Belfast Telegraph

Where was goodwill for homeless Robert?

By Lindy McDowell

The name Robert Lewandowski may not trip easily off the tongue. But as this New Year begins we should be giving some thought to Robert. And how he spent the season of goodwill in Northern Ireland.

Originally from Poland, Robert (he shares his name with a famous Polish footballer) has been living in Belfast for some time. He previously had a job and a flat but, like many others, lost both in the recession.

Homeless, he'd been eking out a bleak existence in what's described as the 'shared areas' of apartment blocks.

Then one December day Robert spotted an open door in a flat with a party in full swing. He went in. Unnoticed he stole a set of keys.

When the occupant left for the holidays he sneaked back in.

Temperatures outside by now had dipped to -11 degrees. Most of us wouldn't have left a dog outside in that weather.

Robert spent Christmas in the flat. He cooked some food he'd brought with him. He switched on the telly. But he touched nothing else belonging to the owner. He cleaned up after himself. He was apparently planning to leave before she returned.

Unfortunately for him, the woman and her boyfriend returned sooner than he expected. Hearing the television they called the police. Robert made no attempt to escape. He confessed what he'd been doing. He was arrested and taken to court.

Significantly both the occupant and the police were sympathetic to his plight. The court was told this.

So was it swayed by this tragic story of the desperation of a homeless man at Christmas?

Was it hell! Robert Lewandowski got six months. The sort of tariff usually reserved for people who sexually assault or crack open skulls.

And yes, of course, he shouldn't have stolen the key. He shouldn't have broken in.

But it was Christmas. Temperatures had plummeted to killer levels. He wasn't there to rob or do harm. Surely mitigating circumstances.

Maybe the court took into account factors to which we are not privy. (Court cases are often more complex than court reports suggest.)

But six months still seems wildly excessive.

Then again should we really be all that shocked by Robert's sentence given how we treat other street people?

They're everywhere these days. 'selling' the Big Issue outside shops or at road junctions. Lying on city streets with an outstretched Starbucks cup appealing for alms.

They have become as much part of street furniture in our cities and towns as the municipal flower pots. They are everywhere. And they are invisible.

Not all of these people are homeless. But what sort of lifestyle do you finance from begging?

If you are to believe urban myth, come nightfall they change into Prada and slip into their Merc to count impressive profits.

But seriously ... consider how little we truly do know about these people's lives.

Are we prolonging their time on the streets if we do give them money? Is there a gang-master ripping them off at the end of their day's graft?

And it is undoubtedly miserable graft.

Given a choice between a production line in a warm factory and 12 hours outside Tesco in wind and rain and icy sneer, I know what I'd choose.

Surely to God, in 2011 somebody, somewhere, in authority can do something to help improve these people's lives?

This isn't about immigration or migrants or convoluted right-on concepts on racism.

As in the case of Robert Lewandowski, it's about common humanity.

Or have we also locked that one up - and thrown away the key?

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