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'Whether they're from Donegal or Senegal, it makes no difference': A night at the Lighthouse café

Hundreds of homeless people, from Ireland and further afield, visit the Dublin centre every day for food, clothes and friendship.
AT THE MOMENT there is a huge focus on people sleeping in tents along the canal. We’re seeing all these issues, hearing people’s opinions on tents or politics, whatever it might be, but we need to remember it’s people who are actually inside the tents. These are human beings.

Those are the words of Phil Thompson, CEO and co-founder of Tiglin – a charity which supports people experiencing homelessness and addiction.

Tiglin at the Lighthouse, the charity’s premises in Dublin city centre, provides food, clothes and a range of other supports to homeless people and asylum seekers.

The charity has seen a huge increase in demand for its services in recent months amid an increase in the number of international protection (IP) applicants coming to Ireland.

1000011001 People queuing to enter the Lighthouse for dinner on Thursday evening Órla Ryan / The Journal Órla Ryan / The Journal / The Journal

Close to 2,000 IP applicants are currently without State accommodation, and more people are arriving in Ireland every day.

Several encampments have been set up in Dublin in recent months, the largest of which was located outside the International Protection Office (IPO) on Mount Street before it was dismantled on 1 May.

After the camp was removed, and some 290 men were offered alternative accommodation at facilities in Citywest and Crooksling, there was a brief drop in the number of people seeking food and other help from the Lighthouse – but that only lasted for a couple of days.

phil and robbie Phil Thompson, CEO and co-founder of Tiglin, and Robbie Byrne, one of the managers at the Lighthouse Órla Ryan / The Journal Órla Ryan / The Journal / The Journal

Around 500 people visit the centre every day. Close to 300 meals were handed out when The Journal visited the Lighthouse on Thursday evening. A long queue was present outside the building for most of the evening, as is the case every night.

During our time there, The Journal met people from Ireland, Romania, Italy, Palestine, Jordan, Somalia, Nigeria and Morocco.

The centre is a hive of activity – service users are offered things most of us take for granted: food, clothes, a haircut, a chat, a place to charge their phone, or the chance to simply be inside for half an hour.

Ideally, people could sit and eat their food at a slower pace – but a time limit now has to be implemented as the dining room isn’t big enough to meet the demand. Once people have eaten their meal, they need to leave and make way for the next group.

IMG20240516220145 Órla Ryan / The Journal Órla Ryan / The Journal / The Journal

The Lighthouse is meant to be “a living room for people who don’t have one”, Phil said, adding “that might sound like a bit of a cliché, but it really is hinged around social inclusion”.

“I was just speaking to some of the volunteers this evening. They were saying, you know, sometimes you feel a little bit guilty that we’re here and we’ll have fun.

“I was like, well actually, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you’re having fun, then you’re bringing fun into people’s lives that are quite often void of that.

“It’s not just food, it’s not just clothes, it’s not a tent or a sleeping bag. They’re some of the essentials that people might need, but it is about engagement.

It’s about looking people in the eye, it’s about adding value. And if we can add a little bit of value to somebody’s day, by sitting and having a conversation, that’s good.

Amid the national conversation around asylum seekers and tents, Phil said people need to remember that we are talking about human beings.

1000011014 Órla Ryan / The Journal Órla Ryan / The Journal / The Journal

“When we give food to somebody tonight, we see their face. When we give them a tent, or a sleeping bag, or some clothes, we see their face.

Let’s not dehumanise people by just talking about statistics or the problems of encampments. Let’s realise that, actually, people come here tonight – Irish, European, from even further afield, and they are humans who have come here to ask for help.

“And that could just be something simple like food, or it could be protection from fleeing a war. Who knows why they’re here? Whether they are from Finglas, Donegal or Senegal, it makes no difference to us.”

Tents being slashed on purpose

Stephen, an Irishman in his 20s, comes to the Lighthouse “two or three times a day”. He has been sleeping rough in the city for about six months. He said he became homeless due to drug use and “being young and dumb”.

He used to sleep in a tent in the Docklands, but it was destroyed a few weeks ago. Someone slashed it and stole his passport and other belongings, he told The Journal

I go solo with the sleeping bag at the moment because all the tents are getting sliced and burned so, to be honest, it’s less hassle.

Stephen said he believes some people are intentionally destroying tents because they assume an asylum seeker, rather than an Irish person, is sleeping in it and they don’t want them in their area. 

“If they see a tent, you’re automatically a refugee,” he said. 

Contradictory approach to tents

The Government has been criticised of late over its approach to tents. Many asylum seekers who don’t have accommodation are encouraged to go to charities like the Lighthouse to get a sleeping bag and tent.

However, following the removal of tents from Mount Street and other parts of Dublin, people have been told it is a criminal offence to pitch a tent on public land, or on private land without consent.

river (25) Tents pictured along the Grand Canal in Dublin earlier this month © ©

Phil said some of the Government’s messaging on tents has been contradictory, adding that there needs to be “clear communication” going forward.

“We have to be guided by policy rather than just individual opinion. I think the NGOs are stepping into areas to support the Government to deliver policy,” he said.

At present, the Lighthouse gives out between 20 and 40 tents a day.

‘Disheartening’ threats

A number of threats have been made against the Lighthouse in recent weeks, including some people saying they will burn the building down.

Phil said these threats need to be taken seriously, especially in light of several arson attacks at buildings earmarked to house asylum seekers. 

Security measures have been “stepped up” at the centre, but he doesn’t want it to be “security-led” as this could become “institutional” and “off-putting” for service users. 

“Our threat isn’t from those who are inside our doors. And, thankfully, the threat from outside is manageable.”

1000011090 The centre runs out of clothes, and food, most days Órla Ryan / The Journal Órla Ryan / The Journal / The Journal

He added it can be “disheartening that when our volunteers get up in the morning and decide to go out and better the lives of somebody else, that some people actually get to the point of hating that”.

“If you look at the society we live in, the opportunities that we have, the privileges that we take for granted on a daily basis… Even on our worst day, in an Irish society, we probably have more than many people could ever dream of in this world.”

‘If you’re down on your luck, you’re welcome here’

Robbie Byrne, one of the managers at the Lighthouse, said the centre has, and always will, help those in need. 

“If you’re down on your luck, you’re welcome here, no matter who you are.

There’s no colour, no race, you know what I mean? Everybody is treated the same.

He said people who blame asylum seekers for Ireland’s problems would do well to remember our own history of emigration. 

“Irish people forget that we were refugees in other countries as well.”

1000011097 Hundreds of meals are given out to people every day Órla Ryan / The Journal Órla Ryan / The Journal / The Journal

Robbie volunteered at the Lighthouse for about four years before becoming a member of staff in 2023. As is the case with a number of the centre’s employees, he was previously a service user. 

I was a heroin addict for 27 years, I used this service. So when I got clean, I wanted to come back to volunteer here.

Tiglin supports people who are living with addiction and links them in with other services as needed. 

‘We are a family’ 

The Lighthouse has a small core team of staff but relies heavily on around 100 volunteers. One such volunteer is Maryam*, a Somali woman who has applied for refugee status here. 

She lives in State accommodation in Dublin and comes to the Lighthouse almost every day to help. When she first arrived in Ireland, she said she was scared and “crying every day”, but volunteering at the centre “changed everything”. 

I have friends now, a family. I’m getting my life back.

Maryam, who is in her early 20s, doesn’t have a work permit yet but is studying a foundation course in IT. 

“I’m learning, I’m volunteering, I’m helping people. I’m coming here to help, but I’m getting something too – I’m getting friends and a family.”

IMG20240516202717 Órla Ryan / The Journal Órla Ryan / The Journal / The Journal

Tony, an asylum seeker from Nigeria, was one of the men moved from the Mount Street camp to the Citywest accommodation centre. 

He said he is very grateful to the Irish Government for giving him a roof over his head.

Tony said he left Nigeria because of religious persecution and feels much safer in Ireland. He also doesn’t have a work permit yet, but helps in a barber shop to “keep busy”.

“I don’t want to be idle, I don’t want to do nothing. I want to stay here, get a job.” 

‘I’m like Tom Hanks’ 

James, an Irishman who has been homeless for about a year, said he sometimes gets a bed in a homeless hostel but he doesn’t know where he will sleep from one night to the next.

If he doesn’t get a hostel space, he often goes to the airport to sleep there as it’s open 24/7. 

“I’m like Tom Hanks,” he joked, referring the 2004 film The Terminal – where Hanks’ character lives in an airport. 

“It’s not easy but it is what it is,” he added.

James, who is in his 50s, visits the Lighthouse daily, saying the social element is “a big thing”.

You can have a cup of tea, chat, socialise, get off the street.

“I can get something to eat, get some clothes,” he said, pointing to a clean jumper he was just given. 

If he can save enough money, he’d like to emigrate to Australia. His daughters are already there.

James said homelessness services in Dublin are doing the best they can, but they’re “inundated” and “so overstretched”.

He used to run his own business, a barbershop, but said it went into receivership after the 2008 recession and he lost his house. 

James said lots of different types of people end up becoming homeless.

“You’re only three pay cheques away from being homeless. People who are not homeless will never understand what it’s like.

“Don’t ever think you’re too comfortable, never think it can’t happen to you, it can happen very quickly, it can humble you very quickly,” he said.

*Names changed at request of interviewees

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