Christmas and the homelessness crisis

At Christmas time, we must to remember those with no home to go to.

Photo Credit: William Murphy/ Flickr

In recent weeks, An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has claimed that Ireland has a low level of homelessness compared to Ireland’s “peer countries”. There are various methods and measures that Ireland’s “peer countries” use to measure the rate of homelessness, so much so that it is particularly meaningless to compare our rates of homelessness to Germany, where homelessness is especially a significant social issue.

According to the Housing Act, 1988, Ireland defines the homeless as those who cannot provide accommodation from their own resources, have no available accommodation and/or is either living in hospital, county home, night shelter or such other institution because they have no place of their own.

For example, countries like the Netherlands and Germany consider those who sofa surf with families and friends or those who sleep in unconventional dwellings as homeless and Ireland doesn’t. Sweden utilises a much larger definition of homelessness.

They extend the term to people living in government-assisted apartments (the equivalent to council estates in Ireland). This isn’t directly comparable to Ireland either. So, we cannot exactly make any such claim about the comparability of the homelessness figures in Ireland.

Indeed, Varadkar’s claim even seems counter-intuitive because regardless of the numbers in Ireland’s “peer countries”, homelessness in Ireland is at a record high. According to data from the Department of Housing Planning Community and Local Government, there are currently more than 8,492 people homeless, with 1 in 3 being a child.

How are so many homeless in a time and a place like Ireland in the 21st century? With this in mind, should we give money to someone on the street? Can we do better, especially at Christmas time?

Although, I have given money to people on the streets plenty of times, I don’t particularly feel that we are subjectively morally obliged to do so. Even if we were, how would we decide the criteria as to who we should give our money to? We would be staking out a fortune trying to help every single homeless person.

Instead, I would suggest that we are all morally obliged to help those less fortunate than ourselves. I think many of us take our space, our rooms, our homes for granted. Imagine having no place where you belong, nowhere to cosy into after a cold, bitter day and no place to greet you after a long day.

These are the thoughts I have when I finish work at 11pm and make the guilty trip up Grafton Street towards the luas with my head down, walking fast to get out of the cold and home to a dinner that has already been cooked for me.

Last year’s budget saw the government invest €100m in emergency accommodation. However, this is only a short-term solution to a long-term issue. With Varadkar’s statement and no solution to the housing crisis on the horizon, it doesn’t appear that the homeless crisis is going to get better any time soon.

Personal issues such as addiction, mental-illness and sudden family break-up account for some of the numbers of the homeless but not nearly as many who are unemployed and can’t access affordable or social housing. I believe this is a fault in Irish society. We believe that homelessness is specific to a personal crisis or a type of person when in reality, homelessness can occur to anyone and everyone.

Charity sees the need, not the cause. That’s why you can do your part in the lead up to Christmas, when many will be without chimneys for Santa to deliver presents. You and your friends could do a bake sale, a sleep-out and even give all your old and unwanted clothes to charity. A group of Trinity students set up the first Simon Community soup run back in 1969 and what’s stopping you from giving a helping hand?

More specifically, you could volunteer with the Knights of St Colambanus, who every Christmas Day provide a hot Christmas dinner to the poor and homeless in Dublin and surrounding areas. Instead of Christmas presents, you could give donations to specific NGOs for the homeless such as Focus, the Simon Community and even SVP.

Christmas is a busy time for us all; we’re working, we’re studying (or procrastinating) and buying those last-minute gifts for our loved ones. In all the rush, buzz and hustle, remember to take some time out to help others who need it. The homeless aren’t just a rate, figure or number; they’re people. They are human beings and we ought to treat them as we hope we would be treated if we were in their shoes.

Imagine how lonely it must be for someone who is homeless in that numbing winter weather, never mind the bitter, empty feeling it probably leaves them knowing they have no home on one of the most family-oriented days in the calendar. If that itself doesn’t urge you to do at least one thing or good deed for the homeless in the lead up to Christmas, BAHUMBUG.