Tuesday 22 October 2019

WATCH: Stephen James Smith performs powerful new poem 'What If' about homelessness crisis

The spoken word piece is part of Focus Ireland's new 'Couches Don't Count' campaign to #EndYouthHomelessness

Stephen James Smith Photo: Fergal Phillips.
Stephen James Smith Photo: Fergal Phillips.
Stephen James Smith
Neil Forsyth, Focus Ireland Services Manager, poet Stephen James Smyth, and Body & Soul director Avril Stanley
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

Dublin poet Stephen James Smith has created a powerful new spoken word piece to highlight youth homelessness in Ireland.

The number of 18-24 year olds who are homeless has shot up by 82 per cent in the last four years and it is now at crisis level with a record number of almost 900 young people without a home.

'What If' charts the plight of these young people who bear the brunt of housing instability and homelessness and it is the centrepiece of Focus Ireland's new campaign 'Couches Don't Count' to #EndYouthHomelessness.

The 36-year-old Tallaght native has been a volunteer with First Fortnight, who stage an annual mental health arts festival and work year round with the homeless community, so he's better versed than most in the issue.

However, it was important to Stephen to speak directly to young people who are struggling with housing issues and homelessness, and their experiences and their words as relayed to him form part of the poem's monologue.

"Obviously I had to be informed by, and empathetic to, the people I'm writing on behalf of - the lines in the poems are lines from some of the young people I met," he tells Independent.ie.

"There was a young German man who actually came with a bouquet of flowers, and there's a line, 'I pick flowers, I tell myself I'm okay, I'm okay,' so that was inspired by him.  Another, when I told him I was a poet, he said, 'Roses are red and violets are blue' so that's in there.  I tried as best I could to relive that moment and [the poem] is essentially an internal monologue that some of the people I was chatting to might say."

He adds, "I can only do my best to empathise and relay a message so hopefully I do them justice.  I'm quite conscious of that."

Neil Forsyth, Focus Ireland Services Manager, poet Stephen James Smyth, and Body & Soul director Avril Stanley
Neil Forsyth, Focus Ireland Services Manager, poet Stephen James Smyth, and Body & Soul director Avril Stanley

Stephen can empathise perhaps better than most given he is also experiencing challenges as a result of the housing crisis.  Like many artists he is struggling to remain living in a city with skyrocketing rents and too few available homes. 

"I'm not trying to suggest my situation is as difficult or challenging as other people but I've gone through a bit of a difficult time the past few years and this idea that 'couches don't count' - I was essentially living on a couch that was a fold-out bed for two years and I just moved back to my mother's there for a little bit."

He adds, "I have some challenges in my life right now but I'm lucky that I know I'll be able to overcome them.  I like my life, predominantly, and I like what I get to do but housing is a real struggle as an artist, and for other people as well."

Stephen is considering a move to either Belfast or Wexford with their thriving local arts scenes and more affordable housing.  He says he loves Ireland, 'every nook and cranny', having travelled extensively with his poetry, but his heart is in his hometown.

Labour of love: Irish poet Stephen James Smith
Labour of love: Irish poet Stephen James Smith

"In essence it will be economic exile, it won't be by choice," he says of the impending move.  "When I walk the streets of Dublin I feel so at home and I never feel alone."

As 'What If' launches today on Independent.ie, he is apprehensive about how it will be received.  Previous videos of his spoken word performances have gone viral and when the rousing 'My Ireland' released in 2017 he received 4000 emails.  "I just didn't know how to cope with that," he says. 

He is also apprehensive about his first live performance of the poem which will happen on the main stage at the Body & Soul Festival in Co Westmeath this weekend (it runs June 21-23).  While he has performed at the 3Arena to an audience of more than 10,000 in the past, this time it's a new, 'untested' poem.

"That's going to have me quite apprehensive, but I think that's good.  It means I care about it and hopefuly I can channel those nerves to trasmit the emotion that I feel," he reasons.  "I'll more than likely say it too quickly on stage but I'm okay with that knowing if I put my heart into it that's more important than a perfectly delivered performance."

Focus Ireland is Body & Soul's official charity partner for their tenth anniversary and they are urging festivalgoers, and the general public, to sign and share an online petition at www.focusireland.ie, which is calling for Government to develop a Youth Homelessness strategy.  The charity will also be gathering signatures on site at the festival this weekend to present to the Oireachtas in September.

"If you look at the changes in Ireland in terms of the marriage referendum and abortion rights you sense that there's a groundswell of young people that are becoming politicised and making a difference to the country.  We're a lot more progressive now and Focus Ireland hope, for want of a better term, to tap into that and to get those people to focus their attention on this important issue," says Stephen.

"Hopefully we can galvanise the support of those people who have been out there on the streets for other causes and fight for something that is obviously a human right and is clearly being mismanaged and clearly we need to do more about it."

Speaking about the new campaign at the launch today, Neil Forsyth, Focus Ireland Services Manager said, “Young adults are the most likely age group of people who are homeless who will bunk-in with friends and extended family to keep a roof over their heads. They are part of the hidden homeless which means they are not included in the Government’s official homelessness figures.

"When this happens they are barely mentioned in Government policy or strategy, and there is no provision for addressing their very particular needs and circumstances. Those leaving state care or detention, from migrant or ethnic groups, or who identify as LGBTQ are disproportionately represented in youth homelessness.”

As well as Stephen's performances, Couches Don't Count at Body & Soul will also host a series of activist talks by Emmet Kirwan, Una Mullally, Colm O’Gorman, Síona Cahill, Senator Lynn Ruane and more at the Focus Ireland Home which is a specially designated space forthoughtful reflection and activism located in the Woodlands Area at the festival.

For more information on Body & Soul Music & Arts Festival and to book tickets visit www.bodyandsoul.ie and for more information on the #EndYouthHomelessness campaign visit www.focusireland.ie

Read more: Who is Stephen James Smith? He's on the syllabus of an American university and his videos have more than two and a half million views

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