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Dublin: 4 °C Saturday 18 January, 2020
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'I am worried about the cold - it kills me': A night on duty with a Dublin homeless charity

TheJournal.ie spent an evening with an outreach team helping homeless people in the city centre.

The group of ICHH volunteers in Dublin city centre.
The group of ICHH volunteers in Dublin city centre.
Image: Orla Dwyer via TheJournal.ie

MIDNIGHT, BENEATH THE Christmas lights on Dublin’s Henry Street. 

On what’s traditionally the main shopping street on the northside of the city, scores of homeless people line shop doorways – many in sleeping bags and on top of cardboard mattresses.

TheJournal.ie recently spent an evening walking the streets of Dublin city at night with the outreach team at Inner City Helping Homeless (ICHH) – a charity that provides services to homeless people in Dublin.  

The group, led by campaigner-turned councillor Anthony Flynn, head out on supply runs every night of the week – split into three or four teams, who travel set routes around different areas of the city. 

Volunteers usually spend one night a week helping out with the charity. They arrive at the ICHH office on Amiens Street by around 10pm and prepare to head out wearing backpacks filled with warm clothes, scarves, underwear and socks.

One person in each team pulls a trolley with sandwiches, boiling water, chocolate, crisps, instant noodles and bottles of water.

The volunteers head out in groups of four or five and stop at each person they find sleeping rough to offer a helping hand.

A volunteers asks if the person has somewhere to stay and if they don’t, they’re added to the tally of rough sleepers.

Lisa, Adrienne, Peter, Maria and team leader Neil Shanahan head out to the route covering areas like Talbot Street, Henry Street and some of the northside quays.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie as we walk, Shanahan says he counted 72 people on this route about two months ago, the most he has seen in his three years as a volunteer. 

“By the end, we didn’t even have cups left. We had emptied the flasks completely.”

He adds: “It’s very hard to predict but I really don’t see [the homeless situation] getting any better.”

IMG_6850 Two group members getting bags ready before heading out for the night. Source: Orla Dwyer via TheJournal.ie

On this night, the group didn’t run out of cups – but the bag of sugar had been scraped clean.

Most people we meet ask for either chocolate or a cup of tea with at least one spoon of sugar. 

“Especially if they’re on heroin, sugar is a big thing for picking them back up… The worst I have seen is a girl who asked for 16 sugars in her tea,” says Shanahan. 

Over 10,500 people across the country are living in homelessness, according to the latest government figures. However, this does not include rough sleepers. It counts those living in emergency accommodation in hotels, B&Bs and family hubs. 

Many people sleeping rough in the city centre do so because they are reluctant to sleep overnight in an emergency hostel due to fears of violence, along with other reasons. 

Among those sleeping rough, there is also a significant rate of substance abuse. Studies showed the proportion of people who had become homeless primarily as a result of drug and/or alcohol addiction was just under 40% in 2013

Many of those sleeping rough in the city have incredibly complex underlying mental health issues.

According to the Irish director of services with homeless charity Depaul Dermot Murphy, the organisation has noticed a “growing drug problem” among homeless people who use their services. 

“The reality is we need to be providing more health interventions and giving people the platform to change their drug consumption,” Murphy said in a statement last month. 

Temperatures dropping 

The hot drinks were welcomed on this particular night as temperatures hovered just a few degrees above freezing. 

“What I worry about is the cold – that’s the thing that kills them. Rain never really killed anyone,” says Shanahan. 

Donated clothes and new pairs of socks and underwear are given out to people along the way. When it comes to socks, people generally look for white pairs. 

“What I’ve been told is that they ask for white socks because the thread doesn’t stick to their feet or discolour them as much,” explains Shanahan. 

We come across Peter sleeping outside a shop on Henry Street. He is propped up on some large sheets of cardboard and lying inside a sleeping bag. 

He’s been homeless for two months in Dublin, he says – but doesn’t want to chat for long. A volunteer hands him some tea and the group continues on the route. 

By 11.50pm, we have counted 15 men and 3 women – a low figure compared to most nights at this stage, the volunteers say. Other nights, there could often be as many as nine people around the Abbey Street Luas stop alone and up to 12 near the Ilac centre.  

IMG_6859 One of the volunteers Peter pulling along the trolley filled with supplies. Source: Orla Dwyer/TheJournal.ie

“I would think we need a long-term better solution to this – but it’s all wishful thinking,” Shanahan says of the housing crisis. 

“I’ll believe it when I see it.”

On the night we went out with ICCH, the homeless figures for October had not yet been released. They were eventually published on 3 December – Tuesday of this week – and showed a total of 10,514 homeless people across the country. 

That was an increase of 117 on September’s figures, which Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy said “was expected following the introduction of new emergency beds in the Dublin region recently”.

Anthony Flynn of ICCH said in the wake of the publication of the October homelessness figures that the situation is “completely out of control”.

The Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) has made 156 extra beds available for the past month until the end of December on a phased basis. 

Other plans for winter include increased staffing on outreach services by the Dublin Simon Community and the DRHE rough sleeper support team. There are also more emergency beds and support measures on hand in case of extreme weather events.  

Getting ready for Christmas 

The ICHH volunteers say they are also preparing for the continuing winter months, the charity’s busiest time of year. 

Says Shanahan: “Trying to judge how it’s going to be each night is impossible, so you’ve zero chance for a whole month.

The problem with the last couple of years, is that we haven’t had our worst weather in December, that’s been in February and March, which has been a real kick in the teeth. 

IMG_6865 The volunteers finishing up for the night on Amiens Street. Source: Orla Dwyer/TheJournal.ie

Wayne, who has been homeless for around six months, takes a few minutes to talk outside Store Street Garda Station. He has spent the past couple of hours wandering the streets and is heading into the station in search of warmth. 

Three other homeless men are inside – one wrapped in a sleeping bag huddled by the door, one staring out the window and a third lying near the desk. 

In order to get some shelter, Wayne tells us he spends his days travelling between counties like Dublin, Wexford and Galway on public transport. 

“I’ve been going around because I’ve no address anymore and I can’t get any money,” he says. 

“I’m on the trains and buses just to keep myself bloody warm.” he says, adding that he’s always treated kindly by transport workers. 

“I’ve so many friends – I know a lot of people working on the trains and everyone working on the buses because I’m always on them,” he says.

Asked how he’s feeling about the coming winter months he says: “I am worried about the cold. It kills me.”

As we head back towards the office at about 12.45am, we find a crowd of four of five people near Connolly Station. The team begin to distribute food.  

One of the volunteers Peter says they “rarely see people that young”, gesturing to the group of three who have just approached the team. They look no older than 16. 

Wrapping up

At the end of the night, Shanahan says it was unusually quiet. “Overall, it was good simply because there wasn’t a great deal of numbers.”

A total of 67 rough sleepers were counted in the three areas covered by the volunteers that night. 38 were on the route we covered.  

wrap up for the night The count sheet at the end of the night. Source: Orla Dwyer/TheJournal.ie

The official government rough sleeper count carried out two nights prior confirmed 92 people sleeping rough across the Dublin region. This compares to 152 this time last year. 

“By and large, people are so grateful to you when you meet them,” says Shanahan. “Some of the things they would say would nearly reduce you to tears.” 

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