Homeless in the Covid-19 era: ‘We all feel a bit queer, clammy, fluey’

Homeless people are a particularly vulnerable group during a pandemic

Earlier this week, this paper published a letter from four homeless men highlighting their difficulties self-isolating in the coronavirus crisis. One of those men was 59-year-old Ray Halpin, an adult education co-ordinator at the Lourdes Youth and Community Centre in north Dublin.

“Now we’re told we can stay here if we choose,” he says, “but for 12 days we were out there exposed to this virus”.

Halpin became homeless at the end of February when, after 19 years, his landlord said he needed his house for his daughter. In the floor of the hostel where he currently lives there are six cubicles with two men to a cubicle. These are doorless to ensure people with addictions aren’t using drugs.

There’s no kitchen so they’re dependent on food from charities. Halpin would prefer to buy and cook his own food. He praises the staff and says he gets on well with the other men.

One of the other signatories of the letter is a banquet manager at the Shelbourne, the other two are a bus driver and translator for Facebook. "Muslims, gays, straights – it's like all of Irish society," he says. "There's gallows humour here, we're all laughing . . . but it's very serious. A lot of fellas are worrying about their families."

Halpin was in a unique position to see the city slowly shut down. “As more and more people realised they had to self-isolate, the city began to empty, and the few places left open were overcrowded. These places were possibly infested with the bloody virus.

"So we watched the life of the city gradually dwindling away day by day to the point where last Saturday and Sunday were the most distressing and desolate days of my life, walking around a dead city for 12 hours on end. I walked out to Sandymount on Saturday, and to Howth on Sunday. If we are carriers, we were carrying the thing with us."

Halpin is a former Siptu organiser, and so writing a letter and organising his friends came naturally to him. At the time of writing this article, he texted me to say that he is now symptomatic and is waiting for a test. He believes that everyone in hostels like his should be tested urgently.

“We all feel a bit queer, slightly clammy, a bit run down, a bit fluey. The lads won’t say anything because they’re worried that we’ll just be booted straight out. I’m saying, let’s stick together, let’s take care of each other.”

Rough sleepers

The most vulnerable homeless people are those rough sleeping. Ciaran King is the manager of the outreach team for Dublin Simon, who are still operating a service from seven in the morning until one at night. "We go out in partnership with Safetynet [a medical charity], trying to track down our client group, who are sometimes hard to reach, getting them to attend the mobile health unit.

“There is a plan for cocooning or quarantining certain clients who are poorly in general . . . Some of the advice is a bit remote because self-distancing isn’t possible if you’re sharing a tent . . . If you’re sharing a crack pipe there are now extra risks. . .

“We’re mindful that they have complex mental health needs. We’re communicating what’s important for them and what we can do to help them. Then the HSE and Safetynet are gathering a list of everyone, broadly assessing who is most in need and trying to prevent them getting it in the first place.”

Many of the services have had to change how they operate to keep people safe. Operators like The Capuchin Day Centre and Focus Ireland Coffee Shop where homeless people would usually gather for meals are now distributing food parcels and information.

“They’re trying to avoid 50 people with poor health sitting around a table,” says King. “Night shelters have gone 24 hours and have food onsite. The methadone service is ongoing . . . We’re used to getting phone calls about snow or storms but it’s strange to be dealing with a crisis that might go on for months.”

Dublin Simon has staff from all over the world, he says, “who have sick family members they’re worried about but who put that aside and go out and help people”.

Neil Moore has been homeless for 6½ years. He has been living in a Peter McVerry Trust hostel sharing a room with three men, though he is soon to get his own place. He suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and sleep apnoea, which puts him in a high-risk group for the virus. He also has schizophrenia.

“The McVerry staff are honestly brilliant,” he says. “The minute there was talk of Covid-19, they put up posters and got loads of alcohol wipes . . . But the distancing thing can’t happen in a hostel. People are on top of each other. There are 120 men in there . . . There’s a lot of mental health stuff in the hostel. Some wouldn’t wash themselves and they’d have to be told.”

Was he worried? “We had a communal area and we’d sit there wondering who’d catch it first,” he says. “I started thinking someone in the house had it. All the lads did. They’d say, ‘What are the signs of it?’ And they’d start listing it off . . . Other people in the room started coughing and picking up chest infections.

“I suffer from paranoid schizophrenia and agoraphobia, so couldn’t sleep till five o’clock in the morning, listening to people coughing . . . I’d be very worried about people on the streets.”

The day before we spoke, Moore was told he needed to be isolated due to his COPD. What he didn’t realise, he says, was that he was temporarily getting a two-bedroom flat. “It’s beautiful,” he says. “They’re allowing me stay here for three weeks.”

How is he coping with his schizophrenia? “I’m medically compliant,” he says. “I hear four different voices . . . it’s relentless . . . all day long. [The medication] stops the overthinking . . . the voices are still there, but kind of numbed.”

Moore facilitates a support group called Hearing Voices Dublin and is currently missing those meetings. And he’s really missing visits with his teenaged daughter and cinema trips with his 12-year-old son. He’d like company.

Supported units

Pat Doyle is the chief executive of the Peter McVerry Trust. The charity has been asked to manage isolation beds for the Dublin Regional Homelessness Executive's co-ordinated plan to protect the city's homeless. "Those who are in their own supported units are being encouraged to self-isolate," he says. "It's more complicated for those who live in a congregated setting. Within the Trust's own catchment of 1,600 people that's 33 per cent of them. A number of our clients are immunocompromised which has resulted in a number of unprecedented measures."

Throughout Dublin’s homelessness services, staff and resources are being reallocated in order to look after those most at risk. He praises the professionalism of his staff. They have a freephone number for staff who are worried about the illness and an online training programme to fast-track volunteers. He stresses the need for quick testing to be made available for front-line staff.

Isolation beds are for those who are most at risk, those who test positive, and those who are awaiting test results.

“We’ve had six positive cases to date, two of our own and four from across the sector. They’ll remain in isolation . . . Dublin Regional Housing Executive [DRHE] secured and are paying for the isolation units. And the HSE are supporting us . . . We won’t be able to protect everyone from this, but we can slow it down.”

Where are the isolation beds coming from? "The service itself has found 25 isolation beds in Dublin and eight in Kildare, " says Doyle. "On top of that, in partnership with the Dublin Regional Housing Executive and the HSE we've secured 110 apartment units, formerly Airbnb apartments, and we have identified an additional 26 apartments ourselves."

Two other facilities will be available soon, he says. The DRHE says, in a statement, that they have “sourced 160 self-contained apartments, 165 en-suite bedrooms in hotels and 300 [units of] adult single-occupancy accommodation.” All hostels are also now open 24 hours, they say, and food will be provided for places without cooking facilities.

Is it strange to Doyle that after years of a housing crisis, apartments are suddenly available to homeless people? “That is one of the ironies,” he says. “We’re putting families into hotels over the last three or four years and have been ringfencing large amounts of apartments for tourists.

“We were able to get our hands very easily on 110 apartments that are normally ringfenced for tourists, and yet we’re putting families into hotels . . . That’s been the eye-opener. The tourists are gone and all those owners are offering apartments for the Covid-19 crisis . . . At the end of this, some of those apartments need to remain available for families. We shouldn’t be putting any families into hotels.”