On the streets in Dublin: ‘The younger generation are horrible little b****rds to homeless people’

Many of the homeless people that Dublin Simon workers Roisin Casey and Elvira Merello deal with find themselves defenceless and marginalised in society

It’s 9.30pm on a Tuesday, and a slight young woman with short hair and tattoos is standing with a pile of cardboard in the porch of a shop on Henry Street in Dublin. She looks fit and well and very alert, but the way she is standing is defensive and wary.

“Are you sleeping here?” asks Roisin Casey, the Outreach Service supervisor with Dublin Simon’s outreach team. She and her colleague Elvira Merello are both wearing black anoraks with Dublin Simon printed on them. The young woman gestures down at the cardboard as though to say, “Isn’t it obvious?” But she just says: “I am.”

Merello recognises her and says her name. “You remember me?” says the young woman. She wonders whether she can get a bed for the night. Merello checks the Pathway Accommodation and Support System (PASS), which is used by homeless service providers and local authorities. “You are on the system which is good news,” she says. She makes a call to see if something can be found for her.

I tell her I’m a journalist, along to observe. “I’ve been observing as well, to understand what the other side of the road is like.” says the young woman. “They are stuck in their drug using, addiction. The poor things.”


Ana* is 29 and came to Ireland to study English nine years ago. Since then, she has worked for a technology company, as a barista, as a cleaner and as a teacher. “I got lucky enough to find a person... We were young. Got married. Lived together. Shared bills... But then I was depressed by the commodity, the comfort. We have everything here. Nothing is missing. We have money. We have food. We can travel.” She stops.

Her marriage broke up, she says. “If I wasn’t able to keep up the marriage there is something wrong. It broke up in a horrible way. One of the reason I came to the streets was to find out what is the real me… That’s why this is nothing at all to me.” There are tears in her eyes. “Because I am angry and upset.”

I want to see my son. Haven’t seen him in five years. He is 15 years old... I need to go back to a normal life

—  Emil*

While she was going through all of this, she let her immigration paperwork lapse. “I’m scared as sh*t to be around without [the papers]. I am like a person without land.”

How long has she lived like this? “It’s my seven-month anniversary today… And it feels like just a day to be honest with you. You don’t feel the time going by. Every day feels the same, even though it’s different and full of emotions.”

What does she do every day? “Walking a lot. Bathroom. Basic needs… Getting cold and stuff like that, but that only make us stronger, I guess.”

As a woman alone on the street, she’s often frightened. “The disgust towards the women,” she says sadly. “There’s a lot of people walking around in the night. They come for smokes and sometimes I don’t know how to deal with them because the culture is so different.”

Why is she in this part of the city? “Here I feel more comfortable, at the moment. I like this street. I also like Grafton Street. Also, Smithfield.”

Does she feel safer here? “I feel safe because I am on my own.” She pauses for a moment. “I don’t go for my documents because I’m not fully myself and I don’t want them. I don’t know what I would do. I’d have to get a job. I’d have to sleep in again.”

You prefer this? “Yes. For now, even though it’s a mix of feelings inside… The reason I came to the street was that I needed to heal. You don’t need to be with anyone, just be comfortable with yourself.”

Casey and Merello say someone will come to check on Ana later in the evening. The outreach time operates from 7am until 1am, and in the evenings two teams of four staff check on rough sleepers and respond to alerts from the Dublin Rough Sleeper app, often posted by members of the public. They have only become aware of Ana recently. She’s usually in this part of town, they tell me, usually on her own. “People who bed down on their own tend to do it outside of the city centre,” says Casey. “But she’s young, she’s on her own and it’s probably safest for her to be on this street with CCTV and lights.”

Most women in the street are in couples, she says. And many homeless people stick together in groups. Near one of the entrances to the Ilac shopping centre, a group of five men are gathered in a little alcove. Four are lying on the ground on sleeping bags. One is standing. Casey introduces herself loudly as she approaches. “Sometimes people think we’re guards,” she says later. “I think it’s because I’m tall.”

The man standing, Emil*, is from Latvia. He has the best English and communicates for the others, who are all Latvian or Lithuanian. He once had a business in Latvia. He has family there still. He came to Ireland to work “in potato season”. It was fine. He had a flat and was living with a girlfriend. “After, I got this,” he says, gesturing to his leg. I see, at the bottom of his tracksuit, that his ankle is red and swollen. “Timber pushed into my leg.” He pulls his tracksuit down slightly to show the redness goes up to the top of his thigh. “I was working and the boss had no insurance.” He started drinking more, and eventually “I start living in the street”.

Is the city dangerous? He shrugs. “I drink. I relax. I feel nothing.” But he wants to go into detox. “It will be better. Five weeks of detox and come back to life. I want to see my son. Haven’t seen him in five years. He is 15 years old... I need to go back to a normal life.”

Casey asks him whether he can help translate for one of the other men, who has passport issues. She asks can he help bring the man to the Focus Ireland cafe in Temple Bar in the morning, where someone will help with the paperwork. He grasps my hand before we go. “Will you pray for me?” he says.

On Cathedral Street, a man is sprawled unconscious in a doorway. He is totally motionless. Casey and Merello recognise him. They try to rouse him. He murmurs something. “Will we call you an ambulance?” asks Casey.

“No!” he says. “No ambulance.”

He tries to get up. He winces. His shoulder is clearly hurt. He’s not moving his arm. “How come you’re in the city centre?” asks Merello. He’s not usually here. She checks the system on her phone. “He’s booked into a hostel for the night.”

They try to get him into a standing position, but he starts to fall over again, clutching his arm. He is wearing shorts and a T-shirt and has a record bag slung over his shoulder. As he tries to stand, a very large number of markers, pens and colouring pencils fall from his bag. “My colours,” he says. We pick them up for him. He sits down again. “My colours,” he says again softly. He rests his head on Merello’s leg.

Merello knows him. “He’s nice. He’s very funny. He’s not usually in the city.”

“Will I call an ambulance?” asks Casey. He shakes his head, stands up and starts to walk unsteadily back towards Marlborough Street in the direction of his hostel, holding his arm stiffly to his side. They walk with him until they’re sure he’s safe. They can’t force him to go to hospital, but they will make sure someone checks on him in the morning.

Under the canopy of the GPO, some people have gathered. A middle-aged man named Ian tells Casey and Merello that he has rung the free phone line for a hostel place but not had any luck. They tell him they’ll follow up for him. “I went to Merchants Quay and got a shower and a shave. I got a haircut and everything,” he says. “I feel a stone lighter.”

“You seem like a new man,” says Casey. “You look well in fairness.”

Ian’s from Finglas originally. He had a nice spot out in Dublin 8 until recently, he says, but the guards moved him on. He’s a bit ambivalent about hostels. “You can meet someone in the horrors and you end up in a row. I don’t start it. I don’t go looking for it. You try staying out of it. But things get stolen. When you’re on the streets you have to look after yourself.”

Another man, Chris, is sitting at the GPO window. He seems very vulnerable. He sleeps on the street sometimes, he says, because the house where he stays with his girlfriend is haunted. “There was a baby crying but the real baby was asleep… And then I heard a child laughing and then footsteps walking around in the hallway.”

He seems terrified. His girlfriend has been away since the previous Friday. On his first night out he was mugged and had his wallet and his money stolen. He had €18 left in another pocket, but when he woke up the next morning that was gone too. “I ended up walking up this way and these lads said, ‘You can stay with us, it’s safer here.’”

Many of the rough sleepers that Casey and Merello deal with are incredibly vulnerable. They’re in addiction or grappling with mental health issues, or both. “The victories are so small,” says Casey. “Tiny things. Someone who hasn’t used a bed in a very long time using a bed for the night. Or someone is engaging with a doctor. There are celebrations in the office [when that happens]... Or that pregnant woman we met last week, seven months pregnant and living in her car… We got her to the family support team and they booked her into an accommodation.”

Rough sleepers are extremely marginalised, says Casey. “There was a lovely man, rough sleeping for many years, and when we got him into a LTA [long-term accommodation]… It turned out he didn’t exist. We said: ‘What do you mean he doesn’t exist? His mam had had a home birth and never registered it. He was in his 50s.”

At the entrance to an alley at the stop of Grafton Street, two middle-aged friends, Kevin* and Mark*, have already bedded down for the night. How do they know each other? “We met at the methadone clinic seven or eight years ago,” says Kevin.

“I look out for him and he looks out for me,” says Mark.

Mark’s real name is that of a famous singer “My mam really liked [him]”, he says and smiles.

We’re always pleasant to people. We say ‘God bless’, but they look at you like you have two heads

—  Kevin

They’re both upfront about their addictions. Kevin says he started on morphine tablets but progressed to heroin. After the death of one of his children, he started taking crack. Recently he had a home for a while after years of homelessness. “My ma passed away and the house was left to me. I got into debt with drug dealers a few months ago and I was back on the streets then.” He can’t go home for fear of the dealers.

The two prefer sleeping out instead of the hostels, if the weather is okay. “I go to some hostels but others I don’t like,” says Mark. “The ones with all the drugs and the violence. I’m not into violence.”

They think the city is more dangerous because of people using crack. “We see it every night,” says Mark. “People getting robbed. People trying to rob us… As soon as you put your head down, they’re going through your pockets.”

“I have to put my runners at the end of my sleeping bag,” says Kevin.

Why do they sleep here? “This is safer,” says Mark. “Not many people see us.”

“And there’s a camera there as well,” says Kevin pointing towards it. “That keeps us safe.”

The heavy rain in August was terrible, says Kevin. “The rain got in here.”

“My clothes were drenched right through,” says Mark.

“I went over to the burger place and they wouldn’t let me use the toilet,” says Kevin. “And I ended up going to the toilet on myself and I had no change of clothes and people were going ‘the smell, the smell’.”

“There are some kind people,” says Mark. “But some won’t even look at you.”

“We’re always pleasant to people,” says Kevin. “We say ‘God bless’, but they look at you like you have two heads. But some stop and ask after you. It makes me feel a bit better when people stop and talk to me.”

As we walk away, I ask whether Casey and Merello personally find the streets dangerous. “Not for me,” says Merello.

“We risk assess everything we walk into,” says Casey. “I think there’s a level of respect and trust between us and the clients… Working now, a female at this hour, do I feel unsafe? Not really.”

Has it got more dangerous for homeless people? “It’s always dangerous on the streets for them,” she says. “They’re often victims of crime, but they’d rarely go to the guards. It’s rarely reported, mainly for the fear of retaliation or not being believed.”

On a corner of a quiet southside street, the Safetynet medical unit, a big van with a specially designed clinic, is visiting a couple living in a tent. It’s Thursday at about 8pm. The medical unit, attended tonight by a doctor, Dr David Healy, who is in his final year of GP training, is out several nights a week attending to people who fall between the cracks of the medical system.

The nurse tonight is Sarah Jayne Miggin. “People could come in for wound care, [wounds] they want dressed,” she says. “Mental health crises… The rain, wet clothes and sleeping bags brings a lot of respiratory issues… There’s a risk of infection in their kidneys then because of the cold. Everything becomes more difficult outside: wound healing, poor nutrition… If you have a leg ulcer it’s not going to heal in the way a housed person’s leg ulcer will. And they’re frailer. Their bodies will be older than their age a lot of the time.”

The tent is behind some construction barricades that Paul* and Jenny*, who live there, placed around it for protection. Jenny has a badly abscessed leg wound, made worse by someone kicking her. She seems reluctant to go into the medical unit where the doctor is waiting, so Miggin encourages her. A lot of homeless people, she says, “have very negative experiences of hospitals”.

While Jenny is inside, I ask her partner Paul about his tattoos. He’s got a very intricate tattoo of a swallow on his forearms. He has some other, simpler ones that he did himself. “They’re also meant to be swallows,” he says. “I like swallows.”

Is it painful giving yourself a tattoo? He laughs. “There’s no pain in it.”

Is Jenny’s leg bad? “It’s really bad, man,” he says. “It stinks. So everything in here stinks. We’re putting these burn bandages on it.” He picks one up from the floor of the tent to show me.

Paul is in his 50s. His parents still live in his hometown. “My poor mother and father. I ring them up once a month.” For years, he worked as an electrical engineer in a foreign country where, he says, he saw terrible poverty. “How those poor people live, man. After seeing that, it changed me completely towards my fellow human beings. I started looking after people more.”

I was on Henry Street one night in Debenhams doorway and the next thing I’m getting all these bin bags with glass bottles thrown on top of me. They think it’s funny

—  Paul

He had a breakdown when he returned and that led to him losing his home, which led to him becoming addicted to heroin. He had been staying in a hostel up until eight weeks ago. “I walked away from the hostel to look after [Jenny]. She’s been on the street for 21 years and everyone is bullying her. People rob money off her most weeks. It’s sad man… What she’s gone through.” He shakes his head.

He thinks the streets are more violent than in the past. He made the mistake of openly checking the contents of his wallet one day. “I got a dirty syringe put to my neck and they took my passport and my mobile phone and my wallet, man.”

Another day he was hit over the head and when he woke up covered in blood, his money was gone. “I managed to get myself to Capel Street and the Simon Community brought me to the Mater hospital. Over 30 f**king quid, man.”

Some people can be horrible to those who are sleeping on the streets, he says. “I’ve had people piss on me. The younger generation are horrible little b*****rds to homeless people. I was on Henry Street one night in Debenhams doorway and the next thing I’m getting all these bin bags with glass bottles thrown on top of me. They think it’s funny. Someone shouted at them to stop. I said, ‘You’re wasting your breath, man, this is just what they do.’… It’s a lot safer here. Nobody knows we’re here. If we were on Grafton Street we wouldn’t be safe at all.”

Small kindnesses make a difference, he says. “A restaurant down the quays gives us chicken-burgers and chips... Another one gives us soup and bread and butter.” One day he left his jacket hanging outside the tent and a few days later he discovered that someone had put thirty euros in the pocket. “There are some kind people out there,” he says.

Jenny is walking from the medical unit now, a new dressing on her leg. The doctor is explaining to her what she has to do next. I ask Paul what he’ll spend tomorrow doing? “Keeping her safe.”

*These names have been changed by request