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Dublin’s ‘tent city’: how the housing and homelessness crisis is forcing people to camp out in woods


The Tolka camp

The Tolka camp

Around ten people are living in the camp

Around ten people are living in the camp


The Tolka camp

This is the new face of the homeless crisis in Ireland – one of a growing number of tent cities in wooded and greenfield locations where hordes of desperate people are forced to seek shelter.

While the sight of one or two homeless people in sleeping bags or tents in city and towns across the country has become commonplace, the phenomenon of communities of rough sleepers congregating together is relatively new to Ireland.

This shift mirrors what has happened recently in America, where many people who lost homes during the economic crash ended up living in tents in forests and woods on the outskirts of major cities.

One leading homeless charity told the Sunday World we can expect more of this type of phenomenon due to a greater strain on housing services.

New figures released on Friday revealed a record 11,632 people were in emergency accommodation during December.

The tented community we feature here lies on the banks of the river Tolka, which flows by Ashtown in north-west Dublin.

Those forced to live in the makeshift dwellings have no electricity, sewage or heat, and have to wrap up warm to combat freezing conditions in recent weeks.

While there seems to be dozens of tents in this cluster, we are informed that there are about 10 people living there and some of the additional tents are used for storage.

“I’ve been here in this place about four months,” explains Portuguese native Elvis (31), whose family named him after the American singer.

“I’m here about two years now. I was working in a hostel as a night porter. I lost my job, then I was living in Cabra East and I could not pay the rent. I’m looking for another job, but it’s hard to get.”

Elvis was temporarily living with a friend in Smithfield and attending a soup-run nearby when he heard about the plot of land in Ashtown.

“He [friend] was sleeping here and said it was nice. He was scared to be here by himself, so he said ‘If you want to come here and pitch a tent come join me’, so me and another Polish man, Piotr, decided to join him. Then we met others at the soup-runs and they joined.”

The group has been approached by others but were told there is not enough room.

“The council haven’t come here yet,” he says. “We know they have the right to kick us out, as they might point out that it’s public property and ‘how are you going to take the rubbish out’. I don’t know what the general population feels about us being here, sometimes I wonder.”

Although camps like the one in Ashtown may be a new phenomenon to these shores, Elvis believes theirs is not unique.

“I know there’s some people pitching in Smithfield. I heard there’s camps in the Leopardstown area, a bit like this, and also in Blanchardstown. They have women and children. I haven’t seen it with my own eyes,” Elvis says.

He adds there are usually between seven to 10 people living in these temporary communities.

“There are people from Poland, Hungary, Croatia, India and Portugal,” he says. “We use some of the tents for storage, like at the soup-runs if we get some jackets.”

When our team visited the site an Irishman, dressed in a grey tracksuit and in his late 20s, appeared out of nowhere and without introducing himself started to take videos of the camp’s outlay and broadcast a live stream.

When Elvis asked was he OK, the man replied: “All good.” Asked if there were any issues, he snapped back: “No issues. Just seeing what’s going on and who’s here.”

On being asked his name, he aggressively remarked: “Doesn’t matter.”

Some right-wing anti-immigrant activists have posted videos of the site lately, one blasting “they need to be ran out” [sic].

Despite the intimidation, Elvis says he will stand his ground.

“I’m not really scared because we are Europeans, we are fighting for the same cause,” he says.

“If there’s a war we have to fight for Europe. We stand for the same things, the same liberties. Irish people are very like Portuguese people. If he (the man in the tracksuit) came and saw my side of view maybe he would understand.”


Around ten people are living in the camp

Around ten people are living in the camp

Around ten people are living in the camp

Piotr (39), from south-east Poland, is another person living in one of the tents.

“I had been living in a half-way house in Ireland since 2006. I used to work on a construction site, and I also did security before that – but I’ve been homeless now for a long time and can’t afford anywhere,” he says.

Tamas (38), from eastern Hungary, is another tent dweller. He has been living here eight years.

“I had a business plan to develop accommodation for new-age travellers and that did not work out,” he says. “I’m here now about seven months.

“I came over to work, but it didn’t work out. I like Ireland, but there’s nothing going on here. I’ve no plans to go back to Hungary at the moment.”

Tamas believes that many of the homeless people living in temporary accommodation are being wrongly classified as addicts and troublemakers.

“Normal Irish people are average blokes like us. It’s nothing to do with nationality or skin colour,” he says, adding that the Government should do more.

“First of all, the Government should do something about the homeless services, because people get abused there,” he insists.

“We don’t have addictions, don’t take drugs, don’t drink alcohol. The Government doesn’t separate us, there are different needs.

“It’s hard to put up when you are put in with addicted people. We are looking for jobs, but it’s not working out right now and we have nowhere proper to live.”

Francis Doherty, head of Housing Services for the Peter McVerry Trust, says that there could be a growing number of tent villages like this.

“The unfortunate reality is that we are going to see more people struggle to access emergency accommodation for whatever reason, if they lose their private rental or there’s some sort of family breakdown, but there’s going to be more people that are likely to be sleeping rough,” he points out.

“We see huge pressure on the homeless system and we can see pressure on the international protection system,” Mr Doherty says.

“The worry is that there will be more people rough sleeping, and the longer people are sleeping rough the more structure that sort of routine becomes, so you could see people I suppose [through] friendships or relationships and people getting together to form small communities.

“We have had instances of this in the past, in the Phoenix Park and other places, but really we need not to let it grow.

“[We need to] get to those people as early as we can, to get them into some type of shelter and from the shelter into housing as quick as we can,” Mr Doherty adds.

Roughan MacNamara, head of Communications for Focus Ireland, agrees that there is much to do.

“We sadly expect the number of people who are homeless to go up and unless there’s firm action taken by the Government the number of them who will be even without emergency accommodation will be rising,” he says.

“We also have the situation where single refugees that are arriving are being told to go into the city centre and get something to eat and that’s all the help they’re being given.

“They’re left to their own devices and most of them will end up sleeping rough,” Mr MacNamara predicts.

Separately, Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien said today that the figure of 11,632 homeless people was “too high” and added that to tackle the issue, “we need to see people exiting homelessness to safe and secure homes”.

Mr O’Brien said that there has been a “levelling off” of families presenting for emergency accommodation in recent weeks.

Mr O’Brien was also adamant that the government will go “very close” to hitting its social housing target of 10,500 new social homes for 2022, when final figures are released.

“We don't have the final returns from local authorities yet…but it will be significantly higher than the 6,500 new builds that was referenced in the public expenditure report.

“I can tell you very confidently that new-build social homes will be significantly higher than that in the region of 7,500-8,000, which will be up from 5000 the previous year. And I think by any further assessment, people will see that as a very significant jump and the overall target is 10,500 and we will be very close to reaching that target in 2022,” Minister O’Brien said.

The housing minister did not rule out an extension of the eviction ban which runs until March 31, saying that any further action would need the consultation of cabinet and the Attorney General.

“I'm also very conscious that measures that we take within, particularly the private rental markets, we've got to ensure that they're calibrated and that they don't have an unintended consequence of seeing a further flight of stock within that sector, which we've seen since 2016.

“Particularly on the private individual landlords, a significant amount of them are leaving the market and we've got to fill that gap and that's what we're doing but I’m watching the situation and assessing it very closely,” Minister O’Brien said.

The Minister said there has been an increase in the number of single men presenting for help from homeless services in the past year and the government needs to “ramp up delivery for suitable accommodation for them, such as one-bedroom apartments”.



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