Limerick Homeless Crisis Rolling Steadily Towards an Epidemic – Limerick Leader

Online Version

 

By Duncan Casey

One year ago, I opened a piece in this newspaper with a reference to a man who had died in a recycling bin, having climbed in there to escape the miserable weather. The tragedy shocked us all. How could this happen in our little city? There was outrage. There was disbelief. Above all, there was agreement that everything needed to be done to ensure this did not happen again. The problem of homelessness in Limerick was threatening to become a crisis unless we acted fast.

Eleven months later, a similar story unfolded. Louise Casey was found dead in the stairwell of a vacant building in Catherine Street. Undoubtedly this was the city’s most shameful moment of 2016. Once again, there was disbelief. There was outrage. There was more resolution that this could not happen again.

Just how well has the fight against homelessness gone in 2016? Are we any closer to controlling what is now a full scale crisis? Last Christmas I sat down with Darren Crowe, the manager of the St Patrick’s Hostel on Clare Street. Then, he painted a grim picture of the pressure being placed on emergency service providers.

As I rang the doorbell of the hostel, I knew the conversation I had with him this week was not going to be any more upbeat. The picture he painted this time was more bleak than before.

The ability of people in emergency accommodation to get back on their feet and find themselves accommodation has reduced dramatically in the last twelve months. It has become nearly impossible to transition into the private rental market due to the chronic shortage of supply. This, Darren explains, has led to people becoming trapped in the hostel with no exit in sight.

A year ago, he would have given out about someone being in the hostel for six or nine months. A number of current residents have been there for 12 or 15 months and are likely to remain there for significantly longer. While it is safe and warm, living in temporary accommodation for such a long time can be devastating for a person’s morale and mental health.

There has been a noticeable increase in the level of depression in the hostel. Having reached a dead end time and time again, many people have simply given up on the idea of getting out. At that point, staff at St Patrick’s can only do so much to keep residents motivated and in a good frame of mind. The feeling of being defeated by life can lead to a whole host of other problems.

Darren tells me that if someone comes in without an addiction issue, it is not uncommon for their life to deteriorate to a point where that becomes the case. If you can’t find accommodation, can’t find a job, and have very little to stimulate your mind day to day, it is very easy to fill that time with a negative influence.

The impact of all this of course is that beds are not freeing up for other people who need them. Previously, waiting lists would swell from time to time. This could be dealt with over a couple of weeks because people were moving out. Now, the list builds and builds and then people disappear off it.

They often return to the unsafe or unsuitable situation they left in the first place because they have no alternative. The waiting lists at St Patrick’s and McGarry House are now at 10 to 12 consistently, sometimes more. That is at least 24 people that want somewhere to sleep in Limerick but must do without.

As a result, people are being pushed into dangerous situations. There have been encampments that we know of on the Dock Road, Condell Road and in Westbury. In the latter case, tents were burned down. None of these solutions are safe or suitable in the long term, Darren says.

There have been some positive developments of late. Limerick City and County Council have made 12 new beds available for rough sleepers in a winter bed building in the city. There are also plans to open a night cafe where people can warm up, have something to eat and have some meaningful human interaction – something simple that is often desperately needed in someone’s life.

The Housing First scheme is an exciting new approach to combating homelessness that has been launched in Limerick by Mid West Simon and Novas Initiatives this year. It operates with one simple principle – provide a house first, then combine that with support services in the areas of physical and mental health, employment, education and addiction. This has proven to be an effective method of solving the problems that create homelessness. There is genuine belief among service providers that this has the potential to change and save lives.

The reality however, is that until there is a significant increase in the amount of housing stock available, these measures will only serve as a speed bump for a crisis that is rolling steadily towards becoming an epidemic. If Limerick continues to be starved of social housing and private rental accommodation, initiatives like Housing First will be fighting with one hand behind their back.

Darren fails to see an improvement in the short to medium term. People are becoming stuck in the hostel while more continue to be referred, in need of their help. It is likely that out of the current residents, half of them will still be there in a year. Becoming homeless is probably the most devastating experience anyone can go through. Being forced to endure it for so long can only make matters worse.

I hope that by the time I talk to Darren next Christmas, things will have turned a corner in Limerick.  Unfortunately my gut tells me that more tragedies like that of Louise Casey will have to come first.

‘One harrowing story after another’ – Life on Limerick’s streets – Limerick Leader

Online Version

The scene must have been played out countless times in films and TV dramas – the one where a man or woman is approached by a homeless person in search of some spare change. They reach for their pockets, only to realise after a split-second that they know the unfortunate soul. It hit me hard when it happened to me on a recent Sunday night in Limerick city.

I had only met Jane (not her real name) and her boyfriend Dave (also an alias) a couple of times previously through the Mid-West Simon Community. They were chatty, friendly people who appeared to have come out the other side of whatever low point it was that led them to reach out for help.

These encounters meant I was shocked to see her approach a friend and I on Barrington Street. It was a bitterly cold evening. I was getting some air during the interval of a rehearsed reading at No 1 Pery Square. Myles Breen’s Bottom Dog Theatre Company was performing Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, much to the delight of everyone who came along. The irony of meeting a homeless acquaintance outside such an elegant setting wasn’t lost on me.

“Hi, Jane,” and a look of disbelief were all I could muster as she asked for some change. She didn’t recognise me initially. She was a bit out of it, due to her addiction to Benzodiazepines. I explained who I was and cringed a little with my small talk as I asked how she was doing.

Not very well, obviously. Dave was taking heroin again after being clean for two years. Jane had been thrown out of her mother’s house after a fight with her brother and was now sleeping rough in the stairwell of a city centre building.

It started drizzling. Jane told me how, sitting on a wall at Clancy Strand the previous evening, she had been thinking about throwing herself into the river to end all the suffering in her life.

She burst into tears. She was shivering in the freezing air and told me she hadn’t eaten in days. I suggested going for a sandwich and a cup of tea. I grabbed an umbrella from my car to shield us from the elements as we set off.

I asked Jane why she wouldn’t stay in one of the emergency shelters that provide beds for people in her position. She said she’d had bad experiences of these places in the past, with people using needles at one facility. An environment where drugs were being abused was something she was desperate to avoid.

A few minutes later we arrived at a fast food place downtown. The man holding the fort cast a suspicious eye on Jane as she entered in front of me.

It was an understandable reaction – she looked the worse for wear. As I sat down opposite her she told me one harrowing story after another. She had been abused as a child, something that must have set the tone for the life full of anguish she has had. She has suffered from depression as a result.

While she was hospitalised for aluminium poison, caused by smoking heroin, her brother called social services and her children were taken away.

Her eyes welled up again as she recounted every little detail of the worst day of her life. Despite it being the best thing for her children, she has never forgiven her brother for making that call.

Jane went on to tell me that Dave’s mother, tormented and helpless, now drives him to his drug dealer’s house and lets him shoot up in her living room.

Each miserable tale sucked another bit of hope out of me. A nauseous feeling in my stomach got stronger and stronger.

Her only hope of getting back on track was to get a place on the residential programme at a rehab facility up the country. Candidates have to produce four clean urine samples over a four-week period, a requirement Jane has now satisfied. In another setback, however, she has now been told there is a three-month waiting period to be admitted. She was due to travel there with her HSE key worker for a meeting last Tuesday and I hope she received better news.

As I left the fast-food restaurant, all I could do was wish her the best of luck and tell her that I’d be thinking about her. She thanked me and shook my hand with a smile. I hung my head for the duration of my walk back to Barrington Street. I felt deflated and useless.

As I re-entered the refined surrounding of No1 Pery Square, I thought about just how different my life might have been if I’d been dealt the hand that Jane was.

Terrifying ease of slipping into the homeless trap – Limerick Leader

Online Version

Limerick city’s most shameful moment of 2015 was reported on December 10. A man’s life had come to an end in the most undignified fashion.

He had been sleeping rough in the city and spent his final moments in a recycling bin, having climbed in to escape the awful weather. For days he remained there, lifeless, before being transported up the M7 to Nenagh and discovered.

The man’s death came a year after Jonathan Corrie met a similar fate, in a doorway located in the shadow of Leinster House.

His death was the catalyst for a range of of initatives to tackle rough sleeping. We were told this could not be tolerated, that it could not be allowed to happen again.

It has. Plenty of times. Four had died on the streets in a single six-week period at the end of September. The latest tragedy, which caused little more than a flicker of outrage nationally, reminds us that homelessness is not confined to the capital.

Limerick is fighting a battle with the issue – one it is struggling to maintain control over.

The level of rough sleeping in the city is unclear. The Mid-West Simon Community estimates the number is 25-30. Novas Initiatives, who were familiar with the man who died, say the number is far lower.

The logistics required to carry out an accurate count in a city like Limerick mean it is very hard to have any certainty. The city centre is small but a large number of vacant buildings means there are plenty of places to squat.

Estimates from local service providers are what we have to rely on.

One thing then that can be confirmed is the number of people sleeping in emergency accommodation – around 120.

Forty-seven of these places are provided St Patrick’s Hostel on Clare Street, which is run by St Vincent de Paul. I recently visited the hostel for a tour and a chat with Darren Crowe, the manager.

He painted a grim picture of the pressure being placed on emergency-service providers in the city.

Until 18 months ago, there were three services men could access: St Patrick’s Hostel, McGarry House on Alphonsus St and Br Russell House on Mulgrave St (both run by Novas Initatives).

Br Russell House has now changed its focus to medium- and long-term support, meaning 26 emergency places were lost.

This must have had a significant impact, given that service providers are always near capacity – St Patrick’s Hostel operates at 96% occupancy on average, year round.

When people get into the hostel environment, it’s difficult for them to get out, becuase of a major shortage of private rental accommodation in the city centre.

Darren told me that there are probably six to eight city-centre properties available at any one time, two of which might fit the budget of a homeless person.

If someone is lucky enough to find a suitable property, it is likely to involve dealing with an estate agent.

They will require work references, property references, a deposit and first month’s rent. This is a tall order for most people earning a decent salary, let alone a homeless person who is likely to have some level of debt.

Mid-West Simon helps to offset the scale of such a task, providing people with deposit loans for rental property.

The loans are paid back in interest-free installments, usually at €10 a week.

Sixty-one people availed of this scheme in 2015, an indication of just how many Limerick people are struggling to find some stability in their lives.

These are often the ‘hidden homeless’ – people who may have been living comfortably but through loss of work, increases in rent or eviction by landlords, now find themselves in difficulty.

They don’t fit the usual bill. In many cases, they first come into contact with Mid-West Simon at their food bank, a service that 200 people avail of in Limerick each week.

Two hundred people – a frightening figure for a city this size.

It is widely accepted that the solution is more housing. Money is being pulled away from emergency services to provide housing, or at least that’s what those suffering the cuts are being told.

And yet this hasn’t resulted in additional options being made available for homeless people. If there’s no real commitment to addressing the housing stock, homeless numbers will continue to rise.

What is made clear to me by every service provider I speak with is that people of every description pass through their doors, hopeless and in need of support.

I’ve met some of them myself. Kind, capable people who either ran out of luck, or never had any to begin with. The young person with drug issues from a disadvantaged area is only half the problem.

As Darren put it, the reasons people find themselves homeless never cease to amaze you. One thing’s for sure – demand isn’t going to drop any time soon. Christmas, as always, will be a tough time for many people in Limerick. Spare a thought for those without a place to call home this December.