I have always loved Christmas. How can you not? It’s one of the only occasions when clichés become endearing and not cheesy. Picking out the perfect tree with your family; making the annual trip to the attic to uncover the dusty Christmas decorations; and wearing down shoe leather as you scour the city for presents that will make your loved ones brim with happiness.
Out come the reliable Christmas films from Star Wars to Miracle on 34th Street and the beloved Christmas carols. Faces are aglow. Friends and family reunited. There are talks of Santa. Snuggling near the fire; sipping mulled wine or hot coco. Even the cynically minded cannot deny, there is a sense of magic and harmony in the air. This is the infectious warm glow of Christmas.
In the blink of an eye, lights are lit on Grafton Street, trees go up and the silky tones of Nat King Cole can be heard everywhere making us crave chestnuts. The poor unfortunate turkey, the sacrificial lamb of the holiday, takes centre stage and is auctioned off at ridiculous prices. Children drive their parents mad over toys they will enjoy for five minutes before discarding like last year’s Christmas tree.
It is excess and extravaganza. But we love it, because for once we can spoil ourselves and others without feeling guilty. Even the frugal roll their eyes to the heavens and repeat that old adage ‘sure it’s Christmas’. Everybody strives to make their Christmas as beautiful and magical as possible. And they are, but not for everyone.
There are some for who Christmas is just another day struggling to survive. They are the homeless. The unsung voyeurs of Christmas. They are the people whose faces are pressed up against the protective lens containing the Christmas joy. Shoppers brush past their lonely silhouettes running from shop to shop. Few acknowledge their presence. Even fewer stop to talk or help them. Many people find it easier to ignore them than to let feelings of guilt cast a damper over the Christmas lustre.
The simplicities we take for granted are the luxuries the homeless can only dream of. For them there will be no tree, presents, no dreams of Santa and in many cases no Christmas dinner. In the great wave of commercialism that is Christmas, the vulnerable in society are left to their primitive struggle for survival.
Christmas has a way of making us look at everything through a prism of reflection for better or worse and I found myself obsessing over how the homeless survive. Homelessness is a fact of life every day of the year, but it is the plummeting temperatures of winter that make the issue so urgent.
Lately, every time I passed a person sleeping rough on the streets I would shudder. I asked myself, how can this be their life? How is this happening in a developed country like Ireland? How do they
survive the night? Will they be the next Jonathan Corrie and succumb to the harsh elements of an Irish winter?
I recently attended a vigil to honour the one year anniversary of Jonathan Corrie’s tragic death. Father Peter McVerry was in attendance and said that since Jonathan died, 550 individuals are accessing Emergency accommodation and 73 families a month are becoming homeless. One would think in light of Jonathan’s tragic death, circumstances would have improved. Sadly, it has gotten worse. Much worse!
With 2016 upon us, the future of the homeless remains uncertain. The Government hints that by 2016 it hopes to see homelessness completely eradicated. Unless, the government is basing this on a Disney film, I can’t see this happening. What is certain is that homelessness is not going anywhere and like Fr. McVerry said, the government’s future coalition plan to end homelessness at this time, looks like an “Alice in Wonderland Fantasy.”
With this in mind, I asked the homeless what could be done to make their Christmas better. They all had the same response: someone to talk to and be their friend. The sheer human act of talking to these people and letting them be heard, means the world to them.
Witnessing the festivities from afar, one homeless woman eloquently said it was like watching a play, something you could almost touch but you were never going to be a part of. This is the height of injustice. The last time I checked, Ireland boasted itself a country that respected equality. How is this equality? It is not ok for some to have Christmas and for others to be forgotten.
A new charity group called Hope in the Darkness shares my philosophy and like so many other charities, did its utmost to bring Christmas to the homeless of Dublin this year. They made the journey from Gorey in Co. Wexford to bring food to the homeless at the GPO. Come rain or snow they were to be found from 8-11 every Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday evening. Their manifesto was that “even if you don’t have a home for Christmas you should still get a Christmas dinner.”
The group, like other groups helping the homeless are but a mere band aid trying to heal an indomitable crisis. But the little they do goes a long way and it is steps like this that should be taken to make a dent in the huge crisis that is homelessness.
That is why this year, instead of succumbing to food coma and curling up on the couch to watch the Christmas classics, I joined Hope in the Darkness and shared my Christmas dinner with the homeless at the GPO. The issue is so vast that you ask yourself the inevitable question ‘Am I really helping?’ I knew that by going to the GPO, I was not going to cure homelessness. But as naïve as it may sound, I felt that if I could help at least one person by being there and listening, then I had done something worthwhile this year for Christmas.
Their smiles were my reward. And like the great Charles Dickens says: “No one is useless in this world, who lightens the burdens of another.”