How I Ended Up Homeless

Christine O'Donnell

Christine O'Donnell is a charity worker and musician living in Dublin.

Ask any homeless person, and they’ll all tell you the same thing. No matter what their circumstances, they never expected to wind up homeless.

In 2012, I was attending a psychiatric day hospital to help manage the burgeoning symptoms of my own peculiar brand of bipolar disorder. I had become close with some of the nurses working there: one, in particular, Sarah.

I recall sitting with her in the pastel-green consulting room of a January afternoon, and we were discussing finances. I was working part-time in a minimum-wage job while also interning, and being supported by the part-time dole.

I could always pay my rent. Bills might be a bit late but never got cut off. Going out for dinner was a luxury I could ill afford. In a nutshell – I was managing.

We were chatting, and the conversation veered towards the homelessness crisis, which had already begun escalating, and that glib adage about being one pay cheque away from homelessness popped into my head. I flippantly stated as such, and Sarah asked: “Do you honestly think that would ever happen?”

“No, I guess not,” I replied sheepishly. I meant it when I said homelessness could happen to anyone on a low income, but I always assumed that that would never happen to me.

I naively believed my support system would carry me through any fallouts, and it would never come to that.

***

When I got notice from my landlord in March 2017 that I’d have to leave my home in Glasnevin by 1 April, I wasn’t too fussed.

I was vaguely alarmed – I knew it was not the time to start looking for accommodation in Dublin, I’d heard the stories of endless queues and demand far outstripping supply – but then again I’d done this a total of 13 times since moving to Dublin in 2004, so I had a distant sense that everything would work out.

In spring 2016, it had become impossible for me to continue work. My four-month stint as fundraiser in an NGO drew to a close as a deterioration in my mental health that had begun around a month into the job made it untenable to continue.

I was entering a mixed state, which is where you experience both highs and lows at the same time. It’s like standing on a knife edge between restless sadness and dark elevation: you never know which pit you’re going to fall into.

My condition was such that I was coming to work on, at best, around two hours’ sleep most days, awake since around two in the morning, so no doubt I presented as fairly exhausted a lot of the time. I left before I was fired, something my boss was clear was on the cards.

After that, I began living primarily off of a disability payment and only a few disparate hours of structured employment. When I found out I would have to leave my Glasnevin home, I knew my finances were in no state to take the hit of a deposit and first month’s rent with the current Dublin prices.

HAP is today’s version of Rent Allowance, and I had heard of it before, but wasn’t familiar with how it worked. I registered homeless as soon as I received the Notice to Quit from my landlord and was accepted as eligible for the homeless HAP.

In spite of how good and obviously well-intentioned the HAP scheme is – the council pay the rent and the tenant covers an amount indexed to income – it has one major operational flaw.

Put simply: there seems to be no benefit whatsoever for the landlord in availing of the HAP scheme. Reams of paperwork, a delay on getting the first month’s rent, checks done on the property – landlords just aren’t going for it.

Needless to say, the sound of doors closing quietly in my face throughout the house hunt, which hasn’t stopped, soon became crushingly familiar.

It has become a tired scenario: you go through the screening process with the landlord over the phone, and they then inevitably express enthusiasm for a tenant who is seeking a long-term let and a place to really call a home and properly maintain.

They seem happy; everything is going fine. You give the final reassurance of references, followed by the HAP bomb. Cue swift change of tone. And that’s it. You don’t hear back. Calls don’t get returned. You’re out of the running.

Not far into the search, on 21 April, I was forced to move into emergency accommodation in a “sleep-only” homeless hostel. Emergency hostels form the majority of such refuges in Dublin; places that offer you a bed, but little else.

You start getting thrown out onto the street from eight o’clock in the morning with a bang on the door and your name being shouted, to which you holler back. As you exit the room, the smell of weed permeates the corridors. Those with addictions exit and re-enter their rooms with fresh spoons.

We all get thrown out at 9:30am, and aren’t allowed back in until six in the evening. With nowhere to go, often on the back of a wakeful night, the day stretches ahead of you like a sea of loose cobblestones. Combined with a strong feeling of suffocating inaction, being let out onto the street can lead to a peculiarly debilitating malaise.

What on earth do I do now? I often sat by the Portobello canal feeding the ducks grapes from the local grocer, thinking, Please don’t rain. There were times in that hostel when I would be out on the street not having slept at all – and with little prospect of rest during the day ahead.

Those who leave the hostel late in the morning are forced to wait outside for longer in the evening before regaining access. Lessons must be learned. On one such occasion, having not had any sleep for over 56 hours, I became so exhausted that I fell asleep on the dirty footpath outside the building.

Life in the hostel was incredibly challenging. It was an utterly chaotic environment, with violence, drugs, theft, constant aggression, utter unpredictability at every turn, feuds. People are at their wits’ end, ready to crack in two, vulnerable and exposed.

I too, was vulnerable and exposed, and channelled all of my frantic energy into functioning in survival mode. More than a month in, this resulted in a complete psychological meltdown for me. I was no longer coping, barely functional.

Luckily, just as it reached a point where I may have been faced with a spell in hospital, my luck changed. A month in, I got a call from the Homeless Services, telling me that I had been transferred to a 24-hour hostel, which are gold-dust.

Everyone wants access to a 24-hour hostel but few have it. Things are much quieter, calmer here – an environment a world apart from the emergency hostel.

Rules are generally observed, and gently pointed out when broken, such as leaving your dishes in the sink as I once did. I was grateful when Rory, the manager, asked me not to do it next time. Such a simple thing to point out, it almost moved me to tears, but it’s things like that – small gestures – that remind me what it feels like to be at home.

In a real home, though, you can relax in your own room, knowing you’re not going to be interrupted by a room check or a request for tobacco, knowing it’s where you live and you belong there. But a hostel, in any circumstances, is not a home. You can be transferred at a moment’s notice and given as little as two hours to pack, clean, and leave.

When you’re returning back to a strict curfew where the manager buzzes you in – and you face a night on the streets if you’re late – it feels strange to say when leaving friends, “I’m going home.”

It’s where I am for now though, and I’m grateful for the absence of chaos here. Things are steady – I have access to cooking facilities, I can make a phone call in private, I don’t get thrown out every morning: it’s incredible the things one once took for granted but no longer does.

Weeks are gradually turning into months for me as homeless. I often take the birds-eye view and wonder at how drastically my life has changed in the past three months.

In comparison to those I’ve met along the way, that’s a relatively short time. The prospect of this period stretching on is daunting: just how long is one expected to pay dues for forces outside of one’s control?

Becoming homeless was, for me and many others, a result of bad luck, bad timing, and a chronic health condition. I stand now at the intersection between the coal faces of the housing crisis and the health crisis, and I am most definitely not alone. There are people on chemotherapy who are sleeping rough and don’t have access to a 24-hour hostel.

I’ll leave you on this note. It is often assumed that all homeless individuals are addicts. This is not the case. There are many, like me, whose problems stem from a different source. Addiction can of course be an issue – but when it is, I find it important to remember that no one sets out to become an addict.

Reader responses

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joe
31 July at 17:31

This lady should name those hostels as in management are leaving people on the streets at night it needs to go public

Ciara
1 August at 16:59

What a powerful piece by a courageous young woman. Truly an indictment of where things are at in the rental sector, when people who are eligible for government-funded accommodation can not find a place to live, and barely a safe place to lay their heads. I hope Christine gets sorted soon – and well done to her for sharing her story and helping to break down taboos around both homelessness and mental health. It (very eloquently) screams at us our duty to do better to look after our most vulnerable, and I hope it gets ready by our public representatives who seem far to little engaged with this crushing reality of our times.

Jack
2 August at 18:04

Brilliant Piece Christine, I have been in the same situation as you have and it will change for you, i’m 100% sure of that.

Dan
5 August at 17:50

Joe as a worker in emergency accommodation those beds go back at 10pm so those who didn’t get a bed in the day can ring the freephone at 10.30pm and try and get a bed for the night. The though behind is it that the bed isn’t left empty.

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Christine O'Donnell: Christine O'Donnell is a charity worker and musician living in Dublin.

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