‘I was a traumatised child’: from Balkan war to homeless in Dublin

Rustin Brdar (30) went through PTSD and addiction before getting his life together

Rustin Brdar, with his partner, Rachel Kane, and their daughter, Sienna, at the Peter McVerry Open Access Service, on Sherrard Street, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Rustin Brdar, with his partner, Rachel Kane, and their daughter, Sienna, at the Peter McVerry Open Access Service, on Sherrard Street, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Rustin Brdar (30), who came to Ireland from Croatia in 1996 as a child refugee, has been periodically homeless since he was 12. He was expelled from school at 14 and using drugs by 15. He has been in and out of prison, and met Fr Peter McVerry when he was 16 and in St Patrick’s Institution for young offenders.

Yesterday he was among about 40, mainly single, adults at the drop-in centre for homeless people run by Fr McVerry in Dublin city centre.

I got a supported-accommodation flat when I was 18 but after six months I had to go. I was back homeless

Speaking with a broad Dublin accent, Brdar tells how he arrived from Otocac in central Croatia under the auspices of the Red Cross, aged 10. The city had been under siege by Serbian forces for almost four years. He was “lucky” to get out, he says.

His first placement with a family member in Dublin broke down.

“I was in supported lodgings when I was nearly 12 and then I was put in a hostel in Eccles Street. I had my own room but it was very rough. Then I got moved to Streetline [a residential facility for 14- to 21-year-olds who are leaving care] on the North Circular Road. I got a supported-accommodation flat when I was 18 but after six months I had to go. I was back homeless.”

He describes some of the horrors he witnessed in Croatia and the post-traumatic stress he has suffered since.

Fr Peter McVerry with Robert O’Brien at Fr McVerry’s Open Access Service. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Fr Peter McVerry with Robert O’Brien at Fr McVerry’s Open Access Service. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Five years ago he got off heroin, although 14 months ago he “relapsed” following the birth of his daughter, Sienna (now 17 months), and beginning a supervisory job at a bakery. “It all got on top of me.”

He is now on methadone and hoping to go back to work after hospital treatment later this year. His partner, Rachel, who has never used drugs, has “stood by me since we met” in 2013. The three share a one-bedroom council apartment.

Three rules

Fr McVerry has been opening the door at the house in Dublin to homeless adults for almost 40 years, offering tea, coffee, food, showers and laundry, as well as advice and advocacy on homeless people’s rights and entitlements.

“Most are homeless – sleeping rough or in hostels – or have accommodation but are vulnerable,” says Fr McVerry. “We have just three rules: no alcohol, no drugs and no violence. They’re broken regularly, but it’s a low threshold, low-key service. I’m not here to monitor or police people.

In the ’90s, if you didn’t use heroin you didn’t have friends

“Many of the people here I have known since they were teenagers. Most have been in care or prison, though an increasing number haven’t, and an increasing numbers are families just at the end of their tether.”

Common denominators among those who speak to The Irish Times are drugs and prison.

While several describe their childhood environment as factors in their drug use – “in the ’90s, if you didn’t use heroin you didn’t have friends”, said one – all refer to the obstacles a prison record places in their lives, from problems getting work to being unable to access housing and housing supports. Men and women said there was “no support” on release from prison, and single adults “are left at the bottom of the list” in housing policy.

All, however, expressed huge respect for Fr McVerry, with several saying he had “saved” their lives.

To Brdar he is “like a father figure”.

“I get very angry at how I was let down by the health board and people who were meant to support me. I was a traumatised child. Fr McVerry has been one of the best people in my life ... Coming here is important. It gives me a sense of belonging.”