Special report: Real lives and real stories behind those living on the streets

It is easy to forget there are real people behind the homeless statistics. In an attempt to put that right journalist Rebecca Stiffe took to the streets to gain an insight into the real stories behind the people who are presently living on the streets of Ireland.

THE LUAS rolls by, its windows fogged up from the swarm of people inside. Hands are shoved in pockets, coats are zipped up and high street shopping bags litter the floor.

The jingle of collection buckets blends with the traffic and the music filtering out from the stores either side of the Spire.

Eighteen year old Louise (not her real name) waits for her friends on Henry Street, her tent and belongings packed tight next to her. She had been homeless for three years, having dropped out of school after her Junior Certificate and turning to a life of drugs.

“I’m clean for the last year now,” she beams. “It’s very hard for a girl. You’d think being so young, you’d get something quicker but you don’t get anything any quicker than anybody else. It’s just the way life is up in Dublin.”

Because Louise moved from the Midlands, she can’t get on the Dublin Housing Waiting List. Though she believes by being in the capital city, she at least has a chance at survival.

“You see the real reality of the world, you don’t see the things hiding behind it. It’s a horrible life to live but all you can do is keep going. Keep strong, don’t let anyone out you down, that’s what I say.

“Some people just don’t like seeing homeless people. They think, oh, it’s all excuses with them or whatever when the majority of people are genuinely homeless not from drink or drugs, but they get wrapped into that because it’s all over the place. You walk down a back alley, all you see is needles.”

Each night, Louise and her boyfriend along with some friends sleep outside of the Garda station in case anything happens to them. She doesn’t feel safe in the hostels because of her age and gender but insists that there are genuine people who look out for her in them.

“In Merchant’s Quay, you have a mat on the floor and no blanket,” she says. “No pillow. Then in some hostels, you’re up at 06:45am and out by 07:30am. So you’re up, you’re walking the streets everyday and when the Guards see you, they tell you to move off the streets when you have nowhere to go.”

Like many teenagers her age, Louise fought with her parents growing up, regularly sneaking out only to return days later. She expresses regret at how things turned out and a desire to go back in time.

“If I could go back, it would be so different,” she says. “I’d probably be driving an Audi now! No. You make stupid mistakes and when you’re that age you always fight with your parents. And I did. I was really bold.

“But I don’t look for sympathy off anybody. I kind of made this life for myself so I’m going to have to deal with it now and keep going. It’s all I can do now.”

Louise smiles as her friends and boyfriend arrive. They gather their things and head towards Phoenix Park. Minus the bags of belongings and tents, they would appear like any other group of young people.

Eugene

Eugene (not his real name) sits in front of the Bank of Ireland on O’Connell Street, Limerick, meticulously working on his paintings he hopes he might sell to a passer-by. One in particular is of a Limerick crest on a green background.

“It isn’t finished,” he says. “I have to keep going over it until I’m happy with it.”

Prior to becoming homeless, he had done exhibitions for a number of charities including children’s hospitals. Two years ago he had exhibited his art in aid of a homeless charity, but just a couple of months later he found himself in a similar situation as those he was hoping to benefit.

“Some people don’t see, it can happen to anybody, being homeless. Out of the blue. Some people can’t pay mortgages these days, it’s happening everywhere.

“You see people out in the country losing their houses, with no work there. Their houses are gone after years of work, penniless.”

Eugene’s family know about his situation, but he doesn’t want to ask them for help or use their homes.

“I don’t hassle them,” he says. “I wouldn’t be able to. It’s not the same. My mother isn’t well. She’s sick, so bad enough. She doesn’t need more worries.”

He rinses his paintbrush in a small plastic cup and continues tracing the outline of the Limerick crest.

Maksim

On the corner of Arthur’s Quay, Maksim’s (not his real name) focus is on his dog. Originally from Estonia, he was a well-respected pastry chef before moving to Ireland.

Now, he reveals how he makes himself ‘black out’ when he can’t switch off his mind.

“Even now, it’s lovely weather, but inside I don’t know, I’m feeling disturbed. But I have the dog now nearly two years,” he says. “Great company. That’s me not alone anymore.”

The dog belonged to a homeless friend of Maksim’s who passed away. Due the regulations with hostels and homeless accommodation services, he chooses to sleep on the streets rather than leave his dog. But he says it’s not an issue.

“Some rooms, some hostels, they have people with addiction, people with an alcohol problem, so there’s no point. I can’t complain, I’m very glad.

“Maybe some person has a more worse situation than me. No point in to cry, or whatever. I just have to try cope with myself now. Nothing is easy, just don’t give up. Tomorrow is another day, who knows? Yesterday’s history, tomorrow’s mystery! That means I have only today. Enjoy every moment.”

Maksim’s words are full of hope and linger in the cold air as he half sighs, but there’s a solemnness to his tone. He catches the eye of a few pedestrians and offers a nod and a smile, but it goes unnoticed. It’s not long before his smile wavers and his gaze drops.

Rebecca Stiffe is a freelance journalist with a BA in Journalism and New Media at the University of Limerick. She has worked in the past with the Connacht Tribune, TV3 and RTE.


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