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Shuttered shops and scaled-back soup runs: Covid-19 leaves Ireland's rough sleepers in the cold

New measures have seen ‘soft’ services for homeless people close across the country.

CONCERNS HAVE BEEN raised for the welfare of Ireland’s population of rough sleepers as a result of the public health measures introduced to combat the spread of Covid-19.

Earlier this week, the government initially announced the closure of non-essential retail outlets, all gyms/leisure centres, betting shops, marts, markets, casinos, libraries and similar outlets, as well as restaurants and cafes that cannot offer take-away options.

Those measures came a day after restaurants including McDonald’s, Supermacs, Starbucks, Subway and Krispy Kreme voluntarily shut their doors while the pandemic continues.

The crisis saw the government recommend strict guidelines on physical distancing, which were increased last night.

Under the new guidelines (in place until 12 April), everyone in Ireland is supposed to stay at home, with some exemptions. 

Those working in the homelessness area say that one side-effect of the initial guidelines has been the removal of regular supports and facilities used by those living on the streets. Their fears around the impact of this on people who are homeless are likely to grow with the news about the stricter guidelines in place since midnight.

Many groups have already closed soup kitchens or have been asking their volunteers to stay away from nightly soup runs in the city, leaving the provision of food to special outreach teams.

These teams often have relationships with homeless individuals, and help them if they are in trouble or moments of crisis when they encounter them on their rounds.  

But although charities continue to provide daily and nightly services, the lack of footfall that has come about as a result of the coronavirus restrictions means that many homeless people are not frequenting locations where teams normally find them.

“The teams are finding it harder to locate people now because there’s been a change in behaviour,” Caoimhe O’Connell of the Dublin Simon Communities says.

“The likes of Grafton Street have been very popular before the closures happened, but now it’s a bit like a ghost town.

“I think people feel that they don’t want to be somewhere so deserted.”

O’Connell explains that although teams are working hard to find some of these individuals, it isn’t an easy task and charities are still catching up on where they might be.

And it isn’t simply the case that they are sleeping in hostels. Some homeless individuals refuse to use hostels for a range of reasons, including intimidation.

Shared spaces

Those that do use hostels may be at particular risk of contracting coronavirus, because they are in a shared space and could have conditions that put them in a group that is vulnerable to Covid-19.

Louisa Santoro, CEO of the Mendicity Institute, suggests that physical distancing would be virtually impossible in most hostels. 

“Anybody who’s ever had the great misfortune of sleeping in a bunk bed knows that there isn’t two metres between you and your upstairs neighbour,” she says.

“You’re very likely staying somewhere that there are two bunk beds in one room.” 

Dublin City Council was asked a number of questions about its rough sleeper accommodation, including whether physical distancing guidelines were being adhered to, but a spokesperson declined to comment.

Another side effect of the restrictions has been the shutdown of recreational spaces or facilities that homeless people can use on a daily basis.

Santoro says homeless individuals are now unable to access what she calls these “softer services”.

“There are people who would spend a day in the bookmakers, others who might sit up until 10 o’clock at night in McDonald’s, and those who might use a gym or whatever for a shower. These places have now all disappeared,” she says.

“We’re using the word vulnerable, and we really have a situation where the vocabulary is way ahead of the services.”

24-hour access

Although the Mendicity Institute continues to operate a full-day service from 8am each day – and is now opening at weekends due to continuing demand – HSE guidelines on physical distancing have caused others to scale back their services. 

A spokesperson for the Capuchin Day Centre, one of the country’s biggest services for homeless people based on Dublin’s Church Street, confirmed it is currently offering a take-away food service and emergency clinics only. 

Merchants Quay Ireland also confirmed that it was operating a take-out food service only from Monday to Friday, although users could still access its needle exchange and nurse and doctor by appointment if required.

Both Santoro and Natasha Morgan of Feed Our Homeless suggest that 24-hour access to services is currently key to helping homeless individuals.

Earlier this week, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive announced that it had secured hundreds of units of additional emergency accommodation to allow individuals access accommodation on a 24-hour basis while the restrictions were in place.

A spokesman for the Peter McVerry Trust also said the charity was actively working to get individuals into services as part of the response to Covid-19, as part of its outreach work on Dublin’s streets.

“24-hour access is one of the main things. It was only until a couple of days ago that people had to leave the hostel at nine o’clock in the morning, and they couldn’t go back until nine o’clock at night,” Morgan says.

“They had no meals provided and the soup kitchens were closing down, so there was literally nothing for them to do or eat aside from the outreach teams going around.”

However, Santoro called on the council to go further and open 24-hour day services on top of providing access to accommodation, such as somewhere for people to charge their phone and check their emails.

“There needs to be a safe space, accessible to people who may continue to choose not to go into a hostel,” she said.

“It doesn’t mean they have to be outside for much of the day. It’s not just food, it’s for asking questions too. We have a lot of worried people asking a lot of questions.”

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