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Sunday 21 April 2019

A Fairytale ending to our big homeless crisis

There are thousands of homeless people in Ireland, but could we do more to help them, asks Victoria Mary Clarke

Shane MacGowan Picture: Steve Humphreys
Shane MacGowan Picture: Steve Humphreys
Shane and Kirsty in the video for Fairytale of New York
Shane and Kirsty doing Fairytale on Top of The Pops in 1987
Stills from the video

Victoria Mary Clarke

This morning I woke up in a warm bed. I was able to have a hot shower, choose from a wardrobe full of clothes, and make my own breakfast in my own kitchen.

It is freezing cold outside, Christmas is almost here, and with the fire lighting the place will seem extra cosy as myself and Shane settle down to binge-watch Netflix.

For some people in Ireland, what we have - the comfort of waking up in a home of your own instead of on the street - is as far-fetched as winning the lottery. We have a homelessness crisis. Every single day at least two families are becoming homeless, many of them families with young children.

According to Focus Ireland, in the first four months of 2016, 366 families with 731 children became homeless in Dublin alone. And it is a growing problem, as rents continue to rise and National Emergency Accommodation figures show a 26pc increase on last year.

And homelessness is not just an Irish problem. Globally, there are estimated to be between 100 million and 1.6 billion people either without any homes or without adequate housing. New York City now has the highest level of homelessness since the Great Depression of the 1930s and there are 61,931 people, including 24,148 children, homeless in that great city.

As you'd expect when my other half is Shane MacGowan, I have heard Fairytale of New York a million times - but I never stop shivering at the part where Kirsty MacColl sings "the wind goes right through you, it's no place for the old".

Because the central characters in the song are two old people who have sunk as low as it is possible to sink - a junkie and an alcoholic gambler, social outcasts. It is an uncomfortable Christmas song, not very jolly, a bit too gritty.

When Shane and I were younger in London, he looked like he lived on the street, he had holes in his shoes and a filthy old overcoat and always a bottle in his hand. We would be refused entrance to restaurants and taxi drivers would not stop for us. He didn't seem bothered, but he would never walk past a homeless person or anyone begging on the street without giving them money and talking to them. He seems to identify strongly with people on the margins of society and it is one of the things that I admire about him, but he does not think that it is a big deal. "Why would I not?" he asks me. "They are our fellow human beings."

Having never slept on the street, I cannot even imagine how awful it must be, how cold, how alone, unloved and abandoned a person must feel. How hopeless. Especially at Christmas time.

A friend of mine, who was a homeless single parent, says that the worst thing is that you are so worried about where you will sleep you don't get to think about anything else. And if you do get your child into a school, you never know when you will have to move. And when they discover that you are homeless, people never want to rent to you.

It doesn't feel good to let your thoughts linger on things that make you feel bad - things like poverty, loneliness, abandonment and death. Most of us would rather watch a box set, which may be partly why homelessness has become such a problem.

This morning, I watched a video about volunteers in Cork who spend their evenings talking to people who are sleeping rough, holding hands with them, giving them hot meals and clean clothes and generally paying them some attention, showing some compassion and kindness.

The video made me cry - not just because of how agonising it is to see this kind of human misery, but also because it is hard to watch other people doing something to help without wondering why one is not also helping, without wondering why I hurry past people who are cold and hungry instead of stopping to ask what I can do.

I wondered about the people who actually try to do something to help, what special quality do they have that will not let them hurry past.

JC Pearson is a strikingly handsome man who has been homeless in San Francisco for 17 years. Other homeless people call him 'Aunt Jack'. "I am a motherly person," he says. "Everybody comes to me for help and advice. If you cannot help yourself, help save the world, that is what I say."

Jack is a hairdresser and he cuts homeless people's hair. "I can make anyone pretty, and if you look better and feel better about yourself, it gives you more confidence to approach the situation."

Pauline Burke works for Focus Ireland and is often asked how can she do that job? She has an answer.

"I do this job because I believe we can make a difference," she says. "I know we are making a difference."

Shane and I have a good friend, a fashion designer called Bella Freud. Last year, she and Kate Moss designed a Fairytale of New York jumper and this year she has also made a Fairytale of New York candle. It smells beautiful. And as a way of trying to do something to help, we are going to sell the candles at a special, one-off event in Dublin, to raise some money and awareness for Focus Ireland.

So if you know of anyone who likes the song, you could maybe get them a candle for Christmas.

When a situation is bad - really bad - it can sometimes seem overwhelming. But even if fixing it is a challenge, there is always an opportunity to try something. And if like me all you do is something small, it all makes a difference.

The Bella Freud 'Fairytale Of New York' candle will be available to pre-order from from today until Tuesday, December 6, and for collection at a special musical event on Thursday, December 15, in the store, along with signed photographs of Shane by Sunday Independent photographer Steve Humphreys

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