‘Youngsters tried to set my tent on fire’ – homeless man on the reality of living on the streets

Credit: Independant.ie

A RAMSHACKLE tent stands pitched outside one of the swankiest hotels in the capital.

Inside the luxury Hilton hotel in Dublin’s Rathmines, guests are wined and dined and can put their heads down in peace and comfort.

Shivering in the tent struggles 55-year-old John, who pitches what he calls his home each night and takes it down every morning so he can go and beg or forage for food.

This chronic contrast sums up a deepening homelessness crisis gripping the country — a calamitous chasm between the Haves and the Have Nots.

Groups working with the homeless reveal to the Sunday World today that the situation is set to get worse, with 3,500 evictions before the courts. A large number of those people will soon be joining John.

He tells us he originally hails from Kilbarrack on the city’s northside and has been in and out of trouble ever since he was a young fellow. In his softly spoken voice he catalogues how he started off smoking weed and how his life spiralled out of control into hard drugs such as heroin.

He took to shoplifting to feed his habit and ended up in Mountjoy prison. John got married but split up with his wife.

He once had a job in a phone shop but for the past 10 years he has been living on the streets.

“The hostels didn’t really suit me, as they’re full of young kids and a lot of them are on drugs and there are a lot of robberies in them,” he explains.

“You would have to tie anything down or put it in a safe, so I tend to stay away from all that.”

He has slept in countless doorways, which has been an ordeal during bad weather. For the past year or so he’s been living in tents. That has caused its own problems.

“Youngsters tried to set my tents on fire when I was on Dame Street, up near Trinity College,” he recalls. “They set boxes on fire outside the tent around one in the morning. Someone told me and I got out and put it out. If I had of been asleep or anything it would have went up.”

He then pitched his tent by the canal opposite the Hilton, as he knew it was safer as there was a taxi rank nearby and lots of people passing. He and another homeless man, Darren, became pals and Darren pitched his tent next to John’s. But shortly before Christmas when they went out to a shop to buy a few bits and pieces one afternoon they discovered that their tents had been removed and all their belongings, including precious family photographs,had vanished.

The two lads soon learned from a cabdriver on the nearby taxi rank that the tents had been taken by Dublin City Council workers in one of their trucks.

“They didn’t even ask me to move, like ‘can you not put your tent there?’, ”muses John. “They just took it behind my back and dumped it.”

He had the tent for eight months and now has been given a new one. Despite obvious holes in it, John finds refuge.

“It’s better in a tent than sleeping out in the cold in the street,” he reflects.

“It takes a bit of the elements off you and a bit of the cold away from you, so it’s a bit better than sleeping out. It’s not really that safe on the streets anyway.”

He maintains there’s a growing problem with drugs, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, which can only lead to more crime on the streets.

“There is a major epidemic of crack in this city,” he contends.

“It costs €20 for a small bit, which lasts about two minutes. I saw one woman about two months ago having sex in a church with a young fellow for a crack pipe, that’s how bad the epidemic is. It’s a major, dangerous drug and the streets are becoming more dangerous because of it.”

John has had a girlfriend for the past 23 years, but they can’t get accommodation together.

“The hotel [Hilton] is very good to us,” he perks up when asked if they have a problem with him. “They let us use the toilet and they have no problem with us. We keep it clean. I take away any rubbish away that previous people have left.”

John spent Christmas in his tent, away from family, which he found hard.

“I was thinking of my family,” he says sadly, wiping away a tear. “But you can’t really blame God for your own predicament; it was drink and drugs that led me to fall into things.”

Selfless pensioner Theresa Kelly spends most of her spare time trying to help impoverished people on the capital’s northside.

She and her group, Helping Hands, run two shops in the Edenmore shopping centre.

In recent years she has reached out to the homeless, and she believes the situation is now a crisis.

“There are four men living intents in this area,” she discloses.

“One has been released from prison and is very quiet. He’s had a bad background. It’s not for us to cast aspersions on them. The younger lad is mid 30s,the others are in their 40s and 50s.”

Her group supplies them with tents, sleeping bags and food.

“There are also eight men on the beach between Clontarf and Dollymount,” she adds.

“We sent down food to them. They are sleeping in the open, believe it or not. There are others in St Anne’s [park in Raheny] in sleeping bags and tents, about 12 of them there.

“I know one man who lives in a cave in a wall, he climbs into it. That’s over near Rathmines. They are living in the bushes in Stephen’s Green, they are living in the Phoenix Park.

“A lot of them come from industrial schools,” she notes.

“There’s one man in particular, he won’t talk to men, he will only talk to women.

“There’s others that won’t let you approach them, you have to put their stuff near them and they get it when you go. There is something in their life they are either running from, or just don’t want to be part of society anymore and this is just how they choose to live.”

She praises Brother Kevin of the Capuchin centre in Smithfield, which given meals to upwards of 800 homeless people each day.

There’s also The Little Flower on Meath Street, which does dinners for 25 cent, Focus Ireland runs a café, while there’s a place on Amiens Street that serves meals for a euro.

Anthony Flynn and Brian McLoughlin help run the Inner City Helping Homeless agency. Chief executive Anthony is pessimistic about the future.

“We have a system that’s in absolute turmoil, it’s crazy,” he exclaims. “Up to 3,500 evictions are before the courts and unless we see rent caps initiated and put in place, we will see more and more people enter homelessness.”

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‘Youngsters tried to set my tent on fire’ – homeless man on the reality of living on the streets