When home is a tent: ‘You're up all night, freezing cold, pissed on’
Homeless tent dwellers in Dublin and Cork describe the dangerous lives they lead
Phoenix Park is littered with the belongings of Dublin’s rough sleepers. Clothes, duvets, sleeping bags and tents are scattered around, yet the park’s inhabitants are nowhere to be seen. They keep themselves out of the way of authority figures who keep telling them to move on.
Tents inhabited by homeless people are an increasing feature of the Irish urban landscape. They can be seen along both canals in Dublin, and are also often visible in the Sandymount and Ringsend area of the capital.
The abundance of tents on public land came to wider public attention in July, in reports of an alleged rape in a tent at Pigeon House Road in Ringsend.
In Cork on September 1st, 30-year-old rough sleeper Jennifer Dennehy died in a tent in Gillabbey Park on the south side of the city near the UCC campus. She had been evicted from a property in nearby Western Road and had been homeless for just a few days.
There are few alternatives when you have no home
Tent dwellers are regularly told by city officials and gardaí to move on, but they often have nowhere else to go. For the estimated 200 rough sleepers in Dublin, sleeping in a tent in a park, beside a canal or even in a shop doorway or on a footpath at night is often the best they can do. There are few alternatives when you have no home.
This is the case for the inhabitants of a cluster of tents along the canal walk in Drumcondra. Like in Phoenix Park, people here live in tents to shelter themselves from the elements. The inhabitants of the tents along the canal have been homeless for varying lengths of time.
John: ‘I hate my own country’
John Byrne says he has been living on Dublin’s streets for 25 years. He sleeps in a tent with his three dogs, and has been based by the canal for the past year. Those years have not been kind to John, who has experienced severe illness due to Ireland’s cold winters. Several of his friends over the years have died.
He describes feeling alone and betrayed in a country he has come to hate.
“All my friends on the streets, they’re all dead now. John, who died outside Government Buildings, he was one of my best friends,” says Byrne, reflecting on a friendship with Jonathan Corry, who was found dead just metres from Leinster House in December 2014.
Byrne became homeless when he was still a teenager as a result of a difficult relationship with his stepfather, who he says was an alcoholic. He is now facing into another cold winter where he will have to use all of his energy to survive the bitterly cold nights.
I had the dogs and couldn’t go into hospital because I can’t leave my dogs alone
“The only very bad winter I had was in 2010, that time when we had very heavy snow,” he says. “It was bad. I nearly died. I had pneumonia, but I had the dogs and couldn’t go into hospital because I can’t leave my dogs alone. I still have a chest infection after it.”
Byrne feels let down by successive Irish governments who he says have failed to provide any meaningful help.
“I wish they’d do something for the homeless,” he says. “They promised 20 years ago and they’re still promising, but they’re doing nothing. Enda Kenny, he said he’d do something two years ago. Let them spend a night on the streets, let them see what it’s like: people pissing on you, people kicking you. It’s not right.
“Nobody cares in this country. What I care about is the kids in the hotels. They don’t have a life, locked in a room all day.”
For Byrne, one of the worst things about his situation is some of the degrading treatment he has suffered from others, particularly gardaí.
My dogs are all I have. I don’t have anything else
“Police mostly are the ones who give hassle,” says John. “Police came in here last week and gave me a document saying that if I didn’t move by 10 o’clock the next morning they would come with dog wardens and take my dogs off me. My dogs are all I have. I don’t have anything else.”
Byrne has also experienced violence from passers-by.
“There a few weeks ago a football supporter jumped on me and dislocated my shoulder just because the dogs barked at him.
“This country is gone to the dogs. I hate my own country. It’s wrong,” he adds.
Rachel: ‘I don’t like hostels. I feel safer here’
Rachel, 28-years-old, set up a tent along the canal just four weeks ago. She has been homeless for 3½ years as a result of a falling out with her mother.
“I still talk to my dad but he was looking after his own dad, so I had nowhere to go,” says Rachel. “I was in a relationship that didn’t work out, and then I went into hostels. I was on the streets as well, and now I’m here.”
She says staying in hostels was a difficult experience she does not wish to repeat.
“I get a lot of trouble in the hostels, and when you’re in town there does be trouble as well, there’s fighting and things like that. You’d be worn out. You can’t sleep when you’re in town. You get woken up in town at seven or eight in the morning. Here is much better because you can sleep a bit more.
“I’ve been in a few hostels and I really don’t like them. You can get robbed, and there’s so much fighting. Some of them are OK, but they’re not safe places to be in. I feel safer here.”
Somebody else who lives by the canal gave her a tent to live in four weeks ago, and things have improved slightly for Rachel since then. But it is still far from easy.
I feel like I could do the things I used to do before I was homeless
“It’s the rain,” she says. “[The tents] aren’t waterproof, the rain gets through them. You can really feel it getting colder now, too. It’s nearly winter and that’s when it gets really hard.”
Rachel says that it would “mean everything” if she could have her own home.
“I feel like I could do the things I used to do before I was homeless, because you can’t do things that you like when you’re homeless. I’m isolated from the life I had before.”
Daniel: ‘It’s mainly the police who hassle us’
Daniel lives in tents by the canal with his brother, and is also worried about winter.
“The cold weather is coming in now, so it’s going to get even tougher,” he says.
“We were here in cold weather before, so we have gone through it, but it just means you need to buy better tents and cover up more, so it does worry us. The door on the front of the tent doesn’t close, and there are holes all over the back of it, so when it rains, it pours. We have a little washing line up here now; you’re drying everything every morning and hoping it’s dry by the next night.”
Daniel, who has been without a home for about three years, became homeless when his landlady sold his flat. His brother ended up in similar circumstances, and now they are both living in tents by the canal.
We got sick of it and decided to set up a tent, and that was it
“The woman wanted to sell the place, so I had to go, and I just couldn’t find anywhere in time. Same with my brother. Both of us thought we would go to a hostel together, but it didn’t work out like that. You’re ringing up [the hostels] seven days a week, four times a day, and maybe getting a bed twice out of those seven days, out of all those phone calls, and mostly the response is: ‘Would you like a sleeping bag?’ So, we got sick of it and decided to set up a tent, and that was it.”
Like John, Daniel has also experienced trouble with the gardaí.
“The police nowadays are the main people who give us hassle, but I think most people become accustomed to the fact of seeing you here,” says Daniel.
“I’m not going to mention names, but it’s a certain person, and now he’s the one that’s on the case. He’s the one doing what he can to get rid of us. The majority of coppers are okay. Most of them come over and chat to you and ask how you’re doing.”
Daniel and his brother have been told to move on by gardaí on several occasions.
“People are dying the last couple of days, and the police want us to leave and go back to sleeping in doorways,” he says. “They’re putting all their time and effort into getting letters to try to get rid of us, and if they had put half that effort in to get us accommodation they probably would have had it done by now.
“If they actually offered us something we would leave. It’s not as if we’re refusing to leave or anything. They could offer us a decent enough six-month hostel, and we would leave.
You’d think we could have something, even a six-month bed
“To people who say we just want to stay here. Have a night in the tent where you’re pissed on, up all night, freezing cold with every jacket you have on, and then you’ll know we don’t want to stay here. We just feel that we should have something come out of it. We’ve done a year and a half, you might as well call it a sentence. You’d think we could have something, even a six-month bed.”
Ciaran: ‘Cold, wet, uncomfortable’
Ciaran is in his late 70s and spent June, July and August in a “cold and wet and uncomfortable” tent in Cork city. “I spent 35 years as a nurse in a hospital. I loved my work. I never expected to end up like this.”
“I was in a tent near the Lough [in Cork city] but the city council moved me on from there. Then I ended in Mayfield on the northside [of the city]. A friend helped me put up the tent because my arm was broken. I also had an ulcerated leg.”
He says living in a tent was a tremendous ordeal. “I left the tent one day and my phone was stolen. The council moved me on when I wasn’t doing anything to anybody. It was absolutely disgraceful and pathetic that I ended up in a tent. You have all these places boarded up and I am in a tent.”
He hopes to receive full-time accommodation from the Share charity in Cork
Ciaran says he likes to keep “the sunny side up even when it is raining”. He admits he was evicted from his home on the north side of the city amid accusations of antisocial behaviour. However, he claims that he was wrongly accused and that the public disorder was the work of others.
Now, having secured accommodation in a hostel, he says he is taking life “one day at a time”. He hopes to receive full-time accommodation from the Share charity in Cork.
“My hope is that I will get a Share home. I like my routines. I listen to the radio. I have a chat with people here in the hostel. I am a fighter who will move on from this. I don’t give up.”
Ireland’s homelessness crisis – and with it the plight of John, Rachel, Daniel and his brother – looks set to continue to worsen. Francis Doherty, head of communications with the Peter McVerry Trust, says that if the crisis is to be alleviated, creating social housing needs to become a priority.
“What we really do need to see is the councils taking the lead on this,” Doherty says. “Build social housing faster, because caught up in the middle of this is people who can’t afford to continue renting. Social housing needs to be prioritised.
“For every single person in homelessness, the first issue that needs to be addressed is their housing needs. If we can get them into housing quickly and more effectively, we can reduce the other issues, such as mental health, addiction, joblessness and lack of education.”
Doherty says that the prevalence of homeless people living in tents indicates that the crisis is worsening.
“The presence of people sleeping in tents points to the fact that people are starting to spend longer in homelessness. Many people have become so frustrated and angry, and they start to believe that there’s not going to be a solution for them. It’s really tragic that it’s come to that, that as an Irish society it’s no longer shocking when we see so many people on the streets.”
We are very wealthy and we should be able to respond to the people on the margins
Doherty hopes the crisis can be alleviated in the long run, through the provision of social housing. However, for that to happen, we need to ensure that we don’t start to accept homelessness.
“We shouldn’t have that type of society,” he says. “We are very wealthy and we should be able to respond to the people on the margins.”
In Cork, students Cliodhna Harkin and Claire Kirwan, who live across the road from the field where Jennifer Dennehy died, express shock that this tragedy should have occured so close to their home.
“When I hear of a death of a woman in a tent near my college home it makes me so grateful for the opportunities I do have. Because some people have no chance . . . That a young woman would die in a tent is heartbreaking.”
- Additional reporting: Olivia Kelleher. Some names have been changed