MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Homeless deaths: Nobody cares about society’s ‘nobodies’

JOSEF PAVELKA died last week, a celebrity and a ‘nobody’.

He was 52, an age that can be a high watermark. None of his family was there when he died, in a laneway in Ennis, Co Clare. His friend and kindred spirit, Piotr Baram, was nearby, wrestling his own demons.

In all likelihood, Josef died through a fog of alcohol, which may have numbed the assault of death. What images flashed through his consciousness? Did he see himself as a boy skipping through childhood in Czechoslovakia, as it then was?

Could he touch any joy from his formative years, or early adulthood, before things turned sour? Was he afforded time to review his life decisions, particularly the one that brought him in search of a future to the brutal land of the Celtic Tiger? Did he see the toilet in the town’s Market Street, where he slept in his final years? Did he wish things had been different? The final weeks and death of Josef Pavelka illustrate much about our society.

Officially, the man didn’t exist, because when every sector is crying blue murder about their own plight, the people with the least purchase have had the ground whipped from under their feet.

In the community, things are different. There, as Mr Pavelka discovered, once a face is put to a statistic, kindness blossoms, empathy kicks in. Then, there is the bugbear of modern life — the cult of celebrity.

After the two men were splashed across the media, people flocked to their side, to bask in the reflected glow of celebrity, with scant regard for the human beings behind the headlines. Josef Pavelka was a ‘nobody’ in the eyes of this State, because he didn’t have ‘habitual residence’, a vague status afforded to immigrants who have worked here for a period.

He arrived in 2007, just as the arse was being ripped out of the property bubble. So he didn’t exist, and couldn’t claim entitlement to the basics that a civilised society deigns that every human being should be granted.

He couldn’t claim a roof over his head, and he couldn’t access emergency aid for his alcoholism. He was out there somewhere, beyond the boundaries of the basic standards that we like to believe are applied on our behalf.

It wasn’t just the national authorities that denied his existence.

Last month, Ennis district court heard that Josef spent his nights in a toilet in Market Street, and his mate, 35-year-old Pole, Piotr, did likewise in another, nearby facility.

The men’s plight was described by Judge Patrick Durcan as “a scandal”. The reaction from Ennis town council was ‘scandal, what scandal?’ A statement from the town council denied the men’s existence. “All public toilets operated by Ennis Town Council are automated public conveniences (APC), more commonly known as superloos. Ennis Town Council has no evidence of any parties using public toilets in Ennis as accommodation facilities,” the statement said.

It was all balderdash.

The probation-service report to the district court recorded the men’s accommodation situation, and the pair had been photographed in the toilets, with their worldly possessions, long before the court appearance.

Both national and local officialdom denied their existence, and the only time the State acknowledged them was when they became a nuisance and were brought before the courts.

The callousness of officialdom was bad enough, but, in recent weeks, the men had to deal with the brutal application of celebrity.

After Josef’s court appearance last month, and the detail that he and Piotr lived in toilets, some citizens sought them out for their celebrity value. On May 1, back at Ennis district court, Inspector Tom Kennedy told Judge Durcan that the Eastern European pair had become celebrities since returning to the town after a brief stint in a hostel in Galway.

“A significant negative from the men’s new status, since they arrived back in Ennis, is that people are much freer in giving them money and they hurry off to the nearby off-licence to purchase alcohol.” He also said: “It has been reported to me that revellers are looking to have their photo taken with them and would give them money for that.”

How grotesque can these revellers have been?

Theretofore, many of them would have looked right through the homeless man, when encountering him on the street. Now, they wanted to bask in the celebrity conferred on the men who lived in a toilet.

You can see the pictures, the wide smiles on the revellers. ‘Look at me and my new friends, the guys who live in a loo because the State says they don’t exist’.

Then, they pass a few euro to the men, to get more booze, like handing cigarettes to a cancer-stricken patient, hurrying Josef along to his demise.

Of course, none of that was the intention, but neither did any thought go into the interactions, beyond the interest in getting a piece of warped celebrity action.

For people like community worker Josephine O’Brien, who had grown to know the pair, they were neither celebrities nor ‘nobodies’, but gentle human beings to whom fate had dealt savage blows.

Josephine told reporters a few short weeks ago. “I fear for them. They will die if the rules aren’t changed to allow them avail of statutory services. Josef has health issues and sleeping in a toilet will only make it worse.”

Fr Tom Hogan was another who had repeatedly come to the men’s aid over the last number of years, along with many others, including the St Vincent de Paul Society, all reaching out to human beings who were officially classified as ‘nobodies’.

There are those who will shrug their shoulders at the demise of Josef Pavelka, and mutter that stuff happens, that personal responsibility must be taken into account.

Irrespective of one’s philosophy, there can be no denying that in an alleged civilised society basic standards must apply.

When a State dips beneath these standards, when it casts the most vulnerable, the most afflicted, into dark corners, and even toilets, then it’s high time for alarm bells to sound.

The final days and death of Josef Pavelka are just the most recent in a series of examples of how this recession is impacting greatest on those least able to endure.

On Thursday, in the laneway where he died, Josef Pavelka’s friends, numbering 100 strong, gathered to remember the human being who had lived among them.

His friend, Piotr, was there too, according to a report in the Examiner, looking forward, with some trepidation, to entering a treatment centre in Cork. He may get a chance, another shot at life, that was denied his friend.

The State may belatedly recognise him as something more than a ‘nobody’.

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