Sunday 18 August 2019

Home truths: Our Christmas short story for the homeless

Artists performing to protest against homelessness following last year's occupation of Apollo House in Dublin
Artists performing to protest against homelessness following last year's occupation of Apollo House in Dublin
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

Among the very shortest of Christmas stories is 'The Little Match Girl' by children's author Hans Christian Andersen - so brief in fact that it almost fits entirely on a single standard paperback book page.

Written in 1845, it follows a homeless girl wandering barefoot in the snow-strewn city streets during the Christmas/New Year holiday. She's selling bundles of matches from an apron to make money for her family who live in a makeshift shelter.

With the cold settling into her body, she's afraid to return to them because she hasn't sold any matches and she's likely to get beaten. So she stays out in the snow, crouches in a dark corner between two houses and lights a single match in a bid to gain some warmth.

In the resulting glow projected on the house wall, she sees a vision of a comfortable room with a warm fire and she imagines sitting next to it.

The match goes out and the vision disappears. So she strikes a second match. This time she sees a dining room in which a table is laden with food, including a cooked goose which leaves the table of its own volition and waddles up to her.

A third match shows a beautifully lit Christmas tree. In the glow of her fourth match she sees her deceased kindly grandmother appearing with a hand outstretched. As this match burns down and the vision dims, the little girl lights the whole bundle at once in a desperate bid to keep her grandmother present.

The bungle of matches flares brightly and the vision becomes so intense that the grandmother walks from it, picks the little girl up in her arms and carries her away. The following morning the child is found dead in the snow - sitting bolt upright and smiling amidst bundles of burnt out matches.

By the end of the story we realised that a child's aspirational visions of home comforts were hallucinations accompanying the final stages of hypothermia. The same passers-by who ignored her all along, stop to comment with pity on how the poor thing had tried to warm herself.

The story spans 900 words, two fifths of the size of the much taller tale that made up the housing minister's speech delivered this week while attending the launch of the annual report on homelessness by the Father Peter McVerry Homeless Trust. As the Christmas lights once again go on in our cities and towns, it makes for the grimmest reading yet on the subject, despite that organisation's sterling efforts in putting roofs over the heads of more people on limited resources - last year it increased its apartment capacity by 50pc to 200 and hopes to reach 250 by the end of this year.

It is now almost three years since Jonathan Corrie was found dead on the winter morning of December 1, 2014 on a set of steps, 40 steps from Dáil Éireann.

In the aftermath of his death the then minister over housing, Labour's Alan Kelly called an emergency homeless summit, inviting all stakeholders to the table - opposition party members, charity heads and officials from across the housing and homelessness sectors met to discuss the growing crisis. Some additional beds were made available for homeless rough sleepers and he announced that half of all future social housing allocations would go to long-term homeless. Then the government stated its commitment to ending long-term homelessness by the end of 2016.

"Our ambition is that there will be no need for anyone to have to sleep rough in Dublin this Christmas unless they make that choice themselves, for whatever reason," Alan Kelly said in a statement following the summit.

Three years and three housing ministers later, Fr McVerry has announced that child homelessness "no longer shocks" in Ireland.

It is now also almost a year since a coalition of citizens, housing activists, artists and trade-unionists entered the empty Apollo House office building in Dublin city centre, highlighting the scandal of so many habitable buildings laying empty while so many had no home.

For a period running into January, until they were threatened with court eviction, the activists housed up to 30 people per night who otherwise would have been on the streets. There was a free concert and a variety of artists including Glen Hansard and Damien Dempsey sang at Apollo House to raise awareness before the activists left. Government promises were made. A year later, Apollo House is still standing empty, and the homeless figures stand still higher.

Back in September, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy called yet another emergency housing summit (this time with the heads of 31 local authorities) in order to try to find solutions to housing issues and homelessness. The purpose of the summit was, "to explore new options and to see how we can better join up our response across local authorities but also across health and social care supports" in order to tackle the housing crisis.

Despite the work of organisations like the McVerry Trust and others like the Simon Communities, Ireland achieved a new record in the run up to the festive season this year with news that the numbers of homeless children in the state had exceeded 3,000 for the first time.

Doubtless it will take a death in the predicted cold weather of one homeless individual to spark yet another public Christmas wave of sentiment and activity for homelessness and for politicians to announce still more new measures. It seems heightened concern over homelessness has joined our modern Irish list of Christmas traditions alongside reindeer-jumpered pub crawls. But for the increasing numbers on the streets, it's just another short story and festive season fairy tale.

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