Ruairi McKiernan: We can't turn a blind eye to those condemned to a life on our streets
The daily sight of people battling homelessness and heroin addiction at the feet of statues of great Irish historical figures carries a sad symbolism. This was not the Ireland that O'Connell and Larkin dreamed of, an Ireland of lost souls abandoned to the mercy of a country that all too often dismisses them as junkies, scumbags and failures.
I'm often at meetings in Sean MacBride House in Temple Bar, a building named after the Nobel Laureate who also envisaged a different Ireland. Colm O'Gorman is based there, the director of Amnesty International Ireland who, as a teenager, was homeless in this same area. Upstairs in the building, looking down on the nearby alleyways, more often than not you can see people injecting themselves with a toxic escape from the abandonment, abuse and suffering that has come their way. Around the corner, life goes on in the two identical-looking Starbucks cafes that sit facing each other while the poet Pat Ingoldsby sits on the street selling his poems to a nation that needs its free-thinking poets now more than ever.
I've lived in Dublin for three years now and I can see how people become cold, hardened and immune to the growing numbers of half-conscious humans on the streets of the capital. 'I'm busy with my own worries. Someone else will sort it out,' goes one train of thought.
I also find myself asking what do the growing numbers of homeless people, beggars and heroin addicts say about us? What does it say to the tourists who we want to impress so much?
The poor and the downtrodden show us who we really are as a society. They are a mirror for the national soul. They are evidence of a collective failure, reminders of a deeper dysfunction.
I first realised this when I moved to the US after university back in 1999. I grew up with the American dream in mind, the notion that the land of the free was a place of wealth and progress, fairness and justice. In San Francisco, one of its wealthiest cities, the other side of this dream was on show. My bubble was burst. In among the dot com billionaires and skyscrapers, were the poor and the destitute, the war-torn veterans of Vietnam and those ejected from a privatised health system that saw no profit in healing their wounds. Ireland, it seems, is choosing a similar path.
One proposed solution to all of this is to move the problem. Out of sight, out of mind. The logic is to move the controversial methadone clinics out to the outskirts, ban the beggars, and repeat the failed social strategies that helped created the drug ghettos of the past. It's social dumping and sanitisation – nice happy clean streets for a country that isn't always keen to deal with its problems. A much wiser solution would be to tackle the underlying inequality and prejudice that create them, thereby saving money, reducing crime and creating a better country for all to live in.
There are 300,000 empty houses in Ireland and plans are in motion to demolish 40 ghost estates. But homelessness isn't just an issue of finance. It's about care and compassion and what and who we value. Or maybe it's because those with power live in different areas, in what can be a parallel universe where it's easier to ignore reality. There is no shortage of support charities out there and there have been plenty of promises to end homelessness, but it's all a cod if it's not driven by a co-ordinated political commitment to really solving the problem.
The same is true for Ireland's heroin epidemic and our issues with alcohol. Where there's a will, there's a way – the Government has shown that with their ability to please the markets, the bondholders and the troika. Why can't we see the same level of commitment to the most vulnerable in society? Surely this would be an appropriate way to meaningfully commemorate the spirit of 1916.
People like Alice Leahy, Sr Stan, and Fr Peter McVerry have worked for decades on these issues yet the problems are increasing. As we head into a cold winter, the Simon Community says homelessness in Dublin increased by 88pc last year and is now at an all-time high. This is happening because of inaction, because of inequality, and because we as a society don't care enough. If we did then we'd be pushing our politicians to prioritise the needs of the poor over the privileged. We'd be taking individual and community action to do our bit and set about creating a republic where the provision of food, health, and shelter for all was the basic measure of our success.
Ruairi McKiernan is a freelance community worker, campaigner and member of the Council of State. His website is www.community.ie.