‘I get food and I get a shower. . . but it’s very hard to find a bed for the night’
There are meals for homeless people in Dublin, but getting a bed is more difficult
At five minutes to four on a rain-sodden afternoon, Tomas’s search for a bed begins.
There’s a freephone number to call to get your name down on the list for an emergency bed. The operators come on only from about 4.30pm, he says, but it’s best to call early.
The automated voice tells him he is 18th in the queue. He waits, holding the mobile phone by his ear. And waits.
After an hour and 17 minutes the line goes dead. There’s no sound. Maybe there was a problem with his phone?
He walks across the city to go to his English class, just off Bolton Street. It’s a free programme run in an adult education centre twice a week.
When he came to Ireland from Slovakia seven years ago he couldn’t believe so many foreigners didn’t bother to learn the language. Being able to communicate is important if he’s going to get a job, he says.
Back home he worked as a professional window cleaner and got all the necessary qualifications for using safety harnesses on tall buildings.
Then his friend in Naas told him the wages in Ireland were many times better.
It seemed like a good idea. His relationship with his long-term girlfriend had broken up. She was living with another man.
The hardest part was leaving his three-year-old son behind, not knowing when he would see him again.
Before the class begins he uses a friend’s phone to try the freephone number. It rings and rings and rings but there’s no answer.
Shortly after the class finishes at 9pm he tries again, this time using his own mobile.
His phone has, as its screensaver, a picture of his son frozen in time as a young boy.
This time he gets through quite quickly but he’s asked to call back again at 10.30pm.
It’s frustrating, he says, but there aren’t any other options.
Social insurance stamps
He doesn’t get social welfare, because the officials say he’s not entitled to it. Tomas says he worked for about 2½ years in Dublin doing painting, plastering and window cleaning. It was mostly for cash, so he wasn’t getting social insurance stamps.
At 10.30pm he tries the number again. He get through quickly this time. But the voice at the end of the line says all the emergency beds are full.
There is a sleeping bag available, he’s told, if he wants to keep warm on the street,
But it’s not so much the cold as the wet that’s the problem. The rain is now hurtling down in sheets. Flood warnings are in operation in parts of the city.
He puts his backpack on and walks in the direction of St James’s Hospital.
Why doesn’t he go home? It’s complicated, he says.
He doesn’t want to have to answer all the intrusive questions. He also feels ashamed of where he is now. Once he gets a job and is back on his feet he might return.
At the hospital’s accident and emergency unit he sits in the corner, watching the television. His wet clothes are sticking to him.
Tomas doesn’t take drugs. He drinks sometimes but only to help catch some sleep if he doesn’t have a bed. Most nights he generally gets a bed but increasingly there are too few to go around.
He’s about to nod off when a nurse asks him if he’s here to see a doctor. When he says he isn’t, he’s asked to leave. It’s just after three in the morning.
After about four years on the streets you begin to see the city differently. You recognise all the other homeless people. You see the city is a place where men and women struggle to survive.
He lists off names and where he used to see the people. Sixteen in all. One had epilepsy, another was a heavy drinker. The list goes on.
The rain has eased off by now. He heads down towards Merchant’s Quay, where Merchant’s Quay Ireland serves breakfast to homeless people in three or four hours’ time.
Then he’ll head on to Trust, located in a basement near the Iveagh Buildings,where’ll he have a shower and hopefully get some fresh runners.
It’s one good thing about being a homeless person in Dublin, Tomas says. You don’t go hungry. There’s always somewhere to eat. But getting a bed is another matter.
Tomas’s name has been changed, at his request