Wednesday 21 March 2018

Heartless in our disregard for the homeless


A homeless man walking on Dublin’s Grafton Street
A homeless man walking on Dublin’s Grafton Street

Fiona O'Connell

It's summertime, as the Gershwin tune goes, and the living is easy. But while the seasons may soften, the struggles of many do not. So I'm reminded whenever I visit 'the big smoke'.

If you go by public transport, you might become aware of these troubled souls long before you reach Dublin and other major Irish cities. Largely because outreach services for homeless people and addicts do not exist in rural areas.

But some things have changed, like the almost homely stereotype of the homeless as bedraggled old men. Gone are the weathered faces of vagrants like Johnny Fortycoats, who were fantastical fixtures of my childhood.

Those down-and-outs were often viewed as voluntary outcasts. As such, they still belonged - embodiments of what could happen if that part inside us, that we sometimes sense, is given enough rope to hang us, by stepping too far over the edge.

But these days, when bankers and other big-time players are protected and paid off by imposing penalties on the rest of the community, we start them young on the road to ruin. Reflecting just how far our society itself has wandered into the abyss.

For, only a few decades ago, it would have been inconceivable to passively witness another human being lying destitute on the street. Now, the experience is obscenely commonplace.

As is the spectral slight of the seemingly walking dead, their prematurely aged faces shockingly gaunt, sleeping bags draped like cloaks around skeletal frames. They wander like hungry ghosts from a Tolkien novel among day-trippers and tourists.

Apart from their immense suffering, what is the moral cost of this surreal scenario on so-called functioning citizens, as we learn to become inured and indifferent to their piteous plight? What has happened that we seem oblivious to these broken bundles of humanity at our feet?

It's not that we don't care. But most of us are struggling to make ends meet. Plus we all know about professional beggars and their scams. While the taxes we pay and the public servants we prop up with pensions and power are supposed to look after our most vulnerable.

Like the homeless man I recently encountered in one of our capital's luxurious locations, pushing a shopping trolley piled high with bags of rubbish that constituted his worldly possessions. Perched on top of it all was a little dog who looked grateful to belong to someone who did not.

The man was so stressed out by a recent run-in with a garda that he started talking to me as if we weren't strangers. What worried him most was what would happen to the dog if he were arrested. Would someone mind him? Would he get him back?

Because life can't be easy, when man's best friend is, in fact, your only one.

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