24 July 2006

Street Homeless in Dublin (A Foreign Student's Experience)

By Nicodemus Lobo Ratu,SVD

An Interesting Encounter

It was rainy day in December 1999, on my way home from the Dental hospital, I came across Anthony, a middle-aged homeless man, who was sitting beside a hotel, close to Merrion's Square, Dublin. By chance probably, my feelings made me stop and talk with him. He was not an ordinary homeless because he was selling his collection of poems which was typed in very simple A4 paper. I read his poems and talked with him about them for quite a while. As an example, one of his poems, which I think describe a bit of his life:

The Kid

I am the kid that stands in the corner
And nobody asks him to play
I am the kid that stands there
Looking at the world passing by
I am the kid that cried out in the night
And nobody heard a sound
I am the kid that found out what
pain was like an early age
I am the kid that dreamed all dreams
And not one came true
I am the kid who wants to be loved
And knows it will never come true
I am the man that knows loneliness
And know it to be true.

At the end I decided to buy his collection of poems. Surprisingly, however, he did not want to accept the money. I insisted that he accept it but he went on to say: "thank you for your time and your willingness to talk with me. I give you this for free, only for you". Then, he signed his collection of poems and gave it to me.

Influenced by this experience, ever since then I had great interest to work with the homeless. Only in September 2001, I had the opportunity to work as a volunteer in a social organisation called "Ruah". It is understandable, therefore, my theological reflection in this article is based on my experience of working with the homeless in Dublin city-centre.

Ministering to the Homeless

I have been working for seven months with homeless in Dublin city-centre. I work with the group Ruah, which conduct soup runs for the homeless. Every Tuesday night we go out in groups, ranging from two to four people depending on the number, on different pre-set routes, such as Dame Street, Baggot Street, the Quay, and so on. On route we stop at any homeless people we come across and offer them soup, tea, sandwiches, clothes and help them to find accommodation for the night. But, I think the most important of all is to listen to them. Having said that, however, it is not easy job because sometimes they will abuse us. I think it is normal and understandable given their difficult background and life. Nonetheless, in my experience many of them are nice and friendly.

Ministering to the homeless, for me, in the beginning was a bit strange. I was a bit afraid of walking on the streets in the night while bringing the box, which contains sandwiches, soups, and so on. There are many stories from people and mass-media about racism or foreigners being attacked. However, after sometimes working with the homeless, I feel better and safer. Nothing to be afraid of. I think, from the homeless themselves, they are really welcoming people.
Having worked with the street homeless, I notice some facts, which are very sad and hard to cope with: First, many of them are quite young. In my very first day working, we met at least 20 young homeless people, boys and girls on one route. Second, most of them are not well physically and mentally. Sometimes we find that they drink heavily and take drugs. It seems they are in the stage of eternal addiction. Third, many of them have told us that they are having difficulties in dealing with their family. Some do not have a family at all. Most of them are lonely. However, the most interesting thing is that they seem to know each other well. Therefore, it seems to me that by staying on the street, they have companionships and maybe it is their only social outlet. It seems that they build a sub-culture, "homelessness".

Social Analysis: Homelessness in Dublin

In the Irish government report, Homelessness, An integrated strategy (department of environment and local government) the definition of homeless is given as follows:

A person shall be regarded by a housing authority as being homeless, for the purpose of this act if- a). there is no accommodation available which, in the opinion of authority, he, together with any other person who normally residing with him or who might reasonably be expected to reside with him, can reasonably occupy or remain in occupation of or b) he is living in hospital, country home, night shelter or other such institution, and is so living because he has no accommodation of the kind referred to in paragraph (a). This definition includes: persons living in temporary insecure accommodation, persons living in emergency bed and breakfast accommodation and hotels/health board accommodation because they have nowhere else available to them, rough sleepers, and victims of family violence.

Based on this definition, in 1996 in Ireland there were 2,501 homeless persons. Amazingly, three years later in 1999 there were 5,234 homeless persons. 3,640 of them are staying in Dublin; 2,960 are homeless adults (1,850 males and 1,050 females) and 990 are dependant children. Moreover, only 8% of 5,234 homeless had a partner and children. 15% had children only. 70% had no dependants and 7% had a partner only. It is obvious that quite a high percentage of homeless people are alone. Furthermore, in the age group, 26% of them are in the age 26-35, which is the biggest group. Then 17% of 21-25 years and 19% of 36-45 years. From these figures, it is clear how low their life span are.

In relation to street homeless, according to the Shaping the future an action plan for homelessness in Dublin 2001-2003 (Dublin: homeless agency, 2001), in Dublin alone there are 275 people street homeless. It is quite a high figures. Although there are 71 distinct services for homeless people in Dublin (one among them is Ruah), which providing contact, friendship, food, bedding, information, and linkages to other services, the street homeless still exist. There are many reasons why homelessness exist. They are: domestic violence, relationship breakdown, chronic disabilities (mental illness, alcohol dependence), drug dealers/users, family breakdown, shortage in housing available to low income households, poverty, and unemployment.

Based on those reasons, it shows us that homelessness is a very complex issue. It is also clear that homelessness cannot be solved by looking at the homeless problem alone but it is important to look at the wider context. I think, as long as unemployment and housing shortage exist, for example, the homeless will always be there. To solve the homeless problem, also means to solve the wider problems in our society. It is very difficult. In my understanding, homelessness will never be solved perfectly but it can be reduced to a certain decree.

Working with the homeless is quite complex. On the one hand we want to help them and at the same time we have to avoid any kind of superiority attitude. It is quite interesting to look at the attitude of people who are passing by and many of the volunteers. Whether they realised it or not, one thing I can feel is their superiority toward the homeless. The homeless are seen as lesser than normal human being. People pass by, give small change. Perhaps people feel better after giving the homeless something. Also, many of the volunteers just give the food, talk for a while and leave them. The way people look at and treat them is like the way a superior person behaves towards others. Many people rarely talk with them as equal human beings, like talking to friends. The mindset of many people is 'I have house, they do not have, I have money, they do not have, I have many things and they have less'. Therefore, People feel pity on them. They feel superior. They define people by what they have rather who they are as human beings. I think as a society people should review their attitude towards homeless.

Theological Reflection: Where there is despair, let us sow hope!

The homeless are categorised as the poor and the marginalized in our society. Jesus in his life associated himself with the poor. Jesus clearly stated that his mission is to bring good news to the poor, release to captive, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. These people who are materially poor are normally the first to suffer oppression. Therefore, Jesus not only encouraged us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked (Matthew 25, 35-36), but also he challenged the unjust systems. Jesus challenged the power of the law, which was an unjust system in his time. The law was made for humans, not humans for the law.

Working with the homeless is also about giving hope to them. "where there is despair, let us sow hope". Leanardo Boff said that "when people are on their own, the important thing, rather that words, is to communicate an aura of calm and confidence to them". However, at the same time, to be a true follower of Christ demands that we also say no to the destructive and alienating structures, and seek together to create the "new creation" (Haughty). Otherwise, as Donald Dorr stated that "we run the risk of being spiritually corrupted through our "selective and semi-deliberate blindness to social injustices".

Having reflected on the issue above, as a student and as a non-Irish person, I ask my self: what can I do? Do I have the power to change the situation? I think, it is an enormous task and perhaps it is impossible to clear out the roots of the oppressive structures and systems in our society. The late Cardinal Hume said that "the test of a Christian society is in the way it threats it weak and problem cases". I think for me, my task is to treat the homeless will, to feel at home in their own society by listening to and by being their friend. In this way, I think I can bring hope into their life. As a student, perhaps I do not have time and skills to challenge the unjust systems. Mother Teresa from Calcutta said, "I do what I can do, and you do what you can do".

The End: Hope

Working with and for the homeless is a great opportunity in my life. I have learned many things from them. However, homelessness is far more complex than I have ever imagined. There are many issues, which are very difficult to solve by giving food and shelter in the night alone. Homelessness is not merely the problem of those who are homeless, but it is created by an unjust system and the arrogant attitude of modern people.

Realising that our good will alone cannot solve the roots of homelessness, personally, I think as a student, it is better to do something than not to do anything. Therefore, my respond to the homeless is to make them aware that they are not alone but there are others who care about them. In this sense, they will find a pleasant welcome and a joyful home in people's hearts.

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