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A Conversation with “Mike”

The human face of homelessness in Ireland.

I was coming out of Fresh in Camden Street Friday when a homeless guy asked if I had any spare change. I did, and put about €4 into his cup. He said “thank you, and have a good weekend”. Without thinking, I said “same to you”. Almost immediately, I realised what a stupid thing I had just said. Here was this guy sitting out in the lashing rain, with only a cheap umbrella for any shelter.

I proceeded on my way home, but couldn’t get what I had said out of my head. I needed to go back. So I went to a local Tesco, bought a sandwich and a bottle of coke and went back and gave them to the guy and I apologised to him for saying something so stupid. He said it was no problem, he knew what I meant, and said I shouldn’t have gone out of my way to come back. That struck me quite hard. It is one thing for people in society to look down on you, but it is another thing when you yourself don’t see yourself worthy of basic decency.

I told the guy, I was working as a journalist and wanted to know if he could spare a few moments to talk about his plight. He said he would, but asked that his name be changed. I was happy to oblige. So with that me and “Mike” sat down at a bench near where he was begging and had a conversation.

The first thing I asked “Mike” was how did he become homeless. He told me he came from a family in which both his mother and his stepfather struggled with alcoholism. Reading between the lines (though I did not ask), I got the impression that perhaps his stepfather was willing to use violence. In any event “Mike” told me that from the time he was about 15 he started using drugs “just to get me head outta that kip” as he put it. He started out with hash, then coke, and by the time he was 19 he was smoking heroin. I asked him did Social Services not get involved? He told me that despite the alcohol, his mother was very much functional, “I always had clean clothes, and money for trips and all”.

But the thread that held his family together snapped when “Mike” started injecting heroin. “My tolerance went through the roof, I needed more and more to get the same effect”. Then not meeting my eye he said; “I started robbing from my ma everyday, rings, tellys, money out of her purse”. “Mike’s” mother eventually threw him out of her house when Mike was 21. He has been homeless on and off since then, (he is now 26).

I asked him did he get much help from the state when he was made homeless? He said “believe it or not, I have found that being in jail has been the best place for me”. Going on, “In there you’re guaranteed somewhere to sleep, you can get phy (methadone) and have people to talk to. How about when you get out? I asked He told me that as a man with no dependents he is way down on the housing list, so he relies primarily on homeless shelters and soup kitchens for day to day living.

Though he is quick to point out that sometimes the homeless shelters are so dangerous that he would rather take his chances on the street. “Ye do have people in there that’d attack you over nothing”. Mike also points out however that he looks forward to getting fed in the soup kitchen, especially the one beside Merchants Quay. He said he enjoys being able to relax for an hour or two and eat something hearty, because sometimes that is all he gets to eat all day.

Finally I asked “Mike” what does he think the biggest barriers are to him coming out of homelessness. He tells me that his substance abuse is one big hurdle, he also points out that he doesn’t feel like he would be able to hold down a job in order to rent privately. He lacks much in the way of formal education, and as previously mentioned social housing just seems so far out reach for many, let alone a single man. As we finish up talking he says “What do you think of the fact that I use money people give me to buy heroin?” I said “I hope you can get help” but I thought to myself “I don’t blame you, God forbid, but I wouldn’t want your life sober either”.

“Mike” is not alone of course. According to Focus Ireland there are currently 8374 people who are classified as “homeless” in Ireland. Of that number 37% are children. And each night there are on average 152 people like “Mike” in Dublin. That is to say people who have a relatively strong likelihood of sleeping on the street more than once a week. When we look at people like “Mike”, we are hit with two stark realities. One being that homelessness is at a crisis level here. The other, maybe more important reality is, that this problem is not merely a matter of bricks and mortar. There are myriad and nebulous problems facing people like “Mike” that need to be addressed in conjunction with providing enough houses.

The question cannot just be “how many houses do we need”? But rather, what can be done to a) ensure that the resources and policy exist in every area to prevent another costly (both financial and human) housing crisis down the road and b) to create a mechanism of “urgent assistance” that prevents more people slipping through the cracks.

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