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Object Poverty Street Display.jpg

Object Poverty

In 2016 we were exploring the reality of poverty.  We wanted to know what it looked like, felt like; we wanted to move beyond the statistics.


So we sent a 'questionnaire' out to people we knew.  A wide range of people were surveyed.  The survey comprised of one simple instruction: ‘Name three objects that you associate with poverty’.  These are straight-forward questions, but they are not easy to answer.  The question was sent to people known to SAOL.


By adopting this strategy, the survey lacked the rigour of randomised sampling but at that point in time this was simply an exercise aiming to generate discussion among SAOL participants.  Participants included the women and staff of SAOL, participants and staff of other community projects, friends, family and others including lecturers, teachers, legal practitioners, nurses, politicians, unemployed people and people using addiction services. All those surveyed were over 18 years of age.

A total of 230 responses were received from which a list of the top sixteen objects was produced. The answers included a range of objects: e.g., roll-up cigarettes; cardboard; sleeping bag; boots; coffee-cup.  They also included absent objects: e.g., no home; no food; no dinner (hot food); no money; unkempt; bad teeth.  One answer, ‘poor clothing’ was an object and not an object at the same time!  The challenge was then to ‘photograph’ the final set of 16 objects in order to create visual images. 

Ray, is one of the staff members in SAOL and while he is employed for other skills, he is also a professional photographer.  Working with a group of participants who were engaged in this project, Ray identified objects that most closely represented the selected objects which also closely captured something of the complexity of the story of poverty the object was to convey.

We created a poster and banner of all images together; and also created A1 sized images of each object as a poster in its own right.  The interpretations and reflections on these images can be found below.

We are incredibly grateful to all our funders for their supporting the work of SAOL but in this instance particular thanks is given to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. 

Object Poverty poscard.jpeg
Object Poverty Sleeping Bag.png


Sleeping Bag

I am the sleeping bag.

I represent the very visible face of homelessness – the rough sleepers. There are about 110 such people in Dublin each night.

The less visible face of homelessness are the 9891  sleeping in emergency accommodation. This includes all the hostels and all the B& Bs where men, women, children, students, are packed into rooms.

One such story from a  family of 4. They are Polish. Both parents work and their two young sons are in school – 6 days a week -  because they attend Polish school on Saturdays. They have been living in 1 room in a B & B for over 3 years. They have a microwave and a kettle. They share a bathroom with 6 other families. The boys play in the corridor, but quietly because their mother does not want them to  get into trouble. The older boy is starting to show signs that this way of life is damaging. He cries a lot, doesn’t talk much any more and is usually angry with his parents and brother.

The family has one small double bed and one single bed and whichever combination they try, nobody really gets a good nights sleep. They have a sleeping bag too.

Almost one in five homeless people are in employment, according to the latest update from Irish Census 2016.

The CSO also found that almost 1/3 of non irish people in Ireland are homeless (Irish Times, 2018)

(Please note that figures quoted are from 2018 and have changed significantly since this was written)



I am a pair of boots.

I don’t have a label.

These boots belonged to a woman who has been homeless for over 20 years. Her name wasn’t properly registered on the homeless list.

The woman spent a lot of her days during this 20 years walking about so needed thick boots.

To begin with she lived in a tent because she could not get her head around living in a hostel. When she lived in a tent she walked around for most of the day beacuse there was little else to do.

She moved to hostel accommodation when she got too tired of living in the tent. It wasn’t an easy move.

Being on the Free phone means you can only ring up after 2.00pm and even then you might not hear where you could get a bed until after 8.00. Bad days were when she only heard where there was a bed at 10.00 at night. That was a lot of walking about to do.

Some of the hostels put everybody out at 9.00 in the morning and they could only come back at 6.00. Even when she got pneumonia she was out walking the streets. Boots were her preferred footwear as they kept her slightly warmer.

Other hostels let you stay in all day but that is difficult too because you start to lose track of where the days are going and even when it is day or night – especially when there are no windows in the hostel dormitories and you can’t see the sky. It made her think she was losing her mind. You had to sleep with your boots in your bed too because otherwise they might be gone when you woke up.

Object Poverty Boots.jpg
Object Poverty Street Pill.jpg


Street Pill

I am a pill – an Upjohn 90 to be exact.

I represent addiction

I am both prescribed and un-prescribed, but either way I am easy to come by if you know how.

I am prescribed and taken to ward away ‘excessive anxiety’ .

 There are so many ways to get this anxiety.

You might have it because you have lived most of your adult life trying to get by with just enough to go around. That’s not enough food, not enough space, not enough kindness, not enough care, not enough health.

You might get this kind of anxiety if you have become caught in a relationship that is violent and abusive. You stay with your partner becuase you’re afraid to leave, but the pill makes it a little more bearable. It means you don’t quite feel the despair quite as intensely.

You might have this anxiety just because you find life a struggle. Going out is scary, bills to pay is scary, night time and the dark is scary, some of your neighbours are a bit scary – and you don’t quite know how to handle it all.  Taking a pill seemed like a good idea at some stage.


Empty Purse

I am an empty purse.

I represent a lack of money.

According to the National Anti-Poverty Strategy: “People are living in poverty if their income and resources (material, cultural and social) are so inadequate as to preclude them from having a standard of living that is regarded as acceptable by Irish society generally.”

Social Justice Ireland report that most weekly social assistance rates paid to single people are €30 below the poverty line. If your purse is empty you tend to worry about a lot more things for a lot more time. It doesn’t matter whether you are working or not*.

You worry about things like Christmas and birthdays and back to school and communions and the summer holidays and keeping the children occupied and winter and keeping warm. Because if you have an empty purse all these things are a cause for worry rather than celebration.

It’s hard to save when there’s nothing left at the end of the week. You can always borrow but that often doesn’t end well and is further cause for worry.

Too much head space goes into trying to figure out how to make things work. Trying to work out an impossible sum ‘how to save something from nothing’  makes you worn out – all the time.


*20% of adults in Ireland and living in poverty are in employment and/or education

Object Poverty Empty Purse.jpg
Object Poverty Uncut Key.jpg


Uncut Key

I am an uncut key.

This means I will not be opening any doors for anybody.

Not having a home makes life difficult

When you are homeless there seems to be an endless line of closed doors. You do have some choices though.

You can sleep rough and take your chances with the weather  and the streets.

You can go on the Freephone and take your chances with the hostels – single rooms, dormitories, night cafe floors, no-door rooms.

You can take your chances with the HAP scheme. There’s lots of closed doors here if you are poor and on benefits. Even if you manage to get access to or and secure a viewing on a suitable property, you are almost guaranteed that there will be many other people in the queue to view alongside you. And some of these people will have car keys and can get to see the property with relative ease, while you have to take a bus and try to get as close as possible so that you dont have to walk too far. And because you have run out of credit on your phone you possibly will get lost and give up on that days endeavour and so not even get to see the property anyway.  But even if you do see it and it suits and you leave your name and contact number with the landlord, you still have to hand him the HAP form to indicate that you will be needing to avail of this scheme because the rent is way too much to pay from €193 per week – all of that money  wouldn’t even cover the rent. And as you hand the landlord the form you guess that your name has gone to the bottom of the list and the car-key holder is in front of you again.

Final chance is with the local housing council – and for that chance you just have to sit it out until you think you can sit no more – and then maybe you will get lucky and the key may be cut.

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