Sleeping rough: ‘People look the other way when they see us’

Taoiseach’s downplaying of homeless figures fails to reflect the reality on the ground

There are more than 6,000 homeless people living in Ireland. Rough sleepers also face a long winter with temperatures already falling below zero.

 

It’s 7.30pm in Temple Bar. People rush to escape the rain, buffeted by strong winds. Tourists make their way into the warmth of nearby pubs. Workers make their way home. On the street, a familiar scene is playing out.

Cardboard is laid out in alleyways and outside of now-closed shops by some of Dublin’s homeless community. Men and women, many of them having failed to secure a bed in a shelter, are bracing for another night on the streets.

An American woman stops to speak with one woman as she arranges her cardboard. Handing a €10 note to a young woman, she encourages her to get “something warm to eat” before drifting back to join her friends.

The claim that the rate of homelessness is not high by international standards is not true

“We are invisible most of the time; people pass me by without a second look,” says the woman, Josie, who does not want to give her surname. “If they do happen to lock eyes with me, they quickly look away.”

She has been homeless with her partner, Tom, for 14 months. The are both 29. They shelter in a doorway in Temple Bar. “Tourists stop and chat on occasion,” she says. “Irish people have a thing about looking the other way when they see us.”

The Dublin Simon Community’s rough sleeper team works with people such as Tom and Josie every day and night of the year, providing support, food and, often just as importantly, a few friendly words.

Simon Community chief executive Sam McGuinness has challenged Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s reply to a question at Fine Gael’s ardfheis in Cavan that Ireland’s homeless numbers are low by comparison with other countries.

“The claim that the rate of homelessness is not high by international standards is not true and must be challenged,” says McGuinness. “This is an attempt to normalise the devastating homeless crisis that is engulfing our country.”

Damned lies and statistics

The monthly statistics do not include those in emergency shelters: “They do not include rough sleepers, those in squats, hidden homelessness, such as couch surfers and that in non-section-10-funded accommodations,” he says.

For brothers Andrew (31) and John McDonnell (30), the streets became home eight years ago. Both struggled to cope with their mother’s death, turning to alcohol and drugs.

“What can I say, really?” John says. “It’s been a vicious circle. One minute you think you’re getting a bit of luck and getting somewhere, the next you’re knocked back,” he adds, as Andrew comes back holding a cup of tea and a bag of crisps given by Simon volunteers.

“We always had jobs and worked until after Mam passed away,” says Andrew. “We have two younger brothers who we tried to care for after she died, but we fell down the slippery slope of drinking too much.”

They now live in a tent. Last month’s heavy rain was extremely difficult. Two male rough sleepers died in Dublin and Drogheda – the fifth and sixth to die in the past two months.

“It’s very hard to get motivated in the morning. It’s become very difficult to pitch a tent in a safe location, because you either have people setting it on fire or the guards moving us on,” John says.

Brothers Andrew and John McDonnell, who both sleep rough in Dublin. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Brothers Andrew and John McDonnell, who both sleep rough in Dublin. Photograph: Dave Meehan

“We came back to where our tent was and it had blown into a ditch. The two of us stick together. We are family, so in ways at least we have each other. Some of the others spend their whole week in isolation.”

“Sometimes to keep ourselves going, we tell each other about our favourite episode of Only Fools and Horses or Friends. It’s not much but it’s a memory of time we spent together as a family. My biggest fear is waking up and John is dead next to me,” Andrew says.

Living in a taxi

Francis Macken, a father of two, became homeless 16 months ago after a relationship broke down and he got into financial difficulties. Since then he has lived in the back of the van that he once drove as a taxi.

“That’s no longer possible as I have all my life packed up inside,” he says, “I was sleeping in the inner city recently and [my] boys recognised that it was my taxi and they woke me up knocking on the windows,” says Macken.

“How do you tell your kids you’re sleeping in the back of a van? It’s just not how they should think about when they think of me.”

He had hoped that the taxi would be an emergency stop-gap, but that has not worked out: “Some nights I might take a bed in the hostel, but I don’t feel safe there. It’s not what I was used to, so I feel safer sleeping in the taxi."

We spent last Christmas on top of Killiney Hill in a tent and this Christmas isn’t looking much brighter

Referrals to the Mobile Health Unit operated by Safetynet and Simon are made from Simon’s rough sleeper team and others, while care is provided by a GP registrar, Dr Ciara Keating, and a nurse, Naoise Kinsella.

Most of the people they see are in poor health. Diabetes and high cholesterol is rife. “Many people are too sick to be living rough but sadly this is the reality for many,” says Keating.

Following their rounds of Dublin city centre, the Simon team prepare to head to Chapelizod to check on the homeless who could not get into town. The McDonnell brothers hang on until the Simon bus drives off.

“We like to wait around as long as we can; even though there are two of us, the nights can be very long and lonely,” says John. “We spent last Christmas on top of Killiney Hill in a tent and this Christmas isn’t looking much brighter.”