WHEN you pass a homeless person on the street, what’s your reaction? Negative? Sympathetic? Or do you try to have no reaction at all?
These are some of the questions we have been asking ourselves this year here at St Angela’s College in Shandon, Cork city.
We have formed a 16-strong group of teenage girls called S.H.I.N.E — Supporting, Homelessness, In, Need, Everyday — and are striving to reduce the stigma around homelessness and ease the hardships faced by homeless people, on a daily basis.
The project is part of the Young Social Innovators (YSI) programme, which is Ireland’s largest social awareness and active citizenship and education programme for 15- to 18-year-olds.
This fantastic initiative gives transition years around the country a unique opportunity to tackle social issues that impact us, our community and the wider society. It enables us to effect change in the world that will soon be our responsibility.
Y.S.I. has given us our first taste of adulthood. It has allowed us to think outside the boundaries of our classroom, and empowered us to to connect with people of all ages, genders and backgrounds.
At the start of the year, thanks to the prominence given to the issue in the media, we knew we wanted to try to help with the issue of homelessness.
However, we didn’t know where to start!
We approached two large local companies, Dell and EMC, who helped us to brainstorm our ideas and come up with a plan. This gave us a clear structure and direction for what we wanted to do next.
Our project really began to come to life when we held a winter wear appeal in November in school. We received a lot of support and donations from the whole school community. It was a fantastic way to spread our message and involve our peers in our journey.
The clothes from the winter wear appeal were gathered, and paved the way for a bigger venture to come, the ‘bundles of joy’. This was a bag of necessities, toiletries, clothing and food, which we knew would be perfect for the cold winter months ahead.
We were able to source so many products from local businesses such as Supervalu, Flahavans and Bank of Ireland. We really saw the power of community and generosity from the people of Cork, especially when the manager of JD Sports offered to provide half the bags needed for our bundles of joy, out of his own pocket.
In order to further improve our bundles of joy, we fund-raised by having a cinema day and a raffle. Our prizes were donated by local businesses. It was overwhelming to see what people did out of the kindness of their earts. We made €300 which we used to impact on lives and make a difference.
All the work and dedication put in at the start of the year culminated in our ‘bundles of joy’. By distributing these care packs, we wanted to include the homeless in our Christmas celebrations.
Along with the essentials, we included a card, personally written by our team. This was a great reminder for both ourselves and the homeless, that they aren’t just a problem to be solved, but ordinary people who have fallen on hard times.
The effect we had on our society really hit us when a girl in our group saw a man with one of our ‘bundles of joy’. We had now made a connection, we had innovated — but we wanted to do more.
In January, we met Cork TD Michael McGrath, who was very impressed with what we had accomplished in a few months. He took part in a very frank exchange of views about the role of politicians in the crisis, and we were very grateful for this opportunity, as it helped us to see the true complexity of the issue.
The meeting also outlined another battle facing the homeless, namely judgement. People make assumptions about the ‘type’ of person that is homeless. We realised that society assumes homeless people are alcoholics, addicts or outcasts on the streets.
The YSI ‘Speakout’ event in Cork City Hall was fast approaching in March and we needed to display the purpose of our work. So we chose to demonstrate the judgement and bias that homeless people often face. We wanted to show that every homeless person has a story, and it is not up to us to assume them.
In order to capture this concept, we recounted real stories of people’s journeys to homelessness at our YSI ‘Speakout’, based on interviews we carried out with people we met through the Simon Community. We wanted everyone to notice just how different their lives were compared to the stereotype we’ve all come to know.
After the Speakout event, we knew we wanted to see immediate change. We needed to influence leaders, who could listen to our voices and take action.
This led to us visiting the Lord Mayor of Cork, Cllr Tony Fitzgerald, and inviting Cprk TD and Tanaiste, Simon Coveney, to visit us.
We questioned them on the Council and the Government’s measures to ensure families were in safe and bearable conditions in Cork. We shared our ideas, and continued to campaign for urgent action on the crisis.
It was heartening to see that adults in such important positions were still willing to listen to the ideas and opinions of young students like us.
Today, our group will travel to Dublin to compete in the Young Social Innovator of the Year National Awards 2018.
No matter what the outcome of the awards, we are proud knowing that we have contributed towards developing sustainable solutions to this national crisis, by directly aiding the homeless, and helping to shine a light on those who have been suffering in our city.
The next time you pass a homeless person, please try to see behind the stereotype and instead see the hardship, see the struggle, see the person.
Don’t be afraid to be the person to take action and make a change.
“Helping one person won’t change the world, but for one person, the world could change.”