‘I hope people will look at these photographs and see how homeless people like me have lost nearly everything, but that we can still have a little bit of talent that we would like to nurture,” Ramblin’ Rose says.
Ramblin’ Rose prefers that her given name not be published. As she explains, “My nom de plume is Ramblin’ Rose because rambling is what I do from morning to evening. Some people like to use the term ‘vagabond’, but I don’t like that connotation.”
Ramblin' Rose, who is in her late 60s, is one of some 45 people in Dublin who are either homeless or on the fringes of homelessness who were given disposable cameras and invited to use them to record what they saw on their daily wanderings. Several of these photographs are now on display at Powerscourt Townhouse Centre in an exhibition called In Sight.
Ramblin’ Rose speaks in beautiful sentences peppered with surprising words such as “nom de plume” and “connotation”. Or rather, surprising if you don’t associate people on the fringes of homelessness with such a rich vocabulary and an accent that would be unremarkable in Brown Thomas. The evergreen truth is, there is no one type of homeless person.
Ramblin’ Rose arrives for her interview on a bitter day of hail showers, in bare legs, her bare feet in the type of sandals you see at the seaside. She wears a slide in her hair that is studded with a row of pearls, and two thin jackets over a green check shirt and a brown skirt. Beside her is a worn shopping bag filled with salvaged paper cups and newspapers and other items she keeps a close eye on.
“I’m from Carlow,” she says. “I’ve been in Dublin a very long time: since before the pope came to visit.”
She lives in a place she does not pay rent for, in what she describes as “very basic artisan accommodation, which I acquired derelict. It’s very damp. I do stretches and arm swings to warm up the blood before I go to sleep. My home isn’t by any stretch of the imagination for living in, so it’s absolutely only a place to sleep. There is no heating. It’s nowhere near the nurturing sanctuary it should be.”
Ramblin’ Rose’s accommodation sounds very like a squat. “For one reason or another, I haven’t got around to making the necessary improvements,” she says. “I have mental-health issues.” She has had what she describes as “a chequered work history, in tandem with my mental health issues”. At one point, she worked as a cook. “I went to England to train to be a nurse, but for one reason or another I didn’t get the exams, and it still eats away at me,” she says, adjusting her pearl slide and looking suddenly bereft.
Because her unheated accommodation is “not conducive to spending time in,” Ramblin’ Rose spends virtually all of her days “traipsing the circuit”, as she describes it. Her circuit includes elevenses at the Capuchin Centre on Bow Street, lunch at St Joseph’s Penny Dinners, to which she contributes €1 if she can, and the remainder of every single day is filled with trying to pass the time in public spaces: shopping centres, parks, libraries and train stations.
Are these the places she likes to go daily? “I’m not saying I like having to go out to these places every day. I am just making the best of things.” She wants me to know the places she does not generally include on her circuit. “I don’t like to sit on the boardwalk, unless I’m desperately tired and need a few minutes’ rest. I don’t like it because I meet my contemporaries on the homeless circuit there, and you don’t like to be confronted with a mirror image of yourself. There are lots of people on the circuit who may not have been diagnosed with mental-health issues, but they do have them.”
Good aesthetic sense
She saw a notice for the camera project in the Focus Ireland cafe on Eustace Street. “It captured my imagination, and I think I have a good aesthetic sense.”
One of her photographs is from the roof of the Chester Beatty Library. She often goes to the gardens there, to do her stretching exercises in a quiet corner. “I like to practise Qigong near water or trees. Qigong is a word that is new to me. “They are energy healing exercises,” she says, demonstrating a stretching movement with her arms. “They help me root and ground myself.”
Ramblin' Rose had just come from the Ilac Centre, where she regularly avails of the free 55-minute computer session at the public library, "to learn something or listen to music". I ask what she had searched for online that morning before our meeting. "I was listening to an old song by Jimmy Kennedy called Harbor Lights, that Rosemary Clooney sings."
Later, I listen to this lovely, melancholy 1950s recording on YouTube and find myself wondering why she searched for that particular song, and when she heard it first, and why she sought it out again. The more time you spend with someone from the homeless community, the more their stories start to haunt you.
“I watched the harbour lights
How could I help if tears were starting
Goodbye to tender nights
beside the silvery sea . . .”
The In Sight project idea of giving out disposable cameras has been replicated in many communities in many countries. What's striking about this project is that it was not initiated by any of the providers for homelessness in Dublin; it has been entirely driven on a voluntary basis by two friends with a background in graphic design. Lucy Ryan and Lynsey Browne, both in their 30s, had the exhibition idea more than a year ago.
“I think we were very naive in the beginning,” Browne says. “It was meant to be a two-month project.”
They approached Simon first and then the Capuchin Day Centre to see if they could access people using their services. Both agreed. The women have since spent a huge amount of time attending services and events run by these organisations, building up contacts and trust within the homeless community. The entire project has been supported by donations and voluntary help, from the disposable cameras and a photography workshop for participants to facilitating printing, providing exhibition space and building a website.
One disposable camera with 27 frames was given to each of 45 people, ranging in age from early 20s to late 60s. The homeless community, by its nature, is mobile. Of the 45 cameras given out, 30 were returned to Ryan and Browne. Of those, only half the photographers then emerged a second time, to provide captions for the images and tell of their experiences of homelessness. The other 15 have yet to be traced, or have decided not to participate any further.
Before participants were given their cameras, they attended a workshop, which was given on voluntary basis by Des Byrne, founder of the Dublin Street Photography Group. At that workshop they were asked by Ryan and Browne to complete forms about their backgrounds. One of the questions was: "Tell us a little about your experience of homelessness."
These are some of the answers they received:
“Since the 1960s, I have had a nomadic lifestyle. We were just hippies then, now we’re the homeless” (man aged 65).
“I have been homeless for 17 years since a family house fire” (woman, 43).
“You don’t trust anyone” (woman, 28).
“I am technically not homeless. Had OCD for 40 years. Hoarding now a major issue to the extent that I sleep outside my flat” (man, 48).
“I have been homeless for about one year. I was sleeping in Phoenix Park for a few weeks, then in hostels on a nightly basis” (man, 63).
“I became homeless aged 24. I was working, had my child with me, my own house, car etc. My landlord wanted to sell, which left me homeless, which meant I had to give my child to the care of a family member, then I left my job” (woman, 27).
Martin Joyce (45) became homeless in 2011. "I was living in a house in Gardiner Street. The landlord told us he wanted us all out: he was going to move students in instead." Joyce first went to a hostel in Parkgate Street. He then rotated among several other hostels, frequently sleeping rough in between, usually on Molesworth Street. He lived like this for four years, until he got a bedsit last autumn. Joyce wanted to get involved with In Sight to support Simon, which had supported him when he needed it, and also to show through his photographs that "everybody has potential, and just because you're homeless doesn't mean you don't have talent".
Most of his photographs are of animals, because that’s what he loves. One of his favourite images of is two horses in a field, looking at a dog. It was taken at the Cavan Centre, an organisation in Co Cavan that offers a range of programmes to marginalised and disadvantaged people.
“I was fascinated at how the horse wasn’t afraid of the dog, even though the dog was barking and all. Normally a horse would run from a dog.”
When Joyce was homeless, he had a rabbit that he bought from a friend for €5. He named him Bunny. He wanted a dog but couldn’t have managed one, although a dog might have been useful the times he got beaten up when sleeping rough, or simply kicked by random passersby. “People would rob you, too. My runners were robbed once, and I had to walk around with no shoes for two days, because it was the weekend and the services were shut.”
Joyce was “tapping” – begging – on O’Connell Street during his period of homelessness, but he has had paid jobs in the past. He was a security guard for many years, and also once worked as a caddy.
You might not associate a person who worked on a golf course with eventual homelessness, but again, the In Sight project proves that there is no stereotypical person who finds themselves homeless.