CEO of Cybersmarties Ltd.
A situation happened on the doorstep of my office last week that gave me cause to reflect on myself and society in general. It was one of those things that happen which you can choose to ignore and pretend it hasn’t happened or get involved. With regret I have to say it took me 24 hours to react.
Our office is one of the old Georgian buildings in Limerick City, beautiful to look at but in winter would make a polar bear sneeze. On either side of the stone steps leading up to the front door there are what are architecturally known as “Light Wells” but would be commonly called basement areas. In their heyday, these basements would have been the kitchens to the gentry living there, and the space outside these allowed sunlight into the kitchens. The building next to me is unoccupied, and as I turned the key in the door, I caught sight of the view of legs in the basement area to the left below. Looking down I could see that there was a man and woman standing down there. From their clothing, they looked homeless and seeing me, stood back into the darkness so as not to be seen. At the time as I was busy, I did not give much thought to the matter and carried on with my work.
Later that day, I stood outside the door as is my habit, to take in the sounds and sights of the City, as I find it helpful to clear my mind. I had completely forgotten about my new neighbours until I had stood outside, and craned my neck to see if they were still there. Again I saw just the legs of these people standing against the wall. I always give to people begging on the street, but then I would walk on, content in the knowledge I had done my part, but unwilling to engage with the person themselves other than to nod my head. I think most people are like this; the giving of money to someone less fortunate than oneself satisfies some moral question within us, it helps us to live with ourselves without ever having to try and get directly involved in trying to solve the problem.
Yet here were these two homeless people, in effect, outside my door. The thing that I noticed about these people was how silent they were. They said nothing to each other, stood back in the shadow of the basement, so no one would see them as if they were hiding. They did not beg or were not drinking alcohol or causing a disturbance. They were just standing there in silence. Later that afternoon I had to go out for a meeting and upon my return my neighbours were gone, vanished it seemed without a trace. On my drive home, it began to get to me.
That night I couldn’t sleep. The self-hypocrisy of what I stood for was gnawing at me. There I was running a company which espoused positive behaviour and empathy towards others and standing outside my door were people who really needed my help yet I had done nothing. I made a promise then that I would help them if I met them again, but that annoyed me too since they had already left and the “next time I meet them I will do something” promise I made, seemed very hollow and fake.
As luck would have it, my neighbours had returned from their travels and were back again the following morning. Now my opportunity had come so I had to act. Getting some sandwiches and drinks, I walked down the steps to them and was surprised how they backed away from me, afraid almost of being discovered. I just passed over the food to put them at ease as best I could. The man put out his hand to shake mine but seeing how dirty it was, he pulled it back again quickly in shame. I continued to hold out mine until he finally shook it. There was a kindness and humility to these people I couldn’t really make sense of. I didn’t want to intrude too much at this point so I said my goodbye’s and left. Over the last few days I have met them every day and slowly they have begun to tell me their story. They are brother and sister. Their names are John and Marie, in their late 50’’s and have been on the streets since April. They had been sharing a flat in sheltered accommodation, but a disagreement between John and his neighbours, who were drinking and causing trouble, resulted in John being evicted. Marie was allowed to stay, but out of loyalty and concern for her brother, she left with him and now both are living on the streets.
I don’t know what will happen to John and Marie. I have made some calls but so far haven’t had much luck so I will keep trying. The Gardaí moved them on for a day following someone making a complaint but where are they supposed to go. As John said to me “We are all flesh and blood at the end of the day”. Their plight has affected me on some unconscious level I cannot fully understand. I had read somewhere before that we are all only two or three paychecks away from being homeless. A wrong decision and some bad luck could have anyone of us being in John and Marie’s situation and that’s frightening. What is equally as frightening to me is that it took their presence outside my door for me to do anything about it, to really see homeless people as being people who have a story, a name, something to say. It is easy to go off on a rant about the government or the banks but that is only deflection really as we know by now nothing is going to ever change there. All that is left is the decision you make as an individual whether to be help or not on a daily basis. Unfortunately I found myself lacking in this respect when it occurred initially, but now I feel I am learning for the better for having met John and Marie.