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2004-12-04 Sometimes we take a roof over our heads for granted

Not long ago, I spent a few hours exercising a little retail therapy in a well-known Dublin department store, treating myself to a few nice things for my newish house.

 

Heading back to the car-park, laden with heavy shopping bags, I noticed a girl propped up against a shop front, her head bowed, but her empty cardboard coffee-cup stretched out towards me, as far as she could. "Please", she said, "Please help me."

 

When I lived in London, and spent an evening at a West-End theatre, I remember my horror when I walked along the Strand just before midnight. Every single shop-front was being reserved for the night by someone who had nowhere else to sleep. As I approached Waterloo station to catch my train home, I had to pass through what was known at the time as Cardboard City, and felt so guilty as I walked by like the Priest or Levite, trying but failing to ignore the many calls for help.

 

We are all of course only too aware of the gravity of the ongoing homeless problem in our country, and indeed worldwide. We are also sometimes warned that only some of those begging on our streets are truly genuine cases, some are possibly collecting on behalf of a large family, some feeding an alcohol or drug habit; but how are we to tell which cases are genuine? Certainly, this girl in Dublin was for real, as far as I was concerned. Even the tone in her weak voice seemed to imply genuine helplessness. I gave her a few euros, and headed home.


But all the way home, I couldn't get her image from my mind. What was her particular story, her history, her schooling, and where did it all go wrong for her? I guessed she was little more than about 20 years-old. Somewhere she had parents, or did she? At one time for certain she must have had parents, but where were they now? Where were the rest of her family? Where were her friends? Did they not care, or was she one of the many missing-persons we hear about constantly? Did she have a loving childhood? Was she perhaps a victim of abuse, in one of it's many horrid guises? What were her Christmases like? Where did she spend last Christmas? I could not get her tired empty eyes, and her sad gaunt yet pretty - face from my memory, as she looked up to feebly thank me for my miniscule gesture of goodwill.

 

Being homeless does not just mean begging, sleeping rough and not having a roof over your head. It also involves a general lack of security, no sense of belonging or privacy, and a real fear for one's safety. Of course, many other personal issues can contribute to each individual story as well. Alcohol is probably the most common issue connected with homelessness, as well as physical and mental health, and of course drug use / abuse. Despite all the talk in the media of having one of the healthiest economies in Europe, poverty is also still a hugely contributing factor to the homeless problem. We are told that a large percentage of our country's population are only a few pay-packets away from being homeless. The country still, incredibly, faces a housing shortage, and renting property is now totally unaffordable for many.

 

Violence and abuse in relationships, though definitely more in the public eye, is sadly as prevalent as ever, and general relationship-breakdown is also widespread. Mental health problems can come in infinite guises, from depression to schizophrenia. Alcohol Detox-units have been set up in Ireland, and the drug problem is at least being tackled head-on. The Simon Community provide emergency and long-term solutions to the homeless problem, and talk of trying to break the cycle. As with many of society's huge issues, it is often of equal importance to tackle the problems behind the problem. The Simon Community deal with the most basic and pressing needs physical/mental healthcare, hygiene, income, food and clothing, and protection from the elements. Meal centres, day centres, soup runs, training, resettlement, re-employment and supported housing is just a small selection of what the Simon Community offers to the homeless.

 

But I wonder where that young girl is now. And I wonder where she is spending Christmas.