Friday 19 January 2018

Spare a thought for the homeless at Christmas


OVER THE past few weeks, and particularly in the past few days, there have been a lot of advertisements in the public domain seeking help for the homeless. There are TV and radio ads, billboards with huge posters, and newspaper pieces showing us the reality of homelessness in Ireland today.

I didn't realise for example that there are over 5000 people in Ireland who are homeless. Nor did I realise that 1 in 7 of these are children. It's incredible to think that after all the money that was floating around for so many years, there is such a big problem of homelessness today.

The Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP) launched an urgent appeal for funds on last week. At the launch, their National President Mairead Bushnell said "Between now and the end of this year the SVP volunteers will make an estimated 150,000 visits to homes all over Ireland. They will give support to those families in a whole variety of ways. In many, many cases it will be to ensure that children have a toy from Santa or that the families have sufficient food heat and light to get over the 'festive' season".

Anyone who has ever felt, or is feeling, hopeless would tell you that every day they struggle to keep going, hoping that tomorrow will be easier than today. The fact is that things are getting tougher, many people have lost their jobs, are in danger of losing their homes, and hope seems to be ebbing away.

The increase on demand for the SVP last year was about 30%. They expect a similar increase this year, as does Focus Ireland, and the Simon Community.

This week marks the first week of Advent, that annual four-week countdown to Christmas Day. Christmas is traditionally a time when families gather in the comfort and warmth of the family home to celebrate and enjoy each other's company.

Already people are hitting the shops to prepare for the big day, buying gifts, and making ready for the parties and celebrations, albeit much less lavish than in previous years because of the cuts and the extra financial worries people have. But before we get too caught up in the Christmas spirit, it's no harm to spare a thought for those who are less fortunate. It might be very much 'cliche' to mention the fact that Jesus was born in poverty, in a stable in Bethlehem. He was homeless when he came into the world.

It's hard to imagine that, 2000 years later, there are so many members of our society facing the same reality today. Advent should be a time of hopeful expectation, but instead, for many this year, it's a nightmare wondering if they can make it to Christmas, and praying that the New Year won't be the year that they become homeless too.

In the upcoming Budget, the Government face stark choices. So far we have been hearing about the possible €10 cut to children's allowance, the 2% increase in VAT, an increase in prescription charges for medical card holders from 50c to €2, a €50 levy on medical cards, and the increase in student-fees.

All of these measures, while small in their own right, taken together would make for a tremendous ' hit' on the poorest members of our society. People in poverty cannot survive any further cuts to incomes and services, there is only so much a person can cope with, and the ' breaking point' for many families is not that far away.

Until recently a Minister for Housing and Planning, effectively the Minister for Homelessness, sat at the cabinet to make sure these people were not forgotten. Willie Penrose resigned from that position a couple of weeks ago, and he still has not been replaced. It begs the question, while the Government is planning the toughest budget in the history of the State, is there anyone at the table to speak up for the homeless or those at risk of losing their homes?

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