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In recent months, two women died in the same homeless hostel where Asha Iqbal lives, she says.
“One lady who died lived across the hall from me,” says Iqbal, a musician and anti-homelessness campaigner.
“I used to always hear her laughing at the TV. She had a really loud laugh,” she says. “I swear to god I can still hear it.”
Iqbal wanted to organise sympathy cards from residents for the women’s families but she says she couldn’t get any information.
The remaining residents were not offered counselling, says Iqbal. “When people died their rooms were filled the next day. That really stuck with me.”
There were 18 deaths among homeless people in just two months this summer, according to the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE), suggesting a dramatic uptick.
By comparison there were 34 deaths of homeless people in all of 2019, and 35 in all of 2018.
Among those to struggle most in a city under lockdown have been those in the worst housing or precarious shelter.
The closure of support services could also be impacting on the health and wellbeing of homeless people, says anti-homelessness campaigner Fr Peter McVerry.
Iqbal says that all the problems that were already there are being exacerbated by the Covid-19 restrictions. “Coronavirus is like the tide going out and then you see what is there.”
Those Who Died
Ten people who were homeless died in July, according to a DRHE report issued to councillors on 4 August.
Seven of those deaths were in one week, the week starting 19 July. Four women and three men.
A woman in her 30s living in an NGO-run hostel appears to have taken her own life, says the report.
A man in his 30s who was registered as homeless and had a history of rough sleeping “appears to have tragically taken his own life at the home of a family member”, says the report.
A lady, who had been living in a charity-run hostel, died in a hospice where she was receiving palliative care for cancer.
Two other people died in privately run hostels and one other person died in a charity-run hostel. One man died sleeping rough. In all of those cases, the cause of death is unknown and will be investigated by the Dublin District Coroner’s Court.
“Deaths in such tragic circumstances are devastating for the families involved and we offer our heartfelt condolences to them,” says the report, signed by DRHE head Eileen Gleeson and the council’s housing manager Brendan Kenny.
“Our thoughts are also with the staff in the various facilities who had to deal directly with these tragedies and our own staff who are working with homeless households every day and who would have known some of the people who died,” says the report.
Then, in August six more men and two more women died.
All eight of the deaths in August were people living in charity-run hostels, according to a spokesperson for the DRHE. Four of those died in hospital.
Two people had long-term illnesses and one appears to have taken their own life. In the remaining five cases, the cause of death will be determined by the Dublin District Coroner’s Court.
That usually takes 18 to 22 months and perhaps longer now because of Covid-19, said a spokesperson for the coroner’s court.
A spokesperson for the DRHE says that HSE mental health teams provide support to homeless people in the Dublin region.
The HSE also has suicide-prevention workers. If a service user is identified as being at risk of taking their own lives then “the resource officer for suicide prevention will attend the service to provide the support required”, says the DRHE spokesperson.
Lonely and Hopeless
Homeless people face stigma and loneliness, says Iqbal, and those who are long-term homeless may feel hopeless.
All of that can result in depression and the lockdown and Covid-19 restrictions have increased feelings of social isolation, and emphasised the unhealthiness of poor living conditions, she says.
Many homeless people rely on counselling services which were closed for face-to-face, says Iqbal. Technological solutions might not be practical due to privacy. Not all homeless people have smartphones.
Bad diet and poor nutrition also contribute to low mood, says Iqbal. Most homeless people don’t have self-catering facilities and the food is often poor quality and there is not enough of it, she says.
Iqbal has her own room in emergency accommodation so she is lucky compared to most homeless people. “I’m in the top tier,” she says. “For people on the streets I can’t even imagine.”
She has seen people self-harming in hostels. She’s been in hostels where people have taken their own lives, she says.“Seeing all of this is a lot to deal with. You start to think that the world is a terrible place.”
Some homeless women have children who are in care and during lockdown they were often unable to have their normal visits with their children, which had a huge impact on them, she says.
The lockdown was scary, she says. But for most people at least their accommodation was secure.
Many homeless people are accommodated night-by-night, says Iqbal, so can lose their placements at short notice, creating massive insecurity. “It’s terrifying.”
Struggling for Supports
Anti-homelessness campaigner Fr Peter McVerry says he doesn’t know what caused the increase in deaths in recent months, but that issues stemming from the Covid-19 shutdown might have contributed.
Many of the support services homeless people rely on, like day centres, which normally provide people with a social outlet were closed, he says.
Residential drug treatment centres closed. Day services for drug users were also not meeting people face-to-face, he says.
“Isolation leads to a lot of depression and that has been widely reported,” says Fr McVerry.
The impact of that isolation on homeless people is likely to have been more severe than on the general population, he says. “Most people have someone they can talk to.”
Whereas some homeless people rely on services for their social support, he says. “That is a possible reason. That people were very despondent and that people relapsed.”
For heroin users, when they relapse is the time they are most likely to overdose as their tolerance to the drug has decreased, he says. (A 2018 report found that alcohol and drug intoxication was the most common cause of death among homeless people.)
William Cummings, an advocacy worker with Inner City Helping Homeless, says some of those experiencing addiction say they have had good experiences with addiction services, especially the Ana Liffey Drug Project.
But after a homeless person gets sober the real battle begins.
People who are in recovery are being placed in shared rooms with others who are actively using substances, and that makes it almost impossible to maintain sobriety, says Cummings.
“Their accommodation situation is causing them to relapse,” he says.
Homeless people wonder why homeless hostels are no longer divided into “wet” and “dry” hostels, like they used to be, he says.
Fr McVerry says that the only potential solution he can think of is to improve homeless accommodation, to make it a better, safer environment for people — a bit closer to a home.
He suggests — as he has many times before — partitioning rooms if necessary, so that everyone has access to privacy and a door that locks.
There are some good hostels but for that standard to be replicated across the sector, independent inspections are needed, he says. “I’ve always said that HIQA should be brought in to inspect emergency accommodation.”
Iqbal also says that regulation is the solution.
On the Streets
Louisa Santoro, CEO of the Mendicity Institution, knew one of the people who died in August, she says. A man in his 30s from Latvia.
He used Mendicity’s day service and was living in an NGO hostel in the city centre, she says. He was found in the canal, she says.
Santoro is worried that deaths will increase going into winter. She has around 30 clients who are regularly sleeping rough, which is dangerous.
In some cases the person sleeping rough really wants to get into accommodation but can’t, she says.
“You might think someone who is homeless is someone who is sleeping outside,” she says. But some of them “are not considered homeless by the DRHE because they are not registered as homeless”, she says.
Since the start of lockdown, anyone who wasn’t already registered was refused accommodation until they were seen sleeping rough by the Dublin Simon Community outreach team, says Santoro.
The homeless person is expected to make themselves known to the Simon Community, too, she says. “Rough sleeping has now become a requirement for accessing emergency services.”
Independent Councillor Anthony Flynn, who is also the CEO of Inner City Helping Homeless, raised that issue in Dublin City Council back in June.
“Homeless people appear to be required to enter the homeless system rather than [Dublin City Council] preventing them from doing so,” he said.
The council housing manager Brendan Kenny said that there had been no change in policy. “I’m not aware of any changes in homeless facilities.”
Last Friday, Fr McVerry said he has met with homeless people who said that they were refused access to homeless services because they were not already registered homeless prior to Covid-19.
Most homeless people who die while in homeless services do not die as a direct result of their homelessness, says Fr McVerry.
But when homeless people die on the streets, that is particularly sad, he says.
“You wonder if something could have been done to avoid the death,” he says. “That is a question that no one can answer.”