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Dublin: 10 °C Tuesday 22 October, 2019
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'This is home for people now' - A look inside Apollo House

Occupiers say they aren’t planning on leaving on 11 January.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

ON THREE COUCHES, three people settle in to watch American Pie on DVD. Behind them, a group plays winner-stays-on pool.

In the next room, a group of people sit around bowls of stew discussing Sunday’s Christmas dinner.

It could really be a scene from anywhere. Except that it’s taking place in NAMA-controlled office block in the middle of Dublin city. A building that is being occupied by volunteers and used to house 38 homeless people – all of whom celebrated Christmas here instead of on the streets.

The occupation is a coalition of housing volunteers, but the brainchild of Quentin Sheridan – himself living in homeless accommodation – that started, as many things in this age do, with a Facebook post.

I used to walk past the old motor tax office behind the Four Courts a couple of days a week. I’d bring sandwiches from my hostel to a couple who used to sleep under the overhang there.

“The girl was pregnant, but I’d bring what I could the days I was down there. Then one day I saw that the council had fenced off the overhang and nobody could sleep there. I thought ‘is this the country we want to live in?’”

IMAG1206 The men's dormitory. Source: Paul Hosford/TheJournal.ie

An impassioned Facebook post was followed by phone calls from friends, then celebrities. Five weeks later, they had access to Apollo House. Sheridan is reluctant to say just how the occupiers ended up inside the Poolbeg Street building, but tells TheJournal.ie that it came through “a friend of a friend”.

Inside

IMAG1207 The food donations. Source: Paul Hosford/TheJournal.ie

Since the occupation began on 16 December, organisers have been reticent to share photos from inside or let media beyond the now-iconic parking ramp.

While that has frustrated some commenters – to the point that a bizarre conspiracy theory that there were, in fact, no homeless people inside grew legs – it is for one very good reason: The residents of Apollo House are people, not museum exhibits to be gawked at and prodded. As much as Apollo House has become a lightning rod for homelessness, the 38 residents there tonight want and are entitled to their privacy.

That is why TheJournal.ie is allowed photograph certain parts of the facility, but not others during our time inside. In fact, the rules on photos are enforced across the board – for residents and visitors.

IMAG1212 The clothes donations in Apollo House. Source: TheJournal.ie

Indeed, rules on drug and alcohol use, curfew and behaviour are posted around the building, though only one person has been asked to leave thus far and that was due to mental health issues. Volunteers walk around in hi-vis jackets, team leaders in blue and medical personnel in green. From the moment they enter the building, files are kept on all residents, money is scrupulously accounted for and contact is maintained with the receiver of the building and the authorities. Everything, bar owning the building, appears to be done by the book.

While the idea of occupation might bring to mind Spartan surroundings and squalid conditions, Apollo House is almost a community in itself.

IMAG1210 Source: Paul Hosford/TheJournal.ie

Upon walking in, volunteers sign visitors and residents in outside a 12-bed room used as a men’s dorm. Sheridan says this room is used to house people for “one or two nights” while their needs are assessed.

Along the corridor is a kitchen, kitted out by a local chef who also helps with the cooking. In fact, 70 people had Christmas dinner here thanks to his efforts.

Then there’s a common area, where people can watch TV or play pool. Behind that is a medical room, where homeless people who haven’t seen a doctor in up to a decade can be treated.

IMAG1205 Apollo House's medical team. Source: Paul Hosford/TheJournal.ie

Inside is Jim Leonard, an advanced paramedic. He is joined by a doctor and an EMT. They are today’s volunteers.

“We are dealing with people who have addiction problems, but some are just very sick because they’ve been sleeping in doorways,” Leonard says.

Sheridan concurs and says that there are people who have been homeless for 12 or 13 years and people who are newly homeless.

“A lot of them are saying that this is the first time they’ve felt welcome or felt at home,” Sheridan says.

“This is home for people now.”

Danger and donations

IMAG1208 Sheridan wants to turn this area into more bedrooms.

As much as they are doing things by the book, the occupiers are keenly aware that the first sign of trouble will see public goodwill evaporate for them.

To that end, they try to intervene in disputes before they arise.

“There were some teething problems in the first couple of days,” says Sheridan.

“But things are starting to smooth out now.

We try to prevent [bad things] happening. If a resident acts up, we get a key worker or someone who has a rapport with them to sit down with them.

Sheridan’s take on the situation is that many rough sleepers don’t fear losing a spot on a mat in a hostel, but Apollo House’s comforts make it a place that many want to stay in. Yes, Sheridan accepts, Simon Coveney was right when he said there were empty beds in Dublin earlier this week, but the issue is the type of bed.

“A mat on a floor isn’t a home. It’s not even a bed.”

There have been “one or two” small thefts, Sheridan says. He adds that if a resident is seen on CCTV committing a robbery, they are asked to leave.

And, make no mistake, it is a comfortable place. Bedrooms are furnished with beds donated by Mattress Mick, they are private and many have televisions. Residents have 24-hour access to washing facilities, a washing machine and dryer. Upstairs from the main floor are more bedrooms, space for more rooms and donations banks.

Since they began, the volunteers have taken in thousands in cash donations and a massive amount of clothes and food. Sheridan says what’s there should last months and anything perishable that’s not being used goes to soup runs.

Those who can’t be housed overnight – last week’s High Court case capped occupancy at 40 – are given food and clothing.

Long-term

IMAG1211 Source: Paul Hosford/TheJournal.ie

It’s probably a good time to mention that court case. Last week the High Court ruled the occupiers had to leave by 11 January.

Why, then, are they discussing educational units, installing showers and talking about getting permission to build more rooms?

“We’re not planning on leaving. Definitely not. We’re planning on fighting it through the court. If not, we’ll appeal the ruling.

“We haven’t put showers in after the court case for nothing. We’re going to keep fighting. These are NAMA buildings, they belong to the people. We’re asking people to lobby TDs, senators, Enda Kenny to let them know you’re not happy with homelessness.

If we could become the first country in the world to eradicate homelessness, what an achievement that would be.

Leonard interjects, saying that 40 people were here on Christmas Day that would have been in doorways otherwise.

He tells a story of a resident who came in with acute alcohol withdrawal two days before Christmas. After assessment and a call to his family, he was able to go home for Christmas dinner “dressed like an executive” and is now in a detox facility.

Two other residents, he says, have got jobs since entering the house. Surprising results, perhaps, but a lot has surprised Sheridan.

“I’ve been shocked by what’s been donated.

But it’s made me proud to be Irish.

Additional reporting by Cormac Fitzgerald.

Read: Group behind Apollo House occupation raises €160,000 from public donations

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