It was snowing on Paul Street two Thursday nights ago. Not dry, fluffy Hollywood snow, but Irish snow. Cold, white rain, basically.

I was frozen, even in my coat, scarf and Indiana Jones hat.

On the corner across from Amicus, snow was spotting on a wet sleeping bag tented on the bitter, soaked pavement. A human shape within was listing to one side, one hand fallen out, open and prone.

Crouching down, I asked “Are you okay?”

A ghostly young man, pale and thin, looked out at me, slightly confused. His eyes were an unfocused blue and he had blonde stubble on his chin.

“I’m fine,” he said.

He didn’t look fine. I asked would he eat a burger or something. He said he would, if he had the price of one. I had €15 in my pocket. It’ll be my treat, I said.

“I’d love a steak and cheese sub, so, please,” he said. When I asked if he wanted a drink, he said he was okay. On the ground beside him, by the tobacco pouch and the ancient mobile phone, was a Cidona bottle. I headed down Paul Street to Subway and then turned back.

“Will you come with me, altogether?” I said. “We could get in out of the cold.”

He gestured toward the paper cup in front of him, a few coppers in it. I’d say there wasn’t fifty cent in it. “Nah,” he said, “I’m trying to get a few quid for a hostel.”

“Come on, sure,” I said, melting snow dripping off the brim of my hat. “It’s a horrible auld night. We’ll both get a bit of shelter.”

“Nah, man,” he said with a grin, “Sure I’m used to this.” I doubted it; the winter had been exceptionally mild and the cold snap was both sudden and sharp. Reluctantly, though, I walked away.

I was at the door of Subway when I heard him calling to me. “Just steak and cheese! I’m allergic to onions!” I mock-saluted him.

Inside, I found myself looking at the tables and wondering if the staff would have let my friend in. Maybe he knew better from experience. Or, of course, maybe he just wanted to eat his sandwich in peace, without some self-righteous eejit encroaching on his privacy.

Back outside in the cold, and giving the young man his sandwich, I asked if I could do anything else. He said no, that I was very good – which made me feel terrible – and I told him to mind himself.

I felt awful. I wanted to give him a few bob but it was the day before payday and – counting my own change – this being January, once I’d paid for my parking in Paul Street, I only had a fiver to my name.

I got as far as the car. I went back and gave him the fiver. I could survive till morning.

It was nothing. To be honest, it was worse than nothing.

I’m not telling you this so you’ll think I’m great – it’s far more likely I’ll be accused of ‘virtue signaling’. I’m telling you this because I’m sick of living in a country where the well-being of vulnerable people depends entirely on the guilt of passers-by.

I don’t think I’m the only person who felt a little conflicted about the recent occupation of the NAMA-owned Apollo House by the group called ‘Home Sweet Home’.

Certainly, I wouldn’t share the populist politics of some of those involved and you could – without cynicism – point out that Sinn Féin and the AAA/PBP-supported cuts in Local Property Tax, which had the knock-on effect of cutting funding to local authority homelessness services. You could therefore say that the Shinners and Trots have some cheek to be lecturing anyone about homelessness.

Also, I confess I wouldn’t be the biggest fan of one of Home Sweet Home’s organisers, Unite’s seemingly never-off-the-airwaves union official Brendan Ogle, but then I suppose he probably wouldn’t like me either. Each to their own.

The media honeymoon for Home Sweet Home seemed to end recently with reports suggesting initially that Unite had asked for a social housing exemption on its vacant Merrion Square property, then that such an application was mandatory and then that Unite had actually offered the property to the homeless three years ago.

Then came reports that Home Sweet Home was ‘refusing‘ to pass along to homeless charities, donations of at least €170,000 and further murmurings (in Phoenix Magazine) that Mr Ogle is laying the foundations for a new political career.

Mr Ogle’s – shall we say – combative Facebook posts certainly did little to allay the concerns of those less than 100% on board with the Apollo House occupation.

You know something?

None of that matters. None of it.

None of it takes from the sincerity and decency of the vast, vast majority of the Home Sweet Home campaigners. And certainly none of it takes from the fact they did something nobody else has been able to do: they lit a fire under this Government and they managed to put homelessness centre-stage.

So successful were Home Sweet Home’s actions in fact, that Housing Minister Simon Coveney actually pledged to end the use of hotels for accommodation of homeless families by this coming June. That would be impressive, had Simon Coveney not been part of the previous government, which pledged in 2013 to end homelessness by, er, 2016.

In the wake of Mr Ogle’s travails, I rather naively and petulantly opined on Twitter that his actions made Home Sweet Home less about homelessness and more about politics.

I wasn’t long being educated – and rightly so – that homelessness is entirely a political matter.

This is an opinion piece and if there’s one thing which will strangle an opinion piece, it’s statistics. So what I’ll do is I’ll give you one local figure and then I’ll put everything else below the line. But – even accepting the economic apocalypse the Fine Gael-led government inherited in 2011, this is a damning statistic:

Cork Simon reports that since 2011, the number of people sleeping rough in Cork has increased ninefold from 38 people in 2011 to 345 people in 2015.

I know it’s lazy and unhelpful to conflate homelessness and rough sleeping, but right now, two families a week fall into homelessness. It seems to me a miracle we don’t have people begging in every doorway.

It’s often said that homelessness is never an election issue. Maybe it isn’t, but this zombie government cannot lurch on forever. When finally we do get an election, perhaps the good work of the Home Sweet Home campaigners will mean homelessness is an election issue next time out.

I hope so. I really am sick of living in a country where anyone’s welfare depends on how guilty I feel on any given day.

There but for the grace of God lies any one of us, barely sheltered in a wet sleeping bag, weak, hungry and frozen, one hand held out in the cold.

Bravo, Home Sweet Home.

Homelessness, Cork and nationwide

Cork Simon Community reports that the latest Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government figures show that during the week of October 24th-30th there were:

  • 240 adults in emergency accommodation in Cork – a year-on-year 17% increase.
  • 6,847 adults and children in emergency accommodation nationwide – an almost 20% increase since January.
  • 36 families homeless in the South West (Cork and Kerry) during one week in October. Year-on-year, a 63% increase.
  • 1,178 families in emergency accommodation nationwide – an increase of one third since January.
  • 98 children homeless in the SW, year-on-year more than doubled.
  • 2,470 children nationwide in emergency accommodation – an increase of 35% since January.
  • In October, Cork Simon’s Outreach Team met 90 people sleeping rough in Cork. Year-on-year, that’s up 90%.

On a nightly basis, an average of 20 people per night slept rough in Cork during October, year-on-year up 110%.

Cork Simon reports that since 2011, the number of people sleeping rough in Cork has increased ninefold from 38 people in 2011 to 345 people in 2015.

Cork Simon Community: 021-4321051 www.corksimon.ie

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