In Crowded Hostels, Homeless People Are Finding It Hard to Protect Themselves from Covid-19

Credit: Dublin Enquirer

Cameron Neilson works in hotel management and recently became homeless when his relationship broke up.

He has a salary but says he simply couldn’t find a home to rent. So the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) placed him in a night-time-only hostel, the Phoenix Lodge near Heuston Station, he says.

“We have nice staff, I can’t fault the hostel, it is incredibly clean,” says Neilson, by phone on Monday. “But you are still in a room with no doors and not a metre between the beds.”

The hostel is closed from 8:30am to 8pm every day, he says. In shared accommodation at night and on the streets all day, it is impossible to follow the social-distancing guidelines, he says.

Many day centres that are a lifeline for homeless people in Dublin are now offering reduced services and libraries are closed. So each day Neilson shelters in cafes to get in from the cold and charge his phone, but now he is terrified those will soon close too.

“At some point, everything is going to close,” he says. “We’ve just been totally forgotten about.”

Advocates for the homeless say that additional facilities are required for homeless people as a matter of urgency, so they can practise social-distancing, especially as many of them have underlying health problems. And so they have places to stay warm and safe, as day centres, cafes, and other places close due to the coronavirus.

Ray Halpin, who has experience as a union shop steward, is also homeless. He plans to organise a protest to highlight the fact that homeless people can’t practise social distancing and are at increased risk from Covid-19 as a result.

The DRHE didn’t respond in time for publication to queries about plans for homeless services during the coronavirus crisis.

Queries included whether they will separate people who are now staying in shared rooms, increase access to 24-hour beds, or scrap their freephone system, which sends homeless people to different hostels each night.

No Voice

Ray Halpin is staying in the same night-time-only hostel as Neilson, he says. “We have been left stranded,” he says. “We are out on the street all day.”

He wants to practise social-distancing but can’t, he says. “We are exposed and we are probably carriers. We want to do the right thing by the community.”

Halpin says he organised a sit-down protest in the Phoenix Lodge on Tuesday morning to try to push for 24-hour access, he says. However, he abandoned it because he feared that other more vulnerable homeless people would lose their beds. He is considering a protest in the DRHE’s offices at Parkgate Hall on Conyngham Road instead, he says.

Neilson says that he too wants to speak out on behalf of other homeless people who are more vulnerable than him. He watched the news last night and says that no one mentioned the issues faced by homeless people during the crisis, he says.

“I’ve had my eyes opened,” he says, “I’m fortunate, I’ve got a voice, but so many other homeless people have no voice.”

He said he was wandering the streets of Temple Bar, which was busy with tourists. Pubs were closed but cafes and restaurants were open, at least for the moment, he said.

“I’m just walking the streets,” Neilson says. “It is all well and good the government saying to self-isolate, but you can’t do that if you have nowhere to live.”

Homeless people’s health is often not as good as that of the general population, says anti-homelessness campaigner Fr Peter McVerry.

The current crisis “shows up the whole inadequacy of homeless services and health services”, McVerry says.

Likewise, it highlights the severe overcrowding in homes, and how, for many people, self-isolation and social-distancing are simply not possible. “A light has been shone on all of that,” he says.

Night-Time-Only beds

In September 2019, a DRHE spokesperson said there were 228 individual homeless people staying in night-time-only accommodation each night.

Of those, 168 were in rolling beds, so booked in for a week at a time, and 60 were designated through the freephone each night, on a one-night-only basis.

Some sleep on exercise mats on the floor of Merchant’s Quay Ireland’s Night Cafe. These mats have been separated a bit more from each other, to meet social-distancing requirements, a Merchant’s Quay spokesperson said.

At a meeting of Dublin City Council’s housing committee last Wednesday, Eileen Gleeson, the DRHE director, said that January 2020 brought the highest number of single homeless people ever recorded.

It is unclear whether this resulted in an increase in the numbers in night-time-only accommodation.

Twenty-Four Hours a Day

Ordinarily, day centres like the Capuchin Day Centre in Smithfield, Merchant’s Quay, and the Focus Ireland Cafe in Temple Bar plug the gap for homeless people who stay in night shelters.

These centres provide meals, tea and coffee, and a warm place where people can sit during the day. But last week, due to advice about social-distancing, many of them reduced their services.

Some are allowing small numbers of people in for short times, and others are providing food for takeaway.

Anthony Flynn, CEO of Inner City Helping Homeless, says they have had to reduce their day service due to a shortage of volunteers. Some of their volunteers are concerned about contracting coronavirus, especially if they have vulnerable people in their own households, he says.

Some night-time-only hostels are big dorms and might not be suitable for 24-hour accommodation, but Neilson says he thinks the hostel he is staying in, the Phoenix Lodge, would be suitable.

“The one that we are in you could open it not a bother,” Neilson says. “It is two per room, there is a kitchen area, we have televisions.”

As far as he knows the private company that runs the facility has not been funded to do that though. “It is just purely down to money,” he says.

The DRHE did not respond in time for publication to queries about why they have not extended provision where the hostel is suitable.

Beds Available?

The DRHE operates an emergency phone line known as the freephone, which allocates the one-night-only beds to those who need them. That effectively means that people are often sent to different hostels each night.

This appears to Neilson to be unwise in light of social-distancing guidelines, but it is still happening in his hostel each night, he says. “The hostel has two rooms that are for the freephone, so that is four people every night who are being brought into the hostel,” he says.

Most of those in night-time-only accommodation are now on rolling bookings, said Gleeson of the DRHE at the council’s housing committee meeting, but some one-night-only accommodation, through the freephone is still needed, she said.

“We have more than sufficient beds in the system,” said Gleeson.

That is also disputed by anti-homelessness campaigners. Flynn, of Inner City Helping Homeless, and Fr McVerry, say there are not enough beds and people they know are being knocked back when they call the freephone service.

Flynn says his staff rang up last Thursday night and could not secure any accommodation for a person who was on the streets.

“I get loads of people coming into me to say, ‘I rang up last night and there were no beds available,’” says Fr McVerry.

The DRHE consistently states that there are sufficient beds available, says Fr McVerry. “But in my experience that is simply not true. It is a political call they are making.”

Social-Distancing

Many homeless people are staying in large dorms or crowded, shared rooms with bunk beds at night, says Flynn. If one gets coronavirus, others will catch it, he says. “The DRHE are putting people at risk.”

Gleeson said at the meeting that the DRHE is putting plans in place to deal with the coronavirus crisis. They are used to responding to emergencies, like snow, she said. But “this is very different and it is first and foremost a public-health issue”, she said.

So they are being led by the Department of Health and the HSE, and they are constantly providing information to frontline service providers, she said.

The DRHE will open extra accommodation, said Gleeson. “We have buildings we will trigger for isolation purposes,” she said. “We will have a rapid response if there is a risk.”

The DRHE did not respond to queries as to whether they should open those additional buildings now, to allow homeless people in shared rooms to practise social-distancing and help slow the spread of coronavirus.

Additional facilities are urgently needed, says Flynn, especially as many homeless people have poor physical health. “We need to look at every solution that is available.”

Seventy-nine people slept rough on Sunday night, Flynn says. “We should be going out offering these people lifts into facilities,” he says. “But the capacity within the facilities is not available, the social-distancing is not available.”

Perhaps a very large facility like the 3 Arena or the RDS could be opened up for the homeless, he says. Somewhere big enough that they could stay apart from each other in warmth and safety.

“It is a crisis, it’s a pandemic,” says Flynn. “People are going to die and the vulnerable people are going to die first.”

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