Saturday 27 December 2014

Colum Kenny: What about the right to life of our homeless citizens?

Published 23/12/2012 | 05:00

At least four people have died from exposure on our streets so far this winter in the Republic of Ireland.

He froze to death this month, just down the road. Each week I had been passing a homeless man near the church. I said that he was dying before our eyes. I felt guilty.

And then there was one recent night in Dublin. A young man approached me. He was sober, decent and worried, and he needed a few euro for a hostel. It was none of my business, but I asked him why. He said that he had been working for a small company that fixed up places for landlords when tenants left. It had gone bust.

He is trying to get the dole but there is a delay. And then he told me something that I found hard to believe in an era of computers, but it turned out to be true.

When he went for social welfare to tide him over, he was told that he would have to go back to his home county to get it. That was a problem for him.

While politicians and archbishops agonise about the sacredness of life in the womb, they sound less anguished about the right to life of those living homeless. At least four homeless people have died from exposure so far this winter in the Republic of Ireland.

Last week, the Simon Community reported a big rise in homelessness in central Dublin. You can see the evidence on our streets. Not only did Ireland not build enough emergency accommodation in the boom years, it actually decided against building it.

The man who died down the road froze outside a supermarket. He was not, after all, the man whom I see near the church. But that man could be next. As he fears, he told me when we chatted last week.

There is just not enough emergency accommodation for the homeless. The Celtic Tiger myth was that a policy of building flats would solve the problem in no time.

That policy misunderstood homelessness and depended on a fantasy economic future.

There will always be outsiders who are homeless. Even hostels are not a catch-all solution. For one thing, people fear the violence found in some hostels. The man by the church has been stabbed staying in one. And robbed. He has his problems. Many homeless do. But he is not asking for much.

He says that he cannot bear sleeping in a hostel room with four or five other men every night. He goes mad. So would I. He had a little tent in a field in the town but someone burnt it. Now he sleeps in a porch.

Some homeless people are stealing hand-wash from institutions, or buying it cheap. If I had to sleep out these nights I might drink anything to dull the pain. But alcohol and drugs just push the homeless further down.

So should you never give the homeless cash in their hands, in case they spend it all on booze or drugs? Alice Leahy, a co-founder of Trust, says she never says never.

"People are very generous," she adds. She does advise people against taking out handbags or wallets and making a display of them.

"There is a lot of criminality about," she remarks. But you do not have to give money, Alice says. "Don't feel guilty. What you can do is buy from a charity shop, or make a donation to a homeless organisation such as Trust or Simon."

Alice Leahy says that what many homeless people want most is just to be recognised as a person. Acknowledge them as you pass. It could be any of us lying there.

Alice wants politicians to do more. "Homelessness is not just for Christmas," she points out. But she regrets that Trust's submission earlier this year to the then Minister of State Roisin Shortall was not even acknowledged, although sent to both the department and the Labour minister's constituency office.

Trust told the Government that: "The problems around homelessness cannot be addressed satisfactorily without looking at the wider issues, especially emergency accommodation, the questionable use/abuse of wet hostels, the undue pressure now exerted on people to change their lifestyles without adequate supports in place and more importantly the lack of experience of some of those working in the field."

And then there is the problem of people being refused any help unless they go home to wherever they first registered or resided. But going back is easier said than done, for many reasons. And it seems mean to insist on it.

For non-nationals things can get much worse – they have no entitlements here. Offering them an airline ticket is not always a solution. Some Irish who have lived outside the State may even find themselves shunned.

One man from Monaghan who was living in Belfast moved to Dublin and fell on hard times. He says that, when he applied here for social welfare, he was told that he was now David Cameron's problem.

Christmas reminds some homeless people of happier times. On Christmas Eve three years ago I was picking up someone from a boat in Dublin. I met a Salvation Army Officer waiting in uniform. He told me that he was there to meet those who keep coming home even though they have nobody left to whom to come.

For people who have nowhere to stay, the Salvation Army offers shelter. After 90 years of independence the Irish State cannot guarantee its citizens shelter, either at Christmas or at any other time of the year. There is no room at the inn.

Sunday Independent

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