'When I came to Ireland I trusted people. Not any more'
ANDREAS TILTS HIS HEAD up towards the strip lights in the kitchen. “Here,” he says, rubbing three fingertips across scarring just behind his left ear. “Here. Bottle,” he says with a heavy Polish accent. With the point of his thumb he shows how the glass beer bottle was stabbed into his throat. Behind him other middle-aged men sit over rickety tables eating yogurt or rice, or playing cards.
“At the Liffey,” he says. The boardwalk? “Yeah, boardwalk. He was drunk too.” He shrugs. “Life is brutal, you know?”
The Santa Maria off Harcourt Street in Dublin is the city’s only homeless hostel specifically for foreign nationals. Here are Hungarians, Slovaks, lots of Polish people, Lithuanians, one Spaniard and, some nights, a Nepalese man.
It’s men only, 50 at capacity, all of whom have been accessing homeless services for two years or more. There are 47 medium-term beds and three night-to-night beds with a different head on the pillow every night. Three floors, four or five beds per room, mostly bunks. Opened six months ago, it is due to close in the coming weeks. An existing hostel with 35 beds in the north inner city is to be assigned to migrants.
“Started drinking after Iraq,” says Andreas. “Got home, met an Irish girl in Poland, quit military, came here and bought an apartment with her.” That was in August 2006. Since then, Andreas has had a turbulent life, experiencing post-traumatic stress, drink, debt, break-ups, legal actions, job losses, the boardwalk stabbing and homelessness.
Depaul Ireland runs the hostel. One of the staff opens Andreas’s locker for him so he can get his documents. He lays the papers out carefully and quietly under lamplight in the TV room.
“Look,” he says as he leafs through one document, pointing out parts. It’s an official English translation of his army service record, 1987 to 2005. It includes details of the senior ranks he has achieved, months spent in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, and a long list of the weapons he is trained to use.
“See? Not all of us bad in here,” he says quietly so as not to interrupt others’ viewing.
The doors open at 5pm; the last man has to be out by 9.30am. By 6pm the atmosphere is jovial. Many of the men come in in high spirits after drinking for much of the day. The staff take away any alcohol at entry. They label it with the owner’s name and returned to them in the morning. Drunkenness is tolerated, but not drinking.
The men’s tipples of choice are cheap wine, cheaper vodka or a rubbing alcohol found on the shelves of some of the shops run by immigrants around the city. It’s the preferred drink of some of the men because it’s so cheap. Some regularly drink hand sanitiser diluted with water if it’s all they can afford that day.
“Not me. Beer or vodka only. I want to live 10 years more,” Andreas says.
Many of the men came to Ireland in the past 10 years looking for work.
Andreas was a night security guard. Chris did scaffolding. Ladislav was a farmhand. Damius laboured on sites. Nik was a bricklayer.
“CV, CV, CV.” Ladislav falooks like he’s dealing a deck of cards. “No job. They say, ‘old man’, no job.” He turned 50 this year.
Until autumn 2009 he was working on a farm in Trim, Co Meath, with some fellow Slovaks. No work since then, savings gone, he says. A friend told him there were more services for the homeless and more chance of work in Dublin. So, like many who find themselves homeless in Ireland, he headed to the capital.
“One month, call nightbus every night,” he says as he rolls a cigarette. “Maybe sleeping bag three nights, every week,” he says, explaining that he couldn’t get a hostel bed every night back then. “No sleep. Dublin city, walking daytime, looking for money, for cigarettes, on ground. No beg,” he says, cupping his hands together. “No beg, not me.”
Most of the men with assigned beds have no means of income. Depaul Ireland says fewer than 15 of the 50 are entitled to social welfare.
Most of the other 35 men have worked and remain entitled to work in Ireland, but they get no social welfare as they don’t meet “habitual residency conditions”. These are based on a person’s length of residence in Ireland, patterns of employment, their intentions, the reasons for any absences from the country since arriving, and whether the inspector from the Department of Social Protection accepts Ireland is their “main centre of interest”.
Damius is from Lithuania. He arrives each night, signs his name in the book, hangs his coat on the kitchen door, gets some of the food the kitchen assistant has made that day and sits down at one of the six small tables. When he has eaten he takes a copy of Metro Herald from his book bag, flips through to the “Start the Day” page and begins the sudoku.
It’s seven years since he arrived in Ireland. “In Lithuania I was a manager. I brought my computing diplomas and certs here with me, but no one believed them.” He worked as a labourer in Dublin until that dried up. It soon became clear his employer had been pocketing money instead of paying his PSRI. With no proof of his years working in Ireland, he has no welfare entitlements.
“When I came to Ireland I trusted people. Not any more; too many liars.” Now he keeps to himself. “You have to keep moving, keep looking for jobs, for classes, for courses.” Those who don’t, he believes, turn to alcohol. “If you give up, you get depressed, you drink.”
During the day he goes to internet cafes, applies for jobs online and hands around CVs. “ ‘We’ll bear you in mind’: I hear that so much.”
What about returning to Lithuania? “There’s no hope there. I’ve no family there any more, no hope of starting over.” He says he is staying in Ireland, despite his circumstances. It’s a feeling held by nearly all the men in the hostel.
“I’ve been here nearly seven years,” says Andreas. “This is where I want to be. The past is gone now; now I look to what’s next. Soon I will get a place, an apartment, and sort it out.”
“No jobs here now, yes, but nothing in Slovakia. No hope,” says Ladislav. “Nothing to go back for, not for men like me.”
“There’s no point to try and start again now; it’s been too long,” says Damius. “When you start something you have to finish it.”
Home help Rising number of foreigners in need
The most recent figures available for the number of migrants accessing homeless services in Dublin are from 2008. A report that year, entitled Counted in 2008, identified 303 foreign nationals in the 2,366 people surveyed, and about 13 per cent of them responded to the question on country of origin. A further 444 did not state a nationality.
According to the report, “historically, Dublin has not had a large proportion of migrants experiencing homelessness. However, there is evidence that this situation is changing”.
People working in homeless services say the proportion of foreigners accessing services has increased significantly since then.
Focus Ireland and Merchant’s Quay jointly run a drop-in centre that provides free food in the evenings. The services manager, John O’Hare, says almost one in three users are non-Irish. “It’s 30 per cent or so now, and that has definitely increased in recent years,” he says.
Kerry Anthony, the chief executive of Depaul Ireland, says “more and more, it’s people from Eastern Europe and farther afield accessing services”. No figures broken down by nationality are available. In 2006, a report on service users from the 10 EU accession states found that 65 per cent were Polish, and it appears that figure remains broadly the same.
The 2008 report also noted “serious concerns” about the proportion of migrants in the rough-sleeping population; 12 per cent of homeless migrants were sleeping rough, compared with 4 per cent of homeless Irish people. It also noted migrants face “multiple disadvantages” in getting out of homeless services. They are often not entitled to be on the housing list, nor to access longer-term housing, due to their social-welfare status.
“While hostels help people get inside and get a structure to their lives, they can only improve conditions in the short term,” says Anthony. “It’s important now that we look at ways of getting people into more long-term housing or work, or if they want, assist them in returning with dignity to their country of birth.”
Lisa Kelleher of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, which has responsibility for overseeing homeless services in the capital, says the executive is committed to responding to the needs of migrants.
“We provide temporary accommodation to those who are in need, and we work with other service providers to try and establish status and eligibility, including referrals to the Department of Social Protection, for further action and decision,” she says.