Homeless in the pandemic: Meet Ciara and Shane, Darragh and Gary

Ciara Fennell and Shane Linnie outside their tent in Dublin city centre. Photograph:  Damien Eagers
The number sleeping rough in Dublin fell to just 25 in March, but is now over 100 a night. With many services closed by the pandemic, their plight is severe

It was difficult “mentally”, says Darragh King (36) – who has been homeless for several years – to absorb what was happening around him as Dublin went into lockdown from mid-March.

Overnight, along with the rest of the city, most homeless day services closed their premises.

“The shopping centres were closed. The cafes were closed. Even the churches were closed. There was nowhere to go and sit, nowhere to get out of the rain, nowhere even to go to the toilet.”

King had been sleeping at the Four Courts with his friend Gary Dixon (37) for several months. Their routine had been to cross the Liffey each morning to Merchants Quay Ireland (MQI), a voluntary drug treatment and homelessness service, for breakfast and showers. They sometimes returned at night to sleep in the project’s “night cafe”.

Merchants Quay’s premises remains mostly closed. It is providing takeaway meals, takeaway needle-exchange and some on-site medical and counselling services for “the most vulnerable,” but the majority of people needing its supports cannot go inside.

Most advice and supports are provided literally on the pavement outside the building. The “night cafe” – which provided roll-out beds on the floor for about 60 people a night – is gone.

In April, King and Dixon, after many years on the streets, were offered emergency accommodation. They share a twin room which would have accommodated four before the pandemic and have benefitted from the measures put in by the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) in response to the pandemic.

It sourced an additional 450 emergency beds to ensure people sleeping rough could get off the streets and to reduced overcrowding in existing emergency accommodation.

The pair still visit Merchants Quay Ireland regularly, missing being able to sit inside, but grateful for the addiction and counselling services it still gives. “Only for it, I’d be lost,” says Dixon.

Roisin Casey (L) and Daire Moriarty, both members of the Dublin Simon rough sleeper outreach team speak to a homeless man on Dublin's Henry Street.Photograph: Damien Eagers
Roisin Casey (L) and Daire Moriarty, both members of the Dublin Simon rough sleeper outreach team speak to a homeless man on Dublin's Henry Street. Photograph: Damien Eagers

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In the eye of the gathering Covid-19 storm, and amid serious fears of a large outbreak among the homeless population, State and voluntary agencies worked together, and quickly, from mid-March.

In addition to the extra 450 beds – much of it in former short-term holiday lets – over 600 units of cocooning or shielding accommodation were sourced.

All registered drug-users were to be offered methadone maintenance and, where necessary, provision was made for methadone and other prescription drugs to be delivered to homeless people where they were staying.

As well as missing hot sit-down meals, those who used them have lost social spaces, shelter from the weather, to shower, to use the toilet

Ciara Carty, head of services with Focus Ireland, recalls: “We opened a shielding service in a three-day turnaround. In it there are 18 units, self-contained apartments. We achieved that working with Anna Liffey, the HSE and the DRHE. It was a phenomenal collaborative success – and shows what can be done.”

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Roxanne Nolan (37), who has rheumatoid arthritis and has had several hospitalisations with pneumonia in recent years, was placed in a Focus Ireland cocooning unit in April having been in and out of homelessness since her teens.

“I have not had my own place in over 20 years. My health has improved. Life is better for me now than it has been in a long time.”

Daire Moriarty, rough sleeper outreach worker with Dublin Simon, recalls “very entrenched rough sleepers” whom services had been struggling for long periods to get into accommodation, “getting into accommodation overnight... It was quite surreal”.

Her colleague, Róisín Casey, however, quickly adds some of those placements broke down in subsequent weeks. “People who sleep rough can have other factors in their lives to deal with. They’re already so socially isolated. So being suddenly in a single room, it doesn’t always help.”

Darragh and Gary at Merchants Quay Ireland in Dublin. The “night cafe” – which provided roll-out beds on the floor for about 60 people a night – is gone. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Darragh and Gary at Merchants Quay Ireland in Dublin. The “night cafe” – which provided roll-out beds on the floor for about 60 people a night – is gone. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The rapid provision of more beds has been positive, but they stress that supporting vulnerable, complex people, like those sleeping rough, especially in the midst of a fast-changing and unpredictable crisis, requires more than just accommodation.

Several serious issues remain, resulting in people – including children, say Dublin Simon – sleeping in parks, doorways, in car-parks and on the streets.

Among these are an almost blanket ban on anyone from outside Dublin accessing emergency accommodation, the removal of all crisis one-night-only beds from the system, and a dearth of emergency beds for couples (there are 60 for a homeless population of almost 3,000 adults without children ) along with strict rules on accessing them.

So while numbers sleeping rough in the capital fell dramatically in late March to about 25, they are now back up at over 100 a night, according to Dublin Simon.

And while the number of children and families in emergency accommodation fell through the crisis, the number of single adults in emergency accommodation in Dublin is growing – there were 2,916 in July, up from 2,897 in June.

In July, 176 single adults became homeless for the first time in Dublin compared with 105 in June, 123 in May, 99 in April, 108 in March, 160 in February, and 215 in January.

A DRHE report to councillors this week warned: “We will soon be entering the winter period, and numbers amongst single adults are likely to increase.”

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Wednesday night, shortly after 11pm, finds Ciara Fennell (25) and her partner Shane Linnie (30), returning to their tiny tent, pitched 10 nights previously in a lane behind the National Gallery. It is raining heavily for the second consecutive night. The inside “walls” of the tent are damp.

“We are homeless this last year,” says Ciara.

Both from south Co Dublin originally, their families moved to Wexford when they were younger. They met there. Ciara could no longer afford her rented accommodation in Enniscorthy, and, unable to get housing, the couple came to Dublin last year.

Having been in a tent for nine months, and as a result of the Covid crisis, they got an emergency couple’s bed in May. Due to coercive intimidation directed at Ciara from someone outside the accommodation they had to leave, however. These details are confirmed by Dublin Simon.

To access an alternative couple bed they must have a joint housing application, a process made more difficult during lockdown as all interaction with Dublin City Council has been by email.

Ciara Fennell and Shane Linnie outside their tent in Dublin city centre. “It’s like the Government just don’t care. I’m just sick of being invisible to everybody,” says Ciara. Photograph: Damien Eagers
Ciara Fennell and Shane Linnie outside their tent in Dublin city centre. Photograph: Damien Eagers

“It’s just very hard, and it’s like there’s no help from anyone except the Simon Community, ” says Ciara. “We got into the hostel for about three months and we were happy there. Then all that started happening and we had to leave.

“It’s been tough during Covid, having no services, no one to speak to. It’s like we’re invisible.”

Asked how they clean themselves, she says: “Just use babywipes. For food we use the soup runs. I have no family I can go to.”

Wiping tears from her face, she continues: “This is not my kind of life. I went to school. The people around here are not the type I’d mix with. I’m terrified of the winter coming. I’m cold. It’s like the Government just don’t care. I’m just sick of being invisible to everybody.”

Shane pulls Ciara to him as she becomes distressed. “I’m so worried for her,” he says.

The DRHE said it was “trying to source further accommodation that would be suitable for couples”.

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In the doorway of Brown Thomas on Grafton Street, Stephen Cullen (47) is with his partner Mary, who does not give her surname. Painfully thin, he explains he has “cancer all over”. Rubbing his neck and jaw he says they are “full of tumours”.

“It’s very hard to get a bed together.” He has been offered a cocooning bed, but Mary would not be able to go with him as they don’t have a joint housing application. They will sleep outside the Gaiety theatre tonight, he says.

Daire Moriarty, Ciaran King and Roisin Casey, all members of the Dublin Simon rough sleeper outreach team. Photograph: Damien Eagers
Daire Moriarty, Ciaran King and Roisin Casey, all members of the Dublin Simon rough sleeper outreach team. Photograph: Damien Eagers

The median age of death among homeless men is 44, according to a 2016 study from the Institute of Public Health in Trinity College. For homeless women it is 38.

Among others we meet are a family of three adults, including an elderly couple, from Romania, bedded down in a secluded doorway to the Ilac Centre, off Henry Street. They speak no English.

 'This winter is going to be very tough on people'

Near them Barry, a musician recovering from addiction, is sleeping behind a barricade of cardboard boxes. He had a hostel bed, but left because there were “too many drugs”. He is trying to get transferred to another accommodation.

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The most distressing development since Covid, says Dublin Simon outreach worker Ciarán King, has been coming across families, including children under 10, sleeping out.

“We’ve met them at the GPO, Store Street. There haven’t been any children in the last few weeks. It’s only since Covid, whether because they’ve lost their accommodation or services are closed and they have nowhere to go for advice. Usually they have not been assessed as homeless [so cannot access a bed]. They’ve all been from outside Ireland, so that’s another complication in getting emergency accommodation.

“We’ve had to call gardaí when it’s out of hours and it’s potentially a child protection issue.”

The DRHE said it was “not aware of any children sleeping rough”, adding that cases reported to them would be responded to “urgently”.

Greg Duff and Amy Carroll, harm reduction outreach project workers at Merchants Quay Ireland. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Greg Duff and Amy Carroll, harm reduction outreach project workers at Merchants Quay Ireland. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Being from outside the country, or even county, has become a “huge” obstacle to accessing beds in Dublin since Covid-19 struck, says Louisa Santoro, chief executive of the Mendicity Institution. She has dealt with “a significant number” of homeless men who were refused any emergency bed because they have difficulties proving “a connection to Dublin”.

“They are being told to go back to Tipperary or wherever, or to their country’s embassy,” says Santoro. “Local authorities around the country are telling me they have no emergency beds. So they’d be going back to sleep rough in Thurles or Ennis or wherever – and without the day services they have in Dublin.

“Meanwhile the embassies are asking me what they are supposed to do with one of their nationals who is homeless in Dublin. That’s not their responsibility.”

 'You used to be able to have a shave and clean yourself up, have a chat. Now you can’t even do that. I am finding it very difficult'

The DRHE says there is a process for dealing with this issue: “Emergency accommodation is provided by each housing authority in the country. A person should always contact the local authority from which they became homeless in the first instance. It is critical that each household is registered for housing support with the authority where they have a local connection.”

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The closing of all one-night-only beds – for hygiene and best-practice reasons – has been widely welcomed. But it “seems hard-line”, says Santoro. “It means there is literally nothing for people if they cannot prove they are ‘entitled’ to housing supports in Dublin. And even if they are, proving that can take a few days. They are still human beings. They are ending up in really dire situations out there.”

Roisin Casey (R) and Daire Moriarty, both members of the Dublin Simon rough sleeper outreach team speak to a homeless woman on Dublin’s Grafton Street. Photograph: Damien Eagers
Roisin Casey (R) and Daire Moriarty, both members of the Dublin Simon rough sleeper outreach team speak to a homeless woman on Dublin’s Grafton Street. Photograph: Damien Eagers

A spokeswoman for the DRHE said the elimination of one-night beds in favour of longer-term rolling beds only had had “some negative outcomes”.

“We are working to find a solution to this issue in order to ensure full usage when there is a strong demand.”

The continued closure of most day services’ premises coming into the winter is a huge concern.

As well as missing hot sit-down meals, those who used them have lost social spaces, shelter from the weather, to shower, to use the toilet.

Without homeless people dropping into their premises socially, services have lost opportunities to engage casually with them to build the relationships from which trust and further engagement grow.

David, who did not give his surname, has been engaging with Merchants Quay Ireland for several years. “I miss going in a lot,” he says. “You used to be able to have a shave and clean yourself up, have a chat. Now you can’t even do that. I am finding it very difficult.”

David at Merchants Quay Ireland. “You used to be able to have a shave and clean yourself up, have a chat. Now you can’t even do that. I am finding it very difficult.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
David at Merchants Quay Ireland. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The “big need”, says Mark Kennedy, Merchants Quay Ireland’s director of recovery services, “is the social, the human contact. That’s what they miss. It definitely impacts on their mental health.”

He is worried too about those who are not coming to service at all anymore, put off by the gathering of people outside them and the lack of privacy.

“Of course the accommodation is hugely important, and people can stay in the hostels all day now if they wish. But sitting in a room all day, there’s more to it than that. We humans, we wither if we don’t get social contact. That has to be there. People have mental health problems, physical health problems. We have got to address that too.”

Merchants Quay Ireland is examining whether it can access additional premises to enable some social interaction in the winter.

In Focus Ireland, Ciara Carty agrees. “Yes, accommodation is crucial, and on that we have had wins in this crisis. We have got people into accommodation who would have been in tents. But there is a danger in focusing solely on the very basic needs. You could be missing other issues.

“This winter is going to be very tough on people. The only way we are going to get through is by working together in a way that prevents homeless people from having to sleep rough and from becoming homeless in the first place.

“When someone has a stable home a lot of the other issues are easier to resolve.”