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Sunday 21 September 2014

Down and out on the streets of Dublin

At 6am, the capital's footpaths are littered 
with sleeping bags.
 Barbara McCarthy spoke to some of the occupants

Barbara McCarthy

Published 24/08/2014 | 02:30

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Liam and Elaine, whom Barbara met around the Custom House area of Dublin. Photo: Barbara McCarthy
Liam and Elaine, whom Barbara met around the Custom House area of Dublin. Photo: Barbara McCarthy

'When I came back after the weekend last week two people were dead, but nobody cares because they're homeless," Dennis Morris 
from Outreach, a joint programme run by the Simon Community and Focus Ireland, informs me. "They were only in their 30s."

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We are driving around Dublin's streets at 6am to count how many people are sleeping rough.

"We do it twice a week. There are usually around 100, but that doesn't include parks and suburbs," co-worker 
Martina Bergin adds.

A lot of homeless people also walk around during the night and then sleep on a park bench by day, so they aren't included in the list. "Oddly enough, people are afraid of homeless people, but they are the ones who are petrified," Morris adds.

On O'Connell Street, we see two people sleeping across a footpath with no sleeping bags. Their friend comes to greet us. I hear Morris talk about Merchants Quay Ireland Homeless and Drugs services. "Have you a number for them? I'll get them to call you, OK."

We drive off. "They serve breakfast there from 7am and then they stay open for the rest of the day," he says. "We have beds to offer every night, but not enough. They are mostly all booked up by 9am. A lot of them are block-booked. We only have two beds tonight."

There is nowhere near enough social housing, Bergin says. Capital spending on housing was €1.3bn at the end of the boom. It's down to €220m now. "Since I started in 2008, the homeless numbers have doubled," she says. "It's getting really bad."

We drive up Moore Street and see bodies covered in blue sleeping bags, two to three tiers deep. Two people are asleep in a trolley
usually used for fruit and veg delivery.

"I drove up a street once and a bin toppled over and a man fell out," says Morris, as he counts the people sleeping rough. "It's very sad. This country has two major issues - homelessness and suicide. A lot of homeless people have alcohol and drug problems. They more than likely have no contact with home and have isolated themselves from their family."

There have been stories in the papers lately of families being made homeless, but says Morris, sometimes they do have somewhere to go. "There was a case in the paper recently of a woman who slept in her car with her children, but she ended up having a place to go down the country."

Chances are the homeless people we see shooting up underneath their sleeping bags in Temple Bar won't have anywhere to go after this.

A lot of the homeless people are drug users. A bag of heroin costs €20, but some of them use five or six bags a day. Many of the people we meet look for needles. These are provided in the Medical Care Unit, which is run in conjunction with Safetynet, Chrysalis Community Drug Project and the Order of Malta. "We have needles here, antibiotics, painkillers. People can come in here and we give them a check-up. It's a very popular service," Bergin says.

"The Simon Community have use of the unit twice a week, while other charities use it the rest of the week." It stops at various places across the city so people can access free health care.

We drive towards the Custom House and meet a couple. When I ask to take a photograph of them, 39-year-old Elaine jokes. "I need to do myself up a bit. I look a fright." I insisted that I did too and she needn't be concerned. "You look gorgeous," her on-off boyfriend, 33-year-old Liam, informs her.

"It's hard to get accommodation for couples," Bergin says when I get back in the car. "Unfortunately, few places have beds for two." I am informed that the two had spent time in and out of long-term housing. "It's hard sometimes. It's like a revolving door. You get people sorted in social housing and then you see them back on the streets."

We drive through Dublin as the sun rises over the Liffey and its beautiful reflection glistens on the mirrored buildings. Blue sleeping bags 
adorn the pavements, sidewalk and doorways. Bergin counts them. How many are there now? I ask. "Forty seven and we're only halfway through."

We go into an internet cafe and there are around 
eight people asleep in chairs or stretched across them. "They pay by the hour, so it's around €5 to €10 to stay for the night. It's really bad for your feet to sleep like that. Your circulation suffers," 
Bergin adds.

As people start to make their way to work and cars begin to pepper the streets, the homeless soon have to get their belongings together and find somewhere to go.

A girl comes up to us on Grafton Street and asks: "Do you have needles?" "No. You'll have to go to the needle exchange," Morris says. "Where's your brother?" he asks. "He's over there?" We see him at the other side of the road. Morris drives off, content. "She's a heroin addict. He's only 18. When he was younger, it was always a bit of a problem because he was too young to be on the streets."

"We have people out from 6am to midnight every day," says Bergin. "If we can't provide accommodation, we give them sleeping bags; provide showers or clothes from the shop. They get fed too. There's food available all day. Not just from us."

In order to see for myself I do an evening soup run with the Simon Community.

"We have a girl who comes in here every afternoon and makes soup and we provide sandwiches, chocolate and crisps from the shop next door," says volunteer Roger Rafferty.

The team are very dedicated. One man likes healthy food so he gets apples and bananas, while another likes more sugar in his tea, so that's catered for too.

Clearly it wasn't to 35-year-old Anto's liking. "Ah here, that's way too much sugar. Are you trying to kill me?" he says when he is handed the cup on Charlemont Street. "I'll have another tea and I'll put my own sugar in." He then puts four sugars into his own tea. I ask to take some photos. "No bother. I'm a bit of a ride."

"Yeah, I was about to say," I reply.

"My skin is soft as a baby's bottom. I'm 35. That's what drugs do to you," he says, as he pulls a few faces. "If you can't have a bit a laugh, what can you do?"

Too true. My evening trip ends with a visit to another homeless man who allegedly has a PhD and is reading a book on macro economics. Well-spoken and immaculately clothed, he has been homeless for years. He
sleeps near Trinity and then spends the day there, being scholarly. He showers there too and brushes his teeth, but returns to sleep rough at night.

Mental-health issues, lack of opportunity and a severe lack of housing mean this winter will be bitter for the people sleeping on Ireland's streets. As six new people become homeless each day, plans to end homelessness by 2015 appear to be a pipe dream at this point.

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