Sunday, 29 June 2014

An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

There's a homeless man on my street.

Never having the greatest reputation to begin with, the Northside of Dublin has garnered a rough name for itself over the last few decades. Drugs. Gangs. Robberies. Drive-By's.

The area where I live, Coolock Village, is peculiar in that it's one of the "nicer" parts of Coolock. By this I mean that our little street largely remains untouched by the flashy headlines of the Sunday World. In the four years I have lived here with my Mum, there have been no murders and I have never felt scared walking by myself at night.

So the presence of a poor soul begging outside the local shop is a startling development. I've listened to various radio reports over the last few weeks highlighting the rise of homelessness in our capital. I've noticed the visible increase in individuals sleeping rough around town. My heart breaks a little each time I give someone change (or when I was still smoking), a few cigarettes, and they profusely thank me for my minute contribution.

I've been called "a fool" and a "soft touch" for such insufficient actions by peers and elders. They trot out the stereotypical line that my couple of euro will be put towards some heroin, or that the person will cease their daily begging later on and go back to their lovely apartment which is probably better than where I live.

I'm informed I'm being taken for a ride and part with the money that I earn, unlike these people, too easily. I'm never sure which to be more shocked by - the fact that so many people are living on the streets or the callous attitude of those who aren't.

On Friday, while coming back from the shop, my Mum stops and talks with the man for a few minutes. He's trying to get together ten euro for the night to go stay in the nearest hostel. When she comes back and tells me, I rifle through my purse to see what I can give him. Never flush anyway, things have been especially tight at home the last while. I pull together eight euro and after suggesting to my Mum to make up some sandwiches to go with it, she returns to the man with the little we can offer.

She catches him just before he move's on. He's delighted at the small act of kindness. Despite him being there all day, without our contribution he was desperately short of the required ten euro. His clothing and shoes are not substantial enough to protect him from the frequent Irish rain. He did ask the local SVP shop for some appropriate shoes. They gave him a pair of flip flops. My Mum asks him his shoe size - 9 - and we've been asking every guy we know if they have anything they can donate for us to give to him when we see him again.

Explaining the situation to one person, they say "Ah, you're very good!" for my concern over this individual. I can feel my blood boiling. What we are doing is not extraordinary; what is extraordinary is how many people don't do anything.

I love my country. My Irish identity is an integral part of my psyche that I hold with pride. So it is with respect that I wonder, when did Ireland become so detached? If the mettle of a nation is measured by how it cares for its most vulnerable members, Ireland has failed - and continues to fail time and time again.

Stick a pin in the map of our societal issues and you're sure to hit a mark. Women. The gay and LGBT community. Homeless people. Working class. Underprivileged children. Those suffering from mental illness. What do all these have in common? The response of the average Irish citizen is either A) The problem isn't that bad or B) It is brought on by the individuals themselves.

When did our society become so apathetic? We dehumanize the homeless people we pass on the streets everyday. We ignore the inherent prejudices still held against members of the travelling community. We judge a person's character if they're wearing a tracksuit or speak with an accent. We talk about mental health issues in hushed tones. It's socially acceptable to joke about rape. We'll lament in the local about the failed actions of a politician to create change; while taking no action ourselves to change society.

We refuse to be affected by the heartbreak of our world; dressing it up as self-preservation when it's closer to self-involvement.

So I ask, genuinely, when did we stop caring? At what moment did we stop viewing each other as comrades and start compartmentalizing our fellow man? Did a sense of civic duty, kindness and decency burn away with our economic reputation?

Internationally, we're known as universal friends and community-centered folk with big hearts. Our hospitality and compassion is the stuff of legends. The "Fighting Irish"; standing up for the underdog, rallying against the status quo, ignoring the odds in the pursuit of justice. The reality falls a lot short of the reputation.

The reality is there to see, but we keep walking on by.

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