Christine Dwyer Hickey: Not so far from Mumbai to our Dublin homeless

‘As a teenager I went on the gur many times. But then a friend helped me to realise that an unhappy home is better than no home at all’

‘Nothing is ordinary in India. And everything is diminished by comparison, even poverty.’ Above, two homeless people in Mumbai.  Photograph:  INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images

‘Nothing is ordinary in India. And everything is diminished by comparison, even poverty.’ Above, two homeless people in Mumbai. Photograph: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images

 

A cold February morning in 2005 when I returned to Dublin. A wet dishcloth of a day. And out on the motorway, a grim sort of silence, so that for a moment I thought the long flight had rendered me deaf. I had grown used to traffic as a symphonic performance where anything on wheels had a horn and every horn was on non-stop honking duty.

I had also grown used to bizarre sights along Indian highways whenever I looked out a car window: a haughty-eyed camel stalled at traffic lights turning to look at me; two elephants parked outside a bar while inside their drivers enjoyed a few drinks.

And everywhere smiling faces, piled onto rooftops of buses and lavishly decorated lorries. Even the beggars scuttling between lanes on their homemade carts were extraordinarily cheerful.

But then nothing is ordinary in India. And everything is diminished by comparison, even poverty.

As the taxi nosed along the M50 that morning back in 2005, I thought about Indian beggars, particularly the children, some of whom have been mutilated to augment their begging appeal.

And I remembered leaving Mumbai to visit a friend on the far side of town and passing through a Sunday afternoon city of red stone, green lawns and the movement of cricketers, before returning that night to find a city transformed into an open-air dormitory. Rows after row of homeless people. Young men sleeping upright, heads resting on each other’s shoulders. Gnarled old men lying flat out on the pavement. A little boy alone, curled into the steps of an international bank. A teenage girl, crouched by a lamp-post, doing her homework under its light.

At least I’ll no longer have to look at that sort of poverty, I thought: people sleeping on the streets, neglected children. Say what you like about the Irish, but we know how to look after our people.

And now here I am, a decade later in a different taxi coming up the quays, and all over Dublin the homeless are very much with us. As we drive past the Merchant’s Quay Ireland project, the taxi man tells me the queue outside starts earlier and grows longer each day. Security men are now employed to maintain order.

“It’s getting worse then?” I ask.

“Who cares?” he shrugs. “Junkies and drunkards, the lot of them.”

It’s a common enough response. Junkies and drunkards. Dangerous people who would do anything to feed their habit. Dangerous people are to be avoided, not helped. And they are far easier to ignore.

I tell him entire families are homeless too, children dragged around from shelter to grotty B&B in search of a bed. Or driven around by their parents in the family car – if they still have a car – looking for a safe spot to park and spend the night.

“Oh well now,” he says, “children are different.” Another common response. But they were all children once, I think. We were all children.

Running away

Irish Times

At first your pals will let you sleep on their sofa. But soon the pals’ parents will start to ask questions. You run out of sofas. You run out of pals. Your pride won’t let you go home; you feel, and perhaps with some justification, unwanted there.

Sooner or later you end up in town; before long you will have become another ghost trailing around on the periphery.

As a teenager I went on the gur many times. But then a friend helped me to realise that an unhappy home is better than no home at all and that the important word in the sentence is “home”.

It could happen to any one of us; it’s important to remember that.

There are people who help. They bring food and blankets and spend hours on the phone chasing up beds. They don’t just give time, they actually have time for the homeless. They lean into a doorway to talk to this woman or bend down to that man sitting on the bridge to ask if he’d like a cup of soup. They lift the sleeping child from the back of the car to a last-minute, makeshift bed.

Fr McVerry, Christy Burke, the Franciscans on Winetavern Street, orchestra conductor David Brophy are such people. And there are many volunteers whose names we will never know. But it’s still not enough; it will never be enough.

Nooks and crannies

Focus Ireland

Meanwhile, the number of homeless continues to grow. In doorways and up alleyways, in parked cars and behind hoardings, they are nesting in the nooks and crannies of our city.

We have not reached the levels of Mumbai which is, after all, a large city in a Third World country.

Keep going as we are though, and we’ll get there yet.

Christine Dwyer Hickey’s novel The Lives of Women was published in April by Atlantic UK

Kathy Sheridan is on leave

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