Talking about homelessness can only help

The Apollo House campaign has got more of us talking about homelessness. And that's no bad thing.

The Apollo House campaign has got more of us talking about homelessness. And that's no bad thing.

A few weeks before Christmas, I met a man sat on his haunches on The Quay. In reasonable shape – about as reasonable as one could expect given his circumstances – he was begging but wasn’t vocally doing so.

He had a paper cup extended outward in case anyone wanted to drop some change into it, but he sat there, on a dry morning, hoping for a few cent for a cuppa, not putting in and out on anyone.

I stopped to have a brief chat with him before; we’d shared a few words on a pleasant day back in August, and he spoke about wanting to get some structure into his life. He wasn’t strung out – it’s pretty obvious when someone is – and there was a sincerity to his tone.

He’d had no luck getting a hostel bed at the time in Waterford: he’d been advised that he’d be better off contacting services in his native Kilkenny, and that there was no room for him to be accommodated in Waterford.

I didn’t want to pry too much into the whys and the wherefores of why he’d fallen on such bad luck, so I didn’t. He did admit that he’d had a few drug problems in the past but again I didn’t feel like drawing him out too much on the matter. We shook hands, wished each other well, and I went about my business.

Four months passed until we met again (it was Monday, December 12th, to be precise) and I was pleased to see him; we both recognised each other from our previous exchange, and I was pleased to see that he looked healthy and well.

The following day, so he informed me, he would be Kilkenny-bound to begin a 12-month drug education programme, which came with the guarantee of accommodation: his former partner had also helped him secure his place on the programme.

It meant he’d not be on the streets of Waterford at Christmas. It also meant if he literally stuck with the programme that he’d have a roof over his head for the next 12 months.

An address. Somewhere a PPS number could be assigned to. A chance to well and truly get off his haunches and back into something approaching normal life. Away from drugs. Away from people still shooting up. A chance to stay clean – he was clearly clean on both occasions we spoke – a chance to put down that paper cup for good. A chance to live.

We shook hands once more, wished each other well, and I felt a spark of hope for this man. A re-set button beckoned for him: most of us deserve at least one opportunity to press it during the course of our lives.

I was brought up surrounded by wisdom from three households: my Parents and both sets of Grandparents – six principled people, all of whom encouraged my siblings and I to treat everyone the same, to never consider myself better or ‘above’ anyone.

I’d like to think I live up to that most days, but at the same time, there’s no halo above my bonce that needs polishing!

And with that in mind, it’s why I don’t feel like taking a brickbat to those responsible for occupying Apollo House and providing accommodation to 40 people at the time of writing. I believe the motive behind the ‘Home Sweet Home’ campaign is primarily coming from the right place.

But Dublin City Council CEO Owen Keegan did raise a legitimate point on Newstalk last Wednesday when he stated that “Irish people are suckers for celebrity endorsements”. We are.

He told Pat Kenny: “It’s interesting that in the two weeks before Apollo House, three purpose-built refurbished hostels were opened and they didn’t get a fraction of the publicity.”

And here’s the rub: if Dublin City Council had asked a public figure or celebrity to cut a ceremonial ribbon at any of those newly opened hostels, I suspect that many supporting the Apollo House movement would have accused the Council of cheap publicity.

Sadly, in an media environment where the polar opposites of debate tend to draw too much traction at the expense of nuance, the room for a considered exchange of views on homelessness (free of finger wagging) appears to be constricting.

Again, it’s not as popular thing to state, but Alice Leahy, whose trust has worked with Dublin’s homeless since 1975, was spot on when she told Today FM’s Matt Cooper that homelessness will never, ever be fully eliminated.
For a whole range of complex reasons, there will always be some people who do not want help. As odd as it might read to a great many of us, some people don’t operate on levels most of us consider ‘normal’.

“There is a difference between houselessness and homelessness and no matter how many units of accommodation we provide, there will always be people who feel excluded and don’t fit in,” she said during a visit to the Irish College in Rome.

The complexity of homelessness cannot be underestimated, and there is no magic wand out there which will eliminate it.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our bit to help those who would willingly accept such assistance. And talking about homelessness, and what can be done for those who want assistance, is worth paying heed to as a New Year begins.

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