A death in a Dublin bin truck
The death of the homeless Polish man Henryk Piotrowski in a waste collection truck highlights the precarious lives of Ireland’s migrant homeless
The circumstances of Piotrowski’s death were shocking for a country that prides itself on its compassion for the less well-off at home and abroad. It has also raised urgent questions about the kind of support available for Ireland’s migrant homeless population and whether enough is being done to support them at a time of cutbacks to vital social safety nets.
“Homeless services are especially poor for foreign nationals,” says Fr Peter McVerry, the homelessness campaigner. “The Irish can get a bed for six months in a hostel, and it brings them at least some stability. But the non-Irish can only get a hostel bed for one night at a time.”
Neither Poland nor Ireland ever predicted the scale of the rush to work here in 2004, when borders were opened to accession-state members. Hundreds of thousands came to chase the Celtic Tiger dream. And for most it delivered on its promise of well-paid work.
But a small number who came without money, contacts or basic English had a different experience. For them no job was waiting. Later, when so many temporary jobs on building sites ended abruptly, there was no accommodation or support system for them. Once on the street or in homeless shelters they found themselves in another trap: accession-country members have no right to public funds, which meant they could not claim welfare benefits or get long-term beds in publicly funded hostels.
Today it’s estimated that anywhere between 15 and 20 per cent of Dublin’s homeless population on the street are migrants from eastern Europe.
Tackling the issue of migrants is complex. Any relaxation of rules over entitlement to welfare benefits for foreign nationals could make Ireland a “haven” for destitute foreigners, says one policymaker who declines to be named.
The State’s policy towards migrant homeless has been, wherever possible, to repatriate them. In the first five months of this year 153 foreign nationals were flown back to their countries of origin after seeking help from the Reception and Integration Agency to go home on destitution grounds. That compares with 97 in the same period last year.
Although some have voiced concern that the policy is simply dumping the problem elsewhere, staff and volunteers at the Mendicity Institute see it as a progressive solution, if done properly.
The idea of repatriation is nothing new. When the Mendicity Institute was established, in 1818, there were an estimated 6,000 beggars on the streets. As part of a policy of “transmission” in the early 19th century, about 3,000 were given funds to go abroad or to parts of the country where they had been guaranteed a job. Another 3,000 were given work and shelter.
Over the past 18 months, Charles Richards says, the institute has been working closely with a Polish outreach team – Barka – to help repatriate those who wish to return home. “It is all done on a voluntary basis,” he says. “If people are interested in engaging, it’s up to them. No one is pressurised. They can leave any time. We’ve helped to move 100 people out of homelessness and connected them back home or into training or work.”
It’s also cost effective, he says. The programme has cost about €200,000 in its entirety, yet a single hostel bed can cost anything up to €20,000 a year, not to mind support services.