Homelessness in Ireland: ‘The difference between the homeless and you is just a twist of fate’

Gavin Holmes (61) was made homeless when his landlord sold his home while he was recovering from serious illness in hospital

Gavin Holmes from Limerick says he spent €14,000 on bills and rent while in hospital before his landlord sold his home. Photograph: Don Moloney

Gavin Holmes never thought he’d end up homeless. He worked hard, paid rent on time and did everything he was supposed to do. But when he got sick last year, everything changed.

“It all started when I had an illness that led to another illness which led to another illness. So I spent a few periods of time in the hospital,” he said.

The company he was working for paid him sick leave but then said it couldn’t pay any more as he spent a prolonged period in hospital.

“I spent over €14,000 of my own savings just on keeping the house and paying electricity bills while I wasn’t working and while I was lying in hospital,” he said.

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While in hospital, the 61-year-old was served with an eviction notice by his landlord who wanted to sell the property.

“It was terrifying. You’re not in a position to do anything. And then suddenly you get this news and you’re just lying in the [hospital] bed. I’m a single man with no family here besides some cousins that I don’t know. I’m not a person to ask for help,” he said.

Case study: ‘The difference between the homeless and you is just a twist of fate’Opens in new window ]

“The doctor asked me: ‘Where are you going to go when you get out of here?’ and I said ‘I don’t know, doc’.”

The doctor put Mr Holmes in touch with midwest Simon Community, who took him into a 50-man emergency accommodation hostel in Limerick called Oak Lodge. The idea of being in communal homeless accommodation was scary, he said, but it provided the security he desperately needed to recover.

“At least I knew I would have a roof over my head. You don’t have to worry about too much,” he added.

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Though living with so many people can be a challenge, there is also solidarity knowing that other people have experienced the same disruption in their lives, Mr Holmes said.

“Luckily, I’m fairly easy going. I pick and choose who I’m going to talk to. If there is someone who is without any form of integrity then I’ll say hello to him, but I won’t become buddies really. In 50 people, you’re going to find one or two you’re not going to like or, in my case, it’s more likely who aren’t going to like you,” he added.

Mr Holmes spends time painting, and in the garden, but the biggest event in the Oak Lodge centre is chess.

“It’s almost like a mini hurling game. You have everyone around two people playing chess, and they make comments. I was surprised by the ability of people. I used to be a fairly good chess player and we have guys who can give me a whipping,” he laughed.

“Chess isn’t a game for idiots. A lot of people in there have more integrity than people I used [to know]. They are good people and I think that’s why they got a hard blow. There are so many good people in there. You hear all these stories, but it’s not like that. It’s a big age range.”

He has since been moved to Clann Nua, a co-living housing model, which gives people experiencing long-term homelessness the opportunity to secure accommodation, while offering companionship, support and security that minimises isolation and breaks the cycle of institutionalisation.

Mr Holmes is doing well in his new accommodation. He said he learned a lot in the more than six months since he lost his home, but the biggest change is his perception of homelessness and those it affects.

“What I preconceived before I became homeless was that homeless people were just lazy, addicts or drunken people. But they’re not. The difference between me, them, you or anybody else, was just a twist of fate.”

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is Health Correspondent of The Irish Times