Housing a homeless spirit
An essay and a poem about homelessness by Paul Casey, taken from Looking at the Stars, an anthology in aid of the Simon Community
Paul Casey: Homelessness must have long entered and altered my DNA. The whole world at some point had become home. Not living for longer than two years anywhere had made a shape-shifter of me
Where are you from boyo? You’re not from Cork, you can’t be, not with an accent like that.
There must be endless reasons for being homeless. Countless forms of homelessness. A hundred million people physically so. In 2005, the year this statistic emerged, I returned to Ireland to settle, after six years working in South Africa. Uprooting wasn’t a new experience. Upheaving, upping and going became a speciality in fact, having been on the move since five months of age. For over three decades I adapted to new worlds, accents, attitudes, ignoring the need to relax the roots. Feet always itching, ever hungry for the world, I was caught between the thrill of discovery and a desperate need to end the cycle of transience and abandonment which had defined me. Between wanderlust and a yearning for stillness, I was trapped by a merciless and incessant homelessness of the heart. Always on the outside, I’d become a pariah from ‘normal life’, a walking ghost estate.
In 1968, at three months, my parents moved to London, unable to further their careers at home. My maternal grandmother took care of me until they settled and collected me two months later. And so it was that my life of world travel began. Of identity travel. ‘Come to Sunny Zambia’, caught my father’s eye in a newspaper and soon we were airborne. I had my first birthday in Kitwe, where we became denizens of a young, closely-knit ex-pat community. We later moved to Lusaka and made lifelong friendships with families from Dublin, Down, Galway, Waterford, Limerick and other counties. As a thirty-third county adrift, we lived in a scorching, dusty microcosm of Ireland. Céilís, hoolies, swimming and barbeques, even hurling matches filled my formative years in the dry heat of peaceful Zambia.
A perk of my dad’s job meant I would attend boarding school in Kildare. By eight, I was jet-setting thrice a year with my Irish-African pals, under the watchful eye of doting British Caledonian chaperones. I had become an actual adventurer, spending breaks with grandparents in Cork, or with family friends in Dublin or Waterford. At the end of fifth class I received a letter proclaiming I was to fly to South Africa. I never returned to Zambia or to school in Kildare and lost all contact with my friends, but the thrilling promise of new experience soon dulled any pangs of separation – a feeling I became very intimate with over the decades to come. I entered high school two years younger than my new classmates and clumsily, shyly passed five years in De La Salle high school (run by Irish brothers) to enter my matriculation year at fifteen. I was a firm, reticent outsider. After a year as a bank clerk, I was conscripted into the South African military at seventeen, where I served as a medical soldier. For almost twenty years after that, I worked variously in or travelled through over two dozen countries, most significantly South Africa, England, Switzerland, France, Canada and Japan, including counties Galway and Cork, finally teaching in Port Elizabeth until 2005. By that time I had decided that Ireland was the only place that held any chance of settling me down, so I finished up at the Nelson Mandela University and headed back for the auld sod.
Homelessness must have long entered and altered my DNA. The whole world at some point had become home. Not living for longer than two years anywhere had made a shape-shifter of me. A survivalist, armed with a broad range of experience and work history – over fifty different jobs (mainly contractual) including running my own multimedia company. With my pockets full of learning and languages it soon transpired that I was ‘overqualified’ for most positions – either that, or I wasn’t settled enough. After spending my last few bobs hunting for jobs, I turned to the state. But the state had built around itself a wall of European Habitual Residency bricks, cemented with blanket, couldn’t-care-less laws and plastered with inept and negligent welfare administration. This new, pan-EU law, Habitual Residency Condition (HRC), meant I would not be entitled to assistance until I was back for two years. Within weeks I was without means and was advised to rely on my Cork family until I was employed, or the sentence served. I refused, had to appeal and to do so, embraced homelessness. And while it was no huge deal to me personally, being unattached as I was and an eight-year-old adventurer again, I saw it a rite of passage. Paying my dues. And the perfect chance to acquaint myself intimately with the capital (not the real capital of course!).
I spent the bulk of my days applying for work and researching my appeals at agencies like Crosscare, on free computers at help centres or libraries. Spent as much time in galleries and museums, libraries and parks, countless hours on the Grand Canal hanging with Paddy Kavanagh, hours on the Royal grumbling to Behan. I read dozens of collections by Irish poets I’d never heard of and got to know a very different Dublin to the one I’d known as a schoolboy. That huge warmth seemed to have escaped the city somehow, soul splintered out into the suburbs. But I found the heart of Dublin beating as fiercely as ever along the benches of the boardwalk, at the homeless hostel dinner tables, at poetry nights and art exhibitions.
I couldn’t prove that Ireland was my ‘centre of interest’. The chief appeals officer from the HSE and their lawyer sat me down and told me as much, even after I’d appealed as Gaeilge. The only Dáil Éireann member I contacted for help was then Deputy Michael D. Higgins. Within days he seconded his legal secretary to appeal on my behalf - an appeal which, along with six others I made, was rejected outright. I managed to land an eight-week scriptwriting tutorship at Filmbase, Temple Bar (€100 per session!), while sleeping rough, without their knowledge. My family didn’t find out until six years later. It took eight levels of appeal in as many months.
Initially, I was let into homeless shelters, mainly Cedar House on Abbey Street (super people!), with the Asylum Seekers Unit throwing me a few bob each week. Later I was confined to the night buses, which might drop me at one of any number of temporary shelters. And was soon denied those too. My name entered a list of closed doors - and all this at the height of the ‘boom’. Ireland of the warm welcomes was now ‘Ireland of the ‘fuck off to wherever you came from and don’t bother coming back, we have our own problems.’ Yes, too right you do. My eyes were wide from blatant xenophobia and racism, reminding me acutely of Johannesburg. Dublin sang with a strained, conflicted whimper, shivering from its new sanctuaries within the souls of the dispossessed. Dispossessed that is, by the nouveau obsessed.
Most days I enjoyed a full meal at the Capuchin Day Centre, sometimes at Focus Ireland, at night headed for St. Stephen’s Green for soup ‘n’ sandwiches from Simon, who handed me an arctic-ready sleeping bag when I eventually went completely rough. Thank the stars for Simon. For all people who give a damn. Without those truly concerned, human Simon faces, my faith in humanity - in the world-renowned Irish humanity I’d for so long been proud of - would have crumbled, and a cynical self triumphed. Most of my possessions including backpack and passport were stolen. I was offered showers and new clothes if I needed them in the life-giving Homeless Person’s Units. For those last four months I slept under bridges, in doorways and parks, sometimes on friend’s floors. But most often at my favourite spot inside the Irish Life building, beneath the vivid Sweeney Astray mosaic, which was sadly removed in 2013 for safety reasons after storm damage. It’s where I felt safest of all during those uncertain months. I felt an affinity with the wandering Sweeney in that inner courtyard where I’d clocked the perfect timing to slip under the metal doors before they rolled down at 10.30pm, promising me solitude until dawn, and where I was king of the partly-covered courtyard and a cornucopia of barely-smoked butts to top up my pouch, with abundance. It was there I opened myself up to the stars, where I thought and felt and slept more deeply than I could remember.
My health had taken a hit by the end of it. I was at my wits end after the Homeless Unit turned a blind eye to an EU directive, which had insisted the HRC be implemented more fairly by a certain date that February. It wasn’t. So I hobbled up to the Ministry for Justice and spat on the plaque, deliberately getting arrested to qualify for legal representation. I wouldn’t recommend this strategy generally, but it worked. Three days later the Homeless Unit phoned me to say I could claim welfare and rent allowance. I was finally home.
home more or less
for the home-less
There lies all the time in the world
in the stone of a winter doorway.
The city has its own dream,
and talks in its sleep, softly.
A low drone of summer bees
in harmony somewhere far away, vibrates
just where my sleeping bag meets the ground.
Wings ache. Have forgotten their purpose.
Rest is the only prize now.
And soon it is the dark morning.
Having only rediscovered stillness
the promise of that other world stirs
sweeping away the oh-so-close nirvana
from this womb of generous sleep.
I will return soon, soft stone
to whisper into your tired ears a blessing
for that soul I may never meet
who left this fruit and steaming tea.
This essay and poem are taken from Looking at the Stars, an anthology in aid of the Simon Community, edited by Kerrie O’Brien, priced €15, with every cent going to the charity. It is avaialble to buy from Books Upstairs, Dubray and The Gutter Bookshop in Dublin. There will be a reading in association with Looking At The Stars on Saturday, November 12th, at 6pm in Smock Alley Theatre as part of Dublin Book Festival. Rick O’ Shea will host the event with contributors Joseph O’ Connor, Mary O’ Donnell, Colin Barrett and Tara Flynn followed by a discussion and signing. This is event is free but booking is required. Copies of the anthology will be for sale on the night. There will also be a Cork reading in association with O’ Bhéal on Monday, November 28th