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Dublin: 10 °C Friday 6 December, 2019
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Helplessness, drug addiction and disbelief: An evening on a soup run for the homeless

TheJournal.ie went on a soup run with the Dublin Simon Community.

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IT’S ALMOST 8PM and the Dublin Simon Community volunteers are ready for their nightly soup run.

In pairs, they cover four routes around Dublin city centre, aiming to touch base with homeless people to offer food, warm drinks or a chat.

Annmarie Brennan, who works with Dublin Simon Community, says they try to make it more than just soup and a sandwich by linking with the rough-sleeper team or the mobile health unit.

Walter, who has been volunteering with the soup run for three years, maintains that they usually attract long-term volunteers.

Once you start, you tend to stay involved and it becomes part of your week. It’s not a huge commitment, it’s not difficult and it’s not dangerous.

IMG_2682 O'Connell Bridge Source: TheJournal.ie

Walter joined the group after coming across a volunteer fair on his way home from work.

I was working on Jervis Street in 2012 and it really struck me how prevalent homelessness was, I’d never worked in the city centre before. Then I came across Simon and they really synchronised with what I was looking to do.

Volunteers are selected by interview process and receive training before they head off on the soup runs.

IMG_2665 Source: TheJournal.ie

One volunteer is assigned every night to come in early and make preparations for the soup run.

The evening we visit, there are sandwiches (chicken, tuna and sweetcorn, and ham and cheese) cereal bars, fruit and clothing. Dublin Simon buys the sandwiches and the rest is donated. Flasks filled with vegetable soup, tea and coffee are placed into a rucksack.

People give donations of hats, socks and gloves at Christmas time – but forget that the weather can be bad year-round, according to Walter.

“It’s amazing the difference that dry socks and underwear makes to people,” he says.

“The man in the bed beside me was injecting heroin into his groin, that’s when I decided not to stay in hostels anymore.”

IMG_2666 Alex

Walter and Annmarie don’t recognise the first homeless person we come across, which is unusual as they know most of the people by name. We soon learn that Alex has only become homeless in the last few months.

He’s sitting at the corner of College Green, reading a newspaper section on Brexit and tells us: “If you asked me six months ago, I never would’ve thought I’d end up here”.

Although he politely declines our offers of food and warm drinks, he’s interested in having a quick chat with us.

My only crime was catching my ex-wife being, shall we say, unfaithful to me. I worked for her dad too, so I lost everything overnight.

He stayed in the Generator in Smithfield until his money ran out and then he tried out a hostel for homeless people – but after two nights made the decision not to stay there again.

The first night I stayed, I woke up and a guy’s runners had been stolen so he was just walking around barefoot. The second night, a guy in the bed next to me was injecting heroin into his groin, the bed was covered in blood.

Alex’s family don’t know that he’s living on the street. His parents aren’t in a position to take him in so he doesn’t want to worry them. Alex says he doesn’t take drugs and a lot of the homeless services are geared towards helping people with drug problems.

Lifting up the leg of his trousers, he exposes a gash on his shin that’s barely scabbed over.

I was sleeping outside Stephen’s Green shopping centre and I woke up to four “posh boys” as it were, kicking lumps out of me. The trouble isn’t always from people you think – drunk people can be particularly bad.
I’m beneath them in their eyes, they don’t see that I’ve worked for 17 years. Seventeen years paying taxes and I get nothing. I can’t get dole because I’ve no address and I can’t get somewhere to stay because I refuse to stay in hostels.

The worst thing about homelessness, according to Alex, is the boredom. To keep himself occupied he reads a lot, does crosswords and spends time Stephen’s Green.

“I woke up this morning, from the knees down, literally in a puddle. Of course, that part of homelessness isn’t nice either,” he says.

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Outside Tiger on Nassau Street, we meet a homeless man with three books spread across his sleeping bag, propped upright with a cardboard box. He tells us stories about being asked to join a kids’ soccer team, and someone knifing him to steal his book on Irish history.

Walter hands him two sandwiches and a cup of tea as he tells us his landlord kicked him out because he had too much clothes and they broke the wardrobe.

He says that he’s made his bed for the night and won’t be looking for any accommodation.

Walking up towards Dawson Street, Walter says kindly that some of the stories have to be taken “with a bag of salt rather than a pinch of salt”.

“Three years ago, I wouldn’t have even looked at a homeless person”

“I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemies – and I have a few enemies – but I wouldn’t wish it on them. It’s hell,” one man, who preferred not to be named, tells us.

He talks about Jonathan Corrie, who was a friend of his. Corrie was a homeless man whose death in 2014 sparked a national conversation about solving the homelessness crisis.

When he died, there was all this talk of a big change, well we are still waiting for that big change.

01/12/2014 Jonathan Corrie Homeless People Found Dead The doorway where the body of homeless man Jonathon Corrie was found Source: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Like Alex, this man never thought he would end up homeless. He became homeless after leaving prison in 2013 and called on “the people in Leinster House to come out for one night and experience what I experience”.

“Three years ago I wouldn’t look at a homeless person but now I’d give, and have given, another homeless person the coat off my back,” he finishes.

IMG_267733 On the soup runs, volunteers keep count of homeless people on each route. Source: TheJournal.ie

We stop in a shop front along Dawson Street to give a couple, Lisa and Shane, some sandwiches, coffee, cereal bars and an orange. As we are pouring the coffee, two young men walk past and stop to ask for a cup of tea.

Walter obliges as another guy stops up and asks for tea too. He asks for two sugars and as I spoon it out he reaches for the spoon. As I hand him a wooden stirrer he exclaims “You’re not giving me the spoon? Ah here”, but accepts and wanders off.

Although the soup run builds relationships with the same people, Walter advises that volunteers have to push back disillusions: “You are very conscious that it’s just immediate relief. I work in town and the problem has gotten worse”.

You see a lot of people affected by drugs. It’s the chicken and egg thing: are they homeless because they took drugs? Or are they taking drugs because they are homeless?

Walter says he has rarely felt in danger while doing the soup runs.

“There’s been the odd occasion where you feel ‘I need to get away from here’ and that’s what we do and that’s what we’re trained to do. We always go in pairs,” Walter explains when discussing potential dangers of the soup run.

Early on in the evening, he explains why they move from person to person:

If you stand and people come to you and a group gathers, something could tip off among themselves.
I’ve never had grief or aggro with anyone. Sometimes people are rude but that’s just a fact of life.

“If it was easy to get off the streets, do you think I’d still be sitting here?”

IMG_2675 Anton Source: TheJournal.ie

Minutes before 10pm we meet Anton, crouched in a doorway on Grafton Street. Walter pours him a cup of soup and Anton thanks him, saying it’s a huge help having something warm.

After a few minutes, Anton starts talking about what the worst part of being homeless is.

“It sucks, you lose your clothes, your possessions. You’re out all day but I’m lucky to have good friends”.

It’s important not to piss your friends off and not to piss other people off.

Walter says that the homeless community is a small one and if something goes wrong, there’s nowhere to hide.

Anton had been living with his mother but after she died he couldn’t keep up with rent payments and couldn’t hold on to the house.

Anton acknowledges that substance abuse is a big part of why he’s still on the streets three years later. He suffers with mental health issues and turned to drugs to try and solve them.

How do I spend my days? Drinking, taking drugs and that’s the rut I’m stuck in…
My family… I’m estranged from [them]. I was supposed to meet them last week but I just couldn’t. I was in bits.

Anton assures us he will be ringing the freephone for homeless service 10.30pm to try get a bed for the night.

I am guilty of not doing more to help myself, but there’s not enough places under the Homeless Assistance Payment scheme and there’s no-one to help you find that place. It doesn’t matter to me whether rent supplements go up 30% or 100% – I still won’t be able to get a house.

“Do you think if it was easy I’d be sitting here? I’m just fed up,” says Anton.

An evening doing a soup run is an eye-opening experience – you see the conditions that homeless people have to live in and hear the stories of how they ended up on the streets.

The Dublin Simon volunteers are kind and make an effort to reach out to people and check where they are staying that night. Something as simple as a chat, a cup of tea or a pair of socks is a big help, according to the homeless people we spoke to.

The stories we heard showed that most people never expected to end up homeless. They fell through the cracks somehow – a family breakdown, lack of access to mental health services, criminal behaviour or drugs.

Homelessness could happen to anyone, especially those most in need of help.

Read: Homeless couple spend night in tent outside Regency Hotel after dispute over room

Read: This 100-bed homeless hostel in Dublin is going to remain open

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About the author:

Roisin Nestor

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