The invisible people who live very public lives on our streets
Rough sleepers deal with death, illness, violence and humiliation day in, day out
Outside Eddie Rockets on Dublin’s Dame Street, a friendly 46-year-old called John describes how he keeps warm in shop doorways using newspapers when he doesn’t have a sleeping bag.
He’s sipping on a cup of tea which Dublin Simon Community volunteers have given him. He has been homeless for 10 years. He was in prison in England and, afterwards, nobody wanted to hire him or rent a flat to him.
Sometimes he has neither a sleeping bag nor newspapers. How does he stay warm then?
“I sing myself a song,” he says and laughs.
A man walks up and puts his hand on his shoulder as we are talking.
“John, we’ve been looking for you everywhere,” he says.
“You have?” says John.
“I have bad news for you,” says the man. “Your mother passed away.”
“My mother,” John says. He says her name, to make sure there’s no mistake.
The man repeats the name.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you like this,” he says. “They’re laying her out tomorrow.”
“My mother is dead,” John says, and he blinks away some tears.
He starts to spill his tea and one of the Simon volunteers gently takes the cup from his hand.
People have been out searching for John. The man works at the sheltered housing unit where John’s partner lives and tells him to go there this evening where he will help arrange transport home.
After the man leaves, John stands in the middle of the footpath crying softly. It’s unclear if he has a place to stay.
Martina Bergin, an outreach worker with the Simon Community, calls a number and explains his situation, but they don’t have a bed.
“I can’t believe she’s gone,” says John. He last saw her two years ago. “Life is one bad thing after another,” he says.
Bergin calls a colleague who says he will drive John to the unit where his partner is waiting but the soup run has to move on.
“I’ll wait with him,” says The Irish Times photographer, gently. After we leave, John says to him “Maybe it’s not true”.
He declines to be photographed.
Homeless people have to live in public. Their profoundest tragedies unfold in front of strangers. Dublin city centre has around 162 rough sleepers (based on last Friday’s Simon Community count) who populate the city’s shop-fronts, alleys and 24-hour cafes as the night-time temperatures drop below zero.
At the Simon Community’s offices on Capel Street, volunteers pack bags with sandwiches, Kit Kats, Pot Noodles and warm clothes.
They fill flasks with soup, tea and coffee and then five teams set out in different directions.
I’m with a team on “route one” which goes along Capel Street, Dame Street, George’s Street, Stephen’s Green and Grafton Street. They offer food and warm clothes, but they can’t offer beds.
On December 9th, extra beds will become available, as part of the Cold Weather Initiative. In the meantime, there’s a free phone number people can ring to request emergency accommodation.
“You ring it early and then you ring back at 4.30pm and then you ring again at 10.30pm,” explains Jay, who is sitting outside a Spar on Parliament Street. “And then they tell you they have no places and to get a sleeping bag.”
“When you’ve two sleeping bags, it’s not so bad.”
As we talk, an ambulance pulls up and a paramedic rushes into the Spar where another homeless man has been slumped.
Bergin, who says she has “sleeping bag radar”, recognises him and goes inside.
“He’s fine,” she says when she comes out. “He just hasn’t slept in days . . . I suppose it’s good they called an ambulance.”
Afterwards we pass by several places where Bergin knows homeless people sleep. Due to the cold weather, Bergin says, people move around more. Some walk through the night. Others sleep sitting up in 24-hour-internet cafes. The latter turn up at Simon’s mobile health clinic with circulation problems.
Many suffer from bronchitis and kidney infections.
“We’re seeing more people homeless due to financial difficulties,” says Bergin. “A lot more people sleeping in cars. A lot more people sleeping in tents. At this time of year you encounter a lot of anxious people hoping to get a place for the night or somewhere for Christmas.”
A day later, Bergin introduces me to 22-year-old Karl Fields whom she met and began helping after he had been assaulted.
“He filled out the forms with bloody tissues in his nose,” she says.
“Martina’s the only person I have to talk to,” he says.
Fields has the words “mam” and “dad” tattooed on his hands and “only the strong survive” on his shin. His late parents were drug addicts and he was put in care at 13 where he was abused by a female staff member.
“It f***ed me up a bit,” he says. He started staying out on the streets.
He prides himself on helping people worse off than himself, of avoiding hard drugs (“I’ve seen what they do to people”) and on being presentable and clean.
“You can shower in the Applegreen garage for two euros,” he says.
But he feels looked down upon and he is often frightened. He hates the shorter days, the constant cold and the ever present threat of violence.
“You never feel normal,” he says. “And time is meaningless. I don’t even have the time set on my phone.”
Where does he sleep?
“All over,” he says. He’ll find an alley or a doorway and set up a little hut made of cardboard, “wherever I feel safe”.
Sometimes acquaintances let him stay in their homes but the free phone number, he says, rarely leads to a bed. He’s on a council housing list but has been told he’ll be waiting eight years.
“It wrecks my head even talking about this. That’s why I like horses.”
Works for free
Horses, he says, saved his life. He knows people who own ponies and he works with them for free.
“Three little ponies. I clean out the stables and feed them and look after them. I just love them. It takes your mind off being on the streets.”
He dreams of having a place in the country with his own horses.
“I mean, why not?” he says. “I’m just a human being. There’s nothing stopping me having a dream.”
Back at the top of Grafton Street, a woman called Mary says she has been homeless since breaking up with her husband.
“He took the house,” she says.
Now, she sleeps in doorways, sometimes with a sleeping bag, she says, sometimes without. Sometimes she walks all night.
In the morning, she goes to McDonald’s – “if they let you in” – to wash in the bathroom and sit for an hour with a cup of tea.
She doesn’t like hostels, she says, because she doesn’t like being around drugs.
“My whole family died from drugs. And I’m trying to keep away from drugs,” she adds, “because I’m pregnant.”
Up the street, at TGI Fridays, a 26-year-old man named John Rohan gratefully accepts a cup of tea from Simon volunteer Veronica Cullen.
“Any [homeless person] who says they’re going hungry in Dublin is lying,” he says.
Three groups have come by with sandwiches just this evening, he says. The problem isn’t food, he says, it’s a lack of beds.
Rohan’s father was a heroin addict and, six years ago, after his mother died, Rohan couldn’t afford the rent on their home and ended up homeless with her dog (“He died a few years later”).
Rohan has a bag of dry clothes stashed in Stephen’s Green and another across the river. He usually sleeps in a doorway on O’Connell Street where a “security guard is kind to me”.
Other people aren’t so kind, he says.
“I got pissed on last month. Another man kicked me in the face.”
He begs on the street which makes him feel ashamed.
“I was a plasterer once,” he says. “Today, you’d be lucky if you made €20 in a day. There are triple the amount of people tapping than there was.”
He has family members he can occasionally stay with and is hoping to stay with this Christmas – “I was out last Christmas night and it was so lonely” – and he goes to St Mark’s Church every Sunday.
“I believe in God,” he says.
Does it help?
He just laughs.
He tells me he had a stroke two years ago. His security guard friend found him and called an ambulance. He spent six months in hospital and he’s meant to get regular checkups, but he finds it embarrassing being in the hospital smelling so badly.
“So, I stopped going . . . You can still see it on the left side of my face a bit when I smile.”
Rohan had his stroke on the street. Mary is going through her pregnancy on the street. Karl tells me about violent attacks he has witnessed. John was told of his mother’s death in front of me and Simon Community volunteers and other random passers-by.
Rough sleepers live in public and yet, they remain invisible most of the time.
Michael Ward, a former builder with a sleeping bag over his shoulders and a paper cup of coins in his hand, lives in a tent and has given up on having a normal life.
“I wouldn’t know where to start,” he says. “I’m not on the housing list. I’ve no ID. I’ve no bank account. I’ve no PPS number. No one can find me. I don’t exist on paper. I don’t exist at all until someone gives me some money.”