FERGUS FINLAY: I know one sparky kid who may find a way out of drive-by poverty

I WANT to tell you about drive-by poverty. It’s a new solution to the problem of poverty, a way of hiding it away so it doesn’t become visible. That way, you see, we don’t have to worry about it.

But first I want to tell you about Brian. He was ‘an accident’. When he was born, the fourth in his family, the youngest of his older brothers was 16. And already, that older brother was in trouble with the law. Brian’s father was a real tough guy who is serving time right now. His mother dealt with depression by drinking and she became more and more distant from Brian as he grew up.

In fact, he has only one memory of his mother. He found her dead in her bed, with deep cuts in her wrists and blood everywhere. It was Brian who had to call for help, but not before he had shouted and cursed at his mother in an attempt to wake her up.

Brian was four then. He’s 11 now. He’s been in and out of care a few times and lived sometimes with an aunt who has six children of her own, children she has a lot of difficulty coping with.

At the age of 11, Brian has been expelled from two schools and there is no denying his behaviour is very difficult. He uses foul language, he hits out easily and he has been known to bite other kids. To this day he believes his mother’s death was his fault. He has sometimes wondered aloud what he did wrong to make her kill herself.

At other times he wonders if he could, even at the end, have saved her if he had done something apart from trying to wake her up by shouting at her.

The memory of those slashes on her wrist, slashes that he believes he helped to put there, has never left him. And often he hates his mother for leaving him. The anger at being left alone may be part of the reason he lashes out so much.

Brian’s story is entirely true, although I’ve changed his name for obvious reasons. He is one of thousands of children in Ireland whose lives have been shaped by the circumstances in which they were born and raised. All these circumstances have one thing in common — poverty.

Poverty never necessarily involves the loss of love and care, or even the support of a family or neighbours. Indeed the poverty many of us remember represented little more than hard times, the absence of certain comforts.

Thousands and thousands of children grow through poverty like that to become well-adjusted adults and to make their way in the world. There is another kind of poverty. When a child has little or nothing, when he or she is knocked around by life, that can be pretty bad.

When poverty has also inflicted other stresses and strains on his or her family, that’s worse. And when that family is part of a community that is itself marginalised and alienated, that’s when poverty acts like a wasting disease, destroying lives little by little.

I could reel you off a list of placenames and you’d recognise them immediately as the communities I’m talking about.

When you visit them (and not a lot of people do) you realise that those communities nearly all have a couple of things in common.

First, in many cases disadvantage is built into them. They lack many of the basic amenities the rest of us take for granted — a safe place to play, for instance, or decently heated and dry houses.

I was in a community in Dublin the other day that was built more than 30 years ago — several thousand houses, in row after row, and not one single solitary tree.

Secondly, all those communities carry a certain stigma, so that to reveal that you come from one of them is itself a serious obstacle to being accepted in a better job or even a better school.

And thirdly, many of them now are ringed by fine roads, dual carriageways and even motorways. We’ve almost invented this new concept in Ireland — drive-by poverty.

Several of the most disadvantaged communities in Ireland are visible from the M50, or easily accessible from it. But it’s now possible to turn a blind eye to the places where poverty is most embedded, especially in urban Ireland, at 60km/h to 80 km/h an hour, without the risk of incurring penalty points.

And that’s what we do. That’s why, when a number of regeneration schemes in Dublin appeared to collapse last week, there was no national outcry, no instant demand for solutions. The communities affected may be in terrible pain, but they’re invisible.

I’m not interested in assigning blame for the collapse of the regeneration projects. They were set up on the basis of public/ private partnerships (PPPs) and it’s a central requirement of all such arrangements that there must be reward as well as risk for the private element of the partnership.

If the financial risk appears to outweigh the reward, no private sector investment is capable of being sustained.

We’re not going to do anyone a favour by driving a developer into a financial disaster. But if the PPP question had been about, say, completing the M50 or the new children’s hospital, or the building of a new port for Dublin, and it had been abandoned halfway through any of those projects, there would have been an enormous amount of pressure on the Government to come up with a solution.

In the case of these invisible communities, who cares? Dublin City Council wants to go ahead with regeneration, but it has been categorically told that unless it can raise the money themselves, the public purse is closed to it.

In those communities, and others around Ireland where social and economic investment is desperately needed, children put up with hunger, bullying, violence and anxiety as part of their daily routine.

THEY live in substandard houses and are exposed to the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. They have a variety of overlapping needs, ranging from the environment in which they live to difficult family relationships, poverty and poor health. The disadvantage that surrounds them in their neighbourhoods is the main trigger that hinders their development — and virtually guarantees a repeat of the cycle.

There is an answer to all this and it lies in the investment that can contribute to early childhood development, better support for families and a renewed sense of neighbourhood. Those answers will never be delivered to invisible communities.

Brian, by the way, is getting a lot of support right now. Those who are working with him, who see him as a bright, sparky, troubled child, don’t believe the damage done to him is irretrievable.

It’ll be a long road, but there is every reason to believe Brian will make it. He’s working, and achieving, in school and he is building tentative friendships with kids who used to be afraid of him.

No one can be certain he’ll be all right though because help arrived late in the day. That’s another of the consequences of invisible poverty, the drive-by kind.


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