My canal bank walk happens twice a day, sometimes more if I’m feeling energetic. My canal bank walks began in July, in July the canal banks are in their element. The July sun shines stunningly along the canal, capsular rays of light give us a dreamy summer in all its glory, not only once, but twice in the reflection of my canal bank walk.
Morning pedestrian commuters bustle along the canal, their heels click with ferocity along the pavement as they hurry, very importantly, to their very important jobs. Bikes whiz up and down the cycling lane, nearly knocking pedestrians off their feet, busy, busy, busy.
A flustered man in a suit walks heavily along the same path, his face illuminated every few steps as he walks under the scattered rays of sunshine that peek through the trees. The change in his pocket jangles with every step he takes, it sounds almost the same as a set of chains that bind a prisoners feet jangling along the ground with every heavy footstep.
Lunchtime markets bring business men in suits pouring out of Baggot streets lavish Georgian office buildings, their square eyes readjust to July’s midday sun and waste no precious time stocking up on the global delicacies brought along the sun soaked lunchtime canal.
Today is the 15th of December and this morning, the same as every other morning, I passed three bridges, six locks, eight canal boats, a dozen swans and one homeless man, resident to this canal. Between Portobello bridge and Harold’s Cross he lives on the third bench in. I pass him everyday. From July to December, I’ve passed him everyday. Everyday, twice a day, sometimes more if I’m feeling energetic.
Every the night he’s wrapped in sleeping bags, blankets and quilts, he’s dressed in his hat and his big, but tiered, jacket. It’s zipped up to his neck, his face is covered up over his nose by a worn looking scarf and his hat pulled down below his eyebrows, his two eyes look out as he sits against the edge of the bench with his feet up tucked into his sleeping bag.
I’ve seen this man at 9pm when he’s reading his book under the dull orange street light which barely shines through the branches above him, I’ve walked past him at 9am when he’s taking plastic cutlery out of his sandwich bag to eat whatever he has.
I see him at lunch time when he puts his blankets and his cutlery and his sleeping bag into a paper box, now pretty ruined from the rain, which he keeps under that same canal bench. At lunchtime he sits there in his coat and hat, I can see his face now in the day light. At lunch time you’d never know he lived on that bench, you’d never know that right there was his home, you’d probably miss the box he’s got shoved under the bench. His eyes are more relaxed during the day, softer and less strained, almost less ashamed to be sitting on his bench during the day, nobody knows he’s a resident of the canal during the day, the swans and the ducks sure they live here on this canal, but not this man today, at lunchtime on the canal.
As the sun sets on the canal his scarf rises higher above his nose and his hat descends again below his brows. The orange street light replaces the December twilight as he prepares for the night ahead, like you and I, he too must rest his head. I walk past him now at 11pm his shoes tucked neatly under his bench, beside his box filled with every earthly possession he owns, the ziplock bag with plastic spoons, the book he reads under that orange street light.
He too, like you and I, takes off his shoes before he sleeps, but that and that alone is as normal as this scene will ever get. There is nothing normal about the foil wrapped man lying frozen on a canal bench, with all he owns stashed beneath him, unsure if tomorrow he will wake up from this sub-zero December night. While we walk past our heels clicking loudly waking him from what I imagine to be less than desirable sleep.
Never a cup, never a can, this isn’t a panhandling man, his eyes barely meet the passerbys’ and when they do there is only miserable shame in them, he never asks for anything, survival is clearly all he’s looking for upon that bench on the canal. Very recently he’s gained the good fortune of a tent as you can see in the above picture. So now here is his home, surviving on this canal in a blue tent nested between a bin and a bench.
I’ve battled with the angst I feel at this scene for a very long time, it hurts me to be limited in what I can do for this man and hundreds more like him that I pass every day. I’m limited but I’m not helpless, while I can’t adopt this grown man and house him in my tiny rented apartment, I can still offer him a smile or a nod over a sympathetic glance, I can’t offer him enough money to support himself but I can offer him food or company or be a human and a fellow passenger of the canal.
We are a privileged people and we live very easy lives compared to this man, we cannot single-handedly fix homelessness, and there is no resolve in ‘feeling so bad for him’ or thinking: ‘oh the poor thing’, there is resolve in not letting this be something we turn a blind eye to, we cannot avoid any and all eye contact for fear we gaze too long and have to recognise his plight or his problem.
We cannot normalise this, or belittle it, or refuse to acknowledge it. It has to be part of our conversation and it has to be part of those who we elects’ conversation. We should all be furious at the realisation that we live in a country run by people who are happy enough to say “sure it’s bad but we’re not the worst” who don’t want the hype of a crisis. Do they not walk the same streets we do? Leo Varadkar, you are not the leader of Germany nor Spain you’re the leader of Ireland and you do not get to compare your people’s struggles to those somewhere else in an effort to belittle them.
So this post is an effort not to normalise it, to speak about this mans problem, to let him know somebody else cries at his pain and is empathic for him and angry at the society that’s left him there in his blue tent upon the canal bank.