No one chooses to be homeless, and it’s something that could happen to any of us, writes Louise O’Neill
I still remember the first time I ever saw a person sleeping rough on the streets.
I was maybe four or five years old and my family had gone to Dublin to see Disney on Ice. We were walking back to our hotel when we passed a man sleeping in a doorway, a pillow and a blanket seemingly his only possessions. I stopped and stared, and was quickly ushered away by my parents.
I asked them question after question. “Where is his Mammy and Daddy?” and “He must be freezing, mustn’t he?” and “Should we call the guards to come help him?”
I don’t remember what their response was, but I do remember that I found it difficult to sleep that night, in our warm, comfortable hotel room, as I kept picturing that poor man outside in the cold. He was gone the next day.
I looked for him, as we left the Shelbourne to get the train back to Cork. I looked for his pillow and his blanket. But there was no trace of him. It was as if I had simply imagined him.
In my twenties, I volunteered with Cork Simon at Christmas. It was light work, some cleaning or mopping (something my mother found hilarious given the fact I didn’t even know where the mop at home was stored) or accompanying service users to the cinema at Mahon on Stephen’s Night.
I’m not sure what I had been expecting that first time, but what surprised me the most was how ordinary the people there were.
I think I had unconsciously ‘othered’ people I saw on the street, something we do because we want to believe that ‘they’ are intrinsically different to ‘us’. That their fate could not befall us, we would never end up in the situation they have found themselves in. Them versus us.
It makes us feel safe in a way, I think, to keep a distance, emotional and physical. It makes it easier for us to go about our day if we can avert our eyes and pretend that they don’t even exist.
My brief experience of volunteering at Cork Simon made me realise how absurd that way of thinking is. No one chooses to be homeless, and it’s something that could happen to any of us.
A bit of bad luck, perhaps. A job lost or the death of a parent. Staying on one friend’s couch than another’s.
What happens when you run out of couches? Of friends? When you run out of options? What happens when you have nowhere to go and no one to turn to?
If you consider the role that addiction and trauma often play in homelessness, two issues that I, like so many other Irish people, have had personal experience with, then it becomes all the more clear that homelessness is something that could touch any of our lives.
After that, I made a conscious decision that I wasn’t going to look away when I passed a homeless person on the street just because it made me feel sad or guilty to witness what I saw as their pain.
I started looking every homeless person I met straight in the eye and saying “I’m sorry, I don’t have any change today,” if they asked for money for a hostel.
I would ask them what book they were reading, or I would buy a bottle of water and a bar of chocolate in a nearby shop.
I’m almost embarrassed to mention this because it’s such a miniscule act, but the look of gratitude on the faces of some of these men and women afterwards would cause me to flush with shame.
The fact that they often seemed surprised by my actions, as if it happened far too rarely for them to become accustomed to was noteworthy.
Just one small gesture — looking someone in the eye as you speak to them. Imagine feeling grateful for that?
We all deserve to be treated with respect but more than that, we need our very humanity to be acknowledged. We need to be seen. To deprive someone of that, just because their existence makes you feel ‘uncomfortable’, is reprehensible.
The rhetoric around homelessness, particularly what I see online, can be misguided at best, and dangerous at worst.
The recent case with Margaret Cash was an excellent example of this, with people jumping to conclusions about her motives and casting aspersions on her life decisions as if it were a sport.
This was a 28-year-old woman with seven children, sleeping on the floor of a Garda station because they had nowhere else to go. Shouldn’t our first response have been one of alarm?
Shouldn’t we have been more concerned about the safety of her children rather than speculate about the whereabouts of their father? Why do we rush to apportion blame and culpability to some of the most vulnerable members of our society?
That cannot be allowed to continue. I want to live in a country which believes we have a responsibility to take care of each other, as much as we do ourselves.
Homelessness is an issue that we must work together to eliminate, because until all of us are safe and protected, none us are.
To donate to Cork Simon Community, visit corksimon.ie
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