Where the streets have no names

Michael Stone

Staff Writer

In October of this year, An Garda Síochána and Dublin City Council launched a joint initiative to rid Dublin of its most persistent and aggressive beggars. Having worked with the homeless through a Soup Run for three years in secondary school, this announcement represented nothing more to me than the sound of a broken record.

Not a year goes past without an initiative unveiled to deal with the homeless problem. When working on the Soup Run, I had an ear to the ground and would have been acutely aware of how this new measure impacted those living on the street. However, since starting in Trinity I haven’t been so active and have lost this awareness as a result. Despite a history of working with the destitute, I have become as desensitised as the average pedestrian to their plight, to their existence. It’s striking how easy it is to become used to the sight of homeless people along Nassau Street and Grafton Street.

Some of them have become as recognisable as our lecturers and classmates – if I were to mention “the man who sits with a cardboard sign outside Spar on Nassau Street” or “the man who reads and writes, huddled in a doorway on Lincoln Place” the majority of people would know who I’m talking about. Very few would know their names or anything else about them.  In advance of partaking in the first Daytime Soup Run with Trinity VDP on Thursday 21stst November, and in order to make a reconnection of sorts, I decided to do a little reconnaissance. I prepared a small flask of tea, took an unapologetic fistful of sugar sachets from the Arts Block Café, and set off into the cool morning air of south Dublin city centre to chat with the people we have come to recognise (and ignore) so easily. It had rained the night before so many of my early encounters were particularly grumpy and aching. However, the sight of a hot drink warmed them up and with my chosen ice-breaker of Ireland’s new management team, we were soon absorbed in conversation, oblivious to passers-by. My first stop was on Molesworth Street where I spoke to a cheerful character, Derek*. Before long we were talking about more than just football. I broached the subject of the new scheme. He said he hadn’t felt its impact all that much. He told me the story of a Garda who had persistently hassled him in the past but who had since been relocated. Since then, Derek’s encounters with the law have been, though perhaps not amicable, fair. He noted that the new laws were directed at those who “get right in your face with a cup”. He used the example of the more persistent female beggars to be found along O’Connell Street. While I was speaking to Derek, two pedestrians clearly dressed for work, stopped to offer a brief greeting to him. This I found encouraging; perhaps I was too quick to paint everyone with the same brush. Derek seemed willing to go on talking but after some time I bade him farewell and good luck before moving on.

The next two people I came across were Roma – a man and a woman, both along South Leinster Street. I prepared a cup of tea for them but found their English was quite limited. Both were very nice, smiling and clasping their hands together in thanks. I attempted to express my question on the new initiative with gestures but was met with a shrug. This was a shame as they make up a large proportion of Dublin beggars and I was eager to hear if they were treated any differently.

I then spoke to Mark* on Nassua Street. He told me that if the “Gardaí came around looking for trouble [he’d] give it to them”. This brought our conversation about the Council’s new strategy to a premature end, as he seemed unwilling to talk more on the matter.

However, we did discuss how it was to be homeless in Dublin. He told me it was getting more and more difficult with the scaling down of hostels and services for the homeless. He finds increasingly that he must resort to sleeping on the streets, which he doesn’t enjoy although he can “handle it”. I spoke to Mark for a while and in that space of time he displayed a swinging mood; one moment he was bright and engaging, the next detached and brooding. Though I didn’t inquire beyond “how are you?”, I questioned myself as to whether he had some mental health difficulties. Whether he did or did not, his changes in affect would warrant at least some exploration by a professional. He dodged the subject of dealing with social services so I delved no further. Despite his initial show of chutzpah, he came across as an endearing, tender character. He seemed to be experiencing an internal, as well as an external, struggle on the cold, hard streets. His unwillingness to discuss the law or social services suggested he may have become disillusioned by them or had bad experiences with them in the past. I could only speculate as I moved on to squeeze in one more chat before my one o’clock lecture.

The last man I spoke to, Aaron*, was more gruff than the others and commented on the tea going a little cold. On the subject of dealing with the Council and Gardaí, he spoke of getting warnings in the past that led to an arrest and a court appearance, resulting in a fine he couldn’t pay. “How could they expect me to?” He seemed to think the powers-that-be were out of touch with the real issues at hand: “I’m clean now a few months but a lot of these people have drink and drug problems and nothing is done about that”. He wanted to get back to his paper so I decided to leave him be. As I departed for my lecture, it was Aaron’s comments that struck me most of all. He had hit the nail on the head. The mistake made, year after year, in dealing with the problem of homelessness in the city, is to treat it as a criminal issue.  Being arrested and fined for begging and sleeping on the streets is a waste of time and resources. There are clearly greater issues at hand that need to be dealt with – mental health, alcohol and drug abuse to name but a few. The strategy announced by the Council and the Gardaí shows hope of veering out of this cycle. Lord Mayor Oisín Quinn has indicated that Gardaí will use the power of arrest, not to advance to the court system, but to refer people to the appropriate services and agencies. My fieldwork didn’t show that this has trickled down to the ground yet, but the impact of a strategy such as this takes time to be felt. The plan represents a change in attitude among the authorities towards the homeless. If implemented successfully and with a real focus on rectifying the core issues at the heart of the homeless problem, as opposed to a “cleaning up our streets” approach, the initiative has the potential to change the lives of many homeless people struggling in the city. Hopefully, those spearheading it can see beyond the narrow constraints of budgets and balance sheets and deliver real change for the destitute.

Trinity VDP’s first Day Soup Run is on every Thursday, running from 11:30-14:00 ([email protected]).  The existing, popular Soup Run runs from 20:00 Tuesday and Friday evenings ([email protected]). *For privacy reasons, the actual names of those interviewed are not used