Many of us use it so casually and freely, but the stigma created by the word "junkie" is powerful and use of the term should be socially unacceptable.
I have a good friend called Dan. He’s a student at UCD. And he has spent the past several years of his life doing his best to help the homeless of Dublin. Starting at Belvedere College, where he still helps out with their fantastic Christmas soup runs, he then moved onto university and the St Vincent de Paul society at UCD (UCDSVP), who organise four weekly soup runs around Dublin city centre. During the course of his time in Belvedere he formed a friendship with one particular woman, Sharon. They made a connection that grew in strength until it became a close bond - to the point where Sharon has invited Dan to attend her wedding.
Sharon happens to be homeless.
Dan went travelling over the summer and so hadn’t seen Sharon for several months on the September night when I happened to join him for a soup run. He slowly bent down and woke her up as she lay in a sleeping bag beside her husband, and as she realised who it was she smiled and they locked into a tight embrace. After a few minutes, myself and the others in the group moved on, leaving Dan chatting away to his friend, recounting tales of his travels and catching up on a summer spent apart.
Their friendship grew because from the very beginning Dan looked upon her not as a charity cause, but as a human being. As an equal person. And he didn’t allow himself to succumb to the vicious stigma, the powerful stereotype, that surrounds the word “junkie”.
All-Ireland winning Gaelic footballer Philly McMahon, whose brother John died of a heroin overdose in 2012, appeared on ‘Claire Byrne Live’ in October to argue for the legalisation of drugs. Whatever one thinks of that particular proposal, no fault could be found with McMahon’s other main point: that the use of the word “junkie” to describe another human being is “disgusting”. McMahon was referring to the stigmatisation of people who are addicted to drugs. But the word "junkie" has become a catch-all term to describe anyone who is homeless.
Labour Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin made headlines following the US Presidential election with an impassioned speech to the Seanad about the “monster” that is Donald Trump and the Irish government’s reaction to his election. But Ó Ríordáin made an equally affecting speech to a relatively small group of students last year as drugs minister, when speaking at an event during UCDSVP’s ‘Addiction Awareness Week’. He denounced the acceptance of the word “junkie” in public dialogue and made the point that the word should be as socially unacceptable as similarly derogatory terms referring to people of certain races or religions.
We live in a rapidly changing society where more and more is expected of us as members of that society. Tolerance for people of all backgrounds is a welcome feature of modern Ireland and we are growing up as part of a generation that, for the most part, simply does not accept inequality. What’s more, we fight against it. Within two days of Glen Hansard, Damien Dempsey and others taking over Apollo House on Tara Street as part of the ‘Home Sweet Home’ campaign to try and alleviate homelessness, over 1000 volunteers had signed up to help out.
But we can still do better. As long as we keep using the word “junkie” in ordinary discourse we are a long way from being perfect as a society.
“Junkie” is used to describe people without bothering to ask them why they are on the street. “Junkie” is used without asking someone their name or considering why they might have ended up on a certain path.
Upon stopping and talking to one of these “junkies” you will learn that they are acutely aware of how society perceives them, that they are therefore surprised when you seem interested in them as a person. If you choose to give them some change, you might notice how they frequently look to apologise to you for the trouble, reiterating that they only need the money for “a hostel” because they know what you assume they will spend it on.
Maybe you’re right to assume such things, maybe you’re not. But they are having to fight the stigma anyway, because at this stage they feel like everyone acts and thinks according to it.
Recently, Irish Rugby released a brilliant campaign video for the Rugby World Cup in 2023. It takes the viewer through Irish landscape, history, culture and sport and is guaranteed to foster a sense of national pride in any Irishman or Irishwoman who sees it.
Around forty-four seconds into the video comes a beautiful shot of Dublin’s Ha’Penny Bridge in early morning. Two silhouettes are visible close together on the Bridge, one sitting down and the other slowing down as if to stop and have a chat. Anyone who has ever walked across the Ha’Penny Bridge during daytime will know that the chances are that the person seated is homeless, that there is nearly always at least one person seated on the Bridge with cup in hand.
It may have been unintentional, but the makers of the video perfectly illustrate the gap between our ideal of ourselves and who we need to be. For alongside Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and the Irish women’s rugby team facing the Haka, in a video narrated by Liam Neeson and filled with stunning images of our country, there sits a person as beautiful and as worthwhile as any of us, as any of those images.
And as deserving of our unconditional, unflinching, open and warm respect.