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'I can't believe it ... now I can jump on the bus and go home' - Peter McVerry Trust houses 61 people during Covid-19 pandemic

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Marcella Fagan

Marcella Fagan

Marcella Fagan

As the country went into lockdown in March, the public was told to stay at home - which made it a challenge for the 9,907 homeless people who did not have a roof over their heads.

With thousands fleeing high-rent cities, landlords were left strapped for cash.

Suddenly, dozens of Airbnb properties ended up on advertising sites and local authorities jumped at the opportunity to turn empty properties used for short-term lettings into homes for rough sleepers.

The Peter McVerry Trust has housed 61 people during the pandemic through its Housing First initiative, some of whom have battled addictions while on the streets for over a decade.

Clondalkin native Trevor Curtis (39) became homeless when he lost several members of his family, including his mother, to suicide almost 20 years ago.

"When my mum died, a part of me died," he said. "I grieved, I was 17 going on 18. I was very angry and I found it difficult to explain why."

Aged 22, he developed a heroin addiction after experimenting with ecstasy and recreational drugs.

"It took away all the pain, hurt and anger. Little did I know it suppressed it deeper and deeper," Mr Curtis said.

Over 19 years on the streets, he was in and out of hostels and prison. However, as people were told to stay at home, drugs also became scarcer.

"I saw an opportunity here. Nobody was selling, so I thought to take this chance to get clean," he said.

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Trevor Curtis

Trevor Curtis

Trevor Curtis

Just two weeks ago, the Trust helped Mr Curtis move into his own home, an apartment in Adamstown.

"I can't believe it - now I can jump on the bus and go home, I have keys to a house for life," he said. "I stayed in a hostel three days a week and there were 11 of us in the room, reduced to six when the virus started.

"Now, I go home, I do the washing, I cook, I put my feet up. I love to cook," he said.

A 'staircase' housing strategy, which sees rough sleepers completing step-by-step programmes prior to being housed, sees only 40pc exit homelessness permanently, according to the Trust's CEO Pat Doyle.

The Housing First strategy, founded in the US by clinical psychologist Dr Sam Tsemberis, sees rough sleepers housed first and supports - such as counselling and addiction treatment - put in after. Mr Doyle says it has a 85pc success rate.

"With the staircase strategy, we saw people taking three steps forward, one step back. The most vulnerable people never make it," he said.

Marcella Fagan (40s) was housed before Christmas after being on the Navan County Council waiting list for 12 years.

However, her apartment was damp and the Trust helped her move into a similar property.

"Some nights I even had to sleep in the bushes," she said.

"I had to hide all my documents and passport each night."

After being made homeless in 2010, she couch-surfed and also lived in a derelict house with an abusive partner.

"The house was very big, and everyone had their own room, with eight or nine people staying there a night, but some people were very dangerous," she said.

She is now happily engaged to her partner Derrick and wants to be a writer.

"I have food in the fridge, I have a TV, a coffee table. When the Trust first moved me in, I asked, is this mine?" she said.

"It's amazing when you're housed, your life does a 180-degree turn."

Acting head of Housing First Emma McMillen said Trust tenancy agreements are two years long, but can be renewed if the tenancy is going well.

The charity sources homes through county councils, approved housing bodies and the Trust's own properties.

"Everyone has to pay rent," she said. "It is on a reduced rate and is normally a percentage of the income of that individual. It's normally around 12pc-15pc of their weekly income."

"Intensive supports see that on pay day, a budgeting manager turns up and helps them to pay bills and make a budget."

However, the pandemic has proved a challenge.

"We can come to people's houses and communicate from the doorstep, but if we have to come in, our staff wear full PPE gear.

"We've also been using video conferencing and phone calls to keep tenants feel socially included."

However, Todd Morrissey (32), who was housed in Birr, Co Offaly at the end of March, said that the lockdown has made him feel isolated.

"I live on my own at the moment and I miss my family in Edenderry," he said.

"I want to be close to them, but I have a roof over my head and I've never had my own place before."

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Todd Morrissey

Todd Morrissey

Todd Morrissey

July will mark the first year of Mr Morrissey's sobriety.

"I was homeless on and off since 2011 and in many treatment centres," he said. "I went to Dublin nine years ago and I had no friends or family. Heroin hit a lot in the hostels.

"It was the hardest in the winter, rain, hail or snow, you had no roof over your head. I begged on the streets to get by."

Just last week, the Trust was offered 20 properties for the Housing First initiative, as landlords cannot lease out to non-existent tourists.

However, there is a fear that these properties could go back to being short-term lettings once the pandemic ends.

"If we don't learn a lesson from the pandemic, we'll get back to business at usual, which is families going into hotels and the stags going into private apartments," Mr Doyle added.

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