‘People judge you as a homeless person but it’s not the life anyone would want’
Nearly a quarter of clients at Merchant’s Quay drop-in centre now foreign nationals
A service user at Merchant’s Quay drop-in centre for homeless people. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Martin had been living in Ireland for nearly a decade when he became homeless. The Polish man, who had been a construction worker, was forced to move out of his apartment when the rent went up and he turned to alcohol after he began sleeping on the streets of Dublin.
“It’s a tough life on the streets,” says Martin, as he takes a seat in an office at the Riverbank centre on Merchant’s Quay.
Next door the centre’s canteen is filling up with clients who have gathered to celebrate World Day for Cultural Diversity.
“You have to sleep with one eye open, but at some stage you’re so tired that you fall asleep. Then you wake up in the morning with no money, no phone, no nothing. This happened to me about 10 times; I was robbed many times.
“When you get robbed you have to sit with a cup, and that’s very embarrassing. People sometimes give you change, sometimes not, but it’s embarrassing. Many people judge you as a homeless person but that’s not the life anyone would want,” he says.
Martin heard about the Riverbank centre through others who were sleeping rough and began calling the freephone number each night to secure a bed.
“The thing with addiction is we didn’t choose it. It’s a combination of many different problems,” he says. “Sometimes we just can’t deal with the feelings, so we numb them.”
Martin is undergoing addiction treatment and is now living at a 24-hour hostel. He hopes to return to college later this year.
“I’m trying to do something with my life because I can’t live like this. But it’s just the alcohol – it’s killing me.”
Martin is one of 254 Poles who attended the Merchant’s Quay centre last year, making up nearly 5 per cent of its clients. Nearly a quarter of the 5,600 people who visited the centre last year were foreign nationals, including 305 Romanians, 214 people from African countries and 114 people from the UK.
The majority of clients at the centre are men, and more than half are aged 30-44. The centre’s night cafe can provide overnight shelter to 55 people; and the day service, which includes breakfast, lunch, dinner, showers and access to a doctor and nurse, is open 7.45am-9pm.
It’s like the Irish would have done in the 1980s when they went to a different country seeking what they thought was a good job and a new life but different issues prevented that
The number of foreign nationals accessing the service has steadily risen in recent years, with a notable increase in eastern European clients during the recession.
“It’s like the Irish would have done in the 1980s when they went to a different country seeking what they thought was a good job and a new life but different issues prevented that,” says Andrea O’Reilly, Merchant’s Quay homelessness service co-ordinator.
“Just because somebody is homeless or in addiction or has other issues doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate cultural diversity. People seem to forget that other parts of people’s lives run parallel to issues like homelessness.”
Most foreign nationals who present at the service have been in Ireland for many years are looking for a way to get back into the labour market, says Linda Murtagh, a case worker at the centre. They are offered guidance on how to write up a CV and put in touch with employment agencies.
Roman Stojka, who moved to Ireland from the Czech Republic 16 years ago and became homeless after his relationship ended, has recently found work through the centre.
“Without this place I would be lost. I come here every day and sometimes I use the freephone so they can put me to sleep here at night. It’s better than being outside,” he says.
“This service pushed me to get a job. I felt very low before, it’s very difficult on the streets, but then I started slowly to get back on my feet. My hope in the future is to have a roof and a stable job and have a life like before.”