Monday 27 January 2020

Laura Lynott: 'Our homeless need compassion, not to be treated like a dog and trampled on by State'

Misery: A homeless person begs for help to find shelter. Photo: Leah Farrell/
Misery: A homeless person begs for help to find shelter. Photo: Leah Farrell/
Laura Lynott

Laura Lynott

As the sales shoppers rushed by, my daughter and I spotted a man sitting on the ground - head bowed, almost invisible at the dawn of a new decade.

The man, in his late 30s, is one of 10,500 people currently homeless in Ireland and he's at the coalface of this housing crisis, as a rough sleeper.

There are an estimated 156 human beings currently sleeping in doorways and on the cold, hard street.

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We said hello and he looked surprised as we stopped to talk. Like many rough sleepers, the man had a cup in front of him, where the occasional passer-by popped their change.

Though, while we were there, this man never once asked for money.

He told us his mother died when he was a teenager and he'd "been through the system" before falling through the cracks.

"When you lose your mother at a young age, everything changes," he said earnestly.

"I was lost but now I really need help, more than ever."

He revealed his friend - "a small fella, with a big red beard" - was found dead in recent years. "He died due to hypothermia," the man said. "I need a home but time isn't on my side."

I asked the man what he wished for coming into the new year, the brand new decade as all others made wishes for 2020.

"A stable home.

"And I haven't worked for so long. I'd like to work again," he said.

The fact he mentioned work proved he wanted more than this existence, he wanted to be part of society rather than shunned by it, a shadow with no home and no one to care.

A well-dressed older man tutted loudly as he walked past.

It was hard to figure had he disapproved of the homeless man and his cup, or the fact my daughter and I were treating him as a human being and not rushing past him as though he was a dog lying on the street.

"You get more ignorant people in suits than anyone else," the homeless man said.

Just as we prepared to leave, a garda seemed to appear from nowhere and stood in front of the homeless man.

The guard towered over the man and spoke down to him with a booming, commanding voice.

He ordered the man to stand up, to leave the area, that he knew he wasn't allowed to beg and that aggressive begging was against the law.

The garda said he'd be back to check he was gone, he'd be back tomorrow and every day.

My daughter appealed to the officer, telling him: "But he has nowhere to go."

The young, of course, are idealistic.

She hoped the garda would listen to her plea but he merely repeated the mantra that aggressive begging is a crime, that the homeless man knew he could get help via a charity or shelter.

The little colour left drained from the man's face as he stood up and answered the guard meekly. An already thin, small figure now seemed more boy than man. And the garda continued to tell him to leave.

We said our goodbyes, my daughter explained there'd been "no aggressive begging" but her words were not heard. The garda had a view of this man and the two of us weren't going to for one minute change it.

It is, as the garda said, a criminal offence to aggressively beg on the street but it is not illegal to ask for money on the street.

During the half-an-hour we'd spent with this man, he'd never once asked us for money and he'd treated us with respect. While we were there he'd committed no crime that we could see.

But as we walked away, I felt sadness that a garda could not afford even a little kindness of spirit to this man, already at rock-bottom.

When did it become satisfactory for those in power, those we trust to care for the vulnerable, to dehumanise society's lost souls that little bit more?

I asked the Garda press office about this incident and what their policy was on homeless people and begging. I was asked to contact the Garda Ombudsman if I wished to make a complaint about a garda.

And I was informed The Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 2011 covers the law surrounding begging in a public place.

It appeared everything I'd written to the gardaí about our experience of the man, had also, once again, been of little use.

The only comfort we could take was we'd spent time with this man and hoped he'd remember that in his coldest and loneliest moments.

Sitting in our warm home later, my daughter and I made a New Year's wish to see the provision of homes for all and for compassion for our homeless brothers and sisters who live a life any of us could live tomorrow if fate deals a cruel blow.

Irish Independent

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