered to volunteer and over 500 people donated essential supplies.

There is much more, including the personal testimonies of homeless people aided, the experience of the volunteers, etc. All of which are available through the Facebook pages of Home Sweet Home Eire and the Irish Housing Network and I direct readers to look in more detail there. In only 27 days, the pressure created by the Apollo House action, and the public response to it, led to more people being placed in 6 month accommodation than one of the largest of the "homeless industry" charities, with an annual budget of over 20m, managed in all of last year.

The impact of Apollo House on public awareness, both immediate and lasting, is hard to measure objectively. And in the case of the long-term effects, of course we have to wait and see. What we could see from within Apollo House, however, was a tidal wave of donations and offers of every kind of support or volunteering you can imagine. It was certainly far greater than the initiators of the occupation ever anticipated. It was a wave far too large for the media to try and stifle with a blackout and had the effect of severely limiting the options of the state for repressive or robust responses like sending the riot squad in to clear the premises. It was also that level of support that very few would doubt encouraged the High Court to stay the execution date for the repossession order until safely after the Christmas and New Year period. 

The public support was also instrumental in not only swelling the ranks of willing volunteers and buoying their morale, but had a very positive effect on the homeless people who spent time as residents in Apollo, whose experience of public opinion towards them to that date had been one of utter neglect and indifference, if not outright hostility. The positive effect of that visible public support on empowering homeless people to aspire to something other than the status of stray dogs can neither be quantified nor dismissed.

But still, public awareness is subject to many ever-changing demands on it's attention. The media spin cycle is never ending and as the Apollo House occupation fades into last week's news and as the orange buffoon Trump strides towards the White House to seize the attention of a horrified and enthralled world, morbidly fascinated to see what the outcome of the man-baby's next Twitter temper tantrum will be once he has his finger on the button, the lasting effects of the Apollo House action will have to await the interpretations of future historians. Or better yet, the outcomes of future actions, to be judged. 

And how about the third achievement? The operational achievement of the occupation. What do I mean by operational achievement? By that I mean that the occupation of Apollo House, the physical transformation of that space into a livable, safe space for homeless people, the provision of support services and the myriad of other second-line functions to make all this possible, was an operation.

To assemble over 750 ordinary people, the vast majority with no prior connection to each other, to work together, without pre-appointed leaders or bosses, or the discipline of wages and hiring and firing. To create, from nothing, an entirely new, original model of what emergency homeless accommodation could be if it was run on a humane rather than punitive basis, was the mother of all operations. And as an operation it could easily have failed. In fact our dominant culture tells us that without bosses and pre-appointed leaders, hierarchy and authority, such an undertaking is doomed to fail.

Well it didn't. Yes, not everything was perfect, yes there was initial scrambling to get communications, processes and organisation working, yes mistakes were made in that process, but they were fixed before they threatened the viability of the operation. The success of this operation not only flies in the face of all the received wisdom that without bosses and the state, ordinary working people are incapable of creating anything worthwhile of any scale from their own capabilities and resources, it threatens the authority of the state and the homelessness industry that have presided over the relentless growth of the housing crisis in the last years. 

The operational success of the Apollo House action, and the public support for it, has plunged a dagger of cold fear into the heart of the political and social establishment. A dread far more existential and heartfelt than any fumbling paramilitary operation has ever managed in recent decades. The power of the establishment to defend the rights of the banks, developers and landlord classes relies implicitly on preventing ordinary people getting any ideas that they can make any impact on homelessness and the housing emergency through their own activity. If the edifice of "There is No Alternative" starts to crumble, then the status quo, and the interests of those minority interests that profit from it, is at risk.

Having laid out a brief summary of what I think the main achievements of the Apollo House action are, I will move on to address Rowan Clarke's contrasting assessment in the next section. 

3 comments :

cormac francis caulfield said...

''
To assemble over 750 ordinary people, the vast majority with no prior connection to each other, to work together, without pre-appointed leaders or bosses, or the discipline of wages and hiring and firing.''--

as far as im aware there were ''team leaders''--which essentially acted as pre-appointed leaders in effectively a hierarchical structure?--maybe these were necessary but ive certainly heard this from a few anarcho/marxist minded people involved

Paul Bowman said...

They weren't "pre-appointed" in the context of being appointed before the beginning of the Apollo operation. I can't speak to the evolving organisation within other teams, but in Outreach we moved to having a shift leader in each shift - whose role was first and foremost to do the induction for new volunteers (for rostering purposes we tried to keep a balance between new volunteers and experienced ones), checking the handover notes and making sure everybody knew what they were working on and no tasks were falling through the tasks. In addition being the first point of contact for admin or other teams. The requirement to have two people nominated as permanent team leads was mainly a Finance requirement to limit who within the team approved invoices (mostly for mobile top-ups for the phones we were using to contact and roster volunteers, in our team's case). That was pretty much the only role they played in our team. Initially the shift leaders were people from pre-existing IHN groups, but as time went on and new volunteers acquired experience and grasp of operations, other people came to take on these roles as the upcoming shifts were rostered.

Saoirse Bennett said...

Over 30,000 euro for private security and thousands towards "high vis jackets". For an occupation of a building. Are you having a laugh?