Homeless in lockdown: ‘I sat today on O’Connell Street and just cried’

Being homeless during the pandemic has meant increased isolation and loneliness

Ronan is sitting outside Dublin's Gaiety Theatre on two sleeping bags, beside the brass moulded handprints of Luciano Pavarotti and Maureen Potter. On the street his nickname is "Donegal" but this annoys him slightly "because I'm not from Donegal. I'm from just over the Border".

Ronan has been homeless for a long time. In the past he worked as a telecoms engineer. He's bearded and wears a woollen poncho. "Some wee fellas from Trinity College gave me this about half an hour ago," he says. "Fair play to them. It's kind of Mexican, isn't it?"

He has crosses tattooed on his fingers. He used to draw them there, “for my prayers. I pray all the time. Anytime someone gives me something, I bless myself”.

I never want to set foot in this city again. There are lots of good people on the streets and I know I'm not a bad person but it's all too much

He tells me about life on the streets through lockdown. “The first [lockdown] it was very hard. Because you’re on the streets and everyone is ignoring you… I remember sitting outside Powerscourt [townhouse] and people were just walking in the middle of the road to avoid you. You already feel like sh*t. You don’t need that.”

He has been moved around a bit. He used to have a tent at the canal but the council took it away. Like many rough sleepers he doesn’t like hostels. “Crazy people on ketamine and crystal meth. I don’t need that… I don’t get cold. My body is completely acclimatised.”

Does the lockdown make the city lonelier? “No, because not many people speak to you anyway,” he says. “The nice people do, because they get to know you... It’s hard. I sat today on O’Connell street and just cried, just depression. I’ve always had anxiety. My mate, he’s from the north as well, he walked down here today and was sitting over there and my nerves just went and I just threw up everywhere. It just gets on top of you.”

He's tired of Dublin. He has been accepted for an alcohol detox programme (once he gets a Covid test) and he hopes that they put him in a supported unit in Galway. "I never want to set foot in this city again. There are lots of good people on the streets and I know I'm not a bad person but it's all too much."

I'm walking around a deserted Dublin city centre with the Dublin Simon Community's Outreach team. I'm with manager Ciaran King, support workers Paul Gibbons and Nathan Smyth and communication executive Caoimhe O'Connell. Right now it feels like there are tents all over the city but King says there aren't really more rough sleepers. "It's just that people are on the main streets rather than in private corners."

With the shops closed people are no longer being moved on first thing in the morning. Some kind business owners have been actively welcoming, making sure the people who sleep in their doorways are okay. Gibbons knows of one publican who has let people sleep in his beer garden. The outreach team’s job is to place rough sleepers, find hostels and services that suit them and, in the meantime, help them with their physical and practical needs. Everyone we meet knows and likes them.

Looking at the big picture, the Covid-19 response from the country's homeless services worked quite well. Pat Doyle, chief executive of The Peter McVerry Trust, oversaw the Covid isolation services for homeless people with suspected Covid. Some 2,040 people went through that system, spending at least 14 days there – and 20 per cent of those were Covid positive. As a result, levels of the virus among the homeless population were kept low. "While we had them in isolation it gave us an opportunity to work on other issues which we wouldn't have a chance to work on if they weren't housebound for two weeks," says Doyle. "About 250 people got support around their addiction while they were there… It also gave us opportunities to work on people with mental health issues."

There was a similar upside when it came to the many medically vulnerable homeless people that were “shielded” in specially requisitioned single-bed apartments and hotel rooms. Furthermore, 30 people have left shielding facilities to go to permanent homes with 480 people in total moving on from McVerry’s services to permanent housing and 139 families moving on from the family hubs over that time.

There was one day on Grafton Street at the start of the pandemic when I was begging and I only saw three people all day

Much of this newly available housing was previously let on Airbnb and Doyle worries that all this progress will be undone when tourism revives. “We’ve talked to the Minister about how we think the eviction ban needs to be reviewed again in July,” he says. “And we also need to look at legislating or controlling the amount of property that can be put into Airbnb.”

Doyle is also aware of how desperately difficult the isolation and loneliness of lockdown has been for vulnerable homeless people on the empty streets of Dublin. There’s no one to beg from, sell the Big Issue to or, more importantly, simply talk to. “One of our lads said after he came out of a coma after he was dragged out of the Liffey that he couldn’t believe someone jumped in after him. He couldn’t believe that somebody actually noticed him.”

Chris lives in one of three tents pitched on the footpath on a corner in Dublin 2. He has been homeless on and off for six years, not always in Dublin. “[The lockdown] is madness for a normal person but it’s really madness for a homeless person,” he says.

The silence, he says, was very strange. “It’s funny, I always wake up when I hear the first bus and then I know what time it is in the morning.”

Begging has become very challenging and Chris, for complex reasons, doesn't get social welfare. "There was one day on Grafton Street at the start of the pandemic when I was begging and I only saw three people all day," he says. "I actually did some labouring last week in Blanchardstown, but it was cash-in-hand and they weren't giving me enough wages. I was making more money begging, basically."

He’s not from Dublin. Why did he come here? “I had family problems and addiction problems and I had to leave. I thought I’d make a better life for myself here.”

The city has felt more dangerous with fewer people in it, he says. "I beg but some people shoplift and some people rob… Now there's nothing to shoplift and they're not going to beg, so they steal… I've had my shoes stolen. I've had my clothes stolen. Every time I leave my tent, I take a risk of what's in it being taken. And then I have to go to the Simon Community for sleeping bags."

He gestures to the other tents. “There’s sort of safety in numbers isn’t there? I watch their things when they’re away from the tent and they watch my stuff.”

He points at a big Georgian house across the street. “The neighbours across the road bring me tea and toast and get me stuff from the shop. I don’t have money to buy luxuries.”

He survives, he says, because of kind people. “There’s a woman I know, Collette, a lovely woman and she does the Monday night [food run] on Grafton Street. It’s absolutely brilliant – chicken, meatballs, and a goodie bag as well... She likes me. She’s gone out of her way to help me.”

He hasn’t been looking after himself very well, he says. Recently he accidentally overdosed. “It’s not like me to do something like that. I’m not in my right frame of mind. Apparently, I was in [hospital] for three or four days.”

He tells us that the chat is cheering him up. He’s lonely here, he says. “I was talking to a woman the other day in the park when it was pumping with people. And I was saying to her, ‘I’m really glad to see this.’ The park was fun. Kids were playing music through speakers and everybody was just happy.”

I ask Ciaran King if he thinks the city has become more dangerous for homeless people over the past year. “Henry Street was seeing a lot of antisocial behaviour,” he says. “Someone randomly went down Henry Street kicking tents and one of the guys got a black eye.”

“There have been a few tents set on fire as well,” says Gibbons.

The Dublin Simon Community has also seen some of the benefits of the Covid measures mentioned by Pat Doyle. As well as special shielding accommodation for the medically vulnerable there are more emergency beds available to ensure too many people aren't sleeping together in the same rooms. Single night-only emergency hostel stays are also seen as a Covid risk so homeless people are currently getting longer stays. This means they don't get sent back out on to the street first thing the morning after arriving and it means that staff get an opportunity to get to know and work with them for longer.

The way it is now with the pandemic they're providing homeless people with hostels but the problem with the hostels is, I became addicted to drugs

Bronadh O'Brien is the service manager at Dublin Simon Community's Harcourt Street Hostel which provides supported temporary accommodation. Under the new rules they've had fewer clients and less movement from hostel to hostel. "So we had more time to spend with them… The relationship building was lovely.'"

Due to the changing realities on the street they saw some people who would never have chosen to come into a hostel before. One woman came in for the first time because the kind pub bouncers that usually kept an eye on her were no longer working. “[She was] an entrenched rough sleeper in really bad physical health, mental health, alcoholism,” says O’Brien. “She wouldn’t sleep in a room. She didn’t feel like she deserved a bedroom. A mixture of that and maybe the isolation of being alone in the room… We sustained her placement into the new year... We just wanted to get her physically well. She improved so much. A lot of her sores healed. Her hands were raw… all of that healed. She was eating well.”

In general, O’Brien says, extra resources meant lots of things have worked much more smoothly over the last year (she specifically mentions a new rapid methadone access programme). But there are also significant downsides. “A lot of trauma resurfacing... Partly the lack of street drugs but maybe the isolation, the loneliness…. The isolation from family and friends. At the end of the year one lad’s mam died after she had dementia and was in hospital and he couldn’t phone her… or go to the hospital to see her.”

Along the Grand Canal, young people are gathered in groups drinking and listening to music. Some of them mistake the Outreach team in their Dublin Simon Community jackets for Garda and hide their drinks as we pass. On the verge of the canal, across from the Hilton Hotel are three tents. Between two of the tents two men sit drinking wine by a table with a vase of flowers on it.

“Take a seat,” says Alan, who is 30. His partner, John, is 45 and came to Dublin from Kerry two-and-a-half years ago. They’re engaged to be married in September after meeting two years ago. These aren’t their real names. They have been here for two months with their friend who Alan calls “Mr C”. “You can just call us the Three Musketeers,” says Alan. “The way it is now with the pandemic they’re providing homeless people with hostels but the problem with the hostels is, I became addicted to drugs. I didn’t take drugs before going in. Heroin… ecstasy, tablets.”

“He nearly lost his life four times over,” says John.

“So we stopped using the hostels,” says Alan. He has other addictions. His homelessness, he says, was a consequence of a gambling problem. “And now I’m a born-again alcoholic,” he says, holding up a bottle of wine. John also has issues with drink.

Alan was once very involved in politics and he has strong views on the housing crisis. “They’re paying €700 a week on the hostels per person,” he says. “That’s €2,800 a month. You could put us up in an apartment for two grand and it would save the state €800 a month.”

They found the city centre much more dangerous during lockdown. In the first lockdown they say they were harassed by police. Then their friend Mr C was sleeping on South William Street when someone hit him with a hammer and stole Alan and John’s dog (Mr C would mind the dog for them). After that, they brought Mr C out here to the canal where he’d be safe. John was a boxer and Alan used to fight MMA. “We can look after ourselves.”

Mr C has come out of his tent now. “The table’s very nice,” I say. “We do our best,” says John.

“The flowers are for my Ma,” says Mr C, out of the tent now. “She’s up there.” He points to the heavens. He tells me about how, after being rained out of his tent and having all his stuff stolen, he spent Christmas alone under a tree. “No tent. No food. That was Christmas Day.”

What do they think of the young people partying on the far bank? “I think they’re legends,” says Alan. In fact, he and John have been attending the anti-lockdown protests. “The one thing about being homeless is you don’t have a 5k radius.”

Noel Owens, a taxi driver volunteering for the Feed Our Homeless food run, leans over the railing above our heads to offer the lads a cup of tea. "Two pints of Guinness please," says Alan, but he gratefully accepts the tea. He tells me they have plans to buy a boat. "We have the first investment made… The plan is we'll get the boat and put it over there and call it the Three Musketeers."

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