On the Streets of Ireland: The volunteers addressing Dublin’s homelessness crisis

Working with those experiencing homelessness in trying times, and against the backdrop of a cost-of-living crisis and radicalising intolerance

Walking through the streets of Dublin, it is hard to miss the occupied sleeping bags nestled in doorways, or the tents pitched precariously under the steps of a suburban DART station. Homelessness in Ireland has risen at an alarming rate in the past decade. The issue has been inflamed by an enduring housing crisis and increasing costs-of-living. According to a report from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, there was a  record-breaking 13,841 individuals homeless in February 2024 – an increase of approximately 46% from the same month in 2022. Of this 2024 statistic, 4,170 are children – an all-time high. 

The topic has received renewed attention following the government’s decision to transport asylum seekers from the makeshift camp outside the city’s International Protection Office (IPO), to Crooksling in the Dublin Mountains. It has been speculated that this was an attempt to clear the street ahead of the St. Patrick’s Day parade. The  slashing of these emptied tents outside the IPO office by a hooded man echoed an atmosphere of intolerance all too reminiscent of the riots of last November. The government’s decision was met with disgust from a host of activists in Ireland who  criticised politicians for failing to consider long-term solutions. It also exposed the government’s shortfalls in its dealings with those sleeping rough, and has shown that it is Ireland’s charitable organisations – which directly interact with these marginalised groups – who are their main advocates. 

One of these volunteers is Jamie McCarville, a second-year BESS student at Trinity, who has worked with Dublin’s homeless community since secondary school, by participating in soup-runs in the city since the age of 15. For McCarville, joining Trinity’s VDP Initiative was “a natural transition.” McCarville is an activity leader on VDP’s Street Outreach Initiative, which provides supplies and conversation to the homeless twice a week. For him, this is “just a regular part of my week… I really love it… there are a lot of great chats. It’s one of the main things that keeps people going back.” The outreach programme consists of a North and South route, and provides supplies ranging from sandwiches and chocolate, to toiletries and clothes. McCarville hopes to see more of the latter consistently available, particularly in the winter: “No one should ever be on the streets, but especially then. That was really hard to see.”

“It’s disquieting because the issue [of homeless refugees] is not an aesthetic thing and they’re not proud of it”

Selma Catibusic, a third-year history student and member of Trinity’s VDP, emphasised the psychological impact of “sleeping rough” for prolonged periods: “There’s a bigger sense of desperation in the winter,” she stated. “It’s cold and wet, and there are more people about, leading to more isolation from society.” The heightened sense of distress among these groups following the displacement caused by the IPO decision was also highlighted by Catibustic, who said that “It’s disquieting because the issue [of homeless refugees] is not an aesthetic thing and [the government] they’re not proud of it. And they haven’t come up with a solution because it’s not their priority.” She underscored the hypocrisy of the government’s decision to make tourism and St Patrick’s day their focus because it “brings in socio-economic value”, while simultaneously failing to invest in a problem they just “hidden.” 

Yet, for these homeless asylum seekers, moves can be made to prevent the formation of these temporary tented accommodation in the first place, which have limited access to supplies and are highly susceptible to disease. Méabh Bonham Corcoran, an Occupational Therapist and PhD student at TCD studying occupational injustice experiences of refugees in Ireland, as well as their integration, pointed to the fact that asylum seekers must remain in the country “for 6 months before they can apply for a work permit. It can take another four to six months to receive it.” For Bonham Corcoran, this is a “great loss to the Irish economy” and an “unnecessary wait for those who would like nothing more than being able to work, earn a living and give back to the economy”. 

“People are subjected to all sorts of horrific abuse”

Unsurprisingly, all interviewees echoed the need for improved social housing built for the public good as opposed to private development. As Bonham Corcoran argued, “stable housing is the foundation on which people are able to build their lives.” Alternatives, such as temporary shelters or emergency accommodation, are unsustainable and, in McCarville’s words, “not safe environments for people.” During their time at the Irish Refugee Council, Law postgraduate Ciara (name changed) anonymously described the harrowing stories of asylum seekers who had been forced to live without housing or in shared accommodation: “People are subjected to all sorts of horrific abuse… they have been assaulted, abused, had their belongings stolen. There were cases of people with very serious medical needs who can’t have those needs met because they were not registered in hospitals.” 

 The recurrence of physical trauma is a problem McCarville has witnessed first-hand. On the streets he has met people who should “by no means be walking, let alone staying in town. People recovering from broken backs, legs, or from being bruised.” Despite their vulnerability and need for urgent shelter, Catibusic stated that some wait as long as “seven years” to get accommodation, while “most, if not all, hostels in Dublin are full 90% of the time. If you can’t get into a hostel, they’re just left on the streets.” These waitlists also extend to other services. In her view, “the drug and alcohol abuse and rehabilitation services in this country are so bad. So many waitlists… even if it’s just for seeing someone, the waitlists are just insane. So, then you’re on a waitlist for rehabilitation and a waitlist for housing. It just needs to be changed.”

In recent months, frustrations with overcrowding have caused an uptick in xenophobia as many blame this problem on immigrants. These tensions erupted in the riots of 23 November 2023, when far-right prejudicial hate left a visceral mark on the city, both physically in the charred remains of burned vehicles and within collective memory. As McCarville observed, “There were fewer service users on the streets because obviously town didn’t feel as safe… [especially] people of colour.” Catibusic, McCarville, and Corcoran all pointed to a visible antagonism between white Irish citizens and non-Irish groups co-existing on the streets after the riots: “I’ve had some interactions [on the streets] where people [redirect their] anger [with the state] at some immigrants and refugees and it’s hard to respond to that because you’re there to listen,” McCarville said. Corcoran concurred adding: “there is generally just a lack of understanding [and] fear present.” 

Reflective of deep-seated social ills, the polarisation in the discourse has also affected the safety of volunteers. The day following the riots, Muslim Sisters of Éire stated that it would be unable to provide its typical support for the homeless on O’Connell Street due to security concerns for its workers. Trinity’s VDP services were affected too. McCarville stated: “we took a pause a week after and started just doing our South side route with limited volunteers just to be as safe as possible.” Catibusic attributes much of the hatred to people’s desperation regarding their circumstances: “it’s just kind of a frustration after they see some people getting accommodation… or opportunities and resources that aren’t available to them because the government isn’t helping them.” 

“No one loses out on Street Outreach. Everyone benefits from it”

Despite the difficulties in the past  year, all volunteers pointed to the immense pleasure they take from their work. “I’ve met some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.” said McCarvile, explaining that “it can be quite intense, so it’s nice… that… I’ve met some friends that I think will be in my life for a long time.” Catibustic agreed, and explained how  “no one loses out on Street Outreach. Everyone benefits from it.” While she recognised that her efforts may not alter the national statistics, she was clear that this is not what she set out to accomplish: “I don’t think I went in with a mindset of ‘I want to change everything’, but more ‘I want to do something to help’ and now it is something I really enjoy doing… you don’t really see the impact of what you do but you do feel kind of warm after.” 

Catibusic believes that systemic change is necessary, but that small acts of kindness go a long way too: “Recognising homeless people as people is so important, rather than just continuously ignoring them which is so bad for mental health,” she argued. “You don’t have to give them a fiver every time but you could just ask them how they’re doing, or how their day’s been.” While acknowledging that this can be intimidating at first, for Catibusic, having a conversation can make a big difference, as even if “you have nothing to offer, you have a bit of time.”

Rose Slocock

Rose Slocock is a Deputy Features Editor at Trinity News and is currently in her Junior Sophister Year studying History.