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Dublin: 13°C Monday 27 September 2021

Homeless shelter crisis: "It's not nice saying 'there are no beds'"

We visit Cork Simon’s emergency shelter to find out about life inside there.

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IF YOU’VE NEVER been to an emergency homeless shelter, it’s hard to know what to expect.

And when you’re privileged enough to have a roof over your head, money in your pocket, a supportive family, and employment, you might not spend time thinking about what it must be like to need the services of such a shelter.

Welcome to Cork Simon

Cork Simon‘s 24-hour emergency shelter for the homeless is down a quiet, non-nondescript laneway in Cork’s city centre.

Just a few steps away is a four-star hotel. Yet the gap between the life of the guests who stay in these two buildings, so close to each other, couldn’t be wider.

But for a twist of fate, or a change in circumstances, they could be staying in a different bed.

Inside the shelter

When I open the door tomorrow morning, I don’t know what people are going to present, but I deal with them as they present. You just deal with it. – Frank Horgan, staff member

There’s a huge team of volunteers and staff who work at Cork Simon’s shelter. They have CCTV cameras outside the front door, and on the day TheJournal.ie visits, they buzz us in after a minor issue with a man who’s drunk and belligerent, but wants a sandwich. He doesn’t get the sandwich.

Inside, it’s quiet, although the staff room is energetic. The building has two floors of rooms that accommodate males and females – there’s a female-only corridor, and there are some single and some shared bedrooms.

There’s a TV room, dining room, and day care centre next door, which also houses the soup run in the evening time.

How the shelter works

fv5765 Source: ©Fran Veale

People who have a room at the shelter can come and go, but are expected to be back by 11pm. If they aren’t, their bed can be given to another person.

The shelter is full every night. There simply aren’t enough beds to cater for the amount of homeless people in Cork.

That’s despite the fact there’s also St Vincent’s emergency shelter for men, Edel House for women and families, Cuanlee, and Threshold services.

Across a year, Cork Simon would have close to 500 people using its emergency shelter.

Inside, service users (and day visitors) can avail of the day centre, a GP, a psychiatric nurse, an addiction counsellor, and a psychologist, among the medical staff. People are also encouraged to take part in training and education.

There’s a focus on harm reduction, rather than expecting people to give up drink or drugs.

There are signs around the building advising on safe drug use, and you can also find sharps boxes for needles. The main concern is that users aren’t hiding their drug use.

Three or four years ago, it was mostly alcohol addiction they encountered at the shelter. Now, drugs are a huge issue, particularly as the service users are getting younger.

“Why are you asking me a question?”

Once inside, we go first to the dining room, where a staff member has been doling out food. A young man with fair hair is leaning over his plate, his nose hovering a couple of inches above the potatoes and meat. His eyes are almost closed.

Next to him sits an older man, swathed in a huge dark jacket. His eyes, perched on a small, bearded face, peep out from below a large wooly hat. He’s irked when we pass by. “How are ya?” He’s asked.

“Why are you asking me a question?” he counters, drawing out each word slowly.

Paul Sheehan, Cork Simon’s communications manager, is polite and able to turn the situation into a humorous one, joking with the man.

He doesn’t treat him like there’s something wrong with him, or that he’s a problem to be solved. He treats him with respect.

That’s something we see with all of the staff we meet at the shelter.

Outside the canteen, there’s a courtyard. The windows of the bedrooms face out here. You can’t quite see in, but the window sills hint at the various personalities of their occupiers – the posters, open curtains, closed curtains, books, empty plastic bottles.

fv9037 Source: ©Fran Veale

On our way out of the kitchen, a young woman, probably in her early 20s, gets annoyed that we say ‘hi’ to her. “I don’t even know them!” she shouts after us.

Working at the shelter

Frank Horgan is on Simon’s outreach team, which works specifically with rough sleepers and people at risk of homelessness.

When people come in, they do an initial assessment with them. “They would be prioritised [for a bed] based on need and vulnerability,” he explains. People are also referred to the city council’s homeless person’s unit.

“We’re turning 10 to 12 people away a day for beds,” Horgan tells me. ”The reality most of the time is we don’t have beds.”

If the shelter is full, they send people to other hostels, like St Vincent’s.

People pay €55 weekly rent to stay at the shelter. This teaches the value of money and prepares them for private rented accommodation.

Staff often sit down and work on budget plans with service users, and communicate with social welfare for them.

Upstairs, we chat to staff Eleanor Kiely, head of Homeless Emergency Support Services, and key worker Chrissie Conway.

“We’re lower threshold here,” explains Kiely. “We do deal with the more challenging [people].”

fv9271 Source: ©Fran Veale

The oldest person there is in their mid-sixties. Conway says the younger teens out of care arrive with “no skills” to take care of themselves.

Kiely adds that she’s concerned also with older homeless people, who may have medical issues and addiction issues, and so need accommodation more suitable than an emergency shelter. But nursing homes won’t take them in, so they have no choice but to stay.

“You want them to participate in everything that you want them to do,” says Kiely of the people living at the shelter.

Motivation can be “very low” among homeless people, she explains. “Their self esteem is just desperate. They just think the worst of themselves,” says Kiely.

“I’m trying to make small changes for them, realistic changes, but it’s a huge piece of work. It’s very difficult. It’s mental health, it’s addiction,” adds Conway.

They know one family where the mother and daughter both have children in care, and have both experienced sexual violence and addiction issues.

They worry when they see families like this, where homelessness is something experienced through the generations, says Kiely.

Dealing with aggression

How do they deal with aggression, especially considering they don’t have any security staff?

“It’s something that I’ve learned to do and its about your approach to situations and how – without feeding into their aggression – it’s how you talk to somebody and just calming them and [giving them] a cup of tea [or] a cigarette,” says Conway.

It comes with experience in here as well. You can spot something or somebody just about to kick off. It’s just about letting somebody know, your colleagues. It’s about supporting yourself but making everyone else aware.

“Staff are well trained to calm people down,” says Kiely.

Picture 009 Source: ©Fran Veale

Kenny’s story

Kenny’s 29 and has been at the shelter a few weeks. He is sharing a room, but he’d prefer one of his own. He’s from Mahon in Cork. “I went to Coolmine [a residential treatment centre for people with addiction issues],” he says, while relaxing on the couch in the TV room.

“I started going around with the wrong people.”

He slept rough in Dublin and Cork. He’s glad to be in the centre “while I get back on my feet”, and wants his own place.

“I know what to do, I just have to go and do it,” he tells us, adding that he needs to the support of a shelter like this.

He went fishing the previous week with other service users. “It was great craic – we caught loads.”

Asked about the future, he tells us: “I’d like to live outside the city. Way out.”

What would he like to tell people about homelessness? “That it’s not the end of the line, you can bounce back,” he says, a hopeful note in his voice.

CMK 14032013 Sandra's Story Picture: Clare Keogh Source: Clare Keogh

Complex issues and caring for young people

The people at Cork Simon can have “very complex issues” – such as addiction, family break-up, losing a house, mental health issues, time in prison, or time in psychiatric care, says Horgan.

Under-21s can’t be referred to St Vincent’s, so they look after them at Simon as best they can.

When you have a young person outside a shelter, the staff are aware they are vulnerable and will bring him in for his own safety. They may not have addiction issues but you can see looking at them they are looking over their shoulders.

Some of the young people they see have come out of care. This is something that Eleanor Kiely and Chrissie Conway also bring up – the lack of pathways for children aftercare.

“When someone comes out of care, it’s frightening to see where there’s nowhere to go,” emphasises Horgan.

He sometimes sees “terrified” young people arrive at the shelter’s door. Though at 18 the State treats them as adults, some 18-year-olds are mature, and some very immature, he says.

Some may have been in care all their lives. Their experiences may be horrific. Some may come from lock-in units.

Sometimes the teens sleep in the rec room so that they are not out on the streets.

Building relationships

CMK 14032013 Sandra's Story Picture: Clare Keogh Source: Clare Keogh

The staff try to build relationships with people, but it’s not always easy. Horgan explains:

They are convinced there are beds inside and you don’t want to give them. I understand the behaviour – you have to separate behaviour from the person. You have to see the person from where they are coming from as well. It’s not nice for us saying ‘sorry, there are no beds’.

The age profile is getting lower – they have a few people between 18 and 20 – and there is an increase in females, said Horgan. IV drug users are banned from Edel House, which is why some women end up in Cork Simon.

“A lot seem to be starting on gear,” says Horgan of drug users. “They’re bypassing all the illicit drugs and going straight to heroin.”

“I know people who come here and never used and ended up using because they are around it,” he adds. “They are desperate and lonely.”

IMG_9352 Training with Cork Simon Source: Cork Simon

Young people that come to the services, particularly males, do because there is nowhere else for them.

The lack of available property at the moment is something Horgan says has a knock-on effect on the homeless.

In addition, he doesn’t believe the rent allowance is enough to help young people find a home.

It is frightening when I think about young people who do present. They are going to get €100 [rent allowance]. People around 22 get €144. Even someone on €144, putting them into a flat, the odds are against them straight away.

He believes there should be something there for teens when they leave State care – where they can be assigned to a house, helped with education and skills – besides coming into emergency accommodation and “just left there”.

Horgan is training as an addiction counsellor, and says that self care is important in their jobs – the burnout rate is high. They have to make sure they are functioning well, so that they can help the people who need help.

Otherwise, things don’t work as well as they could, and, says Horgan, explaining that in that case, only one person loses out: the homeless person.

Simon has recently launched its Stand and Deliver campaign, urging people to sign a letter to Government on the housing issue.

Source: simoncommunity/YouTube

Find out more about Cork Simon on the official website. Are you homeless and in Cork? Here is a guide to the services available to you.

Pic: Andrew Bennett via Flickr/Creative Commons

Read: Catch up with all the rest of our Homeless Ireland series here>

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