Homelessness: There but for

“When I was living in New York and didn’t have a penny to my name, I would walk around the streets and occasionally I would see an alcove or something. And I’d think, that’ll be good, that’ll be a good spot for me when I’m homeless.”

– Larry David.

Last Christmas, on a cold evening of misting rain, I was walking down Carey’s Lane when I saw a pale, thin young man sitting on the pavement opposite the Pavilion, beside him a paper cup with a few pence in it. I stopped and gave him €2. I felt embarrassed. I’m not well-off, but €2 is still little enough to me that I always feel guilty it’s not more. Then I feel it’s awful that anyone is reduced to begging for €2 from the likes of me, so I just want to drop the coin and move off as fast as I can without adding to their humiliation. “Happy Christmas, man,” he said, “I hope it’s a good one for you and your family.”

That small kindness stopped me dead. I stuttered a bit and then I thanked him and I asked him was he alright. “Ah sure look,” he said, laughing, “It could be worse.” I couldn’t help it. I started laughing too and that made him laugh more.

I’d say he was 24 or 25. I asked him would he eat a sandwich or something and he said he’d love a Big Mac. He declined my offer to bring him around the corner to McDonald’s. When I returned with his grub, we chatted for a bit about this and that. I didn’t want to intrude too much, and we spoke in generalities. The state of the country. I asked if he found people to be generous. Most were, he felt, but times were very tight.

“God help us,” he said, “I feel sorry for people with mortgages. Sure they haven’t a washer.” And we started laughing again and I shook his hand and I wished him a happy Christmas. As I left, he repeated his blessing of my family and he started coughing, a horrible hacking cough that followed me home. I’ve kept an eye out for him but I haven’t seen him since.

It’s nearly April now but the nights are still very cold. Most nights, seven people are sleeping rough on the streets of Cork. I wouldn’t like to be one of them. Cork’s Simon Community has a total of 127 beds and every one of them is full 365 days a year. Over 1000 people used their services in 2013, a year-on-year increase of 16%. Cork Simon’s Soup Run feeds an average of thirty people a night. Almost half of those people are in private, rented accommodation. It is no exaggeration to say that people who cannot afford to feed themselves are potentially only one rent payment away from homelessness.

Cork Penny Dinners, which was founded as a soup kitchen during the Famine, reports that two years ago they were serving around 150 meals a week. Now they are serving well over 1000 meals per week.

Cork Simon’s ‘How Did I Get Here?‘ report found there is rarely one reason why someone becomes homeless. In most cases, many different factors contribute (often beginning in childhood) until finally the person is overwhelmed by the multiplicity of difficulties in their lives. Educational disadvantage, time in care, long-term unemployment, substance misuse, relationship breakdown, mental distress and poor physical health are common factors contributing to homelessness.

Homeless people suffer from boredom, isolation and the erosion of self-esteem. Mental health suffers and dependence on alcohol or drugs can become a means of escapism. A dedicated team of highly skilled staff at Cork Simon works 24/7 to address these issues. Cork Simon provides people with a meaningful use of their time, to encourage them to socialise and build relationships once again. They gently help people to re-build their own confidence.

For a few hours each week, volunteers help out by chatting over a cup of tea or going for a walk. Little things help to give people structure and routine, and help them feel part of their wider community again.

If you’d like to help out, in however small a way, please call Caitriona at Cork Penny Dinners on 085 1201742. Cork Simon needs volunteers too, so please call 021 4278728. Maybe Larry David is right. Maybe when we walk down the street, we should all be on the lookout for doorways and alcoves. Maybe it would do no harm at all if, every so often, we imagined “that’ll be a good spot for me when I’m homeless”.

– Donal O’Keeffe

P.S. In writing this, I was greatly helped by Sophie Johnston of Cork Simon. I’ve reproduced her contributions here.

signed vinbLast month, my caricature of Vincent Browne, signed by the man  himself, sold for €950 at the Cork Simon Ball. Philip Nolan also raised €649 on-line, so in total we raised €1,599. Not a bad day’s work on the Tweet Machine.

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