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aid worker's battle 'Sometimes I feel like saying, let me burn down your tent - just to get the homeless a bed for the night'


Alan Lawes is frustrated with how the system treats the homeless

Alan Lawes is frustrated with how the system treats the homeless

Alan Lawes is frustrated with how the system treats the homeless

"I've been tempted to set a homeless person's tent on fire on a few different occasions, just to ensure they have a proper roof over their head that night."

Those are the words of Alan Lawes, a long time volunteer with various agencies that support Ireland's homeless, clearly illustrate the frustration homeless aid workers feel with the system.

Lawes, an inner-city Dubliner, who is an Independent councillor in his adopted county of Meath, works with a community alert group in his own neck of the woods and with Inner City Helping the Homeless (ICHH), in the capital.

He's adamant the system is letting the homeless down.

"A lot of councils have a policy of only responding to emergency calls after 5pm in case of fire, flood or adverse weather conditions, every other situation is left to be dealt with when the offices open again at 9am the next morning," he explains.

"There have been times when you know, you just know, that unless the person is housed there and then they won't be around the next morning.

"That rule applies down here in Meath but the council seem to have relaxed it a little as I had three separate occasions in the weeks leading up to Christmas where officials from the local council engaged with me as late as 9.30pm to get someone into a B&B immediately.

"Whether they were doing that off their own bat or if it is now policy doesn't matter to me, it's a welcome development.

"There have been times previously when I felt like saying to someone, here let me burn down your tent - that is the only way I can get you in somewhere tonight.


Alan's house is packed to the roof with stuff donated by Navan families to help the homeless

Alan's house is packed to the roof with stuff donated by Navan families to help the homeless

Alan's house is packed to the roof with stuff donated by Navan families to help the homeless

"These are real people we are dealing with, people who have real fears.

"I remember one night in Dublin where we encountered a girl, just eighteen years old, from Donegal who broke down when she saw us and told us she was scared of being on the streets but had nowhere to go.

"The only place we could find was the reception area of Pearse Street Garda station and - fair play to the guards - they let her sleep there," he says.

There are lighter moments though, and on one other occasion, Lawes ensured that one homeless man was extremely presentable when he went house hunting the next day.

"I was doing a shift with the ICHH and had packed a rucksack with a load of clothes to dispense to whoever we came across," says Lawes.

"It was raining heavily the same night and on O'Connell Street I came across a man who was absolutely wringing wet, he was in a sleeping bag and was soaked through.

"Now in the rucksack, I had a brand new Wrangler jacket, one of those that had leather sleeves so I told him to try that on and it was a perfect fit.

"I also had a brand new pair of Wrangler jeans and, as God is my judge, they fitted him perfectly too. I had a few pairs of socks which I gave him and, to trump it all, I had a brand new pair of trainers which incredibly were his size.

"When I went back and told the lads what had happened they struggled to believe me."

Lawes's home is a testament to the goodness of people, every available space is thronged with donations, which is why a recent development has annoyed him, especially in the run up to Christmas..

"There are professional street beggars out there, it is a relatively new phenomenon and close to Christmas it takes away from those genuinely in need.

"There are men and women travelling from Dublin to Navan in the morning begging all day and then getting the bus home in the evening.

"How do I know? I have gone over introduced myself as a councillor and asked for their details so as I can help them and they have refused to give them to me.

"Now tell me honestly, if you were genuinely homeless wouldn't you accept any help you can get?

"The big problem around Christmas is that on the big day itself and St Stephen's day there is nobody to beg money from, if you are genuinely stuck for the price of a cup of coffee there's nobody around to beg it from.

"Covid has hit us hard in so far as pre Covid the ICHH would send out four teams of six on foot all around the city centre but now we have to send out a couple of vans with just two people in each so we can obviously cover less ground.

"Working with the homeless is rewarding and frustrating in almost equal parts.

one of the hardest things I ever had to do was walk away from a vulnerable couple one night in Navan, a 23-year-old man and a 21-year- old woman sleeping rough.

"I got them food and spoke to them at length but I couldn't get them a roof for the night and had to walk away.

"I felt inadequate but then I realised it was the state's response was inadequate.

"It's not good enough and has to get better."

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