Before we start, consider a quote you might already know which was probably said by Stalin.
“When one man dies, that’s a tragedy. When thousands die, that’s a statistic.”
When we say that there are about 8,000 people in Ireland homeless today, that number can feel cold and distant and almost comforting. They don’t feel like people. They feel like numbers.
This isn’t purely the result of a society that teaches us to not care about the homeless, although that doesn’t help. It’s primarily because humans aren’t intuitively great at understanding big numbers and large-scale problems. It’s difficult to properly comprehend a country because a country runs on the macro.
So, zoom in. Look closer.
A homeless woman named Kathleen O’Sullivan said to The Avondhu that she “won’t survive another winter on the streets.” She was right. In the same doorway where she lay and foresaw her demise, she finally died of the cold.
In this context, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar claimed last month that Ireland’s rate of homelessness is not high by international standards. Whether this is literally correct is beside the point.
While I have nothing against the radical left, I’m not that radical myself. So, don’t interpret me as whatever negative thing you might like to interpret me as when I say this: Varadkar is trying to justify the failures of capitalism by saying that Ireland isn’t failing any more than the other capitalist countries, and that’s a weak defence. If lots of countries in Europe have a significant number of homeless people, then maybe all those countries have a problem rather than none of them.
What’s popularly decided to be right and wrong is what we decide and what we allow to be acceptable. There are people like Varadkar who believe that if every country has a homelessness problem, then it’s not a problem. Those people aren’t just politicians. So, it’s good that the Irish left is united in prioritising the homelessness crisis. We have the morals we make.
It should be stated that Varadkar qualified his statement by saying “we don’t think that’s good enough, and we want to continue to reduce homelessness in the years ahead.”
So, let’s translate this. He still deliberately played down the crisis. The intent of this was to make Fine Gael’s track record seem better where homelessness has increased since 2011.
But then again, this sort of talk about politicians is another perspective which makes it easy to lose sight of homeless people themselves.
There was an excellent piece in the Irish Times in September about tent-dwellers in Dublin and Cork. In Phoenix Park, they try to keep out of sight of authorities who demand that they move on. That’s a tall order when they have nowhere to move on to.
We often think of charitable donations as gifts and as helping others. That’s true but it’s also helping ourselves. If people are given homes, they can get on with their lives and contribute to communities, become engineers and artists and so forth. In bluntly business-like terms, it’s an investment.
As a community, we have a moral obligation to look after people like Kathleen. To talk about the homelessness crisis, we need statistics. But, let’s not forget what is precious.