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Dublin: 10°C Tuesday 18 May 2021

Column: I was homeless for months, because I couldn’t prove I was Irish

Cork man Paul Casey returned from abroad – only to be left homeless as he was unable to prove his Irishness. Here he describes his months on the streets.

Paul Casey

Poet Paul Casey came back from South Africa to Ireland in 2005, only to find himself having to prove he was Irish – that Ireland was his ‘centre of interest’. Unable to get a job or receive benefits, he was left homeless and sleeping rough on the streets of Dublin. Here he describes his experiences.

THIS IS NOT a sob story. For a poet-filmmaker, it was just not the best time to come home, during the height of the so-called boom. I had long planned to return for good in 2005, and to take part in the Capital of Culture celebrations in my home city, by the Lee. I had finished my lecturing contract at the Nelson Mandela University in South Africa, and at thirty-six knew that having roamed back and forth for most of my life, it was time to finally take root.

There had only ever been one place in the world where that could happen. But when I found myself both jobless and homeless, I was met with a mountain of badly implemented legislation. The Habitual Residency Condition (HRC) had been introduced into law since I had left in 1999, and as I was getting no response to the hundreds of job applications, I was left having to turn to welfare assistance to get a leg-up. Even ‘menial’ work, which as an artist I have never had any issue with, was all tied up with cheap labour from the east, and I had no base from which to pursue work more appropriate to my qualifications.

In early June of ’05, I was informed that I could not prove that Ireland was my ‘centre of interest’. ‘Come back to us in two years’ was the general response, or ‘Go down to your family in Cork and stay with them’. But leaning on family was never an option, and I could not fight my situation outside of the capital. I would only be Irish again and have my Irish rights, once I was back in the country for two years, and this I refused to accept.

Being denied ignited a need for justice, and my curiosity for poetic adventure insisted that I not turn from it. I was still delighted to be home, even if it meant being refused access to the night bus, relying on Asylum Seekers assistance (for as long as it lasted), on soup runs and homeless hostels (until they too denied me). I did manage to conduct an eight-week-long scriptwriting workshop at Filmbase in Temple Bar, while sleeping in doorways and on park benches, where my possessions (including passport) were stolen.

‘I made seven appeals in all’

In all, I was homeless for eight months and spent much of that time inhabiting the streets of Dublin, while I appealed my situation. I made seven HRC appeals in all during that time including one in Irish: to the Homeless Unit; to the HSE Chief Appeals Officer; there was an application in protest made on my behalf by TD Michael D Higgins (thank you Michael); to the Ombudsman; the European Commissioner (who was peeved by the government’s misuse of the HRC); again to the Homeless Unit; and to the Department of Social and Family Affairs, Habitual Residence Section.

Although I offered every form of proof imaginable, I was time and again flatly denied. After eight months on the streets of Dublin (through winter) my health had deteriorated to the point of not being able to walk properly. I remembered that the commissioner had said she’d wished someone could afford to take the government to court, and I finally decided to force their hand by getting them to take me to court. I was arrested for spitting on the plaque of the Ministry for Justice on Stephen’s Green, and given a date to appear in court – an event which was published in the Evening Herald. Three days later I was informed by the Homeless Unit that I could claim assistance. The fight was over.

For most of the time I was in my element, at least up until my health began to waver. I had the adventure of my life, walking the streets of Dublin like an old wandering bard, discovering new insights every day. I wrote some of my best poems and met some of the most fascinating people. The street-soul of Dublin took me in as a brother to witness the thrashing tiger from the arse-end. I spent days sitting with Paddy Kavanagh on the canal, on the boardwalk, hours in the libraries, museums and any historical place of interest I could find, and all the while driven to prove that Ireland was my Centre of Interest.

‘Ireland has always been home’

Forget that I was born and went to school here, that during thirty years I’d been through seven Irish passports, that all eight of my great-grandparents were from Munster and spoke Irish. Forget that Ireland has always been home, no matter where I’ve been overseas. I had ticked all the boxes to prove this, and was visibly in need of assistance, yet could not elicit any acknowledgement, that here was an Irishman who was truly in a bind.

Towards the end of my sojourn in the realm of the homeless, the government was given an ultimatum by the EU courts, under threat of penalty, to discontinue their improper use of the HRC, which was introduced understandably to prevent welfare tourism. There were about five hundred Irish men and women in the same situation at that time, many of whom had been abroad on missionary projects in developing countries, for two to three years at a time. They had no legal representation that could breach the misuse of law, imposed during their absence and without their knowledge. There seemed to be no humanity in dealing with any of us, the new anomalies. The Ministry for Justice, then under Michael McDowell stated ‘We cannot legislate for the exception’. I was wondering then whether this was the beginning of the end of our altruistic culture. The life-loving, humanitarian, gentle celt was being entombed in the rubble of globalization and materialism, in the illusion of new wealth.

Despite the stress of it all I am grateful for a most enriching experience, and to all the volunteer workers who helped me through – I still have my sleeping bag from the Simon Community. I am glad to report that I’m now well on my feet, and the director of Ó Bhéal, a successful poetry organisation in Cork city.

Paul Casey is the director of Ó Bhéal, organising poetry events in Cork city.

About the author:

Paul Casey

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