Sleeping rough is tough, one night showed me that

Majella Mc Pharland recounts her experience of the TCDSU organised sleepout, reminding us that this issue is far from resolved

Last Thursday night I was one of the participants in the inaugural sleep out in aid of the Peter McVerry Trust, which was organised by the TCDSU and FLAC. The Peter McVerry Trust works with homeless people and those at risk of this, and Fr McVerry gave a speech to the Theoogical Society in 2012 about the work of the organisation. I was a sheltered Fresher from a small village in county Armagh and hadn’t had much contact with the homeless prior to moving to Dublin. Fr McVerry described some of the clients that he worked with when he initially moved to Dublin from Newry in the seventies.

One anecdote that I vividly remember is that of a nine year old boy who was sleeping rough on the streets. The trust was established in 1983 to help vulnerable people like that boy, and has grown substantially over the years. It now offers a drop-in information centre on 26 Upper Sherrard Street, drug treatment services, temporary accommodation and – crucially – a supported living service which provides housing and helps clients to develop independent living skills. Memories of this talk inspired my decision to take part in the sleep out. 

Twenty of us gathered at the Nassau Street entrance to college and settled down in our sleeping bags with hot cups of tea in hand. The craic was great and the group bonded over Heads Up and the board game Articulate. Once we tried to go to sleep, however, the difficulties of sleeping rough became clear.

Sleeping rough is rough

It was one of the toughest experiences I’ve ever had. It doesn’t matter if you have two sleeping bags and four layers of clothing on. The cold seeps in through the smallest gaps, like vermin. It will gnaw at you all night. Your exhausted brain will constantly fight against drunken shouts and loud vehicles and the Luas Cross City works for scraps of sleep. The noise is incessant.

By 7am, my mood had plummeted and I was stiff and sore. The experience was difficult but it wasn’t anything like what people sleeping rough have to go through. The Trinity Security Guards were on hand if we needed them; we were safe and were part of a group which made the situation easier. I had enough money to go to Spar and buy comfort food for the night. No one queried my background or made sweeping assumptions about why I was doing the sleep out. I was able to go home after a mere twelve hours to a warm house with plenty of food, clean clothes and privacy. I have a fixed address to put on my CV in order to get a job.

Need for action

Not all homeless people sleep on the streets, but the problems of homelessness persist regardless of whether a person is sleeping in their car, in emergency accommodation or sleeping rough.  The death of 47 year old Jonathan Corrie, who was a rough sleeper and who passed away just metres from Dail Eireann before Christmas 2014 shocked the country.

It forced the government to announce new measures to tackle the crisis and Alan Kelly announced that “our long term ambition is that by the end of 2016 we will end the scourge of involuntary long term homelessness, in accordance with the Government’s Implementation Plan in Response to Homelessness.”  Recently, a law came into force stipulating that landlords can no longer refuse to accept tenants on rent supplement. However, this has been announced too late to help many who have been forced out of their homes due to spiralling rents. Moreover, this law does nothing to deal with the lack of emergency, short term accommodation in the Dublin area. There are still record numbers of street-sleepers each night due to the unavailability of beds, despite some improvements to these figures in recent months.

Current crisis

The latest figures released days before our sleep out show a worrying trend. According to Focus Ireland, 125 families were made homeless in January – a record figure.  There are a total of 769 families housed in emergency accommodation, including 1570 children. Uncertainty and the lack of stability are things shared by all who find themselves homeless and that is especially problematic when young children are involved.

Thankfully, the number of people that are sleeping rough has decreased. The latest figures on the number of people sleeping rough in Dublin were compiled in November of last year. On the night surveyed, there were 91 people recorded as sleeping rough which is a reduction from 146 in the previous year. 91 is still 91 too many of course. The new government cannot allow complacency regarding this crisis.

Just a few weeks ago, the group “Gimme Shelter” placed temporary homeless “pods” around Dublin city centre, including one at Bus Áras and one outside the Central Bank, to protest against the lack of beds for emergency accommodation. Although the number of rough sleepers may have eased slightly, the situation still remains at crisis point.

I am a physically healthy woman yet I was exhausted after a twelve hour sleep out with lots of blankets and support. I simply cannot imagine how people with physical or mental health difficulties cope on the streets on an ongoing basis. Four people sleeping rough in Belfast have died in as many weeks. That is shameful. Rough sleepers are the most visible group of homeless people and they are possibly the first group that people think of when they hear the term. They are also the group that are most in need of immediate support.  But prevention is better than cure and it should not be up to charities to do most of this work. The government has implemented some measures, but these are not nearly enough.

The TCDSU sleep out was a success, and hopefully will be held again next year. The cold and the discomfort are things that I will not easily forget.  We welcome the fact that the number of rough sleepers in Dublin has decreased, but it is not enough of a decrease, however, and the figures were based on one night only so do not tell the full story. It is disgraceful that anyone should be left to sleep on the streets and it is disgraceful that economic factors have driven so many families to seek emergency accommodation. Homelessness is a complex issue with a myriad of causes. These causes needed to be addressed with renewed urgency as the problem deepens in Dublin and throughout the country.