Friday 15 November 2019

Brendan O'Connor: Relax. It's OK. They're building him a ramp

Last week should mark a tipping point in our tolerance for the Government's mishandling of homelessness, says Brendan O'Connor

David tenaciously tackling the steps into the one room he shares with his sister and mother. Watch the video on #mynameis
David tenaciously tackling the steps into the one room he shares with his sister and mother. Watch the video on #mynameis
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

We can all think of lots of reasons for ignoring homeless people. On the street, we can reason that we gave money to the last one we saw, or that they only want it for drink or drugs so we are doing them a favour by not giving them money. And don't they say we're not supposed to reward begging anyway?

In the abstract, we can tell ourselves that it's a complex issue. Lots of them are there by choice, aren't they? It's almost a lifestyle choice for some of them. And it's due to mental health issues or complex lives.

It can be more difficult when confronted with families. We tell ourselves it's not as if they're on the streets. The State is providing for them. We pay our taxes and there's billions being put into it. And a lot of them refuse offers of houses, don't they? Because they're not in the right area for them.

Pity about them.

There are lots of ways we manage to walk past homeless people, and not think about it too much as we make our way home to our own cosy houses.

But the excuses run out when you see homeless children. You can tell yourself whatever you want, but on some fundamental level, we all know it's just wrong.

You would suspect that the story of David, aged nine, and the other events of last week, should constitute some kind of tipping point in this country. You would like to think that we will look back and say, that week changed everything; That was when we got serious.

The #mynameis campaign, launched last week, is one of the most powerful pieces of advertising you will have seen in a while.

The organisers of it freely admit that the stories around it, of homeless children, are designed to tug on the heart strings. But then, if a bit of spin is good enough for Leo and the boys, then it's good enough for homeless children.

The story of nine-year-old David tugged on the heartstrings more than most.

It is perhaps an old-fashioned view to take and you can argue it's condescending, but most of us think that, in general, people with disabilities have enough to be dealing with just with their disability. They have enough of a "handicap", if I can use that word, in trying to have a fulfilling life. So as a civilised society, we should do whatever we can to make everything else as good for them as we possibly can.

It was hard to watch the video of David on the Six One news, or to be one of the hundreds of thousands who watched it online, and not think that there has to be a better way. David, not his real name, has been living with his mother and his sister in a B&B for 18 months.

The video is one minute, 38 seconds long and over a minute of it, one of the longest minutes of video you will ever watch, shows David trying to get up the four steps in front of the B&B with his walking frame. It is excruciating and very upsetting to watch.

Not because David is upsetting to watch. He tackles the steps calmly and with the determination of someone who has learnt that you have to a work a little bit harder at the little things if you are him. But it's just wrong on every level.

David motors along reasonably well once he gets on to level ground again, which only underlines what an obstacle those steps are. But it doesn't help that you know that when he gets to his room David will not be able to use his walking frame or his wheelchair, because the room is too small, so he will have to resort to crawling around.

This boy, for whom learning to walk was presumably a triumph, has to get down and do the one thing he worked so hard never to have to do in life - crawl.

It doesn't help that you know that while David can make a fist of getting up the steps, his mother has to lift him down them. It doesn't help either that you know that David fell off the fourth step and split his head open a few months ago.

As the video went viral, clearly someone in officialdom decided this situation needed to be contained. The Government had been outspun, and the situation needed to be spun back into control. Obviously Eoghan Murphy's Department of Housing could not comment on individual cases. But they needed to show they were reacting to this awful situation, so someone let RTE know that David's situation was being dealt with.

Do you know what they are doing? You won't believe this.

They're building him a ramp. They are building him a f****** ramp.

Obviously you can tell yourself that this is just a particular hard case designed to pull on the heart strings. But equally you can't say it didn't do the job. And of course, most of the 2,500 to 3,000 homeless children don't have a disability, and don't have these unique challenges, but that doesn't mean it's any easier for them.

If you have a second, go and read the story of Orla and her playdate with her friend Lisa. I came across it on Broadsheet.ie.

As David sent ripples around polite society, the uneasiness was compounded by Danielle Carroll, the young mother of two who took her own life in a hotel in Kildare. And by the stories of Stephen "Jack" Watson, who slept on a one-metre-high ledge outside the Superdry Shop next to Avoca on Suffolk Street, and of Jennifer "Jenny" Dennehy, who died while sleeping rough in a tent in Cork.

Jack, according to those who know, would bed down on the ledge most nights, because it offered some shelter from the rain. People say he didn't drink or bother anyone, just settled down with his sleeping bag and his book.

It's thought he fell off the ledge and cracked his head.

Now again, we know that these situations are complex and we should not make any judgements based on not knowing the ins and outs of things.

Suicide, too, is a complex issue.

So no one is suggesting that we blame the minister for these three deaths, or that these people were purely victims of the system. The death of Jack Watson has led for calls for additional emergency beds to be reopened in Dublin and that is probably a reasonable response.

But the bottom line with this perfect storm of three tragedies and one ongoing outrage, is that it has led to a new sense of unease among people who may not have been that outraged about homelessness up to now.

Lots of people have their own issues to deal with, their own problems, and they don't feel they can take on every social ill that is going on around them.

They are struggling themselves and getting on with their lives. So they selectively don't ignore things, but filter them.

Equally, the Government probably has loads of answers to what it is doing about homelessness. It is pumping billions into it. It is looking at new solutions, assessing existing plans, it's a huge priority, it's a complex situation.

And, actually, you would have no doubt that the Government wants to solve this because it is increasingly becoming a major political problem. So presumably politicians want to do it out of the goodness of their hearts, and because they care. But it is now affecting their bottom line, their professional standing, their reputations as bright young men who are modernising the country.

What they need now is a game-changer. Because last week seems to have strengthened in people a determination. That we do not want to live in a country where David has to live as he does, and where Jack and Danielle and Jenny have to die as they did.

We do not want to live in a country where thousands of children have no home, no place they can retreat to that is safe, no place they can bring a friend around to play, no place their mother or father can have a private corner to retreat to, a bit of space, somewhere to cook, to eat, to do all the little things that come together to give human beings a dignified life.

We don't need to hear anymore about attempted solutions that aren't working. These guys are so smart, we have every faith they can come up with a new, fast, creative solution that actually works.

Sunday Independent

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