Exiles on Main Street: the homeless of Grafton Street
Of the 150 people sleeping rough in the middle of Dublin, about 20 spend the night on Grafton Street – living quiet, stressed, lonely lives amid its bustling commerce. We meet Paul, Robert, Tara, James and others who have a swanky address but little else
Paul, who sleeps in a doorway beside Burger King: homelessness is hell, says the former construction engineer, “the most horrible, horrendous, lonely experience you can have in your life”. Photograph: Eric Luke
Martina Bergin of Dublin Simon Community: when she mistakes a pile of bin bags in a doorway for a person she feels awful. “That makes me feel really sad. To compare someone to rubbish.” Photograph: Dave Meehan
Night town: when prison authorities asked for an address for the girl who sleeps in one of the doorways, she put down “the Foot Locker, Grafton Street”. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Grafton Street is the most prestigious shopping thoroughfare in the country. Major brands are established there, in big-name department stores and chic boutiques. Rents are some of the highest in Ireland, and the street teems with life from morning until night. But alongside this bustling commercial life is a parallel community of 18 or 19 homeless people who sleep in the street’s doorways. They stay here because, although the street is loud and bright all night, it is also relatively safe.
Tara and James: ‘I couldn’t sleep alone’Tara, James and three other people sleep in the doorway of the vacant building where A-Wear used to be. Four others sleep across the street in the doorway of Bewleys.
“Every little doorway is full of people here at night,” says Tara, who has been on the streets just five nights. She once had a mortgage on a house in Finglas, but lost the house: “It’s boarded up now.” She lived with her mother until recently.
At night Tara sleeps fitfully in a sleeping bag on top of some cardboard. The others “sleep like bleedin’ nodding dogs”, she says. “But I sit there awake, watching everything. People going by on rickshaws all night.” She mimics them – “ ‘Woohoo!’ ” – adding, sarcastically, “I’m like, ‘Good for you.’ ”
Tara has an 11-year-old son. She dreams of being reunited with him, of homework at the kitchen table and “duvet days”.
For the past few days Tara has been woken by gardaí. They “come and check your warrants. I’ve never been arrested in my life,” she says, “but they still make you hang around while they get through to the office . . . They say, ‘People have to go to work, and they don’t want to see your mess.’ ”
We arrive at about 6am on a Friday, as gardaí are moving Tara and James from their doorway. All the other sleepers have already been moved from the street. Over the past couple of weeks gardaí have been moving homeless people from Grafton Street at about 5.30am.
“We’ve never seen that before,” says Martina Bergin, an outreach worker with Dublin Simon Community’s rough-sleeper team. “It seems very strange.” Bergin worries that it is an attempt to hide the homeless problem and says it is unnecessary and unfair. “There’s nowhere for them to go until seven or eight,” she says.
The Garda press office says there is no new policy. “Gardaí on patrol are often the first to engage with homeless people and offer assistance where they can,” says the press office in a statement. “We are conscious of the needs of the homeless people and are accompanied by outreach workers who provide services during the process.
“We are also conscious of the needs of other members of the community . . . To protect the safety and welfare of all it is necessary to request people move from areas where they may be exposed to risk of injury, particularly in the early mornings when business commences.”
After the gardaí leave, a well-meaning drunk young man starts inviting Tara and James to stay at his house. They’re trying to be polite. “I don’t want to stay in a stranger’s house,” whispers James.
James goes with Bergin to get some food from the van and comes back with a sweatshirt, which he hands to Tara. “We’d be freezing at night time,” he says.
“I probably wouldn’t wear it, though,” says Tara, looking at it doubtfully.
Bergin laughs. “James picked it,” she says.
James has been homeless for two years. “Family issues,” he says. He doesn’t like sleeping in hostels because “I don’t like going to places where people are injecting”. During the day he sleeps anywhere he can lie down. He’s also doing a training course – his Leaving Cert – in Bluebell, in west Dublin.
“She encourages me to do it,” he says, pointing at Tara. “And it’s somewhere to go during the day.”
They help each other, he says. “He’s my bodyguard,” says Tara. “I couldn’t sleep on the street on my own.”
Martina: ‘It makes me feel really sad’There are 4,868 homeless people in emergency accommodation across the country, and there was a 41 per cent increase in people seeking the Simon Community’s services in the two years until last December.
There are also up to 150 people sleeping rough in the middle of Dublin. It’s part of Martina Bergin’s job to drive around each morning to count them, scribbling in a notebook as she goes.
She has worked with Simon since she was 21. In fact, she spent her 21st birthday working in a shelter. “The clients bought me flowers and a jumper. It was size 22. I said, ‘We could all fit into that!’ ”
She points as we drive. There are eight people behind the fence of Custom House. There’s a tent in St Stephen’s Green, she says, but she hasn’t met the people sleeping there. “I can’t get over the fence with these short legs,” she says, laughing.
There’s a man who always sleeps outside the Gaiety Theatre sitting upright on a bench and a man who has slept in the same spot in the Phoenix Park for 30 years. “The park rangers make sure he’s okay,” Bergin says.
A number of homeless people, she says, go to a 24-hour internet cafe on Talbot Street. “I went in earlier, and there were a lot of people with their heads down, asleep.”
Bergin’s eyes are attuned to the sight of sleeping bags in doorways. But when she momentarily mistakes a pile of bin bags for a person she feels awful. “That makes me feel really sad. To compare someone to rubbish.”
Later, when I mention Jonathan Corrie, the homeless man who died last year near the Dáil, Bergin blesses herself. “We would have had a very close relationship with Jonathan,” she says. She tells me about another homeless man she visited when he was dying. “He used to keep the hospital desserts for me.”
Why do people sleep rough? They have their reasons for avoiding hostels. Couples – and there are many homeless couples now – don’t want to be separated. Some people want to avoid drugtaking. Some want to avoid people that they are fighting with. Others don’t want to leave their pets behind.
We pass a man called John pushing his trolley across Capel Street Bridge, a little dog following him. We drive down an alley where another man has built a makeshift shed for his pet. It’s for when the man himself is in a hostel. “We used to go and talk to him until we realised it was just the dog barking back at us,” says Bergin.
This morning we find the shed torn apart. A young woman trying to sleep nearby tells us that people came and knocked it down the night before. She doesn’t think the dog was there.
Sleeping rough leads to health problems: kidney infections and hip pain from sleeping on cold, hard footpaths; foot problems from constant walking; respiratory issues; insect bites; cellulitis from sleeping sitting upright in cafes. And that’s not even getting into an array of psychological issues.
Robert: ‘Sleeping rough is like being a soldier’Dublin Simon Community has a mobile health unit that goes out three evenings a week with two doctors and, as part of a pilot programme, a counsellor.
On Tuesday they are parked by St Stephen’s Green. A recently housed young man is there with his little son. A very skinny man asks me where exactly his lungs are. “I’ve a pain here,” he says, pointing to his side. “But I’m not sure if it’s my lungs or my ribs, from where I took a beating a good few years ago.”
Robert, who is 32, is sitting at the railings of the park, expertly sketching panthers and skulls in a drawing pad. He has been homeless since he left the care system in his teens. “I was abused there.”
Robert has been sleeping rough for four years and believes he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He has friends on the street but is wary of homeless people he doesn’t know. In the hostels, he says, you have “victims of abuse having to be in with people who might be violent drunks”.
He has only recently rediscovered his passion for drawing. “I’m after realising that I was gifted with this talent, and to not use the talent is a waste of talent.”
Robert draws for a few hours a day, but recently all of his work was stolen. Sometimes he feels “too down with myself” to draw. “My house is the bag on my back,” he says. “Sometimes it feels like a weight on my shoulders. I feel like I’m being punished. Punished for being punished.”
He brightens when talking about Judge Dredd and the comic-book characters he liked growing up. “I wanted to be one of those lads who drew comic books when I was a kid,” he says. It was either that “or be a spaceman or a soldier”.
Sleeping rough is a bit like being a soldier, he says. “You’re out camping like a soldier, and you have challenges that come your way . . . missions to accomplish.
“Mundane things are challenges for the homeless. People walk by and see you and think, He’s just some bum. But even something like brushing your teeth takes planning.”
After Robert’s parents separated and he was taken into care, he never had anyone, he says. “I don’t know how to drive a car or how to apply for a passport. Nobody taught me these things . . . I learned the hard way how to live.”
Natalie and Noel: ‘You can’t turn up to landlords like this’Across the street in Starbucks, Martina Bergin introduces me to Natalie and Noel. They’ve been on the streets together for three years.
Natalie, who is from Wicklow, was once a working mother with a home. “The landlord said he wanted to sell,” she says. “But he really just wanted people who could pay more cash.” Soon afterwards she lost her job and her child was taken into care.
Noel has been homeless since he was 15. He’s never had a “normal life”. He’s even uncomfortable sitting down in a cafe, he says.
Noel and Natalie want to be together, which means they don’t use hostels. Natalie doesn’t like them anyway. “You have to have this persona, this front,” she says, “and if you don’t, they think you’re a fool and they pick on you.”
They have lived in all manner of circumstances. For a while they slept in a lift in an underground garage, but that ended when they got stuck in it. “The fire brigade had to cut us out,” says Noel, and he laughs. They have several trespassing charges. You rack them up just trying to find a place to sleep, he says.
They lived for eight months in a tent in the Phoenix Park – “the President’s back garden” – which was a relatively good time. They even raised enough money for a deposit, says Natalie, but they still couldn’t get a flat. “You can’t turn up to meet landlords looking like this.”
Instead they used the money to “pimp out our tent”. They look at each other and laugh. They bought a blow-up bed, a portable TV and a gas stove – “I was cooking coddle and everything,” says Natalie. But they kept having their stuff confiscated, and now they’re back sleeping in alleyways in town.
People treat them “like scum”, says Noel. They’ve woken up to find people stealing from them or urinating on them. Noel once woke to find his shoelaces set on fire. They don’t want to carry sleeping bags around with them, because it makes them look homeless, so their few possessions frequently get stolen or soaked. The previous night they slept in cardboard boxes in the rain.
Noel has respiratory problems; Natalie has a wound in her leg. “The nurse says it’s not healing because I’m walking so much,” she says. Natalie has had four miscarriages while on the streets.
They try to retain some normality. On Thursday, says Natalie, when they have some money, they have a “date night”. They’ll go to an all-you-can-eat Chinese or to the cinema, where it’s nice and warm.
The best time they’ve had, says Noel, was after they bought an old camper van. They had it for a month before it was taken from them. (They didn’t have a licence.)
“It was something we could call our own,” says Noel. “We could cuddle up in it. We could lock it after us.”
Andrew: ‘At least in a tent you’re warm’Grafton Street is still busy at midnight. Rickshaws fly up and down. A trumpeter and a bagpiper are busking. A couple of people are beginning to bed down in doorways.
A young man called Andrew tells me he can never sleep here. “It’s freezing,” he says and does an exaggerated shiver. He sleeps in a tent, in a bush, in Finglas. “At least in a tent you’re warm.”
A man in the doorway of Cath Kidston is reading a book about the SAS. He says he’s hoping to get arrested. “If I get arrested at least a judge could hear my plight.”
John: ‘I think I’d like to be a counsellor’Earlier I meet John Birch, a formerly homeless recovering alcoholic who comes out two nights a week to distribute sandwiches and clothes to homeless people.
“I remember what it was like,” he says. “And I know all the nooks and crannies . . . You need clean clothes in the morning. You don’t want people looking at you all day because you’re scruffy.”
He operates independently, unconnected to Simon or any other service. He makes the sandwiches himself and gets the clothes from charity shops.
Homelessness sneaks up on you, he says. When his marriage broke up in England, he came back to Dublin to live with his mother, but “she threw me out of the house because I was on the drink”.
He tells me that I can’t imagine the boredom of homelessness. He spent his time catching the Luas to and from Tallaght to pass the time and get warm.
He decided to sober up after he being assaulted with a hammer and left bleeding in an alley. He now has a job (originally through a Business in the Community scheme) and a place to stay, and he is engaged to be married.
“I’m just glad I’m back on my feet,” John says. He wants to help people now. “I think I’d like to be a counsellor.”
Jenny: ‘I don’t feel like a woman any more’Up in the doorway of Dunnes Stores a woman called Jenny is bedding down for the night and talking to a man called Paul.
She’s been homeless for a month. “I couldn’t pay my rent,” she says. “My rent went up, and I was kicked out.”
She doesn’t think her landlord evicted her entirely legally, but she didn’t have the resources to do anything about it. She wasn’t working, she had no money, and the landlord kept most of her stuff. Her family “don’t want to help”, and she doesn’t want anyone else to know that she’s homeless. “I’d be mortified.”
Jenny shows me her “whole life”: a sleeping bag, a plastic bag with clothes and food, and a teddy bear. The only thing she took from her old life, she says, was the bear, “given to me by my aunt who died . . . I always had it on my bed at home . . . She was like my mum. She was the best thing that ever happened to me, and she died five years ago at Christmas.”
Then, a few weeks ago, that teddy bear was stolen along with all her other stuff. A kind woman at the soup kitchen gave her another one. “It’s not the same,” she says, “but at least someone cares.”
Jenny didn’t even have a sleeping bag the previous night. She slept with a coat over her. “I was crying all night,” she says. She has no idea what to expect as the nights get colder.
Jenny sleeps on Grafton Street because she feels safer here, but she doesn’t really sleep. She looks forward to the soup runs because it’s a chance to talk to people.
Jenny is scared of the hostels and doesn’t go to places where other homeless people congregate. She goes to McDonald’s in the morning for a cup of tea, then “walks and walks”.
She knows many of the others on the street. The girl who sleeps across the road in the doorway of Foot Locker, for example, who, when asked by prison authorities for a place of residence, put down “the Foot Locker, Grafton Street”.
Jenny sometimes shares the doorway with an older man who has an injured back. Does she get on with him? “He has his moments. Like us all, I suppose.”
Jenny laughs a few times as we talk, but then she looks terribly sad.
“You’ve no dignity, no shower, no clothes, no life.” Before, “I could shut my door and feel safe and have a shower and have my own food and my own bed and my own TV. I don’t feel like a woman any more.”
Paul: ‘I walk 60 miles a day’Jenny’s friend Paul – “He’s very good to me,” she says – sleeps in a doorway beside Burger King. Last year he nearly froze to death.
“I was close to hypothermia,” he says. “I rang the ambulance myself at 5.20 in the morning. They wrapped me in a big ball of tinfoil. I was three days in hospital getting warm.”
Homelessness is hell, he says, “the most horrible, horrendous, lonely experience you can have in your life . . . You instantly become a nobody. You don’t exist . . . You have no address. In the eyes of the State you don’t exist.”
Paul was a construction engineer until four years ago, when he lost his job. “Seventeen years in the same job, never missed a day. I turned up to find the gates closed. I scrimped along and lost my house . . . They took the f**king house off me.”
The first night out on the street he describes as “the most horrifying experience I ever had in my life”.
He doesn’t use hostels, because he doesn’t drink. “There are no dry houses for me to go into. I don’t want to be in that environment. So I won’t use them . . . You’re safer on the street than you are in a hostel.”
What does he do with his time? “I walk 60 miles a day . . . I had a brand new pair of boots that lasted me four days.”
He shows me the heels of what look like new, gleaming white runners. They’re already nearly worn way.
“I walk on my own, and I make up little songs and sing them to myself . . . I walk from here to the airport and back . . . Yesterday I went from here to the Green Isle Hotel” – 13km, or eight miles, away, on the edge of Dublin – “and from there to Kildare.”
He likes to be clean and well dressed, to blend in with shoppers on the street. He thinks there’s a “new breed” of homeless that are more like him.
Why Grafton Street? “Because if you’ve any chance in this life you’re going to get it on this street.”
A chance of what? “A lucky break. Once a woman put me up in a B&B for two weeks, and that came from meeting her outside a shop . . . If you’ve any chance of a break, you’ll get it here.
“Someday somebody on this street will take you out of homelessness or give you a leg up or a chance.”