It’s a while since I’ve written a blog post that wasn’t published somewhere, but without the luxury of a weekly newspaper to vent in sans commissioning editor, this is the place to write about something that is so starkly obvious now, nobody will commission it.
Two years ago we covered the capping of rent supplement in the Cork Independent, with some alarm. It was about two years after we had bought our own house (luckily, at the bottom of the market) and already, it was clear that we could rent it out for substantially more than the mortgage was costing us. The reason we bought in the first place was that rent in Cork was too expensive.
Over the two years it has become disturbingly clear just what that cap on rent supplement is costing. Landlords in negative equity are panicking and raising rents as the calls from the bank escalate; tenants are trying to move in order to keep their rent manageable; and there is an entire class of people, both working and unemployed, who are absolutely shut out of the private rented system. They are also shut out of social housing, because in Cork, at least, what’s there is full or boarded up. We wrote about it again in March, when a Syrian refugee, who has full status here and is entitled to payments, couldn’t find anywhere to live due to the rent allowance cap.
On the show I now produce, people are clamouring for their problems to be heard. We are getting calls day after day and week after week from people who are desperately clinging to security, who are about to lose or have lost their homes. The best the services can do for them is house them temporarily in hotels or B&Bs, with families living much the same as those in direct provision, and tell them they’ll be added to the 8,000 strong housing list.
Today I spoke to a man who is getting divorced, will lose his home, and cannot afford to rent alone. On Friday I spoke to a girl who has until Christmas to find an alternative to the couch she shares with her partner and baby in his parents’ 3 bed house – currently home to 9 people. Last week I spoke to a woman who has three teenagers she has moved from pillar to post over the past 6 months, sleeping on friends’ couches, in her car and in B&Bs, because since they returned from Australia, she got a job, but has not been able to find a landlord who accepts rent supplement. All of these people I met only by phone.
Yesterday, though, I went to town to see Glow on the Grand Parade with some family who were in Cork for the day. Twinkling lights, Christmas jumpers – bit early – and bobbing horses on the carousel couldn’t obscure the human tragedy that we are literally tripping over on our streets.
After passing at least five people on my way from the bus station to Lifestyle Sports (a walk of about five minutes), I bent to give a few euro to a guy sitting outside Lifestyle Sports on Patrick Street, and asked him how he was.
His response? “Someone robbed my tent”.
A softly spoken guy holding a sign – because all of us are judges, with an opinion on what must have precipitated his fall from grace – that says “I don’t drink and I don’t take drugs, I’m just homeless and looking for help”.
And somebody, probably somebody else to whom a tent is the height of luxury and the difference between a dry night with some stolen moments of sleep, and a night of wet, cold, wakefulness, took his tent.
He was angry, but more than anything, he was gutted. We all work hard to keep our heads above water, but Ian spends hours every day walking out of the city to find somewhere safe to pitch his tent, away from the bleakness and fright and chaos that owns the streets when dark falls. In the mornings he walks back in from wherever he’s found a haven, gets something to eat (I think at the Simon shelter), and pitches himself at Lifestyle Sports, sitting on his bag of bits and pieces.
I took his number and promised him we’d try and get him sorted on today’s show, but as I walked back to the bus stop I remembered that I had bought my husband a tent a few years ago that was never used. When I got home I found it, and a few other bits and pieces, parcelled up some of the stew that had been in the slow cooker all day, and rang Ian.
He was gone to get something to eat, but he’d be back by the time I reached the city centre again.
I drove down a glittering Patrick Street, festooned with white and blue light, through hordes of happy families, and pulled in to a yellow box, flashers on, to run over and give Ian the few bits I’d found.
I apologised that I couldn’t help him more, but what I was really apologising for was the sheer bloody luck that put me where I am and not where he is. I was apologising for the privilege that gave me a stable family and a roof over my head and a dog that has a better life than Ian does.
He didn’t care. For that few minutes he was the king of the world, and it broke my heart.
His eyes lit up when he saw the jacket I’d brought him, and immediately he pulled it on over the two he was already wearing. I apologised again.
“What are you saying sorry for? You’ve given me a home! Not many 29 year olds can say they own their own home!”
I’m 29, too.
I went to shake his hand, and wish him luck, and a happy Christmas. He gave me a hug. I said goodbye, turned to go, and then remembered the bag of biscuits I had in my pocket.
I turned to hand them to him, and I couldn’t meet his eye because there I was walking back to my warm car and my warm home and there he was with a cheap tent and a few biscuits and a hippy stew with bloody kale and cannelini beans in it and he was king of the world for that few minutes.
As I walked back to my car, I passed three more young men sitting on the footpath.
The Cork Simon Annual Report for 2013 came out on Friday and it makes for sobering reading. Ian is only one of a massive, growing population that is being stripped of respect, dignity and the fundamental human rights of security and a home. He is constantly in danger from other people on the street, constantly cold, constantly moving and there is very little that Cork Simon or anybody else can do for him unless all of us let the Government know that we are not ok with this.
Today, we learned that a man who was sleeping rough died right across the street from the Dáil.
Thousands of people have marched against Irish Water, and we are finally seeing people saying they’ve had enough.
Well, I’ve had enough. I don’t mind paying the tax I pay and more if it means that Ian and Yvonne and Emma and John know that there is a security net there for them. I don’t mind paying it if I know that there is a safety net there for me, if in two pay cheques’ time I lose my job and cannot keep up my mortgage repayments.
I don’t mind paying it if it means that walking down the street is not a constant reminder of the absolute failure of our society to look after the people who fall through the cracks, or out of the system, or out of mind even though they are constantly within sight.
There is a move afoot to make the December 10th water march a fundraiser for Simon, to show that this is not just about water, that it is about the kind of society this is and our priorities. I hope that move succeeds, because while we are all distracted by Irish Water and suspicious greenways and TDs’ fraud, our society is crumbling, and, distracted by our own private struggles, we are letting it.
Note: I didn’t talk to Ian to write about him. Anything I learned about him, he told me in conversation and not in an interview. We didn’t cover it on today’s show – as it happened, we were covering the Simon report anyway. I didn’t write this to be congratulated for my great deed. I wrote it because I am furious that this is as much as I can do.