On my first night homeless in April 2017, I checked in to a 12-hour hostel. These are hostels from which residents are ejected every morning and not let back in until evening.
I had pleaded with a member of staff at the homeless services at Parkgate Hall on Conyngham Road to put me somewhere stable. I knew I was close to experiencing a psychological meltdown.
At 31, I have lived with schizoaffective disorder for more than half of my life. It started at 14, so I’m aware of my triggers and when I’m close to the edge. I know miracles can’t be achieved – I was aware that I couldn’t simply waltz into a 24-hour hostel – and she said that this particular hostel was the best place for me.
I recall the woman I was dealing with. She had mousy brown hair and sat stiffly behind a reception window. Although she appeared empathetic, she was firm. This wasn’t the worst hostel in town, she assured me. That was all she could do.
I packed what I knew I would be able to bring with me: a bag of clothes, small enough to be moved at a few hours notice for, as I was told, you can have your shared room changed night after night, never knowing who you’ll be sharing with next; and my phone.
I couldn’t bring my laptop or my guitar, the mainstays of my work. Walking into the Richmond Street hostel, I knew I was in way over my head. I wondered how many other people had felt the same way going through those doors.
Although the first thing said to me was that this was a “dry” hostel, I noticed needle bins everywhere, and guessed correctly that this rule was routinely ignored. On day one, there was the to-and-fro of spoons in the rooms, the reek of weed and alcohol. I realised there was a chronic amount of drug-taking in the hostel.
(Editor’s note: we put this and several other points from this op-ed to the organisation that runs the hostel, and their responses appear below.)
What’s often overlooked in the broad sweep of articles and statistics about homelessness is that homelessness itself is a trauma. On my first evening, a brief and aggressive – but non-physical – fight broke out. It was first of many.
I was quick to realise that these were not “vagrants” or people who had made “bad life choices”: they were products of their environments and living in that hostel was a brutalising experience, and was driving them to their wits ends.
There was a merciless routine in the hostel. There are hourly checks in your room. Staff bang on your door at 7:30am and shout your name to get you up and out. Residents are kept on high alert, never able to relax. After a quick cup of tea, residents are barred from the hostel until 7pm in the evening.
I found the long aimless days a challenge. Many afternoons I spent feeding grapes to the ducks on the canal, praying that it wouldn’t rain.
On my second night in the hostel, just after being let in from the street, I witnessed a scene – one of several – which has stayed with me to this day, and which I have trouble recounting without becoming disturbed.
As I entered the hostel for the evening, I saw a violent row break out between a couple staying there. The man was bashing his girlfriend’s head violently against the hostel door, so hard that it seemed he was trying to make a hole through it.
I was stuck. I felt that I should intervene but the scale of the violence frightened me. I was hyper aware of my limitations as a short young woman. Eventually, the staff broke it up and called Gardaí.
I experienced insomnia throughout my entire stay at that hostel. I got one or two hours’ sleep a night. The lights were broken in one of the shared rooms I stayed in. Many nights, I sat in the corridor while the rest of the residents were sleeping. I tried to read a book but could never concentrate.
This compounded the high alert in the morning and left me frazzled and exhausted. One day after roaming the streets, I went back to the hostel an hour early. I begged to be let in. My vision was blurred from exhaustion and I felt like I was going to pass out. I was refused.
Instead, I fell asleep outside of the hostel on the footpath in the dirt. I had little choice. A compatriot residing in the hostel saw me outside of the hostel asleep and knowing I did not have a drug problem became concerned and rang the doorbell. The answer from within was simply: “She’s probably on something. She’ll come round after a while.”
Life in that hostel was brutal for all of the residents. There had been people there for seven or eight months. I could see the hopelessness among longer-term residents.
One particular instance has stuck with me, perhaps more than any other. There was a young woman there who was a severe self-harmer. She generally wore long sleeves, but still you could see the fresh red lines along her forearm when she reached for something.
We never became close, but were friendly. We had a camaraderie of sorts. To consolidate it, perhaps, she once bought me a packet of Haribo. But our times in the communal eating area never seemed to collide, and I kept to myself on my days on the streets.
One sleepless night I was walking around the hostel, my back sore from leaning against the wall in the corridor with the book I couldn’t finish. I heard commotion on the floor below me so I went down to see if everything was alright.
The young woman was on a stretcher, having taken a massive overdose of pills. She was unconscious, and for the first time I could see the full damage she had done to her arms. I felt nauseous.
Three days later, she was back in the hostel. She’d had no stay in a psychiatric unit – not that the public ones are particularly healing – no outside support. She was just sent back. Back to the place which, I’m guessing, had helped trap her in that deep and dark depression.
She acted no different on her return from hospital. She was as affable and friendly as ever. But, just imagine, the aftermath of a suicide attempt and no outside support? Just what had she been going through?
Of course, the 12-hour hostels are just one type of hostel. There has been coverage of families in hotel rooms, and the unknown number of hidden homeless. There are the sought-after 24-hour hostel beds and the assisted living situations, where several homeless people share a house and have a roster of live-in social carers.
And of course, there are the rough sleepers, perhaps the most vulnerable and difficult to reach group within the homeless population. My only interactions with rough sleepers have been accidental conversations on the side of the street.
Like, earlier this year, late at night, after I’d taken part in a theatre show as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival. I passed by a man sat on a step on Lower Abbey Street. He looked to be in his early 60s, his grey hair peeked out from underneath a baseball cap.
Beside him lay a sleeping bag. I didn’t have any money on me, so I offered him tobacco. Instead, he invited me to sit with him over a cigarette. He had plenty.
I asked him if he had a place to sleep for the night. He said he’d get some sleep on the steps when the noise died down.
It was 4:30am and there were young drunk men marching and shouting down the street. I don’t know when noise in the city centre eventually “dies down”, when he might hope to get some rest.
We talked a bit about his past, his stint in the army. He had been homeless now for more than 20 years, far longer than me. (I was still homeless myself at that point, and had missed curfew at the hostel.)
I asked why he wouldn’t go to a hostel where he’d at least be warm. He said he didn’t want to live in a “kip” like that. He pointed to the large office building across the road, and said that’s where he wanted to live. Or – he pointed to another, and another – maybe in those.
We were surrounded by empty buildings. He just wanted a door to lock behind him.
I could feel something crack in my bravado. I began to cry. I couldn’t help it. I started to apologise. He was gentle and reassuring, comforting me, telling me to go get some sleep, telling me he’d be fine and I shouldn’t worry about him.
Editor’s Note: We put several points from this op-ed to Francis Doherty, head of communications at the Peter McVerry Trust, which runs the hostel Christine O’Donnell wrote about. Doherty offered some general information about the hostel, and responded to those points.
FD: “Richmond Street provides emergency homeless accommodation on what is known as one-night-only (ONO) model. The people who are accommodated are placed through the CPS [Central Placement Service, at Parkgate Hall]. The service provides accommodation for 45 people in mostly single-occupancy or couples’ rooms. The accommodation provides for male and females and couples, all with designated floors for accommodation within the building. The majority of service users are female, and the majority of residents are actually on rolling bookings, which mean they don’t need to use the freephone each night, but can stay for longer periods. The nature of ONO services mean that each night there is significant number of new presentations at the service, with whom Peter McVerry Trust may have no prior history or knowledge.”
Is O’Donnell correct that his is supposed to be a dry hostel, but that there is widespread drug use?
FD: “The procedure is that persons staying at Richmond Street for the first time would be advised that drug and alcohol use is prohibited on site. However, persons in homelessness, like the broader population, do engage in substance misuse, and while we make every effort to limit drug use, it is impossible for us to prevent them from taking substances into the service and consuming those discreetly on site, especially given the majority of rooms at this service are single-occupancy. What is possible for Peter McVerry Trust to do is to engage assertively around drug and alcohol use on site, to support persons to address their misuse via our drug-treatment services, and to do so within a harm-reduction model, of which the provision of sharp-disposal bins to provide for safe disposal of needles in our services is just one element.
O’Donnell wrote about “On my first evening, a brief and aggressive – but non-physical – fight broke out. It was first of many.” Is she correct that there are “many” fights at the hostel?
FD: “It is our experience that domestic violence occurs at a much higher rate amongst couples in homelessness than the reported levels amongst the general population. The factors behind this are manifold, but core factors are the impact that homelessness can have in terms of stress and mental well-being as well as issues such as alcohol and drug misuse. Richmond Street would be one of a small number of services in Dublin that provides couples’ accommodation, and our staff engage and support the couples together and as individuals to address any violence, including supporting the victims through counselling, education around what constitutes domestic violence, the supports available and alternative accommodation.”
O’Donnell mentions a point when she falls asleep outside the hostel because she is so tired. She writes: “A compatriot residing in the hostel saw me outside of the hostel asleep and knowing I did not have a drug problem became concerned and rang the doorbell. The answer from within was simply: ‘She’s probably on something. She’ll come round after a while.’”
FD: “We don’t have any record of such an incident taking place. The alleged incident and response would obviously not be in keeping with our ethos and values and is not something we would ever stand over. We feel strongly that our staff are instilled with a clear duty of care to people accessing our services and that extends beyond the footprint of the service itself. Our policy is to support anyone who is vulnerable either directly through a service or by engaging the Housing First Street Intake Team for people on the street. Our estate management policy would also include monitoring of the immediate environs of every hostel to watch for signs of the people who use the service, and these checks are carried out hourly both to support vulnerable service users and to prevent anti-social behaviour.”