Belfast Telegraph

At least Miley is helping the homeless. To my shame I just kept on walking

By Lindy McDowell

It would be a cynical soul surely who would suggest that Miley Cyrus having twerked herself free of the chrysalis of younger, sweeter alter ego Hannah Montana at last year's MTV video awards, this year opted to accessorise herself with a homeless youth to garner a few more headlines.

In her new incarnation as Miley Serious, she watched teary-eyed from the audience as Jesse from Oregon took to the podium to accept an award in her place and deliver a speech about the scourge of youth homelessness.

"I am accepting this award on behalf of the 1.6 million runaways and homeless youth in the United States who are starving and lost and scared for their lives," he said.

For the purposes of headline capture it helped enormously that Jesse is a photogenic 22-year-old with the longish blond hair and soulful eyes of one of those guys you see draped in the backdrop of perfume ads. Jesse, it would be safe to bet, is not destined to remain long amid the ranks of the starving and the lost.

And fair play to Miley if she has helped at least one floundering soul. Setting aside cynicism about her change from last year's nude silicone underwear look to this year's see-through social conscience, she has undoubtedly raised the issue of youth homelessness in America.

But what about here?

Bizarrely the debate about homelessness is a seasonal thing in Northern Ireland. It's one of those issues that traditionally make the headlines in the run-up to Christmas. It's colder then. We're all, arguably, feeling that bit more charitable. The festive season brings out our inner Miley.

But homelessness is an all year round crisis. And you really don't have to be a statistician to see the evidence on the streets that it's getting worse.

I can't ever remember seeing so many young people – almost invariably young men – out on the streets.

They're the constant, shadowy backdrop to city life, slumped in doorways, huddled on the steps behind the railings of a boarded-up bank or congregating on the flower potted pavement just opposite one of the city's smartest hotels.

On Sunday afternoon I'm down the town in a bar with friends chatting in a happy bubble near the entrance. A young man comes hesitantly through the door. He's got a rucksack on his back and something bunched up in his arms.

He looks startled. Maybe he thought this was a vacant doorway where he could kip down.

He reverses out like a lorry from a cul de sac. That's what made me notice him.

His slow, timid reversal. The bunched up thing in his arms was a sleeping bag.

To my shame I just sat there. I should have run after him and given him something. (And I sneer at Miley Cyrus.)

But is that enough?

Afew weeks ago, another lad approached me in the city centre. Glazed eyes, scabs on his face. Dirt all over him. He had a carrier bag slung nonchalantly over one shoulder. A bag for life. And his entire life appeared to be in it. He came at me hand outstretched, mumbling. Again I did nothing. I walked past him.

I heard him behind me plead with someone else. I went back. Gave him something. But how little. And how much good would it do? Afterwards I wished I'd said something to him, not necessarily meaningful but a bit more kindly than what I did say. "Here."

There are countless reasons why people end up on the streets. We all know that. Addiction, mental illness, cruel fortune. It could be any one of us. Whatever the motivation behind Miley's MTV statement, you cannot fault her message about homelessness.

How we change things, God knows. But we need to acknowledge it's getting worse, that the young are increasingly prone and that we really do have to do something.

We have to stop, all of us, just walking on by the crisis huddled quietly in the doorways of our own streets.

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