A death in a Dublin bin truck

The death of the homeless Polish man Henryk Piotrowski in a waste collection truck highlights the precarious lives of Ireland’s migrant homeless


It used to be easy enough to find Henryk Piotrowski. Even in the rough and tumble world of homelessness his days were carefully measured out in visits to agencies and drop-in centres across inner-city Dublin. Breakfasts tended to be at the Mendicity Institute, on a quiet street just off the south quays.

Later on he would head in the direction of Trust, a nearby drop-in centre, for a shower or a change of clothes. Lunch was often across the Liffey at the Capuchin Day Centre on Bow Street, which provides free dinners. Much of the rest of the day was spent in a blur of drinking with other Poles who had fallen on hard times.

“We saw him change a lot over the past two years,” says Alice Leahy, a founder of Trust, who helped to wash his feet a short time before he disappeared. “Like so many others he was often in an awful state. The light had gone out of his eyes . . . We dressed his feet, which were in a dreadful state, and he had a cup of tea and a shower. He went on his way and said thanks.”

Kris Jameczek, a formerly homeless Pole who is now an outreach worker, remembers hugging him not long before he disappeared. “We were just talking about life, about jobs, about cheering each other up. His home life was complicated,” he says. “I gave him a big hug. He was just a very friendly guy.”

In better timesPiotrowski had come to Ireland in search of a new life. There was plenty of work on the building sites. But when the bottom fell out of the economy the work vanished. His English was poor, and he had little or no money. On top of everything his family life was in disarray. His relationship with his wife had broken up, and he had lost contact with his daughters.

Support agencies say they made numerous attempts to persuade him to return. But going home, he said, simply wasn’t an option. The shame was too great. Drink was an escape from the misery.

Introspective and quiet
“He was almost permanently drunk . . . There were times when he detoxed. When he was sober he was miserable, introspective and quiet,” says Charles Richards, manager of the Mendicity Institute, one of Dublin’s oldest charities. “I remember saying to him, ‘Henryk, you’re going to die if you keep up this kind of heavy drinking.’ And he said, ‘Charles, I am already dead.’ ”

Last month he lost his bed in a homeless hostel – Frederick Hall – that had been set aside for homeless migrants. The facility had provided a stable bed for the previous year or more, although there were times when he didn’t use it at all. He, along with more than a dozen other migrants, was left to use an emergency phone number for accommodation to organise a bed on a nightly basis.

Then he disappeared. He was no longer to be found in any of the agencies or drop-in centres where he had become a familiar face. Just over a week ago came shocking news. He had been found crushed to death in a commercial waste pick-up truck. He had been sleeping in an industrial-sized bin in the south inner city.

The circumstances of Piotrowski’s death were shocking for a country that prides itself on its compassion for the less well-off at home and abroad. It has also raised urgent questions about the kind of support available for Ireland’s migrant homeless population and whether enough is being done to support them at a time of cutbacks to vital social safety nets.

“Homeless services are especially poor for foreign nationals,” says Fr Peter McVerry, the homelessness campaigner. “The Irish can get a bed for six months in a hostel, and it brings them at least some stability. But the non-Irish can only get a hostel bed for one night at a time.”

Neither Poland nor Ireland ever predicted the scale of the rush to work here in 2004, when borders were opened to accession-state members. Hundreds of thousands came to chase the Celtic Tiger dream. And for most it delivered on its promise of well-paid work.

But a small number who came without money, contacts or basic English had a different experience. For them no job was waiting. Later, when so many temporary jobs on building sites ended abruptly, there was no accommodation or support system for them. Once on the street or in homeless shelters they found themselves in another trap: accession-country members have no right to public funds, which meant they could not claim welfare benefits or get long-term beds in publicly funded hostels.

Today it’s estimated that anywhere between 15 and 20 per cent of Dublin’s homeless population on the street are migrants from eastern Europe.

Welfare entitlements
Tackling the issue of migrants is complex. Any relaxation of rules over entitlement to welfare benefits for foreign nationals could make Ireland a “haven” for destitute foreigners, says one policymaker who declines to be named.

The State’s policy towards migrant homeless has been, wherever possible, to repatriate them. In the first five months of this year 153 foreign nationals were flown back to their countries of origin after seeking help from the Reception and Integration Agency to go home on destitution grounds. That compares with 97 in the same period last year.

Although some have voiced concern that the policy is simply dumping the problem elsewhere, staff and volunteers at the Mendicity Institute see it as a progressive solution, if done properly.

The idea of repatriation is nothing new. When the Mendicity Institute was established, in 1818, there were an estimated 6,000 beggars on the streets. As part of a policy of “transmission” in the early 19th century, about 3,000 were given funds to go abroad or to parts of the country where they had been guaranteed a job. Another 3,000 were given work and shelter.

Over the past 18 months, Charles Richards says, the institute has been working closely with a Polish outreach team – Barka – to help repatriate those who wish to return home. “It is all done on a voluntary basis,” he says. “If people are interested in engaging, it’s up to them. No one is pressurised. They can leave any time. We’ve helped to move 100 people out of homelessness and connected them back home or into training or work.”

It’s also cost effective, he says. The programme has cost about €200,000 in its entirety, yet a single hostel bed can cost anything up to €20,000 a year, not to mind support services.

Kris Jameczek, the former homeless man turned outreach worker, is one of those who chose to return home to Poland. He had been working on building sites in London before he lost his job and found himself sleeping in a park. In all he spent six years on the street.

“There was so much expectation at home,” he says. “I felt like a failure. I could not go back to my family. But there was also freedom on the streets. I drank every day. There was nothing else to do. The longer I was on the street the more it felt like normality.”

It took years of gentle persuasion from the Barka team in London before he decided to go home. When he got back he joined a group-living scheme, received addiction counselling and found basic work.

“I’m trying to help others,” says Jameczek, who is now 58. “It can still be difficult. I hope my relations with my family improve. I’m an optimist. That’s why I’m doing this.”

Alice Leahy, the cofounder of Trust, says repatriation may be the answer for some. But for many the system’s reliance on paperwork and invasive questioning is a turn-off.

“In all the years we’ve been operating, the system hasn’t progressed all that much. It still lacks basic compassion and understanding of how the real world operates,” she says. “We’ve seen people who’ve been repatriated and then arrived back here months later . . . There are often unrealistic expectations, or a rush to push people into accommodation, without the right kind of support.”

Leahy says the fact that migrants are able to access only a single night’s accommodation is just adding to the sense of isolation among the most marginalised of our homeless population. “It’s not good enough to have to ring up every night for a bed,” she says. “There are just too many rules and regulations. It’s no surprise then that people won’t link in with services.”

Supporting migrants
There is no obvious best way of supporting migrants. Even those who provide homeless services are divided. There’s little doubt that Henryk Piotrowski posed complex challenges for homeless-support agencies. No shortage of help was available to him over the course of his life.

Groups such as the Mendicity Institute take grave issue with the notion that he or other migrants are being let down by the system. “We did everything we could to support him: food, medical care, counselling, accommodation options. But he was a chaotic alcoholic, and his family life was in disarray,” Richards says. “He was estranged from family. We contacted his brothers, but he wouldn’t engage with them. We located his daughters on Facebook. He could see they were healthy and surrounded by friends – but Henryk felt there was no way back to his family.”

Richards believes that Piotrowski was on the road to oblivion and that nothing was going to stop it. “Once, we had a passport, flight, he was off drink for two days, there were new clothes, he was all ready to go. He never turned up . . . I don’t think anything would have saved him.”

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