From people who are reduced to begging on our streets, to the big charities — it seems that all of our responses to the homelessness issue involve the marketing of human misery, writes Caroline O’Doherty.
As sales pitches go, it was a half-hearted attempt.
“Any spare change,” the gruff voice muttered without intonation to indicate whether it was a question or a command.
“I’ll say a prayer for you, God bless you,” it continued in monotone before lowering to add: “And all that shite.”
Now any marketing expert will tell you that to grab an audience’s attention, impart a message to them, and extract money from them, you need to impress by being imaginative, persuasive, and earnest.
And it’s best not to use God and excrement in the same sentence.
But the man with the gruff voice who sat in the doorway of a vacant shop premises didn’t look to be open to advice. As he muttered, he fumbled with a roll-your-own cigarette from a small supply he kept in the plastic DVD case of a missing action adventure movie.
His tangled beard appeared stuck to the front of his filthy anorak so that his head and torso moved as one, minimal and slow though such movements were, and a thin sleeping bag pushed shapelessly to the side indicated hard nights past, and more ahead.
A few minutes walk away, another man had adopted a different strategy, folding himself into a neat human cube on the footpath, a piece of cardboard held level with the knees of those passing by. In carefully-written capital letters it appealed for help in putting a roof over the man’s head, emphasising that he was an “IRISH MAN”.
Not much further along, a young man was using the personal approach, the short, sad story on his piece of cardboard beginning with: “My name is...” It was also an Irish name, the kind of name your uncle or cousin has, the kind of name you play football with, a name that said “I’m someone you know so please don’t ignore me”.
Around the corner was yet another forlorn human form and another piece of cardboard explaining that the owner was homeless because of family breakdown. “I don’t drink or do drugs,” it stressed.
Another short walk away, another man sat with a mostly illegible sign, the only discernible words pleading “Please”, “hostel” and “Good Bless”.
So who won the award for best presentation? It was a toss-up between the aging cube, unobtrusive yet impactful, and the young man with the name — effective humanisation of the issue.
And if that sounds like a callously facetious approach to the scandal of homelessness and the distress and suffering it is causing in our society, it is only to illustrate how awful and humiliating it must be to have to market one’s own misery in an attempt to compete for compassion with the growing number of others doing the same.
Charities are well used to the routine and they don’t have much choice but to factor marketing and advertising costs into their administration budgets.
So it may have been exasperating for the established homeless charities to see the Home Sweet Home campaign whip up close to €200,000 in donations in the space of a few weeks with little more than a hashtag and some headline-grabbing direct action.
The occupation of Apollo House last December gave vent to the frustrations of many in a way that structured charities can’t provide for.
It captured imaginations, stirred up passions, amassed a celebrity following, and highlighted in a very visual, physical way the inequalities in Irish society and the absurdities that feed them. What’s the solution to people sleeping on the street? Put them in the empty buildings that line the street. Simple. Illegal too, but then the law’s an ass. Right?
For a few weeks in December, it was almost believable that it was as black and white as that. But now there is a pot of money left over — around €130,000 — and questions are being asked about what should be done with it.
There have been calls for it to be handed over to experienced housing charities, but the Home Sweet Home campaigners believe they have started something different and want to continue in that vein. They have said the money will go to grassroots organisations and projects instead.
Which groups and projects, how much, and when has not yet been decided because — as it is a movement rather than organisation — decisions must be taken collectively and that inevitably takes time. What happens next is unclear.
Does the movement publish details of its allocations, accounts, audits? Or does the groundswell of support that the campaign generated last December allow it presume that trust follows, so that it doesn’t have to speak for every cent spent?
In a period of unprecedented regulation and scrutiny of structured charities, will fluid charitable movements become more attractive to volunteers and more appealing to donors?
Is it good that there’s choice? Or does it just create more competition for resources among people who have essentially the same needs, the same beliefs, and the same aims, demeaning all in the process?
At street level, on the footpaths and doorways of an Irish city, the competition is painfully evident.
Across the road from the man with the illegible sign, another man lay propped up against a shopping bag of belongings, half-in, half-out of his sleeping bag like a stranded merman.
He had gone the no-sign, no-talk route, possibly surmising that his presence alone — one man and a paper coffee cup — said all that was needed.
“Is he a robber?” asked a small child passing by. His mother, embarrassed by the question and, more so, by the volume at which it was posed, quickly dismissed it with a “no, no, no”.
“Nanny says they’re all robbers,” the child retorted.
In Nanny’s eyes, there would be no winners for best presentation of personal hardship. But the very notion that compassion could become a prize in a contest of human suffering makes losers of us all.
From people who are reduced to begging on our streets, to the big charities — it seems that all of our responses to the homelessness issue involve the marketing of human misery
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