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Homeless Not Hopeless
On 27th September a sleep in protest to highlight the plight of homeless people in Ireland was staged outside Leinster House. Up till then I had no idea of the extent of homelessness in Ireland or how little the state seems to care about people who are homeless. I wrote down my impression of the events that night. What follows is my account of the few hours I spent in solidarity with my fellow citizens who have no place to call home. The only way homelessness will end in Ireland or anywhere else is if the people decide to end it.
"What do we want?" "We want a home!" chanted the group of people who staged a peaceful sleep in protest at the Kildare Street gates of Leinster house on Tuesday 27th September, the night before the TD's returned to their job of running the country after their summer holiday. No doubt some of them spent a part of their holidays in their second home. In 21st century Ireland it is not uncommon for people to own more then one home. It is also a fact that many citizens of 21st century Ireland have nowhere to call home except the streets. The goal of our protest is a simple one, homes for the homeless. In the 2 weeks prior to the protest 3 people have died while sleeping rough on Dublin's streets, 2 from the cold one from an OD. At that rate Dublin won't have a people sleeping rough problem within the next 2 years.
At around 6-30 in the evening I joined the protest, my motivation was to show solidarity and see what I could do to help. From then until 1 the following morning when I left for the comfort of my rented bed I experienced the laughter and tears of those who every night call the streets their home.
'Progress does not leave people behind ', Mario a protester paraphrased Oscar Wilde to me. He was currently reading a collection of Essay's by Wilde. While I would like to think of myself as one of Wilde’s ‘Agitators’ on a mission to stir the homeless into righteous rebellion my role in the protest was one of learning and helping. The protest was made up of people who are homeless and people who have someplace to call home. A couple of photographers and a radio station were present early on in the evening. The girl from the Examiner took a few shots and rushed off to meet her deadline. Elaine from indymedia.ie stayed longer rolling cigarettes for anyone that wanted them and chatting with everyone. She knew a lot of the people there, unlike me who until that evening would not need any fingers to count the number of homeless people I knew.
One way to gauge how seriously the government take a protest is taken by the number of gardai on duty at the protest. By that measure this protest (and perhaps our cause) was not taken too seriously. I saw two Gardai all evening. One of them was on duty at the Kildare street gate of Dail Eireann and seemed more concerned with his mobile then the group of people settling in for the night beside him. The other passed by as he walked his beat. Our posters declaring 'No more deaths on our streets' and 'Homeless not Hopeless' did not seem to raise any eyebrows with him. Whatever state agencies may think, homelessness is a serious issue in Ireland. Two hundred and thirty seven (237) people sleep rough in Dublin on any given night. Department of the Environment Assessments of Homelessness & Housing Need show that between 1989 and 2002 the number of homeless people in Ireland grew from 1491 to 5581 and the number of people on local authority housing lists grew from 19367 to 48413. It was only with the introduction of the Housing Act in 1988 that any kind of national assessments of homelessness by Local Authorities were carried out, the last of these in 2002. The homeless figures do not reflect those people who are sharing with family or friends by necessity not choice. It also does not include people who are not accessing homeless services. The housing waiting list does not reflect the true level of need given that many single people do not bother to register knowing they will be low on the priority list.
The Samaritans on their regular nightly run provided soup and sandwiches for the homeless among us. It made their task somewhat easier having so many of their regular people in the same place. One of the protest organizers from the street scene organization told me that the original sandwich run was started by a group of students who made sandwiches and soup and delivered them off their own bat. Analysis of the figures above would indicate the sad fact that those students have done more to help the homeless in Ireland then many years of Celtic tiger government. Official publications speak of money been allocated to homeless services. I rang one of these homeless services, (The Adult Homeless Services free phone number 1800724724). My request was to be a simple one. Could they organize some sleeping bags or blankets to be dropped to Kildare Street, where a group of homeless people were spending the night. The first two attempts to get through rang and rang until my cell phone gave up the ghost and returned a ‘Not Answer’ message to the screen. The third attempt got through to a machine and after 5 minutes on hold I hung up. A fellow protester more experienced in ringing this service told me that been put on hold is par for the course. Been put on hold when your freezing to death won't keep you warm! One of the people from Spirited Voices who were there to show their documentary "Barred (In The Shadow Of A City)" told me that when making the film they rang the service and were kept on hold for 12 minutes. This government response to the homeless issue has been caught for posterity on film. A carpet found dumped in an alleyway served as a mattress insulating those sleeping in from the cold Kildare Street concrete. Whatever its source the carpet was welcome.
One of the more memorable events of the night was when "Barred (In The Shadow Of A City)" was projected onto a blanket tied to the rails of Leinster House. Here we had a group of homeless people protesting about the homeless issue in Ireland watching a documentary about homeless people. Even the Garda minding Leinster house for the night stepped out from his hut to catch a few minutes of the movie show. 'Stand back out of the light one of the lads shouted at a group of people making their way home from the pub who had stooped in front of our improvised screen. 'We're trying to watch the match.' It was one of the many witticisms that night that kept us laughing.
An impromptu music session helped to keep the cold out of our bones. Some danced reels, some jigs and most like me clapped our hands and threw shapes to the music provided by Barry on the concertina. ‘Bertie Aherne is in the Dail, he wants us to vote for fianna fail’, we sang tounge in cheek. While Bertie may not have heard us our singing and dancing kept us warm and laughing. Like anything else in life rule number one of a protest is you gotta have fun even when the issue your protesting about is not funny. Up to know an inactive protester I took over the cigarette rolling duties, in protest like this everyone has a part to play.
Senator Terry Leyden, Government Front Bench Spokesperson for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, a man of some importance, happened by on his way home from one of the pubs in the area.
True to form as a politician he talked the talk declaring his surprise at the extent of homelessness in Ireland and informing us that in 2005 there was absolutely no reason why there were homeless people in Dublin or anywhere else in the country. This is a wealthy country and the money is there to end homelessness he told his audience. He pledged that he would ask those ministers responsible why 237 people 'officially' sleep every night rough on Dublin's streets. We wait with interest to see if the Senator will walk the walk.
As the night bore on support was given from passing motorists who blew their horns and flashed their lights. Some people walking by seemed genuinely interested in our protest and stayed a while to find out more. The majority of passers hurried by us, their eyes glued to the ground in the see no evil pose typical of those who want to live in denial about this other side of the coin that is successful modern Ireland.
When I left, my sleeping in brothers and sisters were settled in for the night, some sleeping, some talking some singing. A lot of them have slept on cold concrete for far too long!