Saturday 17 November 2018

A pacy tale on homelessness that every TD should read

Tear-jerking scenes: Carmel Harrington. Photo: Patrick Browne
Tear-jerking scenes: Carmel Harrington. Photo: Patrick Browne
A Thousand Roads Home by Carmel Harrington

Roddy Doyle's new film and now Carmel Harrington's book tell the stories of people being squeezed out of the private rental market into homelessness. Even though homeless people are so visible - they live every minute of their days in public - we often don't really see them.

There were 9,527 people homeless in the last week of August across Ireland. More than one in three people in emergency accommodation is a child. It's important that Harrington and Doyle are both portraying the casualties of our housing crisis at this moment.

Books that deal with social issues can end up being drearily worthy, but Harrington is successful in that she seems to really care about a world that makes lots of us turn away in discomfort.

Autistic Ruth is a single mam renting precariously with her son in Dublin. She moved to the city to start a new life, away from her mother's overbearing and cruel ways. The pair are living in their quiet, self-contained world when they're both evicted. Their landlord is selling up, in an all-too familiar story. What follows is a chaotic time as the pair are priced out of most homes. With little money, they survive on combos of banana, porridge and potatoes. In a tear-jerking scene, 10-year-old DJ tells his mother that he doesn't want anyone in school to find out.

When Ruth asks him about what, he says: "That we're homeless. That we had to take two buses to get to school. That you had a meltdown in one. That we live in a hotel that doesn't let us use the front door. That you don't know my father's surname."

"I can't make them understand," Ruth says as she feels "her guts churn at every word he uttered. She had done this to him. This was all on her".

DJ meets a man called Tom who is sleeping on the streets. Tom had been a country doctor, and he's a significant character because he shows how homelessness can happen to anyone. Too many people still place some blame for homelessness on the homeless.

Let down by everyone who they come across, Ruth, Tom and little DJ all find themselves homeless in Dublin at the same time and the two narratives spark off each other until they fuse. "My mam, she's scared, but she's trying so hard to be brave," DJ tells Tom. "We're in this hotel, which is a joke because it's nothing like the hotels I've seen on TV. They have more rules than I have in school. And I have to share a room with my mam."

The pair start to see each other for regular chats and Tom eventually realises that he was Ruth's doctor when she was pregnant with DJ.

Harrington doesn't shy away from the dark side of life on the streets - poverty, violence and loneliness all feature - but good eventually triumphs. Thrown together, Ruth, DJ and Tom show us the ways that people try to put broken lives back together and the three of them manage to do something extraordinary.

It's Harrington's gift as a storyteller (she keeps a cracking pace, a lot happens over 438 pages) and the inherent dignity in Ruth and Tom's characters that stop the book getting too bleak. The story itself is always gripping and shifts back and forward in time. Most importantly maybe, the characters are very convincing.

Ruth and Tom's courage and initiative are endearing because they are representative of the way people really do become strong when they need to be. Every TD in the country should be strapped to a chair and forced to read it.

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