Students and Homelessness: How Can We Make A Difference?

Above: UCD SVP collecting for Homeless Week outside the library.Following the recent Homeless Week, Orla Keaveney finds out whether the right approaches are being taken to tackle homelessness.[br]IN Week 9, UCD Saint Vincent de Paul (SVP) hosted their annual Homeless Week across campus. This is the society’s biggest event of the year, with a wide range of activities organised to raise funds and awareness for the city’s homeless.After kicking off with a launch night on Monday 7th November, UCD SVP hosted a talk from former homeless people, an awareness workshop with FilmSoc and LawSoc, and an open mic night with Music Soc. Members could also be seen busking and selling hot drinks outside the library, as well as sleeping in sub-zero temperatures on cardboard at night.Homeless Week raised over €3,500 for UCD SVP’s volunteer programmes, as well as getting hundreds of students from all faculties of UCD to engage with the issue of homelessness.Fay White, a UCD student and one of the Homeless Week organisers, considers the event a success: “the support throughout the week blew us away. So many people came up to the stand to chat and I'd like to think that some people learned a lot from what we told them about our experiences.”
“Some people learned a lot from what we told them about our experiences.”
However, John-Mark McCafferty, Head of Social Justice and Policy with the National Office of the SVP, is concerned that such campaigns place too much emphasis on “rough sleepers.” Although he acknowledges that the situation of those sleeping on Dublin’s streets is dire, he believes that the stories of many homeless people are sidelined by the media for cases with more shock-value.“Charities themselves over-emphasise rough sleeping, often for fundraising reasons. It’s a very visible way of raising funds, but it tells only a tiny bit of the story… it skews the perceptions of what it means to be homeless in Ireland today.”A count taken last April found that at least 100 people sleep on the streets of Dublin every night. But John-Mark considers these figures “a drop in the ocean compared to the seven thousand officially homeless people who are in emergency accommodation, like hostels, B&Bs and hotels.”According to the Homeless Executive of the Dublin City Council, over 200 people, including children, become newly homeless every month.The money raised during Homeless Week and other SVP events goes to helping local people “holding onto their tenancies with their fingernails” as well as those who have already lost their homes. But although students can usually spare some change for a good cause, we’re a notoriously cash-strapped group, so the best option for getting involved is volunteer work.UCD SVP organises four soup runs a week, sending groups around the streets distributing hot drinks and food to people sleeping rough. Although the nights are getting colder, the friendly atmosphere and Christmas lights across the city brighten the routes up, and it can be a very fulfilling way to spend a free evening.This year, soup runs have been particularly popular – White comments that “since the start of the semester we've had consistently full soup runs, with most soup runs filling up in less than five minutes.”However, McCafferty notes that “there are a lot of soup runs out there in Dublin City. My worry is that we’re tripping over each other with very well-meaning volunteers... You set up for the night, you’ve heated all this soup, you’ve buttered all these sandwiches, and people who are rough sleeping are turning you away because they already have pizza [from another organisation].”
“Charities themselves over-emphasise rough sleeping, often for fundraising reasons.”
This lack of coordination between Dublin’s various homeless charities means that the efforts of volunteers are not always as efficient as they could be, but UCD SVP volunteers often find that the rough sleepers appreciate a sympathetic ear as much as a warm meal. So soup runs continue to be a worthwhile way to help the homeless, even if there is a need for improved organisation.While White is firmly in favour of soup runs, she acknowledges that “they are not a solution to the homeless problem. Until the government tackles the lack of social housing and puts measures into place in order to prevent people ending up homeless in the first place, homeless people in Dublin will only benefit from these services in the short term.”There may not seem to be a lot that students can do to bring about change on a national level, but both McCafferty and White agree that students can achieve more than they may think. McCafferty also praised UCD SVP’s “structured campaigns to help in a more long-term, sustained way,” particularly their recent “Hidden Homeless” display.Last October, the SVP charity shop on Georges Street was turned into an “estate agents” to raise awareness of the challenges faced by low-income families in search of affordable housing in the city. UCD volunteers encouraged passers-by to sign a petition calling for improved social housing, which was presented to the Minister for Housing, Simon Coveney.White also believes that “we need to have as much support as possible to put pressure on the government to deal with the issue. The student presence in campaigns such as for the marriage referendum last year was so impactful that it goes to show what can be achieved if everyone is vocal about supporting an issue… Students have the ability to influence change regarding how we deal with homelessness in this country.”For anyone interested in getting involved, the UCD SVP Facebook page is regularly updated with upcoming events.