Belvedere College students ‘sleepout’ to raise money for homelessness
‘These are children and they are doing their best’- principal dismisses criticisms of effort
Located on Great Denmark Street in Dublin’s north inner city, Belvedere College is one of the country’s most prestigious schools, but one that is situated at the heart of the country’s homelessness crisis.
Thirty-four years ago, 12 students and a number of teachers slept outside the Bank of Ireland on College Green to raise funds for homelessness. On Friday, 80 present and past pupils, teachers and parents will camp outside the GPO, the first of two nights.
“Because we’re based in the city centre, every morning we pass people who are in doorways,” says Gerry Foley, the headmaster of the Jesuit school, that counts James Joyce, Garret FitzGerald, Tony O’Reilly and Brian Lenihan Jr among its past students.
Belvedere, charges €5,500 a year in fees and teaches the children of the better-off, which raises questions about whether the primary task of the sleepout is to acquaint its pupils with the lives of those less fortunate.
“No, not really,” says Foley, explaining that all Jesuit schools have a faith around justice ethos.
“The reason we’re involved is because there’s homeless people. It’s part of an extensive social justice programme.”
Each week, the school’s pupils help with a St Vincent de Paul soup-run; help teach English to refugees and offer mentoring to local youths.
“Every week, they meet with the most marginalised,” says Foley.
Some have argued that the students’ group outside the GPO are not what the homeless look like, nor does it show how they have to live. Some have complained that homeless are actually displaced by those raising money.
Foley has heard it all before: “These are children and they are doing their best to raise people’s awareness of homelessness, it’s not meant to be pretending that they are homeless people,” he says simply.
“I think everyone is entitled to their own opinion once their opinion is also saying what they would do instead,” he says. This year, the sleepout will raise money for the Peter McVerry Trust, Focus Ireland and Home Again. Last year, they collected €225,000.
Sixth-year student, Conrad Oppermann (18) from Malahide took part in the sleepout last year.
“Coming here is a great privilege but it would be really irresponsible of us not to use that privilege to fight injustice in society,” he says.
Every week, Oppermann works on one of the SvP’s three soup-runs around the city. Since September he has helped to organise buckets, circulate posters and sign up past pupils.
“It’s very loud, so it’s very difficult to get to sleep, you get tired. We obviously only do it for two nights and we’re really comfortable doing it so it’s nothing in comparison to real people who are sleeping rough,” he says.
“The best thing about the sleepout is that those who are sleeping rough come and talk with us and they lie down beside us. That’s really rewarding. They tell us about their own story and the circumstances that have brought them to where they are.”
Sixth-year student Cathal McGuinness (18) from Stillorgan has met one man “five or six times” on the soup-run. He says they sometimes talk for an hour.
“Often he’ll see hundreds walk by him and they won’t bat an eyelid,” says McGuinness, who is president of Belvedere College’s St Vincent de Paul Society.
“He’ll tell us about what it’s like to be homeless, the struggle of getting into hostels, the struggling of keeping warm around this time of year.”
Gerry Foley looks forward to a day when the sleepout will not be needed. In the meantime, they will continue.
“Very often critics . . . fail to realise that it’s better to light a candle even if it’s a very small candle in the dark, than actually be just cursing the dark.”
This year’s sleep-out runs from 10am on Friday until 5pm on Sunday at College Green and the GPO on O’Connell Street. Donations can also be made at http://www.sleepoutdublin.ie/