A home for the homeless: ‘I put a smiley face on my stump. Life’s life’
Sophia Housing’s Cork Street Project in Dublin is a community offering support and living quarters to formerly homeless people. Two residents share their stories
Robert White in his Sophia Housing Association apartment: ‘I put a runner on my foot and said: cheaper than Dunnes, half price!’ Photograph: Alan Betson
In an unassuming apartment complex on Cork Street in Dublin 8, formerly homeless people are turning their lives around. Many of them are overcoming mental health issues, addictions, disabilities or backgrounds of domestic violence.
The employees of Sophia Housing’s Cork Street Project understand that, while people often manage to pull themselves out of terrible situations, it’s very difficult to do so without support. The oldest person here is 87 and the youngest is six weeks old. I don’t meet either of them, but two people I do meet tell me their stories.
ROBERT WHITE (60)
You can hear Robert singing before he opens the door. “Members only!” he says when he does. He has a sense of humour. He once threw his prosthetic leg at the taxi regulator’s office.
“I was passing on my taxi plate, there was a misunderstanding and they were fining me,” he explains. “So I left my leg there in protest and hobbled down the stairs. The taxi men brought my wheelchair down for me.” He shows me a newspaper clipping. In the picture he’s scowling dramatically, holding his leg in the foreground.
He shows me around his adapted two-bedroom flat and tells me how he lost his leg, his job and his home (though he never lived on the street). In the bathroom there’s an emergency cord that alerts the front office if he’s in trouble.
“Visitors keep pulling it by accident,” he says. As he talks, his girlfriend, Vivienne, tidies and rolls her eyes at some of his jokes. “My future wife,” he says.
Robert, who was born in Worcester, has worked in the merchant navy, in hotels and as a security man. He came to Dublin because he discovered his father lived here (“I hadn’t seen him since I was 11”), and while visiting he took a part-time job. “Then Maggie Thatcher came to power and I decided to stay.”
He has a daughter here. She lives with her mother in Glenageary, and is studying engineering. He was always able to look after himself.
In 2008 he had just received a taxi plate and was living in an apartment on Kimmage Road when he started to feel strange. “My foot froze up as if I had a sprained ankle, and I couldn’t feel it. It felt like a block of ice.”
He had a blood clot. His friend drove him to hospital. He wonders whether, if he had called an ambulance, he might have been seen sooner and his leg saved.
Two days after the amputation, he showered and dressed himself, to the consternation of his nurses. “There’s no point sitting around moping,” he told them. “I went outside in the wheelchair and had a laugh. I put a runner on my foot and said ‘cheaper than Dunnes, half price!’ My daughter got me a smiley face and I put the picture on my stump. It said ‘smile and be happy’. People said ‘How can you do that?’ Well, life’s life.”
His old apartment wasn’t wheelchair- accessible so intermediate accommodation had to be found. The first place was a homeless unit in Santry. In 2008 he was given temporary accommodation on Cork Street. Now it’s his permanent home. It suits him. He can close his door and come and go as he pleases. There are maintenance men on call and socialising opportunities.
Vivienne knows this only too well. She’s from Botswana and they met on the 16 bus when she pulled down the disabled seat for him. “She smiled and I said, ‘You have a nice smile’, and we started talking. Then she got off at the same stop as me. I went into Penneys to look at jeans and I get a tap on my shoulder and Vivienne was standing there. I said ‘You’re stalking me!’ ”
They both laugh. “I call her my African diamond.”
Maura is a bit sad today because her family dog just died (“He was a half-Alsatian half-Labrador, called Scruffy,” she says). But in general, she’s happier than she’s ever been. What she likes most, she says, is the peace and quiet after four years on the streets. “I can lock the door and watch my soaps,” she says.
She doesn’t go into detail about her family life in Clonmel but it was “chaotic”. She fought with her parents and was drinking a lot. She met her boyfriend on Bebo. He came down from Dublin and they stayed in a Waterford hotel. She didn’t know he was taking heroin in the bathroom. “He told me later.”
She was pregnant. Her new boyfriend wasn’t the father, but he didn’t mind. “And for a fella to do that, I thought I’d grab it with both hands.”
She followed him to Dublin, where he promised they’d have a place to stay. First, he said, they’d just have to stay in a hostel for a few nights. And then they’d have to sleep on the streets but only for a little while. “It turned into being homeless. We slept on a mattress up on Grafton Street, in the doorway of a shop. It was horrible.”
She started taking heroin. “I was never a drug person. But he said ‘it’s not that bad’ and I ended up trying it. After that, smoking didn’t work and I tried the other way. It’s horrible waking up on the street at seven in the morning so sick you can’t even think straight, walking in the lashing rain with your socks soaked through. I remember being pregnant and getting sick as I was going up Grafton Street.”
Her daughter was taken into care. One day she looked over at her boyfriend. “He was tapping for money at a bank machine and I realised I couldn’t do it any more. I wanted a proper life. I wanted my kid back.”
She sought help and eventually got a place at Cork Street. The first night she had a fight with her boyfriend. She has since broken up with him and things have improved. She’s been off heroin for over a year and sees her daughter regularly. There’s a spare bedroom with a pink bedspread that’s there for her if they are ever reunited. “I’ll wait until I’m off the methadone. I don’t want to go there and fail.”
She’s learning how to cook (she shows me a programme called Meals Made Easy). There’s a care plan on the fridge with her goals written on it and there are listening ears across the hall if she has any problems. She’s studying computers.
“I want to be an assistant or a receptionist,” she says. Bills are taken from her money in advance and she has managed to save some money. “It’s great to have a bit of money, isn’t it?”
She saw her ex-boyfriend about two months ago. “I was waiting for the Luas at Jervis Street and he was there begging. It’s mad if you think of it. Six years ago I was in school. Now I’m in Dublin with a kid in care. It’s all happened so fast. You think: ‘How did all this happen?’ But I always knew I wasn’t able for that life. Some of the people I knew were in prison and everything. I’m just a little Clonmel person.”