Tuesday 25 October 2016

Home truths: Will real homeless step forward please

Published 14/10/2016 | 02:30

The generic picture we've formed in our heads about homelessness
The generic picture we've formed in our heads about homelessness

I explained recently to a visitor to Dublin why the people climbing into sleeping bags in the porch of a Grafton Street shop on a Friday night were probably not truly homeless.

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Having done voluntary work over a three-year period for a homeless organisation, I have some personal insights. At one time, I knew perhaps 50 people who really did live on the streets. Recent increased awareness of homelessness helps raise funds for charities and spurs new policies from Government - like the €105m allocation to help 15,000 more households avail of the Housing Assistance Payment Scheme to prevent homelessness. But it also brings out con artists who feign homelessness to make money on city streets. The well meaning give more cash to anyone sitting with a blanket and a paper cup - apparent verification of the homeless condition. It's part of the generic picture we've formed in our heads about homelessness.

But street living homeless people look different. Their blankets are not pristine and their hair is uncoiffed. They don't sleep on Grafton Street on a friday night, they hide from the public. They usually die within three years of hitting the streets - from health attrition caused by exposure, poor diet and (often) drinking. They freeze to death in cold snaps, they perish in accidents when the skips they sleep in are lifted by refuse trucks or go on fire - in the absence of electric lighting at night, you use candles. Or (why they hide) they are killed in violent incidents with thieves or thugs.

To dispel the generic 'blanket and cup' picture, the following are details of a few homeless people I knew, with names changed to protect their identities

James was born in the 1930s to a large family in Dublin's North Strand. In 1941, a German Luftwaffe bomb destroyed his childhood home and word has it that most of family were killed. When sober, James is quiet and thoughtful and tells stories with a twinkle in his eye. Most nights he is found in a drunken state grabbing strangers, shaking them and exclaiming: "The bomb! The bomb!" over and over. He will hiss the names of well known WW2 Nazi leaders and can be unintentionally violent.

Sean is a former soldier in his late 50s who thinks he's John Wayne. Army life made him reliant and he couldn't cope afterwards. He wears a black hat and a long coat and affects the street persona of tough guy. When drunk, he shouts, makes crazed expressions and drools. In reality, he is a softie whose protection comes from an angelic looking retriever which watches over him as he sleeps outside. The dog attacks anyone who threatens. A veteran's group assists him.

Bríd (in her 30s) was born to an inner city family. Tattooed on her face and masculine looking, she has short hair and a stocky build. Her personal skills are poor. She left a broken home as a child and has been in and out of institutions. As a woman on the streets, she must be particularly on her guard and so she puffs up, dresses and acts tough. She says she is a member of a dangerous street gang, although most of her trouble with the law has resulted from public disorder and drunkenness. She has a heart of gold and plays a big role looking out for the elderly homeless.

Wendy (also in her 30s) is from a travelling family. All her four children were taken into care. She has been in and out of jail and mental health institutions. She relieves her woes by inhaling car paint sprays, leaving a surreally metallic clown's 'smile' on her face. Her main concern is safety and her solution is finding a man to protect her. This has led to a series of unstable relationships and violence. Her experiences make her paranoid and I once saw her stab an innocent (her boyfriend at the time) in the back of the head with a cutlery knife after a verbal argument.

Edward is mid 50s, tall, well groomed and spoken. He finds dapper clothes in charity shops. He doesn't drink, smoke or do drugs. He is opinionated and pompous. Talking to him quickly establishes that he has deep seated mental health issues. He takes umbrage to quite innocent conversation. He doesn't fit with the other homeless people and they shun him.

Bill is an innocent rural-born man in his 70s who doesn't drink or smoke. People describe him as "harmless". He is ultra religious and spends days trawling Dublin's churches to pray. He dresses in black and it is said he was long accommodated by a priest who employed him as a sacristan. When the priest died, Bill was moved on. He ended up on the streets when the churches were closed for nights. His gullibility makes him extremely vulnerable.

Robert was an academic who turned to drink. His family died in a house fire and he hasn't been sober since. He hangs around a suburb where he sleeps rough. He survived an incident when teenagers set him on fire and threw him off a bridge.

None of these people slept outside M&S with a cup and blanket.

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