Friday 23 February 2018

Shining light on plight of the homeless

We can all help to end homelessness, says Sammy Leslie, who joined 60 business people sleeping on the streets

Last Friday night, while you were home, kicking off your work shoes after a long week and pouring a glass of something nicely chilled, I was donning thick socks, slipping into my sleeping bag in a not so nicely chilled park and settling in for a night out. Literally a night out sleeping in the streets.

Along with more than 60 other chief executives and entrepreneurs, I was spending a night on the streets of Dublin. Sixty -- that is nearly the same number of people who have to sleep rough in the capital each night. There are thousands more who are homeless in that they have no real place to call home.

It's been an amazing few weeks since my friend Charlotte Stoney asked me to sponsor her to take part in Focus Ireland's Shine A Light Night sleep-out event (sponsored by Aviva) to raise awareness and funds for the homeless charity. I readily agreed and asked could I join the sleep-out.

Many personal stories have been shared and kind gestures shown. From an Italian mayor coming up to me in the street last week with the gift of a hot water bottle for my sleeping bag, to the many people who sponsored me. There were many heart-warming stories.

There were also the horror stories: the Spanish guys in search of work who froze to death sleeping rough in Scandinavia. And the 50,000 or so forgotten Irish who went to the UK to work on the roads and building sites and ended up homeless. Then there was the harrowing story from an Irish paramedic, of the pregnant girl who overdosed on heroin and gave birth to a baby that died in his arms. There are so many such stories. But how do we bring about change?

We can't just blame the Government. Yes, they are a major part of the solution and if they are committed this time round, they can make a huge difference. (The last government pledged to end homelessness by 2010 but failed to do so.) It's important to realise that all of us, including the business community, have a responsibility to help where we can.

For me there were many reasons to get involved, from growing up in my amazing home, Castle Leslie, during the Troubles to learning from my kind-hearted father that everyone is equally valuable as a human being.

Nobody grows up wanting to be homeless. People make mistakes and deserve a second chance. Many also become homeless because the State has failed to protect them.

Before you make harsh judgments about the homeless, ask them their story. There are a minority who are taking support systems for a ride, but remember that type of behaviour is true of every walk of life, from politicians to insurance brokers, to celebrities. The bad apples should not serve as an excuse for not helping those in real need.

By working together we can end homelessness. The €300,000 raised for Focus Ireland through the Shine A Light Night will help to prevent some people from ever becoming homeless and also support some families to secure a home.

Let's all do what we can to help make homelessness a thing of the past, once and for all. To donate or find out about volunteering for Focus Ireland see www.focusireland.ie or call 1850 204205.

Sunday Independent

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