Brendan O'Connor: 'A man who chose privacy was picked up like human garbage'

There was no need to politicise it. It didn’t need to be politicised. It spoke for itself. Whatever the reasons for it, whatever the background to it, whoever made mistakes somewhere along the way, whatever the unfortunate chain of events, there was no getting away from it. A man had been picked up like garbage, and maimed.

“Life-changing injuries.”

Who knows what life-changing injuries people who end up on the streets have already suffered? Who knows what accidents of fate or glitches in time change someone’s life? Life-changing injuries can be inflicted by a person, a person who shouldn’t have been allowed near you when you were small, or a person who had their own life-changing injuries and didn’t know how to look after you.

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They can be inflicted by institutions, by the State. You can also get life-changing injuries by falling through the cracks. Or you can get life-changing injuries from a simple twist of fate.

Life-changing injuries can, in turn, give you “complex needs”. Complex needs is often offered as the reason they haven’t a suitable place for you to live. Complex needs is why you’re hard to help. Complex needs is why you prefer to be outside. Funny thing, I have complex needs, too, don’t you? I have complex needs but they managed to help me. I managed to stay inside.

Alice Leahy talks about the ‘outsiders’ she helps. Some of them see things differently to other people, she says. Some of them are more in touch with nature and the world. But then, they are often more in touch with addiction and mental health issues, too. But for whatever reasons, some of these ‘outsiders’ want to be outside.

The man from the Peter McVerry Trust said on the TV the other night that the only thing a tent offers is privacy. On every other criterion you’re better in a hostel, or some form of bed. But does that not just go to show how important privacy is?

Some people will choose privacy over warmth, comfort and security. Some people will choose privacy, even if it means people pissing on your tent after pub closing time, even if it means grief from little toe-rags, never mind the wind and the rain and the cold.

Some people will forgo everything else to choose privacy, maybe because there is some sense of freedom in privacy, some sense of dignity in privacy, some sense of agency, some sense of being an adult human being with choices.

We can tend to think that people who find themselves homeless should take what’s on offer, on whatever terms it’s on offer, that they should be willing to forgo privacy because they can’t afford privacy, so hide your stuff as best you can under your pillow and take the bed among the users and the criminals and be grateful.

Sometimes, someone will tell you why they don’t want to go to a hostel, and you see that they look down on the people in hostels, and you might be slightly surprised. But then, just because someone is an outsider doesn’t mean they have to like all the other outsiders, doesn’t mean they have to trust the other outsiders, and feel comfortable with them.

All human beings have complex needs and life-changing injuries. But most of us are lucky enough that some of our complex needs get met and we manage to hide the rest of them. And our life-changing injuries get patched up, because we are lucky to have the right people in our lives, and the right bits of luck.

This guy engaged me when I was getting a hot doughnut for me and the kid from the hatch on O’Connell Street. He had piercing, intelligent eyes. He engaged me about TV and the media in general. I asked him if he wanted a doughnut or a coffee. He wanted nothing. Not a burger or a sandwich. He didn’t want money. He just seemed to want to talk. He was very engaging.

He told me his story unprompted, how he had a girlfriend, but that he always felt she was too good for him and that caused fights, and then, one day, when his head was wrecked from the fighting, he had a drink. He’d been off the drink for ages but he went back on it that day.

I asked him was he happier off the drink? He said some days he was happier off the drink and some days he was unhappier off the drink. It wasn’t that simple, he said. But he said he was going to give rehab a go again. He said I was lucky I had something I was good at, that I was different to him.

I explained to him that I wasn’t that different, that I probably had the same demons in my head as he did, but I just had a few lucky breaks here and there, that that was the only difference between us really.

There was something about him. He reminded me of lots of guys I know, of the kind of guys I like, intelligent, challenging country fellahs. It was New Year’s Eve and he asked me what I was doing for the evening.

I said I didn’t really do New Year’s Eve. I asked him what he was doing? He laughed and shrugged and said he didn’t really do it either. It was cold. I asked him, would he be going to a hostel or what? And he made a face. And then, like a guy teaching another guy the rules of the street, he explained to me why you’re better off staying away from the hostels.

You sensed that privacy and dignity were part of this guy’s complex needs. You sensed, too, that he thought he could fix his life-changing injuries.

So I went home and watched Jools Holland and he went off to his tent or whatever. And you know what? As much as we had a great old chat, and we would have probably got on well in another world, if my luck or his luck had been different, and as much as I was feeling all great about us talking, just as two men, I never asked him his name.

I never even asked him his name.

It’s no wonder, really, that we were all so uncomfortable with that awful accident last week that seemed to symbolise so much about our society. We knew that the blame for it was complex, if indeed it was anyone’s fault at all. But still we knew it said something terrible that a man who chose privacy was picked up like human garbage.

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