The two worlds of ‘them’ and ‘us’ are created by a housing policy (or lack of it)

Opinion: ‘There was no difference in our individual craving for love, care and acceptance from others’

‘We were, after all, a pair of southside “poshies” intruding on them. Within one minute they had a cup of tea ready for us and were including us in their conversations and telling us stories.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘We were, after all, a pair of southside “poshies” intruding on them. Within one minute they had a cup of tea ready for us and were including us in their conversations and telling us stories.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Fri, Jun 27, 2014, 12:01

During the school year, some transition year students spend a week in our drop-in centre, listening and talking to homeless people. It has a huge impact on the students and the dignity of the homeless people in the centre is enhanced as they feel that they are making a contribution to these students’ education.

The following is an extract from a report written by one student, two years afterwards. He wrote it on his own initiative and sent it to me last year.

“On the first day, to be honest, I was a bit scared. There were people I wasn’t used to meeting or talking to everywhere I looked; people with deep scars on their faces, torn clothes, worn shoes without soles and carrying sleeping bags from the night before. They looked rough.

Southside ‘poshies’

“As we sat there, we all started chatting, and I changed. I saw how open, friendly and accommodating they all were. We were, after all, a pair of southside ‘poshies’ intruding on them. Within one minute they had a cup of tea ready for us and were including us in their conversations and telling us stories.

“We began asking Mark [one of the homeless men] about his past and he told us how he’d become involved in a gang when he was 16 after leaving school early. His parents had neglected him, he came home to an empty house a lot of the time. Gradually Mark stopped taking care of himself and developed bad habits. When he spoke of his mother, he broke into tears. He said he’d not seen her in years and that when he texted her to say ‘Happy birthday’, there was no reply.

“Over the course of the hour we spent together, I began to realise that I was just like him. There was no difference in our individual craving for love, care and acceptance from others. There was nothing different about our shared desire to be successful and to ‘get on in life’. There was no difference in our values and our beliefs. Unfortunately, the sad reality was that by even mentioning our respective addresses, we would be separated, grouped and seen completely differently by society.

“I was angry that things had been allowed to get so bad for this group of people who were so appealing and charming with us. What had happened? A lot of them had no choice but to live on the streets as home was not a safe place to be for various reasons. Living on the streets led to other problems like drug abuse, crime and violence. And when this happened, they were told they were bad people. But they didn’t deserve to go through life like this. They didn’t want to be abused, or have to rob or steal in order to survive.

“Within that week I became a socialist. No longer could the wealthy be allowed to thrive with people like this in our midst. We had to tax them more heavily and give it to the poor, invest in their education and try and make a fairer Ireland.”

Injustice

But what he said next shocked me: “I argued with all my teachers over the next few weeks incessantly about the injustice of it all. Finally one of them said: ‘Some day you’ll realise that’s never going to happen. You’ll calm down in a while.’”

This young man was very honest. He concluded: “I didn’t like hearing that at all. But I suppose that teacher was right. Over the next couple of years, I did become more conservative and more protective of my ‘kind’. The radical change of which I dreamed was beaten out of me in a way by that ‘kind’.”

Two worlds, “them” and “us”, divided by invisible walls, created by a housing policy (or lack of it), reinforced by the education system. The invisible walls allow myths to develop on both sides: “They don’t want to work”; or “They’re all poshies.” Myths solidify into imagined reality. The invisible walls grow higher. Alienation becomes entrenched.

Apartheid Irish-style

Part five of the Planning and Development Act 2000, the best policy decision of the past 20 years, required builders to allocate 20 per cent of housing output to social or affordable housing. This would have helped to break down the barriers between “them” and “us”. However, builders, fearing for their profits, and residents, fearing for the value of their house, succeeded in effectively dismantling the policy and re-erecting the invisible walls. Apartheid, Irish-style, based not on colour but address.

Jesus wasn’t a man for others; he was a man with others. In eating with outcasts he broke down the walls of division; the disreputable became reputable, but in the eyes of those who wished to retain the walls, the reputable, Jesus himself became disreputable.

There can be no justice or peace in our society until we dismantle the barriers that divide us; until, like this student, we come to realise that there is no “them” and “us”, but only “us”.

Peter McVerry is a Jesuit priest working with homeless people

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