Above: Human Rights and Poverty Stone, Dublin, Ireland
In 2017, ATD Fourth World invited people around the world to document real-life “Stories of Change” arising from situations of injustice and exclusion caused by extreme poverty. These stories, from activists, community leaders, and others, show that when people work together, real change can happen. For more about the “Stories of Change” blog, click here.
A couple who experienced homelessness courageously share with others what the 17 October Commemorative Stone means to them.
By Isabelle Williams (Ireland)
Christopher and Jacquie were homeless. Pushed from one temporary hostel to the next and sleeping rough in between, they had had a gruelling and haphazard life. And yet they had stuck together through the highs and lows, the joys and sorrows. They were so proud to be married.
We had first met them through Jacquie’s brother, who was homeless too. They started coming to the [ATD Fourth World] meetings we held once a month. They felt at home in the midst of others who had similar lives. They talked about what it meant to be pushed from pillar to post and never be able to keep hold of their most precious possessions.
Once, when they dropped in to the small ATD centre, they discovered on the table a copy of the appeal that Joseph Wresinski had engraved on the 17 October commemorative stone in Paris. They read it aloud to themselves, the words seeming to enter them, and resonate with them.
At the time, we were preparing the inauguration of a replica of this commemorative stone in Dublin, a few steps from the Famine Memorial statues where, for some years, we had marked the World Day for Overcoming Extreme Poverty on 17 October.
When we spoke with them, Christopher got talking about his father leaving every morning for a day job in the docks, passing by where the new commemorative stone was to be laid. As a child, he went to meet his dad. He saw him coming back from work, exhausted. Christopher was deeply affected by his father’s efforts to free his children from dire poverty. Jacquie strongly expressed her indignation that children grow up in poverty in Ireland, and anywhere in the world. We proposed that on 17 October, at the inauguration of the commemorative stone, they speak about the meaning the message on the stone had for them. They did not hesitate: “We’ll get started!”
It was a challenge though. How and where to prepare? How to even find them? On the day of 17 October, would they be there? Their life was filled with so much uncertainty and so many obstacles. We first met to prepare in a small park, a regular rendezvous for homeless people. Then one evening in a homeless shelter, and another time at the ATD centre. Sometimes, after a sleepless night, they arrived late but they were always there. We witnessed day after day their efforts to be up to the occasion.
Together we wrote and rewrote what they wanted to say, and read it and read it again. They practised every day. Jacquie could project her voice but, even close-up, it was hard to hear Chris. It was as if he was whispering. One day he arrived transformed. He had acquired a set of false teeth “to express myself better and to be more worthy”, he said. That day he was another man. They both supported one another a lot, and others came to listen to them rehearsing and to encourage them.
On the day, 17 October, Jacquie and Christopher were there. It was beautiful that they were there. We had to have faith that they would come, and they especially had to believe it too.
Jacquie’s voice was heard loud and clear: “This stone means a lot to us because it is about poverty. We grew up in poverty all our lives. We got married in a homeless hostel — and we are still homeless. The stone is about all the people who were struggling when they were growing up, and are still going through it. It’s nice to see that stone laid down here, and to appreciate and be grateful for what we have. Some people are much worse off than us. We want to be part of that stone for them, for the children especially.”
And then Christopher’s voice, equally strong and confident: “This stone is in the docks and it makes me think of my father and my brother and all the other men that used to work in the docks. My father worked very hard. His main dream was to see us out of the drugs. He wanted a different life for us, a good education, and better jobs. It didn’t happen the way he dreamt. This stone for me represents my father’s dream for us.”
It was poignant to see them talking side by side, very dignified, knowing that they still faced a struggle to have a roof over their heads, a struggle against drugs and for a future. Later on, they found themselves for a time in a shelter where they had more security and privacy. Despite everything, their lives remained very fragile.
Yet something had changed in the lives of Christopher and Jacquie. That day, they had experienced what it was like to be listened to, acknowledged, and recognised. They had given hope to others. All their lives, even in the most difficult moments, they were there for other people who were in an even worse plight than they were.
This day had given a lot of meaning to their struggle and a great hope that in fact things could change, if we got together, if others like them could talk and be heard.
We would like to end with the hope that Jacquie expressed that day: “When we get together around this stone, it gives us hope; the hope that things can change”.
This is our hope too.