Hypocrisy on homelessness and conflicts in the mind
It's easy to denounce others but far more challenging to actually do something worthwhile for the homeless, writes Jody Corcoran
At this time every year, the problem of homelessness is always to the fore. That is understandable. The story of the nativity is also the story of no room at the inn.
When I was a child, my mother always put a candle in the window on Christmas Eve to signify that no one should be without shelter and that if somebody knocked on the door they would be welcomed.
One year, somebody knocked on the door. He was an elderly man, or seemed to be to my child's eye.
I was interested to see what would happen, whether the significance of the candle would have true meaning.
He was invited inside, and sat on a kitchen chair. He did not talk much. He said he would like some tea. My mother took down a Willow pattern cup and saucer and side plate. He was given tea, home-made brown bread and a few slices of the Christmas ham, and, after that, some Christmas cake. Then he said 'thank you' and stood to leave. He was told he could stay a while, but he insisted, no, that he had to go. He declined the offer of a lift and was on his way.
I have not thought of him from that day until last week.
It came back to me on Monday, shortly after I had parked on the quays in Dublin and made to meet somebody in Temple Bar. As I walked, I was approached by a young woman, in her 20s. She looked pale and tired. She asked for some money. As it happened, I had used all my spare change in the parking meter, and explained as much. Perhaps that was why I stopped to talk to her, because I knew I had no change to give. She said 'that's okay', and thanked me anyway for stopping to talk.
I had cash notes in my wallet. I looked at her as she wandered off, with a bag in her hand of the kind that you would stuff a tent into. I assumed it contained all of her belongings. I wondered if I should follow and offer her the smallest note in my wallet, €10. Immediately, I knew that I would not, but I thought about it for a while.
As I thought to myself, I continued to watch. She approached three people, each of whom avoided eye contact, let alone talk to her. Then she was gone, around the corner. I suspected she was a drug addict, but have no evidence to back that suspicion, other than she looked pale and wan, and seemed to wander a little aimlessly.
These are my stories of the week, related to the homeless. I offer them to try to make some sense of the homeless problem, which is in the news this week with the sit-in protest at Apollo House in Dublin, and the fact that it is Christmas.
Later in Temple Bar, this time with the €10 broken into change, I was approached by a young man on a bicycle. He was more strident than the young woman. He told me that he was trying to put together €4 for something or other and asked if I had 50c.
We all encounter such occasions, or witness such encounters. I rarely see people give money, except at this time of year, and then usually to carol singers or homeless charities, who have commandeered the prime locations. I was still feeling a little guilty from my encounter with the young woman, so I took a handful of change from my pocket and gave him €4.
He seemed surprised, but was pleased. He thanked me profusely and we wished each other a happy Christmas, and he was on his bicycle and away. I did feel uneasy because I did not believe he was as deserving as the young woman earlier, whose disposition had touched me more, who was grateful that I had stopped to talk to her. Still, my conscience was eased somewhat.
This is another of the conflicts contained in the homeless issue, who to give to, whom to not, who is more, or the most deserving, and whether guilt is justified.
Later that evening, on Facebook, there was a post by my daughter related to some friends of hers who attend Belvedere College. Every year, sixth years gather overnight at the GPO and collect for the homeless. This year some of my daughter's mates are doing that. For what it's worth, I 'liked' the post. What else was there to do? I admire the young men from Belvedere. We all do. When their sleep out is reported in the news every year, we all get a glow of satisfaction and say to ourselves that they are impressive lads indeed, and imagine that their parents must be proud of them. Of course they must.
I wonder, however, how many who admire those to help the homeless, or who collect for, or campaign for the homeless, or who angrily denounce those in Government who are routinely blamed for the homeless problem, actually do anything more for the homeless than to give a few euro at this time of year, in concern certainly, but in part to also feel better about ourselves in our own comfortable situations.
That question is asked as somebody who took a homeless person into my home a couple of years back and had them to stay for a few weeks.
I have a comfortable home, with spare bedrooms. Why not, I thought at the height of the recession?
It was a challenge to me. This was something I could do. This person was to stay for a fortnight, but stayed for six weeks. She was one of the 'new' homeless, a friend of a friend of a friend, who found herself homeless through the escalation of her rent. I will be even more honest - it was a difficult experience, and not one that I would quickly repeat, other than for a family member or close friend.
It is easy to denounce those in authority, be they in Government, or the charity business, but far more challenging to come off of Facebook and to actually do something for the homeless, other than to give out or give a few euro now and then. Some of Ireland's best-known actors and singers, or activists, and politicians, have been ringing in their denunciations over the past few days, many of them well off indeed, who could afford to do more than criticise the authorities for the crisis.
Maybe they do more and we do not hear about it. That is fine, if that is the case. But what about everybody else: would you be willing to accept a homeless person into your home - or even accept an increase in income tax for a period or one, two, three or more years to build homes for the homeless? I'd doubt that many would. That is always somebody else's responsibility.
Let me tell you another story from last week that I hope gets to the public's hypocrisy on homelessness.
On Tuesday, my youngest son and I attended the rally outside Apollo House. I was hoping to instil in him a sense of activism. We listened to the songs, and even joined in. I realise that campaign is worthy insofar as it keeps the problem of homelessness to the fore, even if the homeless are evident anyway in a walk down the streets in Dublin and throughout the country. It is also evident in most of the cities of Europe, by the way, not just in Dublin, as I witnessed in Rome recently.
Also, I realise how the Apollo House campaign highlights that the homeless problem is bound up to some extent in the forces of the free market.
My son and I stayed for 15 minutes, and then went to a nearby gourmet pub for lunch. Chicken wings, BLT and soup, two Cokes and an espresso for €30. That was three times the sum I did not hand over to the homeless young woman the day before. There is hypocrisy here, as hypocrisy attends almost all who espouse on the homeless problem, to one level or another. Are we to also beat ourselves up about that too?
On Vincent Browne's TV show the other week, anti-water charges activist Brendan Ogle announced that his movement intended to make homelessness an issue as politically charged as the water charges issue. So, there is political intent behind this campaign, too.
The intent is not necessarily to resolve a desperately complex problem bound up, as it is, in addiction, domestic abuse and mental health issues, and also, to another extent, in the intricacies of the free market.
No, the homeless problem is also, or has become, a staging post in an attempt to build a political movement. That's fine, too, but I wonder how many of those within that movement have taken, or would take a homeless person into their home, would be willing to accept a temporary tax increase, or a levy on their welfare payments to sort this problem. Not many, I would wager, and just as easily they would argue that it is not their responsibility, but the responsibility of Government, or Nama, or the free market, or somebody else.
It is easy to exploit a problem for political ends, but is far more difficult to walk the walk. The point is this - homelessness is not just an issue, it is a problem of intetwining complexities that raises difficult questions in the conflicted minds of well-meaning people.
So consider the true meaning of that, and also this: I am as hypocritical as the rest of them. We all are. Happy Christmas.