‘In Ireland you are two steps away from having nowhere to live, with just the clothes you stand in’
The Capuchin Day Centre on Bow Street in Dublin feeds up to 950 people every day who are down on their luck
What they don’t tell you about homelessness, says Anthony Crowley after eating his breakfast at the Capuchin Day Centre, is how much shoe leather you wear out. “When people are homeless they walk round and round in circles,” he says. “They’ve nowhere to go. You see fellas with their shoes completely worn out.”
This is why Br Kevin Crowley established this centre in 1969 – to give about 50 homeless people somewhere to go. Some 44 years later, every day the centre provides breakfast to between 200 and 350 people and lunch to up to 600 at a cost of €2.1 million a year (€450,000 from the Government, the rest from donations). It also provides showers, clean clothes and, on specific days of the week, medical and dental services. On Wednesdays they give out more than a thousand grocery bags. Many who come here now, says Brother Kevin, are the “food-poor”, people with homes but whose every cent goes to keeping those homes.
It’s a friendly place. Staff and service-users greet each other. Visitors shake hands and share in-jokes (“Arf arf arf!” says one man to another as he passes). Some tables are filled with chat. Others eat in silence.
There’s a family area where a handful of mothers sit with babies. The babies laugh. “We have a lot more families coming in now and it’s very saddening to see parents with little babies,” says Br Kevin. “It’s strange to think that in 2013 that you still have people queuing up for food.”
Paul Palmer, a 57-year-old Englishman, woke this morning in an alley near Busárus with a security guard standing over him. He’s here having his breakfast. He’s not an alcoholic. He doesn’t take drugs. He spent 20 years in the horseracing industry (he says he worked with a well-known trainer and rattles off his phone number). Now he’s pulling everything he owns in a large blue travel case.
“In the last week I went 1,000 kilometres looking for work,” he says. It’s true. He shows me train and ferry tickets. He went from Dublin to Swindon, where he worked previously, was told he couldn’t get emergency accommodation there – “They said I needed a family connection” – and made his way to Sligo to stay with a friend.
His homelessness seems to be a product of bureaucratic failure. He shows me a pile of social welfare-related correspondence documenting how he lost his rent-allowance, then his flat and then his dole.
It’s difficult to follow, but the problem seems to have begun when an official refused to accept an out-of-date passport he’d been using as identification for years. He shows it to me. It’s battered and has stamps on it from all over the world. “America. All over Europe. That was my life.”
Bachir Gozim, who is sitting at a nearby table, formerly ran a newsagents on Meath Street. At the start of the recession he lost his business, then his home and his marriage. He hasn’t seen his two children in some time.
He’s been told he has no entitlements because he was self-employed. He’s sleeping in a hostel, something many choose not to do out of fear. “It’s very scary,” he says. “People taking drugs beside you. Sometimes I can’t close my eyes.”
After breakfast he goes to his volunteer job at a charity shop. “They don’t know I’m homeless,” he says. “I don’t look homeless. I don’t drink or do drugs. I’m trying to keep busy.” Does he mind me using his name? “No. Being homeless isn’t something to be ashamed of.”
Over the course of the morning, I’m told stories about family estrangement and involuntary incarceration. I’m told what it’s like not being listened to or respected. And I’m also told of small kindnesses and gentle victories. I’m conscious that I’m asking more questions than the staff do.
The whole ethos at the day centre is non-judgmental and asking too many questions can scare people away.
The last time Br Kevin questioned anyone about why they were here, he says, was four years ago. “I saw this woman coming up to collect food in a car and I said, ‘Is there a need for you to be coming here when you have a car?’ It turned out her husband was after beating her up and throwing her out. She was living in the car. It was her home... Nobody would queue up here for food unless they needed to.”
Flat burned out
Christine and Jason’s flat was burned out on Sunday night. It was set on fire by a former friend. Christine shows me burns beneath gauze bandages on her neck. They’re sleeping in a doorway on Grafton Street with their burly friend Brian. Brian has also taken two Scottish buskers under his wing.
“They were sleeping two doorways down and hadn’t eaten in two days,” says Brian. “They didn’t know where to go. We brought them up here for food and a shower.”
The Scottish couple, a messy-haired young man in a leather coat and a small, young woman in a woolly hat, are pale and softly spoken.
“There’s no reason to go hungry in Dublin,” says Brian, “even if you’re homeless.” Brian is on methadone. He shows me his tattooed, track-mark-free arms. His father, he tells me, is a drug counsellor who worked closely with Tony Gregory.
He explains the logistics of sleeping in a doorway. “You pile up a bed of cardboard this high,” he says, holding out his hands about six inches apart.
Is it cold? “In winter your hands actually lock with the cold,” he says, but it’s not too bad at the moment and body heat helps. He’s bedding in the same doorway as Christine and Jason.
“She was on the outside last night and I was on the inside, nice and warm,” says Brian with a laugh. “She sometimes gets jealous and gives me a clatter.”
“This will be all over the paper tomorrow!” says Christine.
“No shame in that,” says Brian. “There’s no shame in being homeless.”
Nothing to fear here
Anthony Crowley isn’t homeless but things are tight. He lives in a bedsit “the size of this table”. He’s worked since he was 12 and has been involved in construction and antique trading. He praises the day centre and he’s well-informed and political. He doesn’t want me to dehumanise any of the people I talk to. He wants “middle class people” to know that they should have nothing to fear coming here if they need to.”
“The people at this table have been successes at different points in their lives,” he says. “In Ireland, you are two steps away from having nowhere to live, with just the clothes you stand in. I know everyone here. I mightn’t know all their names but we know each other. They’ve been through the wars and they’ve lost their illusions, but they’re good people.”
As I leave, he calls: “Don’t go printing sob stories. Nobody benefits from sob stories. Print the truth.”
To donate to or volunteer at the Capuchin Day Centre call (01) 8720770