Two men on the radio during the week reminded me of Daniel Blake. Mr Blake was a 59-year-old widower and carpenter who had a heart attack that kept him out of work.
Despite receiving medical instruction that he wasn’t fit to return to a building site, he was assessed in the local social welfare office, which concluded that he could return to work.
Therefore, he did not qualify for any support allowance. His doctor was not contacted, so Mr Blake began a cumbersome appeals process, that requires a degree of computer literacy he didn’t possess.
He was left with no income or financial support. As the life he had known began to fall apart, he met a single mother, who was on benefit and accessing a food bank. She had her own difficulties, but she formed a friendship with him.
Then, on the day of his appeal, his high anxiety culminated in another heart attack, this time fatal.
Daniel Blake is a fictional character, the protagonist in Ken Loach’s 2016 movie, I, Daniel Blake.
Loach, who also made the Irish civil war drama, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, is a highly politicised filmmaker.
I, Daniel Blake was an angry response to a welfare system in the UK that has, some argue, been drained of all humanity.
According to this analysis, the safety net that once ensured a basic level of decency has been whipped away.
After seeing the movie, I came out of the cinema thinking that it was powerfully made and a searing indictment of a system of government that had scant regard for one category of vulnerable people.
The only consolation was that this was the UK, not here, not our intimate, humane society, which has retained a threshold of common decency.
Then, I heard Noah on RTÉ Radio’s Liveline last Tuesday and Daniel Blake came to mind.
Noah lost his home when it was snowing last March, and now he and his dog are living in a car through the heatwave.
“I tried sleeping in HSE carparks, but got asked to move on,” he told Joe Duffy.
Now, he rents a carparking space at night. He arrives before 10pm, and beds down in his sleeping bag until maybe 7am.
He has struggles with depression, which, he says, contributed to the loss of his home. “I fell through the services,” he said. “They are underfunded and not available and were a major factor in me becoming homeless.”
His reason for ringing the programme was to dispute the stereotypical image that people like him are caught up in addiction problems of one sort or another. Mental health is his bugbear.
“Your mental health is the most important thing. I’m prepared to make the car work, as long as me and my dog are safe; we’ll make it work.” There is one thing he would value now more than a roof over his head.
“I’m on a list for counselling,” he said. “For me, counselling is more important than housing.”
A little time later, Noel came on the line. He also suffers from depression and is among the ranks of the homeless.
Following an accident last year, he couldn’t work or keep up his rent payments and found himself on the street. “Because I was self-employed, they wouldn’t give me social welfare, and because I don’t have a permanent address, they won’t give it, either,” he told Joe Duffy.
He was getting help with the depression when he was working, but not anymore.
“I was in hospital for depression, on medication. It made a difference, but I don’t have money for it now. I don’t have a medical card.” Noel is 55.
There was one other contributor to this conversation. Paddy had his own story, but his most telling contribution was about Noah and Noel, and how they had, in this society of ours, fallen through the safety net.
“There’s terrible isolation, but the lack of kindness seems to be a factor (in the men’s respective plights). What we need, now, is a centre for kindness.”
Are we lacking in kindness in this country? Has it been lost somewhere along the way, through the artificial boom, the recession, the closing of ranks at various levels in society?
For sure, individual and even small communities have retained the capacity to reach out to strangers in distress. But at an official level, there now appear to be systems in place where discretion, and even basic kindness to those in distress, no longer pertains.
Alice Leahy, who has been working with homeless people for more than 40 years, has repeatedly touched on this theme.
Rules, forms, bureaucracy have squeezed the capacity for human empathy in dealing with the most vulnerable. The services now deal with ‘clients’, who are seeking to gain access to a service, rather than human beings in a bad place, who need some help.
The result is the safety net gets torn and individuals fall through it. On Tuesday, Joe Duffy related to Noel that the Department of Social Protection had been onto the programme after hearing his contribution.
They wanted to help. Now that the matter had got a public airing, a different attitude was apparently being taken. Noel was no longer an anonymous figure, but somebody whose story might be a source of embarrassment.
A similar scenario played out last year on Joe’s show. A couple, married for 63 years and who had never spent a night apart, were separated when the woman was admitted to a retirement home.
Her husband didn’t qualify for a bed and was not admitted, despite there being an empty bed in the woman’s room.
After heart-rending, tearful testimony from her husband on the public airways, the matter was sorted within 24 hours. The HSE was shamed into showing some kindness.
It would be easy to blame this attitude on so-called officialdom.
But we do live in a democracy, where the institutions and representatives of the state still reflect, to a greater extent, the ethos of society at large, or, at the very least, that section that exercises its democratic franchise.
There should be some acknowledgement that people are falling through the cracks, that the threat of shame is really no substitute for some basic kindness to be shown towards those most in need.
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