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How Covid has made life for our homeless even more intolerable

Credit: Extra.ie

It is on Molesworth Street in Dublin city centre that the gravity of the homelessness crisis in lockdown truly comes into focus.

The easing of restrictions can’t come quickly enough for everyone on the island, but for the capital’s rough sleepers, who have spent up to eight weeks without access to the most basic of amenities, it can mean the very basics – finally getting a shower and even a change of clothes.

Here, a woman with special needs sat alone on the ground, cradling herself outside the closed Buswells Hotel, just across from the Dáil.

A considerate passer-by alerted Inner City Helping Homeless (ICHH) about her plight and within minutes volunteers were at her side with a reassuring smile and a cup of tea.

They stayed with the 55-year-old until she revealed she had run away from her home in Crumlin.

‘Thankfully, she’s allowing us to drop her home, but it’s frightening to think that someone as vulnerable as her was about to spend the night on the streets,’ said outreach supporter Pádraig Drummond.

‘You never know what you’re going to encounter on a night out, and cases like this just prove that everything is not as good as the Government are making it out.’ He has been volunteering with ICHH for the past five years, after he himself was homeless in 2015.

He said: ‘I was living in a house with my partner, but after we split up I couldn’t afford to pay the rent and spent the next 18 months trying to find accommodation that would accept the Housing Assistance Payment. It was an incredibly difficult time in my life, but Inner City Helping Homeless were there for me until I landed on my feet.

‘Since then, I’ve been volunteering for them because I know first-hand how much of a difference they actually make.’ Despite the number of people in emergency accommodation having dropped to below 10,000, the volunteers at ICHH see no cause for celebration.

Every night, the non-government funded charity’s workers travel north and south of the capital in vans packed with basic essentials, such as food, water, hygiene kits and clothes.

On an average evening, its members help between 80 and 100 people in need, who are finding their situation harder than ever to endure.

Last Monday from 9pm, the Irish Daily Mail accompanied a small team from ICHH to get a first-hand perspective of how the homeless are coping during the Covid-19 pandemic.

As the volunteers were preparing for another night on the road, from their office on Amiens Street, outreach volunteer Maria Roche said the crisis is having a detrimental effect on the mental health of rough sleepers.

‘They feel totally abandoned and many haven’t had a shower or a change of clothes in two months,’ she explained.

‘Their dignity has been stripped since the start of this pandemic, and if it wasn’t for homeless services helping them each night, their needs would go completely unnoticed. Many won’t go into a hostel because they’ll be sharing a room with up to four people, making it impossible to keep a two-metre distance.

‘Before the crisis, these people could go into a McDonald’s or a pub and use their toilet facilities, but since they’re all closed they have nowhere to go ‘Several weeks ago, there was one man who even refused to take food from us because he didn’t want to have to go to the bathroom outside.

‘They can’t even use their mobiles to access homeless services anymore because they have nowhere to charge them.

‘And since the vast majority of payphones in the city are broken, they’re completely cut off from support.’ Once the two vans were loaded, Ms Roche and three other volunteers put on their personal protective equipment (much of it donated by UFC fighter Conor McGregor) and began their essential journey.

The first stop by the southside crew was Cumberland Street, where they offered a homeless man a hot cup of tea and a sandwich before doing the same for another man outside the former Anglo Irish Bank building near St Stephen’s Green. Before the pandemic, ICHH had seen a reduction of about 30 people on the streets, but the temporary release of more than 300 prisoners has put an added strain on homelessness services.

‘It’s not a surprise to see so many people choosing to sleep rough because they don’t have a chance to social distance in hostels,’ said Mr Drummond. ‘Even if families have rooms by themselves, they still have to share the canteens and bathroom facilities with other people.

You just don’t know what you’re going to see when you’re out on the road each night.

‘All these rough sleepers are living through extremely difficult circumstances, which is why it’s so important to show them as much kindness and support as possible.’ Later during the night, I met up with a crew of volunteers who were helping the homeless on the northside of the city.

One man they visited near the Malahide Road had been living in his car since he lost his job at the start of the pandemic. After he was provided with food and water, the man from Romania revealed that he had been working on a construction site until he was let go. ‘I can’t afford to live anywhere now because I’m not being paid,’ he told us.

‘My mother in Romania is very sick so the only thing I want to do now is to visit her. I’m more worried about her than I am for myself, but the only way I can keep safe and away from everyone now is to live in my car,’ he added.

The ICHH volunteers spent the remainder of the night and the early hours of the next morning visiting and searching for more people without a roof over their heads.

Last month, more than 1,000 beds were created as emergency accommodation to assist the homeless in Dublin, according to a report from Dublin City Council.

That accommodation, which includes 400 bedrooms in eight hotels, were created in order for rough sleepers and those without a home to effectively be able to selfisolate, or cocoon. Some 470 single-occupancy beds have also been made available in the homeless hostel system.

The number of recorded cases of Covid-19 among homeless people is also lower than in other cohorts of society, with no deaths having been reported.

However, according to ICHH CEO Anthony Flynn, this is because the vast majority of homeless people aren’t being tested. ‘I know for a fact that we haven’t seen a high breakout because homeless people aren’t being tested enough,’ he said.

‘All the hostels and B&Bs on Gardiner Street are full of homeless people sharing communal kitchens, which certainly puts them at a greater risk of catching this infection.

‘The thousand extra bed spaces that we were told about don’t seem to be making a dent in what we’re seeing on the ground.

‘There were hundreds of prisoners released over the past couple of weeks, which is putting an extra demand on the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive.

‘This is the reason why we haven’t seen a significant reduction in the number of homeless people since the start of this crisis,’ he added.

Last month, Dublin City Council revealed that homeless figures have fallen below 10,000 people.

The figures from the Department of Housing show a decrease in the month of March, of 241 people to a total of 9,907.

The breakdown shows there were 3,355 children and 6,552 adults without a place to call home when Ireland went into lockdown.

Welcoming the drop, Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy said: ‘We continue to work every day with local authorities and NGOs to ensure the safety of those in emergency accommodation during the current pandemic.

‘Despite the current challenges, work is taking place across the country to move people into homes. We continue to add capacity to the system where needed to allow for isolation and social distancing and are working closely with the HSE.’

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