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  • Writer's pictureDr. Paul D'Alton

How a corporation house saved me from life on wrong side of the tracks

When I was five years old we were living on the 'wrong side of the tracks' in a rented house in Rialto, in Dublin 8. Late one afternoon, our home burnt down and we were homeless.

Train tracks at dusk, surrounded by trees. Depiction of 'the wrong side of the tracks'.

If that had happened today, we would be forced to live in a bed and breakfast - or even in a car - and our family might never have recovered.

But we were lucky. We were housed by Dublin Corporation because in the 1970s the State saw the provision of social housing as its job. It understood that without the fundamentals of housing and social supports, its citizens simply would not survive.

But that caring as a society has become less apparent, as caring for the economy took over in recent years.

We are currently commemorating the landmark 100-year anniversary of the proclamation of the Irish Republic.

But this week, there are 5,715 people in emergency homeless accommodation; 1,830 of these are children.

This week, numerous distressed young children are still waiting for months to get the psychological help they need.

This evening, patients will die in busy and overcrowded hospital wards, their sons and daughters unable to find space or chairs to sit together around the bed where their parent lies.

These are everyday situations that are affected directly by the political choices we make.

The policy decisions we make have an absolutely direct impact on people's lives in this country.

I know this because I have been on the wrong side of the tracks several times in my own life and directly experienced the impact of policy and legislation.

And through my work over the years I have seen how people suffer without the policies, the services and the compassion they need.

I have been working at the coalface of the health and education sectors for 20 years as a psychologist, educator and equality campaigner.

My aim has always been a society where the most vulnerable are given equal opportunities, and people are cared for with dignity.

Growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in Dublin's south inner city, I have seen how the lack of access to education has crippled generations of people in disadvantaged communities.

I was the first person in my extended family to go to university. That opportunity should not be the exception, it should be available to everyone.

I was on the 'wrong side' of the tracks growing up gay in Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. Fortunately, Ireland is now a different place for gay people, but there are still many other inequalities to be tackled and overcome.

There is also an extensive body of research that confirms the relationship between social inequalities, general health and poor mental health.

Politicians have not delivered the society so many of us want.

And that is why I have decided to run as an Independent candidate in the forthcoming Seanad elections on the National University of Ireland panel.

I want to contribute to creating a just society in which all citizens are at the heart of policy-making.

I am running for the Seanad because our political choices can increase or reduce inequalities in our society - our political choices can transform lives.

Most of us realise that we live in a society and not just an economy. After the upheavals of recent years, we are asking ourselves what kind of society that should be.

This is not an abstract ideological process or a political auction house of competing bids.

It is lived out in very real everyday situations.

I want to see a society in which everyone - adults and children, families and single people - has the security of a home. A society that gives each child the opportunity to reach their potential regardless of their parents' income.

A society where teenagers struggling with anxiety or depression can get help without having to battle for it, where access to vital cancer services does not depend on your postcode and where the last months and days of life can be spent in dignity.

Lives on the wrong sides of the track can be transformed by the policies we adopt in health, housing and education.

My life on the wrong side of tracks was saved by government policy on social housing in the 1970s when our rented house in Rialto burned down.

My life was transformed by policies that supported people returning to education.

My life was further transformed by the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the result of the marriage equality referendum last year.

The detail of that legislation and the policies it reflects can make all the difference.

But legislation has to be backed up by resources - the choices each government makes on where the money goes.

As an Independent senator, I will fight hard to influence and to question those decisions.

I will do everything in my power to change our services, our legislation and the allocation of our resources in favour of equality and compassion in our society.

Social growth and economic growth are two sides of the same coin and a sustainable, flourishing economy can only be built on a flourishing community.

When you've lived on the wrong side of the tracks you know that policy matters - and policy can transform lives.

Paul D'Alton is head of the Department of Psycho-oncology at St Vincent's University Hospital, Dublin, and is an Independent candidate on the NUI Seanad panel

Originally published in The Irish Independent 19/04/16.


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