Monday 24 October 2016

Terry Prone: Homelessness is a challenge we must rise to meet quickly

Homeless in Dublin
Homeless in Dublin

The nights are shorter, but they're not yet colder.

Not very much colder, anyway. Dubliners are still out in their finery in the evening, rather than in anoraks and puffy coats. Walking around in the changing city lights, laughing and socialising - and stepping over men and women sleeping rough.

Watching social Dublin encountering homeless Dublin is fascinating. It isn't Us and Them. It's Us, helpless in the face of the obvious need of Them. Young Dubliners demonstrate neither contempt nor revulsion when they almost trip over the bundled misery of a couple cocooned in a sleeping bag.

Every now and again, a random act of kindness happens. One of the brightly-dressed successful socialisers stashes a couple of bars of chocolate under the edge of a sleeping bag or sets down a couple of cups of hot coffee near to the sleepers, dithering about waking them for it.


Most of the time, the glances are filled with sympathy, with wonder and with puzzlement: How and why did this happen? How and what must we do to fix it?

Two certainties inform these caring glances. The first is that nobody with proper choices would choose to live thus. Nobody with the capacity to live otherwise would select a life filled with chaos and danger. Nobody would face into a bitter autumn wondering where the next hot drink would come from or the next instruction to move on. Nobody would.

The second certainty is that something must be done. We're good, in Ireland, at blaming those who fall through the cracks of our society. They did it to themselves, goes the refrain, through drink or drugs or failure to have proper goals. It is our way of removing responsibility from ourselves, and putting our needs above the needs of those less "deserving".

Oddly, however, this time, in relation to what the Simon Community rightly calls a major humanitarian crisis, that blame reflex has not kicked in, perhaps because the sheer numbers of those sleeping rough every night is so out of kilter with what we had come to see as the abnormally normal.

Clearly, some set of circumstances has come together in a perfect societal storm, creating a new and different challenge to which we cannot, in good conscience, fail to respond.

According to Simon, the number of people living rough now exceeds the number that were sleeping rough when Jonathan Corrie died close to Leinster House last year - and that's despite the provision of extra beds. But it's about more than numbers. Every charity working in this area says that it is a complex problem, not to be solved by bed provision alone. Or by rent supplement correction alone. Or by any single action.

However, the complexity of a problem does not remove the responsibility to do something about it - and to do something is an imperative. One of the measures of this Government will be its response to this problem.

In some ways, it is an obvious problem. Nevertheless, the bundles of humanity sleeping in porches and semi-hidden corners are the tip of a grim iceberg. Increasingly, whole families are finding themselves without a roof over their heads.

Modern prefabs are one aspect of the solution, as is fast refurbishment and fire-proofing of ghost apartment blocks, together with more availability of drug treatment and the setting out of new rules guaranteeing rent certainty to those in danger of joining those already on the streets.


Of course, money is an issue, and the recovery of the economy has created a set of competing expectations with which Government must cope.

Or, as Sam Guinness, the CEO of Simon, puts it: "We must move past discussion and rhetoric and take tangible action now to help people and families who are currently trapped in this crisis."

There may be no votes in it, but coming up with a broad, comprehensive, sensitive and sensible response to homelessness is one of the ways in which this nation, and this capital city, should and must measure itself.

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