Covid-19 a ‘hidden opportunity’ for homeless services

Pandemic has brought rough sleepers in from the cold, Peter McVerry head says

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The coronavirus pandemic has provided a “hidden opportunity” for homeless services, allowing them to move more people off the streets and into housing, Peter McVerry Trust’s chief executive, Pat Doyle, has said.

Once every five weeks or so, Doyle walks around Dublin city from 9pm to 1am, often with Bob Jordan, Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) national director of Housing First.

The pair start their route from the doorstep where homeless man Jonathan Currie was found dead in late 2014, near Leinster House. The walk helps to keep a “finger on the pulse” of the homelessness crisis, Doyle says.

Prior to Covid-19, the long-time head of the homeless charity would count 70-90 rough sleepers along the route, now it is as low as 30.

In the early days of the pandemic, health officials and homelessness campaigners were seriously concerned about how the virus would impact the at-risk community.

“Our client group are very vulnerable, there’s a lot of them have underlying health issues, some of them have neglected their health issues for years,” Doyle says.

But more than a year on, the incidence of the disease among the homeless has been kept lower than the rate in the general population, with few outbreaks.

That success was in part due to a decision to lease a hotel for those most at-risk, run by Peter McVerry Trust with the support of DRHE.

Rough sleepers and the medically vulnerable living in homeless shelters were given single rooms in the “shielding” facility, Doyle says.

The alternative could have been much worse, with some studies showing the rate of infection among the homeless population in Paris at above 40 per cent.

The charity had to move hotels a number of times, and is currently accommodating 110 homeless people in rooms in the Maldron Hotel on Pearse Street.

Rough sleepers

The fear of Covid-19 and the shutdown of Dublin city centre brought a lot of “entrenched rough sleepers” in from the cold, to engage with services for the first time in years, Doyle says.

“These would have been people who survived on the street, survived by going into coffee shops to use the bathrooms, asking people to boil water, using public bathrooms, and just found it a lot more difficult to live on the street,” he says.

The stability of the facility has given staff time to work with people on the issues that led them into homelessness in the first place.

“We haven’t used it just to hold people in limbo, we’ve used it to house people, getting them the services that they need,” Doyle says.

“A lot of people got underlying mental health issues dealt with, a lot of people got access to treatments, alcohol supports, benzos supports,” he says.

Another “hidden gem” of the pandemic has been the exodus of large multinational companies, such as Google and Facebook, from the rental market, as employees work remotely.

The multinational firms and their employees are no longer “swooping in” and taking up rental properties, Doyle says.

Landlords, particularly real-estate investment trusts, are now more open to entering long-term leases of 10-25 years with homeless charities. To date, 46 homeless people have been moved from the hotel into housing, he says.

“We give the wrap-around supports, the landlord knows that if we put a client in there, we will be visiting … we will be looking after it,” Doyle says.

Facility residents

One of those staying in the facility, Aidan Cuthbert (54), from Coolock, has been homeless for more than nine years. On Wednesday, he is to get the keys to his own apartment in Dollymount, north Dublin.

Suffering from the lung disease COPD, he says he would have been “bunched” if he contracted Covid-19.

He slipped into homelessness after his partner died a decade ago, and so securing housing has been the silver lining of the past year, he says.

“I was delighted, I went down to view it earlier on, it’s gorgeous,” he says.

Gary Buckley (44) from Drogheda, Co Louth, is another resident in the facility, who has been in and out of homelessness since he was 17.

Before Covid-19 he was staying in a homeless hostel in Cabra, where he was “mixed in with addicts and drinkers”, he says. Previously a heroin addict, he has been clean for the past two years.

“Ever since I came here, everything has been working out for me. I haven’t got all these people shouting around me, I’ve my own peace and quiet,” he says. Staff have “more time to work with us”, which has really helped, Buckley says.

“One of my kids, my eldest daughter, I’ve got her back in my life… I’m working on getting my other son and daughter in my life,” he says.