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Dublin: 16°C Thursday 19 May 2022

Smithfield's homelessness tour guide: 'Most locals don't get to talk to anybody who is homeless'

Shane Howell hopes his tour might help shine a light on the contrasts that exist in this corner of the city.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

SHANE HOWELL’S TOUR is peppered with interesting nuggets of information about Stoneybatter, Smithfield their surrounds. Like the fact that the name of Croppies Acre park, to the front of Collins Barracks, is derived from the haircuts worn by the rebels of 1798. Or that the nearby Phoenix Park covers exactly 1,752 acres. 

The 37-year-old Corkonian knows this stretch of Dublin intimately, and in many respects his hour-long walking tour is similar to tours that might be offered by any of the hundreds of guides working elsewhere in the city. 

But in between the historical tales of soldiers’ quarters at the barracks, the Smithfield horse fair and the old, cobbled streets he also relates of his own personal experience of life in the area in the midst of the housing and homelessness crisis. 

He has direct experience of the hostels and homeless centres dotted around the area’s narrow streets. Shane – unlike most Dublin tour guides, it’s probably safe to say – has spent time sleeping rough in both the Croppies and the Phoenix Park.

During those years, Shane said, his life followed a grimly familiar pattern. His only daily contact was with hostels, agencies, food halls and soup runs. 

“I became homeless in 2011. That was after the crash. There was a lot of people becoming homeless back then. The lease came to an end at the property and the landlord didn’t renew it,” he said. 

It was very simple, the way I became homeless.

Secret Street Tours 

More recently Shane has been looking forward to a new venture – as the host of Dublin’s second ‘homeless street tour’ and the first on the north side of the city. 

Set up by the non-profit Secret Street Tours, the tours aim to offer an experience of the city through the eyes and ears of people who have been affected by homelessness. 

His guided walk, which starts outside the national museum at Collins Barracks, stops off in front of various hostels, street art sites and at the side of the Capuchin Day Centre alongside historical sites more typical of a Dublin walking tour. 

We accompanied a group of around 20 – both Irish and international – on the route. There are around a dozen stops. At each, Shane stops and speaks for a few minutes. He might reel off a snippet of local history. He might reflect on a chapter in his own life. You might get a combination of both. 

Tom Austin, who founded Secret Street Tours, came up with the idea for the venture after going on a similar tour in Vienna. There’s a growing interest among tourists globally, he said, for unique experiences that get visitors away from the traditional top ten sites in a city. 

Younger tourists and travellers, he said, “want to come and see something shown by a local. They’re also very socially conscious with the choices that they make – whether that’s where they eat, where they go out or in the activities that they do”. 

Aside from the guides, at the moment no-one at Secret Street Tours is getting paid for their work. Austin has a full-time job elsewhere. His co-founders and others contribute their time and skills and view it as a passion project. 

The guides, in addition to training and online promotion, get paid for every tour they give. They’re also given help in other areas, like access to education.

Derek McGuire became Secret Street Tours’ first tour guide, across the Liffey in the Liberties, at the end of last year – and there are potential plans for further tours in other parts of the city. 

As for how Shane ended up sharing his personal story with groups of strangers each day: “I know Derek a long time. I opened a paper one day and saw a story about Derek and thought ‘Jesus I have a story as well if people want to hear it’.” 

For Shane, aside from the opportunity to make an income, he said one of the most immediate benefits was the chance to interact with people and make new connections.

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He added: “Most locals don’t get to talk to anybody who is homeless.”

As for his materal, he hopes it helps shine a light on the contrasts that exist in this corner of the city, where hostels and other homeless services are often separated by just a few doors from multinational companies and landmark tourist attractions.

“I’ve often spent up to year in these nighttime-only hostels and then I could get a six month bed and land back in the nighttime-only hostels,” Shane said.

“Years ago a bus used to pick you up and you wouldn’t even know where you’re going. You could be sleeping five or six to a room or you could be slept not too far from here where there’s a thirty man dorm. I’ve even slept down on the quays where there are sixty yoga mats in a hall and you’re put out at half seven or 8 o’clock in the morning.”

When you’re in a nighttime-only bed life on the streets in the daytime “takes a big toll on the mental and physical health. You’re totally disconnected, you know?”

 Not many people get to talk to people on the streets.

While there appears to be a genuine interest in the homelessness issue from tourists and locals alike, he reckons a fatigue has also set in as the crisis deepens and the headline figures continue to rise. 

The latest homeless figures, he noted, were “up around the 10,300 mark … and then they count 128 for the rough sleepers? I can assure you there’s a lot more than that, there’s 1,752 acres up in that Phoenix Park you go up there any night of the week … sure who wants to be seen sleeping in tents when you can park it off so you wouldn’t be seen?” 

I slept out in the streets. I slept in tents you know, that’s where it brought me.

Shane is in stable accommodation at the moment – but is waiting to get his own place and is still on the housing list. He’s planning to go back to adult education in September. 

He tells his audience, as our tours comes to an end: “All I want is something simple, where I can bring my son up from Cork and just sit down and watch a bit of telly with him, something simple like that, not a big house on the hill, you know?”

About the author:

Daragh Brophy

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