When my Granny, a Cork publican, was trying to clear the bar at closing time, she’d roar at the lonely, half-cut farmers who were slow to drink up: “Have you no homes to go to?”
Of course, they did have homes, they just didn’t want to go home. They were bachelors, lots of them, and they didn’t want to face yet another evening on their own, freezing, both locked in and locked out at the same time.
The child in me never understood their reticence to leave but, of course, I can see now that they needed the company provided by the pub, the cards, the darts, the fire and the other bachelors, who like themselves, came in every night for friendship and human contact.
Loneliness can come in many guises. These men may have been lonely, but they did have a place to call home. Can you imagine not having a home?
Just imagine living on the streets, with no place to go all day or night? One of the overwhelming feelings must be loneliness. When we think of homelessness, we think of the cold, wet, hunger, violence, but rarely do we consider the emotional aspect. Recently, I gave a talk to help raise money for the Simon Community, where I was lucky enough to hear from homeless people about what it is actually like.
The recurring theme from these testimonies is the fact that the homeless are invisible to most of us, me included. I have stepped over countless people in sleeping bags. I have averted my gaze, fearing to catch their eye. I have answered my phone just to avoid any human contact and I have felt uneasy about fellas begging under ATM machines.
Maybe we do this because we feel that these people are not like us, their suffering is different. But everyone starts with dreams and hopes. The homeless must’ve imagined a different future. But as evidenced by the man who died this week only yards from the Dail and on one of our most expensive streets, we can all hit rock bottom.
The lack of a “roof over the head” could be solved without too much difficulty, as it is only the extreme manifestation of a profoundly dysfunctional property market, where the street is the ultimate, lamentable destination for those for whom the society isn’t working.
Before I listened to the stories of the homeless, I satisfied myself that a huge amount of the problem were self-inflicted by heroin and alcohol abuse. But having heard their stories, the drugs and the booze and anything else that numbs their daily experience are the consequences, not the causes of their plight. In many of the cases I heard, the cards are stacked against people from the start.
Many people who end up in sleeping bags started life in institutions or were in foster care from a very young age. It is quite likely that their parents were close to the bottom of society, too. Lots of people who leave prison or mental health institutions with nowhere to go on their release can end up homeless. Obviously, living on the streets is a vicious cycle of violence, poverty, cold, ill health, everyday boredom, loneliness, and drugs and more booze and more drugs.
It isn’t hard to see how the most resourceful of people will drown in such circumstances.
While many people (3,000 according to the last census) end up in the alleys of Dublin, it is clear that no one chooses this and there are common experiences in most homeless people’s lives.
They almost all started out poor. They are not often well-educated and many, from what I could see, were in abusive relationships either at home or in subsequent life. There is a significant amount of mental illness on the street, which is exacerbated by drugs and booze or maybe vice versa.
In recent years, the recession has had a huge impact. There are new homeless people, those who have had a stake in society, with a house, a job and status but who have fallen through the cracks and find the journey from security to the street shockingly rapid.
This morning, I walked past the Iveagh Buildings in Dublin, built by the Guinness family. When you look around Dublin you see many great initiatives undertaken by wealthy Victorians to alleviate the suffering of their fellow Dubliners.
We have lots of wealthy people in Dublin and as the economy improves the number of wealthy will increase. As the rich grow older, being rich doesn’t really become the driving force, the issue after a certain amount of money becomes legacy. What did he do with his cash? Was he just rich or was he also far-sighted?
These questions become important to the very wealthy as they appreciate that being a man of vision gives you far more status than being merely a man of money.
Against this background, maybe we could re-create the old Victorian notion of City Fathers – influential people who could do something about the city’s problems off their own bat, rather than waiting for the State?
If the Victorians could address social and economic problems facing our city, like accommodation, clean water and basic education through private philanthropy, why not our generation?
Think about how great many buildings in the US are financed by donation from wealthy New Yorkers such as wings of hospitals and libraries? In my neck of the woods in Dun Laoghaire the local library, the Carnegie Library, was built by the Scottish/American industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Why not do something like this again? Why couldn’t a wealthy man build a legacy by housing the very poorest in the city?
It is hard to imagine a better epithet for a wealthy person than alleviating the plight of his fellow citizens. This is the type of stuff that history is made of.