Every single day, a child becomes homeless in this country and sometimes it’s more like two or three – because the new homelessness is about families, not just people with addiction issues or mental health problems. They’re still an important part of the picture and in need of help, too, but it’s families- often with one or two working parents- who are increasingly finding themselves unable to keep up with the rent and suddenly with no where to live.
These are families who just one month previously had homes and belongings to come back to after a hard day’s work. Focus Ireland sees their homelessness as a temporary crisis state caused by skyrocketing rents and a lack of effective government policy around social housing for low income earners. At the moment, it is arguable that some at risk families might even be better off if neither parent worked and they were therefore eligible for rent allowance. It’s a messed up situation with an appallingly high casualty rate.
Focus Ireland provides a temporary solution for both the old and the new homeless- for many that means accommodation in B&Bs and shelters but no one, least of all them, sees this as a good solution to the rapidly escalating problem. It’s just a plaster. For a start, it’s incredibly expensive- B&Bs are paid by the head so a one room setup for a family of six can end up costing more than rent on the open market. Accommodation is often in a completely different geographical area than the family came from, making a commute to a child’s regular school a logistical nightmare. Consider also that family members may not be able to stay in their room during the day or can be forced to leave on short notice if the room is reserved at some stage. The displaced have to live day to day, hour by hour, while yearning for a long term solution. Imagine being in those shoes.
That was the idea of last Friday night’s Shine a Light sleepout for Focus Ireland in the Iveagh Gardens- symbolic group awareness-raising. My reason for participating was intuitive, rather than based on any real understanding of the situation, as I think was the case with many of my fellow fundraisers. Once we’d listened to the incredible case workers share their stories from the frontline, however, goodwill began to grow into something more formidable. It isn’t easy to come to terms with what they were saying means.
When the volunteers broke into discussion groups it was amazing how many of us knew people whose worlds had been turned upside down firsthand- how infinitesimal the distance between being OK and not being OK can be. It doesn’t matter whether you work in Accenture or IMAGE, you probably know someone who has needed help at some point to keep food on the table and a roof over their family never mind their dignity and sanity. A civilised society provides that help without looking for payback and without blaming the victims. The man who runs the Luas says he receives two or three letters a month from customers complaining about homeless people ruining their commute. Is that really who we are? Or want to be?
I’m neither Catholic (nor Puritan) but for some reason I believe deep down it’s good to be physically reminded of how lucky you are every now and then. On that front, the night that was in it wasn’t a scratchy enough hair shirt for my liking. It was mild and dry beneath the Guinness beeches, especially if you had enough North Face gear- and everyone in this crowd did. It was even pretty peaceful (at least until Coppers released its inmates between 4 and 5am). I reckon it would have been much, much tougher to spend that particular night in tightly packed bunk beds crammed into a small room in a part of Dublin I’ve never been to. But what all of us have to remember as we snuggle under our duvets, maybe to read a bedtime story to someone we love every atom of, is that neither is a place anyone would like to live under duress, night after night after night, least of all a child. It’s just plain wrong that they should have to.
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