Monday 21 October 2019

Roslyn Dee: 'From St Petersburg home to an Irish tent - a tale to shame us all'


The sun sets over St Isaac's Cathedral in St Petersburg, Russia. Photo: PA
The sun sets over St Isaac's Cathedral in St Petersburg, Russia. Photo: PA

Roslyn Dee

It wasn't what he thought he'd be doing in his 30s, he said. But was he coping, I wanted to know. Right now, at this minute, yes. But he was sad all the time, he told me, in his reasonably good but heavily accented English.

So where was he from? St Petersburg. 'Your home city is very beautiful,' I said, and his closed face suddenly opened, actually lit up, just for an instant.

'You've been there?' he asked. 'Yes,' I told him.

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And I'll never forget the frostbite cold of those November days when I visited, and the vivid colours of the city's stunning buildings, all set against that snowy-white winter streetscape.

The pale greens and the turquoise blues and the mellow mustards - the Hermitage, the Church of St Nicholas, the Mikhailovsky Theatre…

He smiled and fell silent for a moment, staring into the far distance. Lost in his own reverie of remembrance. And wondering, no doubt, how he got from there - to here.

To sitting on a street in an Irish town, hoping that he'll be lucky enough to get a few bob from passers-by.

Or another cup of coffee like the one I bought for him that day, the first day I met him.

'Four sugars, please,' he'd called after me as I headed for the café.

'Four?' I shrieked back at him in disbelief. And we'd both laughed. A human moment amid the grim reality of this young man's life on the streets.

Like so many of the 10,338 homeless people in this country, as recorded in this week's latest Government figures for the month of August, Dimitri (not his real name) wasn't always homeless. Not in Russia. And not here either.

He had a flat three years ago, when he moved here from St Petersburg to be with his girlfriend. He was happy. And things were good - until they weren't. The relationship fell apart and she showed him the door.

And now, like so many thousands of others - men, women and children - Dimitri is a statistic. My first conversation with him - the one detailed here - took place over a year ago and I've been keeping in touch with him ever since. And continuing to buy him those sugar-overload coffees.

From time to time he disappears for a few weeks and I live in hope that he has secured some kind of roof over his head. And then, suddenly, he's back.

He's glad, he says, that he's on his own. He can't imagine what it must be like for homeless families, to be worrying constantly about your children.

Where, I asked him shortly after I first met him, does he actually sleep at nights?

On the street? In an alleyway somewhere with a bit of shelter?

No, not on the street. He has a tent. A tent that someone gave him last summer.

A tent. A piece of fabric. You see them more and more nowadays. I pass one every morning when I walk my dog. How on earth, in 21st-century Ireland, has a tent - something that used to be associated with fun, and holidays, and children - become an aid to everyday survival?

I went looking for Dimitri yesterday. I couldn't stop thinking about that piece of fabric he calls home, and the oncoming onslaught of Hurricane Lorenzo.

It doesn't bear thinking about, you might well say.

But that's the problem. There are more than 10,000 people out there in various stages of suffering - so 'thinking' simply doesn't cut it. Nor does talking.

How many more tents do we have to see pitched on our beaches or along our roads before we actually DO something?

Irish Independent

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