The Homeless Brave Ireland’s Coldest Weather
It’s the worst winter Ireland has seen in almost half a century. The air is so cold it hurts your lungs and stings your eyes. In fact the cold is all you can think about. The few stragglers who wander around the almost empty Dublin city are swaddled in hats, scarves, gloves and large duffel coats. The steam from peoples breath escapes from the small space on their faces left uncovered.
“I’ve never seen it so quiet,” says Martin Murphy, 29, a former homeless person, who now lives in transitional accommodation. “It’s like a ghost town.”
Patiently we scour the streets. There are cardboard boxes and blankets where the homeless have been already, but have been moved on. In the empty night we see many squad cars slowly circling the city.
Then we spot Paddy*. He is sitting on a snow covered O’ Connell Bridge in the dense frozen fog.
We approach Paddy and crouch down beside him. He is visibly shivering, his teeth chattering together. He is 30 years of age and has been on the streets for four years.
“I’ve been a heroine addict since I was 25. I was an alcoholic and I took ecstasy, coke, you name it since 16. I’ve been clean five times but I keep relapsing.” He tell me he has only been back out of the streets since the beginning of December when he came out of prison.
“It’s been a very cold winter,” he says. “One day last week I woke up at six in the morning. I couldn’t get back to sleep because my toes were so cold. I had to go over to McDonalds over there to warm up.”
I ask him why he is here and not inside. “I don’t like the hostels,” he explains. “I know it sounds stupid because I’m on drugs. But I don’t like the junkies that hang around those hostels. I’m trying to get clean and they don’t help.”
Martin agrees. “You have to sleep with your shoes tied to your chest and your belongings under your pillow. Sometimes you wake up the smell of death – someone having died from an overdose in the night.” The man shivers and continues, his eyes empty of emotion.
“I sometimes have somewhere to go. I could go back to my ex-girlfriends. But I’m trapped up here to get money for gear. I’ll probably go sleep in the doorway of that Internet café over there tonight,” he says pointing down the street.
We leave Paddy and go to the homeless hostel to see if there is anyone waiting outside. Down a back alley, in the faint glow of a street lamp there are about ten men waiting around the entrance. There are two gardai standing in front of the door – which means the hostel is full. The men are waiting in case a free space becomes available.
Next, we head to Store Street Garda station. Inside we find a man asleep on the floor beside the reception desk. Many of the homeless do this when they can’t find anywhere else. “Most of the homeless will be going and handing themselves in tonight,” adds Martin as we leave Store Street. “They might steal something just to be arrested. Or go in and confess some petty crime they have done ages ago. Prison is better then the streets on a night like this.”
The Ha’penny bridge, where homeless people usually sit begging is now completely empty. The air over the Liffey is damp and extremely cold, so you can see why. Temple bar is also empty, save a slow circling Garda car and empty cups and boxes.
We head up to Grafton Street where we find another lone man, *Mark, huddled beside a banklink. He is smoking a cigarette and shivering. He has much the same story as Paddy. He’s in his early 30s and he’s on drugs. He claims he only needs a few Euro more for a hostel. We give him five Euro. But after we leave Martin tells me he will most likely spend it on gear. Nevertheless, the temperature is dropping even more and suddenly it begins to snow again.
Mark and Paddy are just the tip of the iceberg. Although no exact figures are available, it is estimated that there are over 6,000 people in Ireland living on the streets. And the number is rising. As a result of the recession, three hundred and thirty one households had their homes repossessed as of the end of September. This translates to a harsh winter for many Irish people.
In reaction to the big freeze, Focus Ireland have extended the opening hours of its Dublin day services, the “Coffee Shop” and Extension Service from the 7th January to ensure people who are homeless have somewhere warm to go at all times during the day.
The decision came after the announcement that the freezing weather period would remain into next week. Orla Barry, Director of Services in Focus Ireland said: “It is vital that people who are out on the streets have somewhere to go to escape the freezing conditions.”
“No one should be subjected to the outside conditions for long periods so our plan is to limit the time people currently living on the streets are exposed to this weather and as a result limit the threats that come with it.
“The problem of homelessness is not just about people on the streets, it is also about inadequate accommodation. We are also checking with all our customers who might be living in adequate accommodation to ensure that they have sufficient heating and warm blankets, and trying to respond to these needs.”
Ms. Barry added, “I’d like to say that it is with thanks to the people who have given so generously, despite the recession, over the Christmas period and in 2009 that we can provide this extra support.”