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Friday 15 November 2019

When Grafton Street's wonderland turns into a home for the night...

The recent death of a homeless man has ­highlighted an intractable problem with rough sleeping in Dublin. By day, Grafton Street is a glitzy magnet for well-to-do shoppers, but as night falls, it turns into a cardboard city.

Settling in for the night: A homeless man on Dublin's Grafton Street. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Settling in for the night: A homeless man on Dublin's Grafton Street. Photo: Fergal Phillips
A rough sleeper in the doorway of Clarkes. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Volunteers from the Homeless Street Café, including Anne Carroll. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

An a cappella group sings 'Amazing Grace' in close harmony outside Brown Thomas on Grafton Street as the evening skies draw in. Inside the store, a woman is selling python-skinned Gucci handbags for €5,000.

Office workers are rushing off home, and it is at this time that the character of the street begins to be transformed.

By day, Grafton Street is the retail magnet for well-to-do shoppers hunting for designer goods - shirts in Tommy Hilfiger, Rolex watches in Weir & Son and cashmere sweaters in Massimo Dutti.

Noel Purcell, a Santa-like icon of Dublin, used to sing: "Grafton Street's a wonderland, there's magic in the air. There's diamonds in the lady's eyes, and gold dust in her hair."

A rough sleeper in the doorway of Clarkes. Photo: Fergal Phillips
A rough sleeper in the doorway of Clarkes. Photo: Fergal Phillips

But as the shutters come down on the glitzy shops, a different type of street emerges in the twilight.

The area's ever-expanding population of rough sleepers begin to turn Grafton Street into their home for the night.

In the window of Marks & Spencer, there is a sign - "Find a coat that can weather a shower of compliments".

The men and women who live on the street are just looking to secure their familiar doorway - a place where they can weather a shower of rain.

We have a fixed idea of what a rough sleeper must look like - scrawny, unkempt and crouched.

We don't tend to see them at eye level, and that can have a dehumanising effect.

Volunteers from the Homeless Street Café, including Anne Carroll. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Volunteers from the Homeless Street Café, including Anne Carroll. Photo: Fergal Phillips

But some of the rough sleepers here do not look so rough, and as night falls, you might only spot them moving imperceptibly through the crowd if you look carefully.

Looking for cardboard

Soon after 7.30pm, I spot a neatly dressed middle-aged clean-shaven man in jeans and a waistcoat. He is sorting through fresh cardboard that has only just been left out with the rubbish beside one of the shops.

He carefully places four long strips of clean cardboard in a pile in the doorway of Fitzpatricks shoe shop - this is his mattress for the night.

On top, he places his folded blue sleeping bag, and next to it the holdall containing all his possessions. And he encloses the area with a cardboard box.

The man, introducing himself as Marian, tells me he used to drive a dumper truck in Kinnegad in the good times and rented a "beautiful apartment". He has a wife back home in Poland, and he talks to her on the phone, but he cannot explain to me in faltering English how he has ended up on the street.

Slowly, as the evening progresses, the doorways fill up with cardboard, sleeping bags and their homeless residents.

As one shopkeeper points out to me, the badge of homelessness is the bright blue sleeping bag, given out free by charities.

This week there was shock in the area at the death of four homeless people, two in Dublin, one in Cork and another in Kildare. The death toll included Jack Watson, who died around the corner from Grafton Street on Suffolk Street.

Soon after his passing, a shrine with candles, photos and flowers was placed on the ledge next to where he used to sleep.

But by Tuesday night his framed picture had been removed after it was reported that he was a convicted paedophile on the sex offenders register. A vigil planned for him by the Home Sweet Home charity was called off.

On Grafton Street, the flower seller Catherine Claffey was appalled that he had been allowed to roam the streets.

"I used to see him walking up and down, but I didn't know what he had done. When he died, I sent over flowers as a mark of respect, but I regret that - now I know who he was."

Another flower seller, Tina Dempsey, has been working on Grafton Street since she was a girl.

"I have never seen the homeless situation as bad as it is now, and it's getting worse.

"You would never have seen children sleeping rough before - kids as young as 13 or 14 - but I see that quite regularly now. There are people from all walks of life down here now."

There is little safety in sleeping out on the street, as recent deaths have shown.

And, of course, there are drug and alcohol problems among some rough sleepers. A few on Grafton Street are volatile - and at times, even menacing. Others are friendly and keen to talk.

One surprising aspect of the way of life of some of the rough sleepers is the strange orderliness and sense of routine.

They tend to sleep in the same place, and know their neighbours.

Gerard Longwood, who begs at the entrance of the Brown Thomas car park and sleeps in the doorway of the Footlocker store, tells me: "A lot of the genuine people living out here look out for each other."

Liam Oliver sleeps next to a friend in the doorway of the Tommy Hilfiger shop every single night.

"The people in the shop know me," he says. "I always get up before the shop opens and make sure the doorway is clean."

When I pass by him, he is nonchalantly reading a Patricia Cornwell novel, using a street lamp as a bedside light.

Liam grew up in the middle-class suburb of Blackrock, Co Dublin and says he became homeless after his father died, and the family home was sold.

There are common themes that you hear when you talk to rough sleepers about how they ended up on the street.

The death of a parent is one event that propels an alarming number into destitution, and the end of a relationship is another.

So what draws the rough sleepers to Grafton Street, with its bright lights, and designer mannequins gazing, almost mockingly, out of shop windows?

On any one night, there may be 200 people sleeping rough in the centre of Dublin. And a good portion of these are in the prime shopping areas of Grafton Street and Henry Street.

"I come to Grafton Street, because it is safer. There are usually people around and the guards patrol up and down the street," says Liam Oliver.

"When I was first homeless, I stayed in a side street, but you would be in more danger of attack."

Like many others living on the street, Liam stays out, partly because he dislikes the restrictions and curfews imposed by the shelters. "You would have more freedom living in some prisons than in some shelters," he says.

Puzzled tourists

With constant pedestrian traffic, the rough sleepers here receive more in donations than in other areas, often from the puzzled tourists wandering up and down the street.

The men and women who live on Grafton Street can also be assured of a hot meal every night from one of the charitable groups who organise soup runs.

The number of rough sleepers in Dublin city centre is almost matched by the number of volunteers prepared to help them.

Soon after 8pm, there is a sudden flurry of excitement next to the Disney shop as volunteers from the Homeless Street Café start laying out hot food on trestle tables.

An orderly queue forms for the café run by nurse Denise Carroll, with the assistance of her mother Anne.

All the food comes through public donations, and much of the work of the Homeless Street Café is co-ordinated on Facebook.

"I got roped in by my daughter to do it," says Anne as she gives out the meals. "There are probably very few people starving on the streets of Dublin, but not everyone has access to food. We also give out clothes and sleeping bags.

"You get to know the people well - and for many of them, the chat is as important as the food."

Two homeless men have their dinner crouched next to the Disney shop, with models of two Star Wars Stormtroopers standing behind them in the window.

Most passers-by are sympathetic, but one stops to complain that not all the diners deserve the food, that there are too many foreigners, and that some of the food recipients are too drunk or high on drugs.

But Anne Carroll brushes these complaints aside: "When you are standing at the table, you have to leave all your judgments behind."

In the past there have been some gripes from store owners about aggressive begging. But according to the homeless people and the charities, many shop workers are sympathetic, offering help and contacting homeless services when somebody is in difficulty.

Frank O'Dea, owner of the Balla Bán art gallery in the Westbury Mall, says: "At first when I was working, I didn't pay much attention to the people living on the street.

"But then when I heard of Jonathan Corrie dying outside the Dáil, I began to notice them more. This is one of the most tragic things happening in Dublin, and we cannot ignore it now."

Photos by Fergal Phillips

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