The numbers keep confirming ireland’s homelessness epidemic but never forget these are real people behind statistics.
Ruined by addiction, neglect, rejection, loneliness, an unlucky throw of the mental health dice, or, as often as not, some random wrong turn on the walk through the pitiless years. Homeless and hopeless, bond servants at life’s pain factory.
Walking through Dublin city on Thursday night, a raw, stinging November chill fixing the night in a glacial vice-grip, was at once an uplifting and jolting experience.
Uplifting because the byways around College Green, dressed in their seasonal finery, glittering under the sodium glare of the streetlights, offer a feast for the senses.
Jolting because of the forgotten figures in the shadows, huddling under damp sleeping-bags, tossing on inadequate cardboard mattresses, unable to evict the cold that has invaded their bones and colonised every last atom of their being.
How utterly soul-crushing must it be to live on a street where thousands walk by each day and still feel like the only person on earth?
We hear the numbers time and time again, the figures that confirm Ireland’s epidemic of the destitute and dispossessed and abandoned, but those crouched in doorways, their story concealed behind sad, glazed eyes, are so much more than grim statistics.
They are not “they”, not some alien tribe. They are us.
Some mother’s son or daughter. Your brother, your niece, the lad from across the road who played corner back on your underage GAA team, the girl you sat next to at school.
They have names: Sean or Sarah, Jack or Jane.
They have dreams, though each cold night frays another thread on the careworn tapestry of their imaginings.
The dimensions of their universe have been narrowed down to a simple imperative: To survive another night. To endure. To somehow avoid drowning in the rapacious ocean of their despair.
Each waking – or sleeping - hour brings a fresh blitzkrieg on the last isolated outposts of their dignity. Drunken boors, on their way to some late-night club, think it hilarious to empty their beery bladders on the poor, fractured individual stretched out in some doorway.
Even those of us who pathetically congratulate ourselves on our conscience, what exactly do we do?
There are a small, dedicated, heroic band who volunteer and make a real difference. The rest of us might throw a couple of euro into a crumpled coffee cup, maybe offer a sandwich or a word or two of encouragement, then we drift away, back to our other life.
By the time we reach the top of the road, we have largely erased the hypothermia-besieged creature from our hard drives.
I’ve done it a thousand times, thrown a few coins – as if tossing stale bread to the Stephen’s Green ducks - and forgotten.
On Thursday I’d come from a lovely lunch at the Mansion House, there were pints in a few of the old town’s finest watering holes, a long day of carefree mischief. And then I walked out into their world.
So many young people alive, but hardly living. Existing. No hope on their horizon.
A line from Colson Whitehead’s angry, brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Nickel Boys, bounced around my head.
The one where the author rages at a world in which so many are “denied the simple pleasure of being ordinary.”
Refused the nourishment of love, outsiders in the country of normal life, clueless as to where they find the visa that permits them entry into a world so many of us take for granted.
Many years ago, a gang of us having staggered from Munich’s bier kellers to find no available accommodation during Oktoberfest, slept for a night at the main train station.
The misery of the experience endures.
Though it was a relatively mild night, the cold seeped into every crevice of our bodies. After an hour or two it felt like we were incarcerated in a giant, bumpy fridge freezer.
We were Tom Crean on a starless Antarctic night.
But the refrigerated blood wasn’t even the worst, it was the terror every time something stirred in the dark; every footstep belonged to a potential enemy, a thief, an assailant, a police officer.
Even if the danger was imagined, the fear was too real.
This feral existence is every day, but by a multiple of many dozens, if you are a resident of the streets.
Over the coldest months, there is a winnowing of the community’s number:
Unable to silence the despair screaming in their skulls, some will decide the only option is to still their own hearts.
Others will be stolen by overdoses, a bloody syringe by their lifeless corpse, or by the violence that stalks this sub-world, or by body temperature falling so low that it robs them of metabolic function.
A brutal culling of Ireland’s disregarded minnows, the cruel everyday truth of our forgotten brothers and sisters.
The biography of those denied the simple pleasure of being ordinary.