Hard Lessons

As I have found to be par for the course, coffee with classmates seven hours ago has somehow landed us packed shoulder to shoulder with dozens of other strangers in a Cork City pub. Irish Bob Dylan is perched at the edge of a makeshift stage bathed in orange light. He points his microphone towards the crowd which responds with inebriated vigor, yell-singing the chorus to “Like a Rolling Stone,”

How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
A complete unknown
Just like a rolling stone?

I hate this song. It ends, and I wish my classmates luck on our final paper before making my way home. Strolling down the main street of City Center, the cheery twinkle of millions of Christmas lights is amplified in the ever-present rain.

I pass a man and woman dozing on a mattress in the doorway of a store and feel my gaze drop to my feet as I attempt to ignore the sickening pull of my heart as it plunges into my gut. Cork’s main thoroughfare is a high-end retail district. But, after the shops close, the homeless of the area who are without a bed at a rescue take refuge in the entryways of Brown Thomas and Debenhams and Penny’s – a stark juxtaposition to the gleeful occupants just hours earlier. These are the “rough sleepers” and it seems their numbers grow every time I find myself in city center after dark.

The 2008 recession left Ireland to battle a severe housing deficit in its wake. Thousands of individuals nationwide are without homes, presenting a unique circumstance for policy development. As such, homelessness has become a natural point of exploration in my social policy courses at UCC. I would be lying if I said it has been simple to endure. Nothing about battling for care of the human condition is palatable but the problem of homelessness has an exceptional grasp on my heart. In part, I credit this to the difficult memory of my family’s brief stint with it several years ago; however, it is important to note that homelessness in Ireland is exponentially more visible than any place in which I have ever lived. And, with visibility comes discomfort. I watch as others pass the rough sleepers and mimic my implicit actions; eyes avert, belongings are clutched tighter, paces quicken. All of this is done as if the rough sleepers have nothing more pressing to concern themselves with than the anonymous passersby. Imagine: “How does it feel / To be on your own / With no direction home /A complete unknown/ Just like a rolling stone?”

93% of human communication is nonverbal; What one says pales in comparison to accompanying actions. What does it say about my supposed dedication to the welfare of others if I can’t bring myself to look them in the eye? I am here to learn about and, hopefully one day, improve upon methods of social welfare policy. Lesson one is forcing myself to be uncomfortable, knowing full well it will never match the discomfort of those I aim to help. Ireland has reminded me of the obvious and painful truth that there are faces and names and stories which serve as impetus for social policies. With all due respect to Bob Dylan, they don’t have to go unknown.

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