GERARD HOWLIN: I ignore the rough-sleepers outside my door just as we all ignore the poor

SODDEN, wet feet in smelly socks and squelching shoes remind me of secondary school.

If I got wet on the bike in the morning, that was it, my clothes were steaming for the day. Class sizes were bigger then, and mine was of all boys. On wet days, the windows were closed and covered with condensation. A different sort of condensation mouldered everywhere else: the aroma was thick, teenage and badly in need of Lifebouy soap.

The image of soaking stocking feet in sopping trainers is stuck in my mind since Tuesday of last week.

I know it was Tuesday because the bin lorry came. First, the alarm clock went off, then the radio came on. I listened to a dose of news. It was all about Garth Brooks, and the Cabinet reshuffle. Enough of that then; up out of bed, open the curtains at the back of the house, then out to the front, and open the blinds.

It was lashing rain. The glorious good weather had well and truly broken. In the way that first glances, especially first thing in the morning, can be deceiving, I automatically looked again to be sure of what I was seeing. There was an expanse of cardboard stretched outside of my front door.

Someone had dumped stuff? Expletives went off in my head. I live in inner city Dublin, in a cul-de-sac. My house is at the end, tucked in a corner. There had been a problem with fly-tipping, but not for a long while, and never outside my front door.

And there was other stuff on top of the cardboard. It was two, blue sleeping bags, and there were bodies in them. Someone wiggled inside of one of them; a sign of life.

I was transfixed, appalled and very unsure about what to do. After about 20 minutes, in the wet, two lads emerged from the sleeping bags. I’d say they were in their late teens. Trackies, hoodies, white socks and, out of the bottom of the sleeping bags, the trainers. They had been lying on wet cardboard, on wet concrete, in wet sleeping bags, and, presumably, wet clothes, outside my front door for the night. Stand up, put the feet in the trainers, a bit of chat going on between the lads. I am well back behind the blinds, tut tutting, annoyed at being annoyed, and desperately sorry for them.

But not so sorry that I actually did anything. They got themselves together, then rolled up the identical blue sleeping bags, and put them into the nylon bags that came with them. I have seen those blue sleeping bags around town before; I’d say they came from a charity. All ready to go now, then one last thing. One of the fellas picks up the cardboard, folds it up neatly, and leaves it in the corner. Exactly like any guest would in a house they were visiting. You make the bed before you go. It’s only manners. No home to go to then, but manners are free. They go.

The bin lorry arrives next. Our bag had been put out the night before. I went out, mumbled something about stuff being dumped outside the door, and not sure they wouldn’t mind. I picked up an armload of the cardboard, the bin man got the rest. We dumped the lot in the back of the lorry.

Back to the front door. There is a can lying there. I hadn’t seen it. It’s Lucozade, and it’s full. A wrapper as well; it was a half-eaten Twix. So that was fine dining, and a night on the town. Lucozade, a Twix and a night on wet cardboard, outside someone’s front door, in a valley of squinting windows.

I wasn’t the only one looking, I discovered later. There were several pairs of eyes peeping out.

My day, then, officially started with a hot shower and clean, dry clothes. Then some work, and about 10.30am into town for a meeting. The two lads were moping around a few streets away. It was still raining. Damp must have turned to soaking wet by then.

Scenarios have been going around my head about how they ended up like that; what were their family backgrounds? Of course, I haven’t a clue. But the misery of it is etched on my mind.

Living in the inner city, seeing people sleeping on cardboard is nothing new. Walk across the centre of Dublin, through Smithfield, up Capel Street, across Temple Bar and over Dame Street; in the last two years it is an increasingly common sight. So is the number of people who are fairly obviously drug addicts, off their faces and out on the street. Strange to see, but mornings are a busy time on the drug scene.

If you need a fix, then you need it first thing.

If all of this is much more obvious, and up front, it’s not new. But it’s an issue again precisely because the comfortable have now become afflicted. You can keep a lot tucked away in your peripheral vision, keep on going, if you don’t think too hard. The fundamental issue with poverty is not its existence, it is our considerable capacity to ignore it. Once a tippling point is reached, and the scenic amenity of our shopping streets is blighted, then, of course, something must be done. It’s on your doorstep, so to speak.

One of the great events in Dublin, every year, is the carol service on Christmas Eve at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. The voice of a boy chorister rings out from inside the west door: ‘Once in royal David’s city, Stood a lowly cattle shed, Where a mother laid her Baby, In a manger for his Bed’. It is a hauntingly beautiful sound. Then the hymns, the lessons, the collection for the inner city charities, and, at the end, before the blessing, the great burst of trumpets, ‘Hark the herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King!’ The shopping streets are emptying when it’s over, and then the shoppers head home along smaller streets. There is usually some fussing about the feast for the next day. Bits of dead bird to be fitted into a fridge, and all that. Then, its Christmas. I haven’t done it for a while, but a candle is put in the squinting window. The symbol of hospitality, and the sign that no stranger would be turned away. There was no hospitality the other day, though. Better not engage. Better leave well enough alone.

You could be inviting trouble; you might indeed.

The odd thing is the sodden wet feet, in wet shoes all day. There aren’t any dry ones at home, because there isn’t any home. Funny, all the things you can effortlessly, successfully ignore and the stupid stuff you just can’t get out of your head.


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