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Dublin: 6 °C Thursday 22 February, 2018
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'My father used to beat me and my mother up for fun': A night on the streets with Dublin's rough sleepers

We went out with an outreach team to see what a night is like on the streets of Dublin.

MICHAEL SITS ON O’Connell Bridge with a paper cup in his hand.

It’s midnight. Taxis and cars drive by; people pass him dressed up for the night. Some throw coins into his cup.

When our outreach team reaches him, Michael smiles. He takes a cup of tea and talks about his night. I ask him if he minds telling me a bit about his life.

“I’m sitting here the past 14 years,” Michael tells me.

“I’m homeless since I’m 11. I’m 34 now… I ran away from a foster home when I was 11 and they never found me.”

Michael has spent most of his life living on the streets of Dublin. He avoids hostels as he has had trouble in them before and doesn’t think he’s safe there.

He says that he used to have serious addiction issues, but that he doesn’t drink or take drugs anymore.

“I got away from drugs because I nearly lost both my legs over it. I had seven operations in each leg,” he says.

“I was in the hospital for a year and four months.

“I says when I get out, I wonder will things be any better? I got out and things were worse. Things were just as bad now as they were back then.

It’s just the way the place is going. There’s too many on the streets.

Homelessness

Michael is right in his assessment – homelessness in Ireland is getting worse.

Latest figures show that in April there were 3,337 homeless adults living in emergency accommodation in Dublin alone.

On the night I join the volunteer-led Inner City Helping Homeless on their outreach run, the organisation says it encounters 193 homeless people on the streets of Dublin – a new record high for the group’s count.

The official rough sleeper count conducted by the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive (DRHE) takes place twice-yearly (in spring and winter). The latest official spring count found 138 people sleeping rough in Dublin – a new spring record.

Rough sleepers are those homeless that spend the night out on the streets.

It was in winter 2014 that the highest ever number of rough sleepers was officially counted in Dublin – with 168. Not long after, a homeless man – Jonathan Corrie – died near Dáil Éireann, and there was public uproar.

Candlelight vigils were held, political promises were made. Then-Environment Minister Alan Kelly convened a homeless summit with all stakeholders invited to the table.

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There were commitments of beds for all homeless people; vows that the problem would be addressed. There was an impression among people that this was a turning point, that the situation would be improved from here on out.

Then Christmas passed, people moved on; homelessness continued to get worse.

It was the same last Christmas, when a group of activists took over Apollo House to use as accommodation for homeless people. There was a palpable public outrage and a feeling that this was a tipping point. Then the season again passed and the public attention moved on.

90438256_90438256 Home Sweet Home campaigners outside Apollo House in January. Source: SAM BOAL/RollingNews.ie

But those working in homelessness services continue to fight the problem throughout the year. The dedicated volunteers continue to give their time. And although the rate of people entering homelessness has slowed down over the past year, the numbers continue to get worse.

Out for the night

When public attention shifts away, the problem of homelessness doesn’t disappear.

Last week, 12 homeless families were told to present to Garda stations as there was no place else to house them. ICHH director Anthony Flynn said at the time that it was the worst week he had ever experienced in his time working with the homeless.

I join a team of four ICHH volunteers on Wednesday night. We cover the north side of the city: from Amiens Street, down Talbot and Henry Streets, onto Wolfe Tone Street. Then we head up the Quays and onto O’Connell Street before circling back to Talbot and finishing back at Amiens Street.

It’s 11pm when we first leave ICHH offices, laden down with canisters of hot water, sandwiches, tea, coffee, soup, pot noodles, porridge, some clothes, sanitary packs and other supplies.

ICHH3 ICHH volunteers make their way down Talbot Street Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

The night is mild, almost warm

Homeless people sleep huddled in the doorways of shops; they sit beneath storefronts and against walls. They are down alleyways, along the boardwalk and on bridges. They are alone, they are with friends. There are single people and couples; they are Irish and foreign. The vast majority tell us they have no place else to go.

Edward lies in the doorway of the ILAC Centre on Henry Street. He is 66 years old and says he has been homeless for about 18 months.

“I was staying in a flat up in Fairview, and the water charge I just wouldn’t pay it,” Edward tells me.

“I told the landlord I wasn’t doing it. Rather than being arguing every week over it I just gave my notice into the flat to leave.

It was a nice flat too, as well. And that’s the reason why I am the way I am today and that’s it.

Like Michael, Edward says he refuses to go into hostels as he doesn’t feel safe there.

“I’m not going into those places,” he says.

That’s the one things I’m asked every night of the week. I’m not going into those places I don’t like them.

On the streets

Nearby, Paul* cycles up to us and asks for a glass of milk (for heartburn) and two cups of soup. He asks us for a cigarette, which no one has. He walks over to a couple lying behind a makeshift partition of cardboard in the doorway of Dunnes Stores and talks to them.

Paul then looks in a bin and mutters distractedly.

He mentions something about “foreigners” stealing his shoes. Paul is agitated, but friendly. We leave him staring into the bin.

We meet him again later beneath a shopfront on Mary Street. He is in a sleeping bag here and appears calmer. Paul says he doesn’t feel like talking about his life right now.

He tells me he’d like to talk at some other point – about drugs and homelessness; to give a warning to kids and people in the future, but right now he just wants to get some rest.

We leave him to sleep and continue on our way.

The “foreigners” Paul was referring to are a group of about seven Romanian men sitting together on cardboard outside Arnotts. Some combination of this group (at one point reportedly with as many as 40 people) have been sleeping here for over two months.

It’s unclear why they came to Ireland. They speak very little English, but are cordial and easy going. They take cups of tea and ask for clothes – jeans and runners.

As our team leader – Maria – attempts to get orders off the men, another Irish man walks up to us. He is tired, and sits on the sandwich cooler to rest. He takes a cup of tea and a sanitary kit, rests on the cooler without saying much, and then continues down Henry Street and into the night.

Someone to talk to

ICHH was founded by locals of Dublin’s north inner city in 2013 as a response to Dublin’s growing homelessness crisis. It is still awaiting confirmation from the Charities Regulatory Authority to become an official charity, but is allowed to operate as a charity while its application is pending.

About 24 volunteers go out every weekday night in four separate teams to provide assistance to homeless people. Teams cover the north and south inner cities on foot, while an outreach van covers the wider Dublin area (the outreach van also operates on weekends).

ICHH are not the only organisation to perform this service. As homelessness has gotten worse, a large number of grassroots community groups have sprung up as a response.

On any night in Dublin, there could be several organisations providing food and support to people in need. Many of the homeless people we come across already have sandwiches and supplies from previous outreach teams.

Outreach teams function as a stop-gap, emergency measure – working to alleviate the symptoms of a chronic housing shortage and growing homeless crisis. Established charities like Focus Ireland and the Peter McVerry Trust work to addressing and ending the actual problem.

ICHH4 Volunteers assist a man on Henry Street. Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

Our team leader Maria says that ICHH is the last team on the streets, and so the final chance for people to get a cup of tea or food before the end of the night.

We walk through the streets with supplies, encountering a fair few people who already have food. Some people have questioned in the past whether all these outreach groups are really necessary, if they are actually helping.

However, the vast majority of people we meet seem happy to see us. They gratefully accept a cup of tea, or soup and a sandwich, and are happy to have a chat.

For many people on the streets, outreach teams function as a point of contact with the world; a person to talk to and listen to them.

Tony Gill – a homeless poet who lived in Dublin until his death in 2004 – wrote about the loneliness a life on the streets can bring in his short poem, Today:

Today I spoke to no one,
And nobody spoke to me.
Am I dead?

This sense of isolation becomes more acute as people spend longer without a home and become disconnected from wider society. The longer someone spends on the streets, the more entrenched they become and the more difficult it is to bring them back to society.

The opportunity to speak and vent to a listening ear can mean a lot to people.

It is like that with Michael, who I speak to on O’Connell Bridge. Or with Patrick*, who we meet on Abbey Street. He talks about 10 minutes about being barred from a hostel for some unknown reason.

ICHH6 Patrick speaks to volunteers on Abbey Street. Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

“I’ve been calling the free phone every day and I’ve only gotten a bed one night in weeks,” he says.

Patrick is happy to vent to us. He talks about the struggle he is enduring on the streets and the weight he has lost. As we prepare to leave, he asks everyone in the group their names.

“What’s all your names?” he asks.

“Maria”, “Ailbhe”, “Paul”, “Gary”, “Cormac”.

“Patrick”, he says pointing to himself and smiles, before walking off down Abbey Street.

Night’s end 

We meet others along the way. A man in a doorway looking for a fresh pair of socks. A couple sleeping at the Dance Lab on Foley Street. Another man in a sleeping bag down a lane.

In total, our team leader counts 46 people along our route. Although the profile of homeless people has changed drastically over the past number of years – with more and more families and young children presenting – the people we meet on Wednesday mostly fit the profile of the traditional homeless rough sleepers.

They are almost all men (we count just seven women on our route), aged in their 20s to 50s. Some appear to have alcohol or substance abuse issues, while others seem to just have no place else to go.

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As we walk back down Talbot Street near to the end of the night, we encounter three men in a doorway. They ask for tea, and one of them – John – starts to tell me about his life.

He’s been homeless for four months now.

“I was working and my work dried up. A painter-decorator,” says John.

“My mother died in January of this year, my father died in February of this year. My father died of a sudden heart attack and my mother suffered from cancer for two years.

She was my rock.

John talks about how his father used to beat him and his mother from when he was a very young age.

My mother was getting beat up because my father was an alcoholic. But that’s no excuse, he used to beat us up for fun.

As we talk, a man who had been standing unsteadily nearby falls to the ground suddenly. John goes to help him, and the man clutches at his hands, thinking he is being robbed.

Our final stop is an internet café near the top of Talbot Street. The café charges people €10 to allow them to stay inside overnight and use the computers. It’s relatively warm and provides people with some shelter. The volunteers say that it is usually full of people.

We give out the remaining cups and food, and make our way back to the offices on Amiens street. We meet one more couple along the way.

The team hands over some of the last food supplies – some cake and porridge for the morning.

“Have you a place to stay?,” I ask the woman.

“Yeah. We’ve a B&B just up the road,” she says.

We’re one of the lucky ones.

*Some people’s names have been changed in order to protect their identities

Read: ‘Families shouldn’t be living in hotels, but to move them into a disused warehouse?’

Read: FactCheck: Are there more homeless people in Ireland now than at any time since the Famine?

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About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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