Why it won’t help to just throw money at the problem of homelessness

‘A shy, gentle, wild creature in mortal terror of the people who were clumsily trying to help. He left, and we never saw him again’

A candlelight vigil outside the Dáil in response to the death on Molesworth Street, Dublin  of Jonathan Corrie, who was homeless. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

A candlelight vigil outside the Dáil in response to the death on Molesworth Street, Dublin of Jonathan Corrie, who was homeless. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

No doubt the outrage over Jonathan Corrie’s death is sincere, but as Alice Leahy of Trust pointed out, the people who are homeless die prematurely every day. They just don’t die in a doorway in sight of the Dáil, and within whistling distance of Dublin’s best known shopping streets.

They die in hospitals, mostly. Their deaths don’t usually lead to calls for “something to be done”.

It is easy to be cynical, but who remembers Paul Doyle, who died from hypothermia two years ago in Bray? His family, for sure. People at the Five Loaves charity most certainly do. He was due to move into supported housing organised by the charity just two days after he died.

But the rest of us? We can all feel sorrow for someone who dies cold and alone, but how many of us would lobby to have supported housing next door?

Years ago, my husband and I used to give food to a couple of homeless men who were sleeping rough. One night, when we didn’t answer the doorbell fast enough, one of them put a brick through the front window.

Another experience was much more sad. We had developed quite a good relationship with another man out of home called John, who was about our own age. He did not associate with the others, preferring the safety of his own company.

He was always clean, and what my mother would have called respectable-looking, although his home was a sleeping bag under bushes.

Around Christmas, we had a few friends around for mince pies and mulled wine when John called. Although we had always given him food at the door, on impulse we invited him in. Our friends were a relaxed bunch, and not an eyebrow was raised at the unexpected arrival.

It only took me a short time to realise our mistake. John began to tremble visibly. Having been raised on a farm, it reminded me of nothing so much as a hare that my father had brought into the kitchen after a combine harvester had injured it.

A shy, gentle, wild creature in mortal terror of the people who were clumsily trying to help. He left, and we never saw him again. You can replace a window. A relationship can be more fragile than glass.

Multiplicity of stories

The needs of the new homeless, families forced out of their homes by financial crises, are very different to the needs of foreign nationals tempted here by the prospect of a better life.

Many people who end up sleeping rough have multiple disadvantages such as chaotic home situations, and having spent time in care. Some have addiction and mental health issues.

The longer they spend on the street, the more they visibly age, and the harder it is for them to return to what the rest of us call normal living.

I have known other situations, where people raised in relative privilege, through a combination of personality and bad breaks, ended up breaking their families’ hearts, and resisting all efforts at help.

Alice Leahy went further this week, saying that after decades of working with people out of home, that she believes that for many, there is an element of choice in it. Many of the men and women she has encountered simply march to a different drum.

She said bluntly that some of them are difficult to help. She advocated simple, easily accessible accommodation, with few rules, that would allow a basic level of shelter and human dignity.

It is a sign of the strange media age we live in, that after his death we were able to hear a recording of Jonathan Corrie’s voice, more or less saying that he preferred sleeping rough to the alternatives that were on offer. Sometimes, as Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly said this week, throwing money at problems does not help.

It might be more accurate to say that throwing money at a problem far too late does not help.

Because sometimes throwing relatively small amounts of money at a problem really does help, as does clearing bureaucratic roadblocks. A prime example would be the case of social housing units in Beech Hill in Donnybrook, left empty despite the Royal Hospital Voluntary Housing Association’s battles to gain access to them.

Cllr Dermot Lacey rightly called for simplification of the planning and tendering process in order to allow these units to be refurbished and put to use. There are undoubtedly similar situations all around the country.

Most importantly of all, we can look at the decisions we are making in educational and health cutbacks, and realise that we are creating, right now, a new generation of people at risk of homelessness, because their present needs are not being met.

In 20 years’ time, when they are sleeping in a doorway, it will be far too late.

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