Monday 18 December 2017

Lonely street life of damp blankets and cheap cans

Nicky Larkin spends time among the capital's many homeless and listens to their sometimes harrowing stories

Homeless man Colin Duff with Sunday Independent reporter Nicky Larkin on Dublin's Ha'penny Bridge. Photo: Tony Gavin
Homeless man Colin Duff with Sunday Independent reporter Nicky Larkin on Dublin's Ha'penny Bridge. Photo: Tony Gavin

Nicky Larkin

I bought 20 fags I'd no intention of smoking. Essential ice-breakers. It was after nine and getting dark, and my first port of call was Temple Bar in Dublin.

I'd been told there was a fresh dose of home-grown and relatively recently recruited homeless, turfed out of their homes, victims of a crushing economic hangover. Wall to wall sleeping bags, that's what I expected.

But surprisingly there wasn't a homeless person in sight. Undeterred, I continued my homeless hunt down O'Connell Street.

Under the shadow of that giant needle you can get whatever you want. There's a severely unsettling subversive atmosphere as shady characters attempt to make eye contact with anyone they clock as a potential punter. These weren't the calibre of characters I wanted to court. I wanted to hear life stories that didn't involve death peddling.

Then I met Barry, from Belfast. His preferred spot was exactly halfway over the Ha'penny Bridge. A strategic location – and extremely lucrative. Unusually for a pan-handler, Barry looked fit and of healthy weight, clean-shaven, and was not a drug user. I sat down beside him on the bridge, and after some gentle probing he told me he blamed nobody but himself for his current situation. He reckoned he'd messed up at least 10 major life decisions, in cities all over Ireland and the UK, managing bars and clubs. Until it finally came to this, halfway over the Ha'penny Bridge. I asked Barry if he had any kids. In one of the most heartbreaking statements I'd ever heard, Barry told me he'd realised in his 20s that any progeny of his would be no good, unworthy of life, and he took a conscious decision to never procreate.

Despite his frighteningly nihilistic disposition, Barry has lots of friends. As I sat beside him at his spot, the hundreds of passing foot-passengers were peppered with acquaintances bearing pastries and cappuccinos for Barry, each dropping them down to him with a friendly familiar word, as if it was a regular morning routine.

Even though I thought we were now best friends, after 10 minutes Barry politely asked me to leave – I was cramping his style. The passing pedestrians were less inclined to give him change when he had company and was engaged in conversation.

Barry drinks. He didn't say how many, but implied at least a good few cans, for which he raises the funds on the Ha'penny Bridge during the lunchtime foot-traffic. But he's vehemently anti-drugs. Interestingly though, he explained that he understood the needs of "the younger lads" who have to "get their bags" – meaning smack.

Though not a user, Barry explained to me that each bag of smack costs €20, and the kids need to get this €20 at least three times a day. Which is more than he needs for his cans. So in a strangely warped but bizarrely saintly way, Barry lends his prime location on the Ha'penny to young addicts for an hour or two in the evenings, while he's having his cans, so they can sort themselves out. A true test of a man is what he's willing to give when he's got nothing left.

Despite Barry's grimy, sickeningly cyclical existence, he had a beautiful ritual that kept him connected to society. Once a week he would save up for the price of a few pints, put on his best suit, and go to Dun Laoghaire for a few sociables. His refuge, where nobody knows him or judges him. His weekly reinvention, if only for those few precious hours. To remind himself that he still exists, and is not just a figure halfway over some bridge in Dublin.

Exhausted after two days and nights traipsing the streets, I encountered the most harrowing story of a Hungarian man named Janos. I would have said he was 35, but he was only 26. Gaunt and malnourished, he was lying on a damp sleeping bag in the rain on Henry Street, outside a pharmacy. With the now customary offer of a few fags, I struck up a chat.

Janos told me his wife was seven months pregnant, and also living homeless on the street. I asked him what he was going to do when the baby was born, and he made a meek motion of covering an imaginary baby with his sleeping bag.

Janos told me that he used to rent an apartment for his family, and paid €100 a week. He made this rent money by begging on Henry Street. But the rent was raised to €150 overnight, and his panhandling couldn't stretch. He now faces the prospect of carrying

a newborn around the streets in a sleeping bag, relying on soup kitchens for their food.

Then on my way back up to Stephen's Green, I found a crew of lively street dwellers. Three foreign nationals were camped on sleeping bags drinking cans, watching the girls go in and out of the bar opposite. Viktor was from Prague and had arrived seven years ago – without a word of English – in Nenagh, of all places. He said he worked on a farm there for three years, but then had an argument with the boss, and left without getting any papers.

A couple of bad moves later and he found himself sleeping rough in Dublin, necking between 14 and 16 cans of cider a day. He funds this cider-swilling by panhandling, but says Irish people have become drastically less generous since the economic downturn. Now he's on the cheap cans...

Viktor arrived in Ireland hidden in the back of a van under a tarpaulin with six other Czech and Slovak nationals. Although they all had EU passports, and were therefore allowed to enter Ireland legally, they couldn't afford the tickets for the ferry. So only the driver and his mate in the van's passenger seat had tickets, while the rest of the lads hid in the back.

I consider myself pretty good at guessing people's ages, usually down to the year. I would have said Viktor was in his late 50s. He told me he was 41. His non-English speaking mate's age was even more shocking – he was 42 but looked 65.

Viktor said he was lonely and told me he had a daughter back in Prague. She won't come to Ireland, as she doesn't want to see her father living on the streets.

I was also curious about relationships, and whether there was room for romance in life living on the footpath. Viktor shook his head solemnly, and I felt a pang of sadness for this man – a caring, sound individual, but a deeply flawed human, dealt one of life's toughest hands.

Viktor was intelligent and articulate, and we talked for over an hour about different Eastern European countries we'd both been to.

All the while the passing punters kept gawking down at me with a strange mixture of shock and pity. Who was this weird ginger, sitting down among the dropouts?

Speaking to Viktor made me realise how easy it is to trip down that slippery slope, if you don't have the right people around you to catch you from falling.

Here was an intelligent, funny and kind man, but a man who had to rely on soup kitchens and hostels when the weather got too cold. They don't let you in if you're too drunk, he said, which is sometimes a problem.

Like Barry, Viktor and his two mates held a high moral stance against the homeless on heroin. A strange homeless hierarchy has seemed to emerge, between those who take heroin, and those who don't. Viktor reckoned three-quarters of all Dublin's homeless are on smack. Hence the roaring trade on O'Connell Street .

As we parted ways, Viktor insisted I checked my pockets to make sure I had my phone and notebook, as if to prove his good character. I knew it was important to him that I trusted him.

The last character I encountered was also on the Ha'penny Bridge – but not in Barry's spot. I sat down beside Colin, who told me he's been homeless on and off for years. Colin was 38, but also looked much older. His dark, wispy facial hair was flecked with grey, and deep lines on his face told their own story.

There was a real warmth from Colin. He was somebody I could imagine myself being friends with, or going for a pint with. So I did.

Earlier on, Barry had told me of the difficulties of getting served in pubs as a homeless individual. But I had a plan.

Colin and I walked up towards the top of O'Connell Street and picked a venue with outside seating. I went into the bar. Interestingly quaint, Colin didn't want a pint – he wanted a cappuccino.

Like Barry and his weekly retreats to Dun Laoghaire, Colin's cappuccino with me was about brief escapism from a lonely, isolating existence. Just to be a normal member of society for once, and not those invisible souls we dare not look down at, and we stumble forth, glued to our smartphones and apps.

All names, except for Colin's, have been changed.

Sunday Independent

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