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Dublin: 18 °C Sunday 31 May, 2020
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Inside the Night Cafe: 'People are just so relieved to be indoors for the night'

Some of the people using the emergency service to avoid sleeping on the streets are strikingly young, writes Mark Kennedy.

Mark Kennedy

THE MERCHANT’S QUAY Ireland (MQI) Night Café service was established in January 2015 following the public outcry at the death of a homeless man near the Dail in December 2014. The service operates between 11pm and 8 am and caters for 50 people at a time.

The Night Café service is different from a coffee shop – people can’t just walk in the door. Instead, they are referred to the Night Café by calling the homeless ‘Freephone’ or by engaging with the ‘Housing First’ Outreach Team operating on the streets at night. These two services do everything possible to get people into emergency accommodation for the night – the Night Café then kicks in as a ‘plan B’ for those who cannot or will not access emergency accommodation.

Life on a typical night

A typical night in the service begins when the doors open at 11pm. People exhibit a real sense of relief to be indoors for the night. They sit down to eat a light meal before seeking out preferred spots to settle down or talk.

Upstairs is a quiet rest area where people can settle in on yoga mats and rest undisturbed. The downstairs area is more hustle and bustle – staff engage clients in conversations directed at addressing the reasons why the person is on the street.

Clients talk to staff about problems they have in their lives, the children they haven’t seen in a while or the partner/family relationships which are on the rocks. Some people opt to be alone, but most are happy to engage with staff and each other. However, for many, vulnerability and mental health issues are never far below the surface.

People sometimes arrive in at 4 and 5 am in a distressed state, the team will do all they can to help – getting in out of the cold to a warm bowl of soup is a start.

For the most part clients arrive alone, although there are usually three or four couples using the service. It’s a grim reality for couples conducting their relationships in the most difficult and chaotic circumstances – homeless couples are not guaranteed a bed together for the night, and resting together in the Night Café is sometimes better than being separated.

Some of the people in the service are strikingly young and you wonder how life has gone so wrong, so early, for them. A specialist youth worker supports those between 18-25.

The service is mostly peaceful

Occasionally we need the support of the Gardaí or ambulance services, but, for the most part the service is peaceful and the majority of people are resting or asleep by 2am. At 6.45am clients wake up to breakfast and a hot shower. After breakfast they either leave the service or stay around to engage with case workers to progress their situation or access medical and mental health care.

At a basic level we provide people with food, shelter and the opportunity to sleep. But the foundation of our service is developing relationships with clients; through these relationships we connect people with help and supports. On the basis of conversations over a cup of tea in the Night Café, some clients go on to engage with our mental health services and drug/alcohol rehab.

Sadly, others do not engage with supports and continue on a chaotic path of homelessness, mental illness or high risk drug use. Ever mindful of those who have not survived out on the street we intervene in drug overdoses with the help of the ambulance service, keeping people alive in the hope of positive change.

We expected homeless people to be predominantly older males – we were wrong

In the first three months of operation, the service was used by 909 individuals, (763 male and 146 female). The majority (78%) are Irish, the remaining people are from Europe (14%), outside Europe (7%) and 4% are of unknown origin. The age profile of the client group surprised us as we expected homeless people to be predominantly older males – more than 52% of the people we saw in the first 3 months are 34 and under.

People using the Night Café are encouraged to link in with our day services. In the first 3 months of operation there were 11,516 visits by Night Café clients to the Merchants Quay day services – the main services used were food (7,899 visits), drug services (1896 visits), case work (644 visits), primary health / hygiene (833 visits) and the psychiatric nurse (244 visits).

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Moving people off the streets requires a range of intensive support with mental health, repairing family relationships or drug/alcohol treatment. Many will need long-term supports because their mental health, addiction or accommodation situations are often complex and tenuous – however it is a start and this progress would be unlikely if they were left unsupported on the streets.

Our vision for the Night Café is to work with other services acting as the vehicle to bring intensive multi-disciplinary supports together for the most vulnerable and hard-to-reach clients on the street.

The homeless situation in Ireland remains grim

In the first few months of the Night Café over 250 people have made varying degrees of progress regarding health, education, drug use or accommodation. But there are so many still waiting to get off the streets and into a better life. The lack of available housing for these vulnerable people is the single biggest block to progress.

The bigger picture for homelessness in the first half of 2015 still makes for grim reading. According to recent reports housing repossessions are up 500%, those on rent allowance have little chance of securing private rented accommodation and it is becoming increasingly difficult to provide housing those in emergency accommodation. It is heartening to see plans in place for 30,000 new units of social housing in the coming years – but on the ground, at the moment, the scarcity of housing is by far the biggest issue.

The public outcry about the death of a homeless man that led to the commissioning the Night Café is evidence that Irish society wants to extend a lifeline to those on the streets, many of whom have drug or alcohol problems – initiatives like this send a message to those at the margins that there is a pathway for them back into society.

Mark Kennedy is the Day Services Manager of Merchant’s Quay.

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Mark Kennedy

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