Homelessness. A silent echo of a hundred horrific images. Men and women lying on the streets of Dublin, our capital city, helpless, hungry and without a grain of hope. Just as the rain and frost cannot stop its descent to spare the innocent heads of our homeless, the bustling public cannot and will not stop for a moment, not even to smile, to talk, to give.
A faceless multitude ignores these threats, as they are indeed threats, threats to our own national image as a kind and charitable people. Often regarded as an added burden on our shoulders, these homeless have no place at all, not even in our hearts. We talk casually about them in passing as though they were a fleeting menace. The truth evades us and in turn, we seek to evade the truth.
After all the truth is indeed absurd, almost a morbid caricature. According to Focus Ireland 3,333 out of the 8,857 homeless people across Ireland who were living in emergency accommodation during November 2017 were children. Unfortunately, 2017 saw an increase of 16% in young people under the age of 25 living in emergency accommodation. On the streets of Dublin alone there were 184 rough sleepers that same month according to Focus Ireland. For many people this is everyday life, living on the fringes of society, alone and desperate to survive.
The statistics alone cannot adequately convey the torment these people must endure. At a presentation by Dublin Simon I was shocked by the sheer volume of their various hardships. Men and women with addictions can find themselves using contaminated needles which in many cases results in the contraction of hepatitis or HIV and in some cases, death. Around 50 homeless people die every year in Ireland. Only for the outstanding work of voluntary bodies like the Simon Community, SVP and the Peter McVerry Trust, the death rate of the homeless population would be far greater.
The statistics available to us, however, are slightly inaccurate as many homeless people in this country never even enter emergency services so they are never recorded, meaning of course that the ‘official’ homeless count pales in comparison to the true figure. They are out there alone and without even the security of national acknowledgement.
The question poses itself; why are so many people living on our streets, and what can we do to halt this epidemic’s rapid progression?
Narcotics, alcohol abuse and mental disorders are among the main causes of homelessness. However, surely it is the lack of affordable housing that is one of the most realistically addressable causes of homelessness in this country. For many social housing is the only option to escape poverty and lead a semi-normal life. Due to the recession, between the years of 2008 and 2012, social housing expenditure was cut by a staggering 72%. According to Focus Ireland, one in five households now live in privately rented accommodation, whereas in comparison, ten years ago, one in ten households lived in privately rented accommodation.. This has, in turn, put enormous strain on the private rental market, increasing rent and making it ever harder for people to find a social housing solution. This is a needless, and in my opinion, a senseless reality because of the sheer magnitude of vacant properties in Ireland, which could be legitimately used to house the homeless.
According to the 2016 CSO Census there are 183,312 vacant dwellings scattered across the country which exist either as houses or apartments. According to the Peter McVerry Trust, there are eleven vacant dwellings for every homeless adult in Dublin, while in Galway there are eighty-two. These figures are baffling and what is even more baffling is the inaction of the government to utilise these vacant residences for homeless housing. This is no Apollo House scenario, these dwellings are not owner occupied because, in many cases, there is no owner. They are unoccupied and gathering dust when they could be saving lives. Without immediate action, a proportion of our people will continue to have no home, no security and no hope.
For us students, home and stability are prerequisites in all our lives. We thoroughly take it for granted that we should have somewhere where we can be ourselves, somewhere safe and devoid of judgement. We possess the advantage of the ability to act. We need not stand idly by and watch this senseless epidemic continue to unravel. There are things we can do right now to help dampen the blow of homelessness on the individual.
In UCD alone there are numerous voluntary organisations such as St Vincent DePaul and ‘UCD in the Community’, to name but two, which work tirelessly for the homeless community in Ireland.
During December of last year ‘UCD in the Community’ ran a ‘care package appeal’ in conjunction with Dublin Simon and Transition Year students in Ringsend College for the rough sleepers of Dublin city. Students were asked to contribute essential items for the homeless such as toiletries, warm clothes and various other items which would prove useful to the rough sleepers during a long and bitter winter. The turnout was great and the items went directly to the homeless people on the streets, providing them with a new-found hope.
There are ways we can make a difference for the man or woman on the street. It doesn’t take much, share a smile, have a chat, join a voluntary body or make a small donation but we must stop ignoring the truth.
Mark Jackson – Features Writer