‘Tonight, like every night, homeless people in hope of a bed will call the freephone number’

TV review – RTÉ Investigates: Stuck In The Rough tells a tale of institutional dysfunction, Irish-style

A homeless man on Merrion Square in Dublin. Photograph: Laura Hutton/The Irish Times

A homeless man on Merrion Square in Dublin. Photograph: Laura Hutton/The Irish Times

 

RTÉ Investigates: Stuck In The Rough (RTÉ One, 9.35pm) is of course shocking and maddening to watch. But this frontline account of life on the streets of Dublin over the past several months also tells a tale of institutional dysfunction and red tape run amok.

At one point, a Government minister even appears to insist black is white when presented with reports of non-Dublin residents denied emergency accommodation in the capital. Welcome to Kafka-on-Liffey.

The plight of those without a roof over their heads is humanised as we meet Dan Orlovs, 20. Originally from Eastern Europe he grew up in Kildare but is now homeless in Dublin. Kildare is described as part of “greater Dublin” when it suits the government (to artificially inflate the city’s “metro” population, for instance). But if you’re homeless, Celbridge or Leixlip may as well be on the far side of the moon for all the difference it makes to the authorities. 

This we discover as Dan and Joe Nolan, 59, from Carlow, both try to secure emergency accommodation. “Exactly that’s the problem here? I don’t need the story,” the operator tells Nolan and eventually hangs up. On the night in question there are 75 free beds. Nolan goes to sleep crying in a freezing car park.

The documentary next plunges into the uncanny parallel universe that is Irish bureaucracy. “I would firstly apologise to those two gentlemen. That shouldn’t have happened,” Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage Darragh O’Brien tells reporter Kieran Dineen.

“Secondly, what I would say is I’ve been very clear: there is no barrier to any person who needs emergency accommodation.”  

O’Brien has put these instructions in writing to the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive. On RTÉ Investigates, its director Bob Jordan says the organisation is taking the letter “extremely seriously” and reviews every request for accommodation on a “case by case” basis. But, he adds, DRHE is “not responsible for providing homeless accommodation for everybody in the country”.

Not everyone wants to sleep in a hostel. Natalie, 39, says she would rather live in a tent by the canal than in temporary accommodation. The risk of bullying, robbery or worse is just too high (on her previous stay someone stole all her cash as she slept). 

One surprise is that pandemic does not feature more prominently. The film was shot immediately before and after Christmas. Has coronavirus impacted on the homeless community? Does it increase the dangers of hostel accommodation? These questions are not posed. 

The plight of the homeless in Ireland is, however, contrasted with the situation in Finland, where the problem has been significantly reduced through an emphasis on housing people long-term rather than putting them in emergency accommodation. 

“It’s now based on permanent housing and not on temporary accommodation, which doesn’t end homelessness. It’s a band-aid,” said Juha Kaakinen, the chief executive of Y-Foundation, a Finnish homeless charity. 

Ireland also has an “housing first” policy. But it’s clear that, at least in terms of dealing with homelessness, Nordic efficiency goes a lot further than the Irish equivalent. 

“Tonight, just like every night homeless people will call the freephone number in the hope of getting a bed,” says Dineen just before the end credits. It’s a sobering conclusion to a stark film that, just under the surface, simmers with justifiable rage. 

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