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'I'm down, I can't go any lower unless they bury me'

SHOES can say a lot about a man, but Paul Tait's freshly polished brown loafers beggar belief. Standing outside the former Anglo Irish Bank Headquarters on St Stephen's Green, Paul's footwear help him "blend in with the public".

People bustle by wearing fur boots and stilettos and across the road the Christmas market is in full swing.

But, despite appearances, Paul and the festive crowds, walk in very different shoes.

"I'm down, I just can't go any lower unless they bury me, that's it," the 47-year-old homeless man from Clondalkin, Dublin, said. "It's either six feet under or up, that's how frightening it is. I can't do it anymore. I can't see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Paul has been rambling around the inner-city streets for the past nine months. He doesn't drink, smoke or do drugs. Everything he owns is in a bag on his back - a change of clothes, socks, shaving cream and a razor "to keep myself clean".

After losing his job in construction, Paul's life slowly went downhill and the rise in rents made him "homeless overnight".

Describing his first night on the street, he said: "It was like hitting a brick wall, I went down on my hands and knees and I was crying like a child."

Now, every evening, the estranged father of two walks to Dublin Airport to seek shelter in the food hall as staying in a hostel is like "walking into hell".

"I sleep in McDonald's. I read someone's paper and my bag makes me look like I'm travelling. I just let on like I'm no different, that's why I keep myself tidy. I don't look homeless."

In the morning he walks back into town as it gives him "something to do".

"All I do every day is walk, endless, endless walking alone. I walk about 300-400 miles a week," said Paul, who was given the new pair of shoes from St Vincent de Paul this week.

"They bought me a brand new pair of Ecco shoes and I started roaring crying at the top of Grafton Street. It was the first time in two years anyone had given me anything."

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However, walking in circles for months has wreaked havoc on his feet.

A few doors down from the Shelbourne Hotel, Ireland's only mobile health clinic for rough sleepers and sex workers is parked.

"I have a problem with my toe and I get really bad blisters. I've been getting treatment here for the last four weeks," said Paul, who considers the free HSE-funded medical service a "God-send".

Staffed by GP trainees and social-care workers, the aims of the service are to improve access to primary care and challenge stereotypes and prejudices of GP registrars through direct contact with homeless people.

It is run by Safetynet; the Dublin Simon Community; Chrysalis Community Drug Project and the Order of Malta. It operates three nights a week from 7pm to 11.30pm, all over the city centre.

Speaking shortly before her examination of Paul's feet, GP registrar Dr Anne Grace said the problem is that a lot of homeless people have "chaotic lives" and don't have a regular GP or medical card.

"We can only offer acute short-term treatment but we can't treat any underlying disease."

Dr Clare Shields - who previously treated Jonathan Corrie, the homeless man who died in a doorway metres away from Leinster House on Monday - said services are lacking for homeless healthcare.

"There are no supports and no follow-ups, they don't come to clinics so there needs to be something to get them linked in to our regular hospital service and they do not have the access to it," she said.

She added that: homeless people are a "difficult group" to follow up on because they are constantly moving and outreach workers have "no way of finding them".

Working on the service has also been a "real eye opener" for the GP trainees.

"I generally work in quite a nice, middle-class practice and I would never ever see patients like this in my day to day work. They've a very tough life and things are very bad," said Dr Shields, adding that a lot of time homeless people just want to come in for a chat and a sandwich.

Dr Austin O'Carroll founded the mobile service and has been working with the homeless since 2002. He recently had talks with Health Minister Leo Varadkar to discuss a 2006 proposal for an intermediate care centre for the homeless, to identify those who are "particularly ill" and "probably won't be accepted into hospital or won't go into hospital."

"It would be for people discharged from hospital and for people who are not quite sick enough for admission but not well enough to be staying in hostels or sleeping rough," he said.

He claims such a centre "would have been an ideal place" for Mr Corrie to attend and could have "made a difference".

"Jonathan was advised to go into hospital but was very reluctant to go," he said. He added that there are many reasons homeless people will not go to hospital emergency departments. These include "previous bad experiences, or embarrassment at their personal state, or not getting methadone - if they're left waiting they could go into withdrawals".

Although Paul is "lucky enough to be physically well," the rest of his life is "a total nightmare". The well spoken tradesman has been offered a job, but can't accept it without an address.

"All I'm looking for is one empty room. I'll furnish it myself. Let me take up the job and get back to a normal life," said Paul, who must give an answer to his potential employer this week.

But despite the lifeline, Paul thinks the situation is hopeless. "I do the best I can with B&Bs and my dole money but there is no help whatsoever from anywhere." He said he texted a homeless outreach service hours earlier but did not get a response.

"I'm not suicidal, but there is no light here. It's a disgrace what the Government are doing to us, Unless they give people proper accommodation, they are wasting their time and they're only covering up. This is a real live crisis," Paul said as he tied his laces before heading back to the airport for the night.

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