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Streets Of Sorrow
For all Ireland s loudly-proclaimed economic success, there has been little progress made in alleviating homelessness. In fact, the problem may be getting worse, particularly among the young. NIALL STANAGE listens to two homeless Dubliners, KEITH and ANTO, tell their story, while the experts from FOCUS IRELAND also have their say. PICS: CATHAL DAWSON
Niall Stanage, 29 Sep 1999
Ireland, 1999. A country awash with money and smugness. Where the new prosperity manifests itself in a headlong rush for the right car, the right address and associations with the right people. Where newspaper diarists whose talents run no further than possession of a double-barrelled name and the ability to quaff copious amounts of free drink chart the dizzying social whirl. Where Official Ireland in all its unctuousness and mediocrity is ever-willing to congratulate itself on the wonder of it all. Let the good times roll! And don t let any inconvenient truths spoil the party.
Ireland, 1999. Where in the three most easterly counties there are almost 3,000 adults without a home. Where 400 of the capital s young people become homeless every year. Where TDs can claim three times the average industrial wage in expenses but a budget surplus of millions somehow can t stretch to providing detoxification units for addicts desperate to use them. Where people like Keith (see below), 18 and drug-free, must queue daily outside a night-shelter in the hope of getting a bed. Those who don t succeed sleep on the streets. Many numb the pain of their existence with heroin. Some give blow jobs on Benburb Street to anyone with #20 to spare.
Reality bites: in Dublin in any one year, it is estimated that 10,000 people will experience homelessness. About 1,000 women with children are currently staying in such insecure accommodation that the housing authorities consider them homeless. One in five of the male homeless population is under 20 years of age.
Focus Ireland is one of the main organisations working with homeless people. Set up by Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy more than a decade ago, it has grown to the point where it now has 90 full-time employees, up to 110 CE scheme workers and between 60 and 70 volunteers. In any one day, around 150 people avail of its services.
According to Ivan Mahony, Section Manager, Young People s Services: Even setting aside those people sleeping in hostels or other kinds of temporary accommodation, it is difficult to put a number on those sleeping on the streets. In terms of people under 25 who would be sleeping rough on any one night in Dublin, it could be anywhere from 20 or 30 up to 200.
He does point out, though, that in terms of young people s services, there certainly has been an increase in the resources available, in emergency beds, and also an increase in co-operation between the various organisations. Nevertheless, people seem to be homeless for longer now.
I think it is partly a consequence of the housing situation, particularly in Dublin, and the tightening up in Corporation housing regulations with regard to people who have drug issues the power, for example, of people within the estates to get people evicted who have drug issues. We would deal with a lot of people whose partners maybe had some involvement with drugs. The partner ends up in jail and a mother is left with three or four children and nowhere to go, he continues. In Dublin, we have about 140 units of accommodation, but the waiting lists for those are substantial.
Three years, if not more. It s very tough.
Homelessness among young people is becoming a particularly serious problem.
The issues around why young people find themselves homeless are vast, Mahony says. A lot of young people who we come into contact with would have a history of being in care. That then breaks down and they find themselves homeless. Other people may have experienced family breakdown, violence in the home, or drugs and alcohol issues within the home.
Jean Rafter, Focus Ireland s Co-ordinator of Under 18 Day Services, agrees. There is no good follow-up when young people leave care, she says. Often someone will go back home to a family where no work has been done since they were taken out of it years ago. Those coming homeless into the city just become younger and younger.
What can Focus Ireland do to help?
The key thing for us, Mahony replies, is to make contact early with someone who has come onto the street scene and, if possible, divert them back to wherever they came from. It s when people become established on the street scene that problems really start.
The issue of drugs is huge in relation to young people, he goes on. The vast majority of those who we deal with would have drug-using issues. Then there are the other related issues like crime and prostitution which they become exposed to and often caught up in. There are a number of people who find themselves outside the net. Most of them eventually get locked up and become criminalised, largely through their drug use.
Jean Rafter points out the wider factors involved:
The drug use is linked with everything else, she says. For example, if someone gets drug treatment, they ll probably want and need counselling. But if they re homeless, they re not going to be able to engage in counselling in a meaningful way over any period of time. Someone might go into a session and talk very deeply about personal things which have happened to them. Then that night, they re sleeping on the streets . . .
While Ivan Mahony feels that the facilities to help young drug users have improved in recent years, he is also acutely aware of shortcomings:
I think there is still an issue around the dependence on methadone maintenance as a model to deal with drug users. What is otherwise available is quite limited. Residential places for detox are in very short supply.
Greater provision of detox places would make a tangible improvement to the situation. Furthermore, Focus Ireland plans to open an emergency hostel by the middle of next year which is to be used for those whose drug use has become so chaotic that they have difficulty finding any other hostel which will give them accommodation. Aside from this, what other steps could be taken to assist the young homeless population?
One of the main problems is that young people are spending a lot of their time simply hanging around on the streets, Jean Rafter offers. The services have largely failed to cover weekends and evenings. There are a number of drop-in places, but most of them are closed by 7 o clock in the evening. Also, until a social worker has been allocated to a young homeless person, there isn t that much we can do for them. But sometimes that process of allocation can take months, and meanwhile the person in question can be sleeping on the streets.
Ivan Mahony has a further suggestion as to how homelessness can be handled from the outset:
If a young person finds themselves homeless they present to a Garda station. They sometimes then have to sit around for a number of hours. The Gardam will then ring the EHB after-hours emergency service. They will come along, and, if they can, they ll place the person in an emergency hostel. Often the young person involved won t want to go to a Garda station because they have been involved in petty crime or whatever. On a simple rights issue, I don t think it s acceptable that young people should have to present to a Garda station. And it s not fair to the Gardam either; it s not their job to handle that sort of situation.
Working in the midst of this must be an emotionally draining experience. Which aspects of it does Mahony find most distressing?
The people who you can t do anything for, he replies. In most instances that is to do with their drug use you need them to come a certain distance before you can actually work with them.
When you do see people making those steps towards doing something about their situation, then that s a very positive thing. But it always takes a long time for someone who may have come from a situation of abuse or neglect to actually be in a position to move on the issues which have affected them. That is not just their homelessness but also their drug use and other personal problems which they may have.
Often the difficult thing is that people might actually reach a particular point and then because of lack of places on detox, or the lack of medium or long term accommodation, they drift back to where they were.
When you see that, Mahony concludes quietly, . . . it s difficult. n
I was living out in Ballymun with me Da and me Stepmum. And I couldn t cope.
They sent me and my two brothers to my Granny s to live, but she was very old. So she put us on to the social workers. They found us a home in Drumcondra. We lived there for three years, then we went back to my father s. We lived in Darndale then.
The problems at home started again. So back to my Granny s Granny couldn t cope again. Back to the social workers again. This time they found us a foster family for a while, then we went out to Glensilla [a home in Dun Laoghaire] for the weekend. We loved it, and we lived there for ten years.
After that, I moved into town, to Blessington Street, and stayed there for about a year. That s a semi-independent place where you can go and stay for a maximum of about a year. You stay in this flat and you have your own cooking facilities and you look after yourself, but there are staff there. You work with them, but I suppose the whole aim of the project is to get you to live on your own.
I moved on from there, but it didn t work out. When I moved out into my own flat, I went through a very hard time with drugs. I got onto heroin. And I was hooked. So I decided to go to a treatment centre in Athlone. I went down there and it was great. I came back and I got a flat in Phibsboro. I did great there. But then I went back on the heroin. I ended up on the streets.
All the people who I knew who were on drugs weren t mates. They were drug partners. See, when you re on drugs, you can t have a friend. There s no real feelings coming out of you. It s all false feelings.
At the stage I m at at the moment, if something comes along, like getting a place in the clinic, that s a major thing for me. People wouldn t believe the relief I got getting into a clinic. The weight that was lifted off my shoulders was like a ton. I was missing appointments, I wasn t getting on with people, I was getting narky with people. I was a demon.
People have different reasons for living rough. I find people who come out of prison won t live in hostels, because they re like prisons, some of them. It s a bit like living in Mountjoy. You re stuck there and there s no getting out. You can leave if you want, but you re not getting back in.
Some of the staff in the hostels are very cold-hearted people. I had a few comments thrown at me the other day that weren t very nice, and I got very upset over them. One of the staff said to me, you must be a failure and you can t do anything right . You come across that attitude, but then that s one person. The person who said that to me does that to everybody, and the people never like him. But there are some staff there who actually get on with people. They re the nicest people in the world, and they get a great time in work, jokes flying and all that.
I get the impression people are looking at me going, is he ever bleedin going to get it right? [smiles]. If I was one of them, I d be thinking the same thing: He s fucking up all the time. Is he ever going to do the thing right, instead of going back on heroin or getting into trouble with the law? But I am going to get it right eventually. It s just taking me a bit longer than it would take other people.
I m off the drugs four days. I m on methadone. I find it great. I m starting to get back to my old self. My attitude s coming back. My appetite s coming back. I m starting to get great sleeps, I m looking after myself better.
At the weekends, I just relax. Cos I can now. I don t have to run around looking for money. I can go to the park, go for a walk, stuff that normal people can do. I don t have to run around robbing people like I used to.
I m getting on my feet again, slowly but surely looking after myself a bit better. A drug like that strips you to the bone. When you get off the drug, it s a lot easier to feel good about yourself. n
It all started with me and my Da. I was physically abused as a child. And I just came to a stage where I wasn t putting up with it anymore, and I went my own way. I have loads of sisters who I haven t seen in a while. I saw my twin sisters and one of my big sisters. I first started leaving home at the age of nine, and I was coming back and forward through the ages of 10, 11. Then at about 11, I just went off.
The first couple of months, when I was nine, I was sleeping in my mates houses and I thought Great, I can do this forever . I was out in the suburbs around Palmerstown, Clondalkin, Ballyfermot. I was living in one house, and we kinda had a dispute, and I moved on into town. I was about 15 or 16.
I was in the care system for a while, but it was only for a few months and then I left. I didn t know anything, cos I was pure stubborn in my ways when I was younger. I got that from my oul fella. I didn t want to know about anything from anybody. I was doing what I thought was right. I slept rough for a couple of years. For sleeping rough in town, there s the Custom House, up around the Corporation Buildings, basically anywhere that there is shelter.
When I was sleeping rough for the first time I was sleeping in fields, in people s cars, sheds, back gardens, people s rooftops. Anywhere I could get my head down.
The main problem was trying to avoid drugs. I ve never touched heroin in my life. 95% of my mates are heroin addicts or ex-heroin addicts. There s not one day that I go through that I don t see somebody sticking a needle in their arm.
I come from one of the biggest drug using areas in Dublin, and I still never went near it. There was a lot of pressure, because I grew up into it, you know what I mean? I was watching what was happening people dying around me, people dying of AIDS, all different diseases. People getting Hep C. All that just turned me off it. And then people ODing . . .
The past while, I ve been snapping. I m fed up talking abut things. I saw a lot of my friends coming into town. They were never on heroin. Then, the minute they hit town, straight away onto it. Sometimes I felt like giving it a try to see what it feels like, to see what the buzz is like. It must be nice if they re all giving it a try. But one of my mates died there a while ago. He OD d in Christchurch and that really hit me. And then a few of them started dropping after that . . .
I m 18. I m the youngest around the Dublin scene in the men s hostels. Everybody in the hostels now is older than me. I look up to a few of them. There are a few of them who know what they re on about, and who are starting to move on.
At the moment I m staying in Cedar House. It s a night shelter, it s not a hostel. You ve to be down there between half four and six to get your name down if you want to get a place [for the night]. I ve been there for the past three months. There s roughly 48 people staying in the whole building. There s dormitories and there s rooms. You have to go through the dormitories before you get put in the rooms. It s like a promotion [smiles].
You have to go every day at the same time. If there s plenty of people outside the door and most of them are regulars, I m not going to get in. But if there s others who have just come over from England or have come up from the country, I ll stand my ground and say I m a regular here. I m not going to be put out of my bed just because you ve come up from the country.
They have their own rules. There s no drinking whatsoever, no hash, no nothing. They have cameras watching you when you re outside. If they see you doing anything, you re barred.
I d like to live down the country more than anything else. I like Galway. I d like to move on. Dublin puts you under a lot of stress. People asking you for help and that. You re taking other people s weight on your shoulder besides your own. n