Dublin’s Homeless Community Overlooked by Phone Box Removals

To some, they are merely a relic of the past. But to hundreds of rough sleepers in the city centre, they provide a vital link with emergency accommodation services. Jack Maguire examines the implications of phone box displacement upon our homeless community.

Eir (formerly known as Telecom Éireann) have been in charge of public phones in Ireland since our first phone box was installed in 1925 on Dawson Street, Dublin. The iconic “Telefon” branding soon spread throughout the island as we prepared to host the Catholic Eucharistic Congress seven years later.

These boxes provided communities with a link to emigrated loved ones long before the days of instant messaging, and played an integral role in people’s daily lives for the rest of the 20th century.

Unfortunately for the company, the introduction of mobile phones caused their once beloved call cards to fall out of favour, and the last was produced in 2003. This signalled the beginning of the end for phone boxes, with over 2000 removed across the country in 2009.

By late 2015, there were only 900 left. The integral role they once played has been commemorated in many ways recently as numbers continue to reduce, including a short film named Bye Bye Now and an anonymous art project in the Wicklow mountains named ‘An Fón Gaoithe’

However, in terms of practicality, the main usage of our few remaining phone boxes now comes from members of the homeless community. Their reliance upon Dublin City Council’s 85 (indoor and outdoor) phones is often overlooked by those who take instant mobile communication for granted. They need public phones in order to contact emergency accommodation, and yet are often ostracised from the indoor spaces where many are kept.

To make matters worse, outdoor phones regularly fall into disrepair, meaning contact with emergency accommodation is almost impossible. An example of this is a payphone opposite Saint Catherine’s Church on Thomas Street. Until recently, homeless people queued here on weekday nights, waiting for the Free Phone Service to open their lines at 10:30pm.

The Free Phone facility is run by Dublin City Council. Their call operators research available hostel beds and distribute them on a first come first serve basis each night amongst rough sleepers. For many, it’s something they rely upon entirely during cold winter months.

When functioning, the Thomas Street phone box allowed homeless people to call the service while receiving food from D8 HAC (Homeless Action Centre). This group operate outside Saint Catherine’s church on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, distributing food, hot drinks and more to rough sleepers. D8 HAC volunteers are well informed housing activists with links to emergency accommodation.

Their founder’s name is Damo Farrell, a man who believes Eir does an inadequate job in maintaining their phones. He is outraged at the lack of attention paid to the group’s nearest one in recent months, a cause that has been publicised by Newstalk FM Presenter Richard Chambers.

The phone has been out of action for a number of months, despite numerous reports made by Farrell. I chatted with him at D8 HAC’s makeshift canopy on a bitterly cold Tuesday night, as volunteers in fluorescent vests provided for the homeless who came and went. We discussed the implications that such a seemingly small issue has upon those most vulnerable.

Farrell formed D8 HAC this summer, amidst a worsening housing crises and counts of over 200 rough sleepers on Dublin streets each night. The volunteers believe that this increase is the result of soaring rent prices and the recent eviction of Phoenix Park’s homeless community. During the last six months, the group worked in conjunction with ICHH (Inner City Helping Homeless), who scout the city in mobile outreach vans every night.

Damo’s frustrations with governmental strategies are clear. He believes Eoghan Murphy’s cold weather initiative is an ineffective response to the current emergency. Rather than providing extra beds, homeless people are offered “a matt on the floor of the overnight café down in Merchants Quay”. According to Farrell, a radical change is required, as the free phone system is “a disaster” which “doesn’t stand up to any sort of scrutiny”.

Prior to the Thomas Street phone’s disrepair, Farrell believed the group was situated in the best possible city centre location. Their set up didn’t obstruct passers-by, locals were supportive, and several hostels were just a short walk away. Recently, homeless D8 HAC regulars have sought food elsewhere, from other locations with functioning phones nearby. Those who arrive at Thomas Street with hopes of using the phone typically end up “sleeping in a doorway on Henry or Grafton Street”.

Damo reckons that mobile phones should be provided for all homeless people, but that public phones would still remain necessary. Opportunities for homeless to charge their mobile phones are scarce. Even in emergency hostels, guests must check out before 10am, meaning their mobiles would have to be on charge overnight. This is something many are wary of as they’ve had items stolen there before. By forcing homeless to rely on mobile phones, Eir are “essentially creating life or death situations”.

Perhaps Eir’s lack of action here indicates a wider disregard for phone box maintenance. Damo suspects this is financially motivated, as it’s an obligation rather than something profitable. Public phones can be removed by Eir on a number of conditions. If requested by local authorities, if causing anti-social behaviour, or if used under 1 minute per day over six months (less than 30 seconds to Freephone numbers).

For this reason, Damo suspects that Eir ignore broken phones intentionally, in order to lower average call times and justify removals. Despite research, to the best of his knowledge there’s no way to report broken phones. He says “there’s no phone number you can ring or e-mail address you can write to. There’s not even an address that you could write a letter to. There’s no way of reporting it”.

Farrell finds the current trend of phone removals alarming. There’s a hidden human cost and a severe impact upon hundreds of lives, one which wouldn’t be necessary if adequate maintenance took place. He advocates the “need for some sort of a system” as comparatively “if you had a restaurant or a bar, your toilet facilities are checked regularly”.

That same night, Damo had organised for me to meet a homeless man named Leo whom he was closely acquainted with. Leo had been particularly affected by the broken phone on Thomas Street, the loss of which had disrupted his entire life structure. Previously, Leo would put his belongings in the Thomas Street phone box each night before getting food from D8 HAC. Then, he would stand at a nearby bus shelter, checking the time and waiting for the Free Phone to open.

Damo says that every night “you’d see him run up the street when it was almost half ten to get to the pay phone”, reflecting upon how it was “what he had to do to survive”. Since the phone went into disrepair, Leo has spent “quite a few nights out on the street”. In what makes for a telling anecdote, we were unable to contact him in the end, as his phone was dead.

The following week I returned to Thomas Street, attempting to get further insight into the implications of Eir’s maintenance. I was introduced to Danny Keane, who has been homeless for the last 8 months. The 52 year old had previously been living in London and working on building sites, but returned home to Ireland following several family deaths and a bad spell of depression. Upon arrival in Dublin, he was shocked to discover that he couldn’t privately rent or access council help- as he hadn’t been a habitual Irish resident for over 6 months.

Keane was faced with a difficult choice. Either attempt to pay six months’ rent to get on the housing list, or rely upon the Free Phone Service. Due to financial circumstances, he chose the latter. Unsurprisingly, he has been forced to spend nights in parks, memorial gardens and shop doorways. Most nights he tries to fall asleep but generally will “lie there waiting for the morning to come”. When seeking shelter, he often comes across empty city centre buildings, and questions why the government haven’t turned to simple solutions, even a few portacabins

When I spoke to Danny, he had just spent two weeks in a ‘cold weather room’ in Charlemount, a cramped space with four army cots and no storage. Whilst there he had warily hidden his belongings from drunk and disruptive residents. He had walked from this location to Thomas Street and was clearly worn out. Keane believes there’s a need for a homeless transportation system which bring people to and from emergency accommodation, as most rough sleepers are “walking most of the day anyway”.

He often finds the stigma attached to homelessness overbearing, and is left upset by people’s lack of compassion. Recently, he witnessed shops on Grafton Street barricading their front doors and throwing out buckets of water to dissuade people from sleeping there. The worst part, he finds, is that “if it were a dog in the doorway they’d probably feel sorry for me”. Whereas when it’s a human, they “just look at you as if you’re nothing”. He believes this attitude could be combatted by introducing urine tests to benefit those clean from drugs and trying to get off the streets.

However, he greatly appreciates Damo Farrell and other volunteer groups like D8 HAC. He thinks they play an important role in homeless welfare and the prevention of crime, as he put it “they can’t be praised enough”. The support given to him by Damo encouraged him to seek out his current place in Charlemount.

Danny is currently borrowing a mobile phone from a friend, but finds it difficult to charge. He has given up on places like MacDonalds’, where he’s often stopped from using their facilities. This seems to be a universal experience amongst homeless people, as “especially if you've got a sleeping bag, they won’t let you in”.

When his phone is dead, Danny must queue for pay phones with up to five others. He waits in the cold for long durations, only to be left on hold for up to thirty minutes. The broken Thomas Street phone has caused Danny to sleep rough three or four more times than usual this month. On each occasion, he walked there intending to call the Free Phone Service, only to find it in disrepair yet again.

This happens to him on a shockingly regular basis, as most phone boxes he comes across are totally “useless”. Several areas that he frequents are the same, including Grafton Street and Heuston. Therefore he feels as though Eir “could do better than they are at the moment”. Like Damo, he has never come across a hotline to report a broken phone.

A clear dissatisfaction with Eir’s services was prevalent amongst those at the D8 HAC stand that I’d spoken with. If the Free Phone Service is to continue running on a first come first serve basis, a substandard phone provider puts people like Danny Keane’s lives at risk.

I reached out to Chris Kelly, Senior Communications Manager at Eir in December for comment upon the matter. She confirmed that operating and maintaining public payphones is no longer a profitable business segment and that county councils and gardai often ask for their removal.

Kelly explained how phone box technology sends daily reports to Eir’s management centre. If a payphone fails to communicate, or indicates a fault, technicians are dispatched immediately for repairs. She cited a regulation in place whereby phones must be functioning for 6 months prior to removal.

Chris told me that the Thomas Street kiosk was then being “recovered”. Yet in the meantime, the kiosk has been completely taken down. This would imply that the repairs process may be happening at Eir HQ, in which case taking over 3 months to come about. If not, the disappearance adds weight to Damo’s theory that removals are justified by statistics from broken phones.

Despite increasing amounts of phone boxes being removed, Chris said that Eir didn’t have a “target” number to take away. She said that there’s no minimum number that will remain for the sake of the homeless. Kelly encouraged people to report broken pay phones on their customer care number (1800 799 099) which is “listed on all price sheets beside the payphone handset”.

The then communications manager informed me that Eir were aware of homeless people’s reliance upon the Free Phone and that the company would “welcome dialogue with all the relevant groups and stakeholders to discuss how antisocial behaviour can be minimised and how the provision of homeless services and specifically the continued use of free phone numbers for hostel reservations, can be delivered most effectively”.

This is something which needs to take place urgently, in order to prevent further homeless deaths. Eir and Dublin City Council need to realise the human impact of the system’s inadequacies and work together for those reliant upon them. When a broken pay phone can have potentially fatal consequences, regular and rigorous maintenance is required. Dublin’s rough sleepers need something better than pay phones that are left out of service for 3 months, only to eventually be taken away.

photography courtesy of:

@unaharty, Diarmuid Ultach & Bunsen Media


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