Monday 11 December 2017

'What would make me hand back Freedom of the City'

Fr Peter McVerry insists government can end homeless problem with a relatively minor outlay, says Niamh Horan

Fr Peter McVerry’s Trust for the homeless depends increasingly on donors as politicians dither on policy
Fr Peter McVerry’s Trust for the homeless depends increasingly on donors as politicians dither on policy

Fr Peter McVerry is angry. He is trying to hide it, smiling as he speaks. But his teeth are gritted and there are tears in his eyes.

Downstairs, a notice board hangs in his office. It is full of pictures of young lads who look like they should be in school.

But they are all dead.

Earlier he had pointed them out, one by one, punctuating their names with their cause of death. "Overdose", "Suicide", "Overdose," "Suicide".

He appears matter-of-fact about it, perhaps mindful of his surroundings as a group of young homeless lads chat in a circle nearby. But upstairs, in the stillness of the kitchen, his emotions surface.

"We have lost our sense of outrage," he says, clenching his coffee mug. Our politicians, our State, ourselves.

His sense of injustice is focused on a recent news story.

"There is a set of traffic lights at Newlands Cross on the N7. The Government has just announced that they are going to remove the lights so people won't have to sit in their cars for an extra few minutes on the way to work."

He smiles, the tears still resting in his eyes: "It is costing €100m."

"In the height of the Celtic Tiger, if I had said that we could solve our entire homeless problem with €64m, they would have laughed at me."

Whatever about the rest of us, the champion for the poorest among us hasn't lost his sense of righteous indignation.

In fact, I feel it has welled up inside him since the last time we spoke.

Could you fault him?

Here is a man who displays that rare trait – he actually practises what he preaches.

His political, religious, social beliefs are demonstrated in a life lived helping others. And yet what he has worked and campaigned tirelessly for over the past 30 years, that the Government supply everyone with a roof over their head as a basic human right, has not been acted upon by political leaders.

Of course, Dublin City Council will give him The Freedom of The City next month. A nice token for sure. Given the choice between the award and the availability of one more bed a night for the homeless, there would be a very empty stage at City Hall come January.

By the time you put your head on your pillow tonight, four more people will have become homeless in Ireland.

"Look the problem is worse than ever," he says. "Last week, a man in a wheelchair was turned away from HSE accommodation because there wasn't a bed for him. He had to sleep on the street for the night. Another man on crutches had to sleep rough when the HSE said they didn't have a bed and his crutches were stolen during the night. A homeless mother with a young child was offered a sleeping bag when they couldn't give her accommodation."

"This is a political problem. The only way homelessness can be solved is by providing a roof over their heads

and that is the responsibility of the Government."

He has had to deal with much loss over the years:

"I have found them myself, through suicide or overdose. I probably lose one person a month." He pauses. "It doesn't get any easier. I thought it would but it doesn't. It actually gets harder. Because there have been so many of them."

This Christmas he will have dinner at the drop-in centre. He commutes from his small home in Ballymun and thinks anyone "whether a head of a charity or not" on a salary of over €100,000 is "obscene".

His one request to anyone reading this article at Christmas is not for money: "Just say hello. Don't act like they don't exist when you pass them on the street."

The stories from the drop-in centre are heartwarming.

Young children send their annual savings. People bring clothes. And still the Government has not done their part to ensure every person in this country has a roof over their heads.

We walk down the steps of the drop-in centre to be met by a young mother. Her child and partner wait anxiously across the road, as she asks Fr McVerry for his help. I don't have to look back to hear his answer.

Later, as the death of Nelson Mandela is announced, many lament how we will never see his likes again.

But there are a million Nelson Mandelas, all fighting against injustice and discrimination. None will receive the outpouring on such a global scale as we will witness over the next few days.

Much of which will come from our own politicians.

In his own words, Mandela, who was a previous recipient of Dublin's Freedom of the City, described poverty as "not an accident" but a "man-made" issue that "can be removed by the actions of human beings."

Remember that when you see the photos of Fr McVerry being honoured next month.

Sunday Independent

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