Wednesday 20 November 2019

Tragedies from the front line of Ireland's homeless crisis

The deaths of three homeless people has cast a shadow over a problem that has been allowed to escalate, writes Maeve Sheehan

A crowd pays tribute to Jack outside Leinster House on Friday
A crowd pays tribute to Jack outside Leinster House on Friday
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Candles flickered outside Leinster House last Friday night for Jack Watson. Jack, a returned emigrant who was in his 50s, was discovered unconscious in the doorway of the Superdry store on Suffolk Street in Dublin at 4am last Thursday morning and later died.

Gardai say his death is not suspicious. A CCTV camera captured him rolling off a ledge to the ground.

In his two years sleeping rough, he had embedded himself in the affections of the fellow rough sleepers, outreach workers in high-vis vests, and passers-by who paid tribute to him at the gates of parliament.

Many of them had been part of the "homeless occupation" of Apollo House, the vacant former Department of Social Welfare building. They remembered him as the guy who took charge of the kitchen and ruled it with pride.

Bev Porrino, a neuromuscular therapist, who volunteered at Apollo House, said he was "a sweetheart", a "clean freak. You didn't mess with his kitchen. He was fastidious about how things were stored and where they were stored." Luke, a team leader, said: "In the morning, at the crack of dawn, he'd have the breakfast ready for all the residents, toast, cereal, all laid out." Few knew much about what brought him to homelessness. The protocol in Apollo House was not to ask questions and not to judge.

A man in a smart outdoor jacket and a pair of strong walking shoes edged forward to the trestle table for a free coffee and some biscuits. He was in his 50s, had a soft accent, his clothes looked expensive and he looked very middle class.

Jack Watson, who died on Thursday
Jack Watson, who died on Thursday

"I knew Jack," he said. Before the question could be asked, he said: "I am homeless myself. I live in a tent in the city."

Bill told a darker story about Jack Watson, about the dangers of living on the streets, and of the struggle to survive, the fights, the random assaults and the sheer ingenuity that is required to stay alive.

According to Bill, Jack had emigrated to Australia with his family from Northern Ireland when he was five or six. He worked as a chef in good restaurants. He was married and had two or three boys, he wasn't sure. He liked a drink, he got into trouble. He had to leave Australia and his children.

The two men met on a park bench in St Stephen's Green in 2015, both recently made homeless, and when Jack was newly arrived from Australia.

"Jack held a lot of things in," he said. "He was really embarrassed…when I met him that first time, he talked about everything, he talked about the job he'd had, but he never told me he was homeless.

"I didn't hang around with him. But I did like the man," he said. "He got into a lot of trouble. I said to him, 'If you want to go drinking, go up to the Phoenix Park, no one will hurt you up there'. The boardwalk is junkies, guys on bikes, dealers. I told him, 'you would be hurt'.

"I would bring him out to Howth. I brought him to Dalkey. I told him this is how normal people live," he said.

Jack Watson was one of three homeless people who died in Ireland last week. Hours before Jack was discovered in Dublin, Danielle Carroll (26) took her own life in her emergency hotel bedroom in Leixlip, Co Kildare, where she struggled to raise her two young boys, according to her mother, Margaret Carroll. She lost her rented flat after Christmas when the building was sold and she was placed in emergency accommodation by South Dublin County Council in Leixlip House Hotel. She had been allocated a house in Lucan, but "the back door was burned" and "people had been sleeping rough in it''.

"She felt it was a hopeless situation. She was struggling. She went off the rails with worry and she would say that nobody cared about her," said Danielle's mother.

Yesterday brought news of the death of a 30-year-old woman who had been living rough in a tent at Gilabbey Rock, near Cork city centre. Like Danielle, it appears that she had been evicted from her rented flat. At 2am last Friday morning, friends went to her tent after becoming worried about her and found her unresponsive. Her death is not being treated as suspicious and her family is appealing for privacy.

Homelessness is reaching record levels; 5,036 adults and 2,895 children were homeless in Ireland in June, according to Government figures. The Government will release the figures for July later this week, under the cloud of last week's deaths. The numbers are expected to increase, going by figures released by Focus Ireland which show that 99 families and 214 children became homeless in Dublin for the first time in July.

At the vigil for Jack, Jim Sheridan, the film director who was a key figure in the Apollo House "occupation", seemed bemused at the failure to solve this problem. "I'm sure Simon Coveney wasn't lying to us when he said he'd get all the kids out of the hotels. He was probably doing his best and then he moved on. I honestly believe that," he said. "But it seems to be an intractable problem that is bigger than one individual."

After 10pm, the candles still burned and Bill still talked. He had lived a good life, had a successful business but something unmentionable happened a few years ago. "I made a bad decision and I am paying for it now," was all he said. He moved to Dublin and stayed in cheap budget tourist hotels, until his money ran out. He felt unsafe in hostels. He bought a tent and pitched it in dense shrubs in the city centre off a busy main road. Two wild foxes come to him to be fed.

"I've been there two years in the same spot. Nobody has ever come near me. I am secure. That's the most important thing for me," he said.

"My life is very simple. I do everything you do, except I live in a tent on €193 a week," he said. "I have a routine and I stick to it."

He rises at 6.30am and breakfasts in cafes. He washes in five-star hotels, saying: "I can get away with it. I dress pretty tidily." He walks everywhere. He goes to the library, reads newspapers. He survives on the dole and he has a medical card. He counts out his money to last the weekend. He does his laundry and has a pint on a Monday. He frequents well-known city centre pubs, because he feels safer.

Bill is not this man's real name. He does not want to be identified because his biggest fear is that his mother will find out that he is homeless. "I don't want anybody to know, my family or any of my friends. It would just break my mother's heart." For this reason, he avoids soup kitchens and outreach programmes in case he is recognised.

He said that when he visits his mother, he maintains an elaborate charade that he is working and that all is well. He worries that he will die in his tent. It is not the dying that scares him, but that foxes will eat his body and his mother will find out that her son was homeless.

"I'll get out of this," he said.

Additional reporting by Ralph Riegel

Sunday Independent

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