The images last year of the small boy eating a plate of carbonara off a cardboard sheet laid on the pavement sparked public outrage and shone the spotlight once again on the homeless crisis. Noel Baker meets the boy and his mother to see how their lives have fared since and spends the night with the homeless freephone service in Dublin.
t’s a little after 12am on a Tuesday in Dublin city centre, and Mike is trying to ascertain exactly where the man on the other end of the phone is, and how to get him from there to his allocated bed for the night.
“I can’t make out anything you’re saying to me... Are you in the bathroom? It’s very echoey.”
Under the strip lighting of a small room at Dublin Region Homeless Executive headquarters, this type of hazy exchange is commonplace at this time of night.
Mike is working alongside his colleague, Tom, on the freephone system which receives an average of well over 100 calls each night, 365 days a year, each one from a person needing somewhere to stay.
It’s like a game of human tetris, directing and gently shunting people around, men and women who sometimes are unclear as to where they are or how they got there.
“You got booked into a bed today at 10 o’clock this morning,” Mike tells the man. At the other end of the room, Tom has the headset on, acting as impromptu Sat Nav. “If you turn around and face Mountjoy.”
It’s been a long day’s journey to the other side of midnight.
Eight hours earlier, Tom and Mike had logged on at 4pm, with another member of the team, Eugene, manning a phone dedicated to family calls. He’ll knock off at 9pm — the vast majority of families are now placed during the day in offices elsewhere in the building, although the odd curveball can appear, like the time a family of 11 rang up seeking somewhere for the night.
At 4.31pm, it’s as if someone has fired a starting pistol and all at once the calls tumble in. “Your name, please? And what is your date of birth?”
Behind Mike is a whiteboard on which someone has completed a hangman drawing and written the words ‘Game Over’. “Homeless services, hello.”
Outside the rain is lashing down, and every car driving past is wading through streams of surface water.
“You wouldn’t get out a sleeping bag at this hour...” Eric says to one caller.
“David, please don’t raise your voice with me, I’m only trying to help.”
It’s a discombobulating experience, listening to one half of two, sometimes three, conversations at the same time.
“I would rather you would have presented to Fingal County Council — did you get a chance to do that today?” One person is already using the Homeless Assistance Payment (HAP) and so can’t use the freephone service. All kinds of queries are already flooding in.
“You don’t want a sleeping bag in that weather...”
The lads on the phone are experienced operators and employ a range of skills — sounding board, adviser, social worker, navigator (“where are you now? Well, if you come out of the pub and turn left...”); and, in the way the result is sometimes announced with a flourish, a bingo caller: “It’ll be number 9 X Street tonight, number 9...”
The notice boards display the contact numbers for other agencies including Threshold, the Samaritans, and the Simon Rough Sleeper Team. A copy of the Proclamation is up there too.
It’s a serious business, but the tone is unfailingly polite and, when they come across a regular client, it’s familiar and punctuated with occasional bouts of laughter — “What’s the craic, James?”
There are Gabors and Martins, Gabrielles and Laurences. Some people have already secured a booking for two or three nights but need reminding to stay at the facility on the first night or risk losing it for the second.
“Where did you stay last night?” is a question asked more than once. “There is a vacancy we can offer you tonight, it’s in the city centre. It’s easy enough to find...”
You lose count of the number of calls that have come and gone by 4.56pm, when the first family call lands into the system. It’s quickly sorted: “You don’t have to book again,” Eugene explains. “It’s an ongoing booking for yourself and your family. Support officers will be calling out to you in the coming weeks...”
A significant minority of calls throw up the same problem: the person on the other end of the phone is barred from a hostel or B&B for breaking the rules.
“You have quite an extensive exclusion list,” Tom says to one man, adding that he may have to check again at 10.30pm to see if something else becomes available or else “we are going to have a problem. There are six places you are not allowed in.”
Still the calls come in. “Naas? Why are you in Naas?”
Most calls are dealt with quickly but some run on. “You were in prison for a short term? Oh, ok...”
The telephone queueing system operates on a callback basis, one following the other. “Please sir, slow down... You said you had a few drinks and what happened? So you are being excluded from a hostel? Are you on two phones?”
Across the road, the flags in front of the Criminal Courts of Justice, including the Tricolour, are heavy with rain but lashed to full flow by the strong wind.
“Is there any other name you’re known as?” And again: “You were excluded for breaking rules.” And “You have to bear in mind a lot of people are ringing this service... everyone has to wait...”
It’s an hour in and the phones have not stopped. All the calls are accompanied by the clicking of the computer mouse as the slots are filled on the screen where the online Pathway Accommodation and Support System allows access to important data for service providers. And then, the calls just stop. It’s 5.45pm.
The lads catch their breath, unfazed. “We’ll have more than 100 calls each by the end of this,” Tom says. His outlook is simple: “No one is the priority, they all have priority.”
In all this time, just six family calls landed, and one of those had been sorted already.
A few more calls follow and the DRHE spokesperson reiterates that just because a bed is booked now, it doesn’t mean it won’t become available again later if by then it’s not in use. And as for the people looking for a sleeping bag, Eric says: “We would never encourage people to use a sleeping bag.”
Tom and Eric aren’t actually called Tom and Eric. All the people from DRHE spoken to for this piece didn’t want to be formally identified, for obvious reasons.
Another staffer, Dan, who’s been working in this sector for over two decades, admits: “I have been more intimidated on the phone than the person [in front of me].”
He recalls one night when two members of staff operating the Central Placement Service (CPS) phone were spooked by a man calling in, threatening them and telling them he was outside the building.
Security cameras showed him out on the street, but he would occasionally duck out of shot, location unknown. “They knew your man’s capabilities,” Dan says.
Now the cameras offer a full 360 view.
“It’s getting harder,” he continues. “A lot of people come in and rant off their anger. But it’s the client you don’t know...”
A DRHE spokesperson who sits in on the night’s activity concedes that the job presents challenges.
“For the staff it can be difficult work,” she says. “They hear some horrible stories.
“Sometimes people are not happy. They can get aggressive, verbally aggressive. That has happened here.”
Some DRHE frontline staff have undergone counselling. “We support them as much as we can,” she says. That initially involves peer support and in-house assistance, while the City Council provides counselling to those that need it.
“Yes, they do avail of it,” the spokesperson says. “It is well utilised.”
During office hours in the reception area, people on two floors take a ticket and wait for their number to be called. One TV screen shows the progress of the queue, while the other is airing a programme in which a cowboy is buying antiques. When the consultations are called, a pane of security glass offers protection in case things go wrong.
Dan points out a special room for people who may be volatile.
“We kind of know who is going to kick off,” he says. “We used to ring the guards — that window was kicked in,” he adds, gesturing at the pane.
It’s simply another consideration involving the human traffic that is constantly flowing through the service, whether in person, on the phone, or both.
Is someone too elderly to stay in a facility that might be difficult to access? What about a client with a disability? There is prison discharge, hospital discharge, people from overseas, young people, allegations of domestic violence.
Around 80% of those in emergency accommodation are in stable, rolling bookings, including 360 families in self-accommodation — that is, hotels. That number is down, and according to the DRHE, the increased focus on family homelessness has meant increased capacity, including that provided by private operators.
The remaining 20% are more transitory, and are predominantly singles. The overall concern is that any new housing coming on stream is less likely to put a dent in those numbers.
Mike is sanguine when asked about people getting aggressive on the line. “It depends on the person — they may ring the next day and apologise. You get to know the characters. There’s a guy that rang, I remember him from 12 years ago.” They also get calls from outside of Dublin, and sometimes from overseas; for some reason, during the Beast from the East some calls came in from people in the UK. And there are the tough calls, the ones that ram home just how much of a struggle all this can be for people. Mike refers to a call the previous week from a man with twin girls and who was reluctant to come in. “He was very emotional on the phone,” Mike says. “He was hoping to resolve it over the weekend.” Tom remembers a call involving a woman who told them she was wading into the water. They rang the gardaí, who went to a beach and found her.
“We know what to expect,” he says. “And to expect the unexpected. We like this job. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t do it.”
According to Mike: “Sometimes they don’t have a happy ending but they would be gone a lot quicker if they didn’t have this service.”
You won’t know Sam, but you might remember him. In October 2019, a photograph did the rounds on social media, showing a small boy from the back eating a plate of carbonara off a cardboard sheet laid on the pavement.
Sam, which is not his real name, is back. He’s with his mother, Helena (also not her real name) in a city centre McDonald’s, where they join Denise Carroll of the Homeless Street Cafe which provides food once a week on Grafton St.
Denise had said in advance that Helena was shy, but when she starts speaking it’s like a bottle being uncorked. As Sam plays with one of the restaurants fixed iPads, she explains that they are doing “much better now”, but their situation has not been resolved.
She says she arrived in Ireland early last year with Sam after her husband abandoned her in her native Eastern European country.
“I came here to work and make a better life,” she explains in proficient English.
And she did work, and has continued to do so. The problem was that their accommodation began with a short stay with a fellow countrywoman, who then told her she would have to find her own place.
“I was looking on the internet,” she says. “Then they see I am single with one child.” A rueful shake of the head.
She moved into what sounds like an ad hoc rental arrangement of €600 in cash, but with no contract. She kept working and Sam stayed in afterschool until she could pick him up. That brought her from March up until May, and then it all ended very abruptly.
“He told me in one week I must go because my [his] daughter must come in my [his] home,” she says. Ultimately it concluded in curt fashion, Helena on the side of the street with her belongings.
“After 10 in the night her husband [landlord] said ‘go out with your son, go out now’. [Sam] was sleeping in the bed.”
She was bailed out with a night in a hotel by someone attached to a local church and so began the long slog towards some stability.
Helena applied for housing, but says nothing has been made available. When the situation deteriorated she and Sam were on the phone for a month last year. “I was thinking what will I stay, what will I eat, what will I do?”
All the time she was working, pulling their belongings in a trolley, trying to wash their clothes when she got a chance. Finally an opening appeared at a family hub and Sam changed schools. “He is happy there.”
It means some much-needed stability, but Helena admits she is “afraid” to go on HAP, evidently scarred by her previous experience. “I do not want to stay in somebody’s house,” she says. Nevertheless, while her experience of Ireland has been tough so far, “in my country, nobody cares”.
Then came the photograph. It jolted us out of our slumbers when it emerged last autumn. We heard that Sam and his mother were regulars at services including the Homeless Street Cafe. It prompted serious questions over where we are as a country.
Tánaiste Simon Coveney told the Dáil that the situation depicted in the grainy photograph was “not acceptable”. Responding to Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty’s assertion that it was a “national shame”, Minister Coveney said: “No five-year-old child should be eating his or her dinner from a piece of cardboard on the street.”
However, Helena feels her situation has not improved enormously since, even though they were referenced in a pre-election radio debate involving the Taoiseach.
“I can’t believe it,” Helena says of the photograph. “My son. I was nervous. I didn’t know who made that picture.”
While the photograph provided a stark reminder of the reality of homelessness, its public impact has to be weighed against the pride of a mother who never expected these difficulties, who is striving for something better.
“I say it is too much,” she goes on. “I say my son will not be on the street. It is not who we are. I didn’t feel comfortable.”
Denise interjects: “It changed people’s outlook on homelessness. Families were struggling.”
Yet it was “overwhelming” for Helena. At the exact moment the picture was taken, she was trying to dissuade Sam from eating his dinner while seated on the cardboard. “I was tired. I was saying ‘please do not stay on the ground’.”
Denise adds: “It must be hugely overwhelming to see your son [in the picture].”
Since then they have still utilised some of the services available to people who need supports, including food provision. Helena refers to one mobile food service — not the Homeless Street Cafe — where she noticed bottles of water two years out of date. “All the products were expired,” she says.
Denise refers to the need for anyone seeking assistance to be treated with “dignity and respect”.
Helena replies when asked if she is optimistic: “I must be.” Yet moments later she harks back a few months: “I was crying alone on the street. If we pray to God the situation will change. We must pray to God.”
Asked about the fact that the Taoiseach made a reference to their situation in advance of the election, she nearly bursts with a mixture of laughter and incredulity. “Tell him my address! Tell him my phone number!”
She continues to work, but says she has run into fresh difficulty with trying to balance her work requirements with continuing her Family Income Supplement (now known as Working Family Payment), which she says was recently pulled. “I hope to resolve,” she says.
Denise explains how the street cafe run different campaigns, sometimes for vouchers that people can use in supermarkets, sometimes for certain types of food or drink. She finds that using photographs online communicates more than words.
“It’s every walk of life, every circumstance,” she says, adding that their service has dealt with a pharmacist, and a person who used to lecture in Trinity College. “Things can happen to people. Poor mental health, bills slip.”
Helena is very clear about her targets. “I want a house,” she says. “A house with a garden. He wants to plant trees and have a rabbit and a dog.” Sam wanders over and says he wants “bunnies” — white ones.
“Three bunnies — the mammy, the daddy, and the baby,” he says. What name would he give a rabbit if he had one? “Sam,” he replies.
Back at the DRHE, calls will pile in again from 10.30pm, triggered by the cut-off times for the hostels and B&Bs.
Essentially, if someone booked into a facility earlier, but then fails to show by 10pm, those beds go back into the system. Even before this, some calls land from people who were previously booked in but now know they’re not going to make it.
At 9.41pm, a man rings to say he was told by a facility that he wasn’t going to be allowed in. Tom checks it out and tells the caller: “I contacted them and they said you went into the property and almost immediately you broke the rules and they asked you to leave.”
It transpires the man had also spoken to the Simon Outreach Team and so a second option was made available for him, which he is now likely to miss out on because he’s in the wrong part of the city.
“If you ring back at half 10 this will be the third time we have to organise this for you,” Tom says in a tone which is understanding and just mildly admonishing. The man can’t quite put his finger on why he was excluded, but Tom knows.
“The issue was that he was smoking heroin, but he claims he wasn’t,” he explains after the caller has rang off. “He lasted about five minutes.”
It turns out people’s internal GPS isn’t that great. Tom says that many Dubs simply haven’t a clue as to street names.
“As my own father used to say, if you ever get lost in Dublin, ask a countryman.” As an example, he refers to the Spire on O’Connell St, or as it’s described by some people, “the stick in the sky” or “the shiny needle”.
The post-10pm ringaround brings good news: a final figure of 85 beds plus six female-only beds.
This is before Merchants Quay’s Night Cafe comes into the equation — it doesn’t close off its beds until 12.30am, meaning someone who misses out at 10.30pm — or who simply fancies staying at the night cafe — has a good chance of getting what they want by waiting until after midnight.
All the information goes into the Pass system and any accommodation provider without direct access gets an email updating them as to capacity.
It’s 10.32pm. “Excuse me John, were you there this evening? And where are you now?” Another one comes in.
“Now Anthony, where were you last night?” Mike breaks into laughter. “You were on the naughty step. You were excluded from ...” - he starts counting — “.... one, two, three... six... Our problem is trying to get you in. Just don’t get barred out of there, will you?”
There is more juggling of bookings. One caller says he didn’t want to stay in the bed allocated to him because someone else was smoking weed. Speaking to the centre, it turns out the caller was excluded, but the system hadn’t been updated. The caller is now banned from seven different places.
Another place is lined up, but the caller doesn’t sound so sure. “You’re a grown man, avoid situations, and talk to the staff,” Mike tells him. “You’re only a little boy? OK. Keep the head down. Good man.”
By 10.59pm, the calls are incessant. When another caller with multiple exclusions, Tom calls across to Mike to take one of the beds he’s managing from him so he can allocate it to the man, who is rapidly running out of options.
“The only thing I am going to say is you need to be careful there,” Tom tells the caller. “If you are going to lose that we are going to find it impossible to get you a place going forward.”
One caller tells Mike he and his partner, who he says is five months pregnant, need sorting out. He is excluded from one of the places available and says they don’t want to be placed apart.
“Would it not be better to get her into a secure environment,” Mike asks him.
“Will I have a chat with her? Put her onto me.” And then another man comes on the phone instead. “I did ask to speak to his partner.” The caller disappears off the line.
And then a curio: a woman calls in telling Tom that she has received a notice to quit regarding her place in Crumlin. This is very much a daytime call, but Tom gives her advice anyway.
Music, presumably coming from a radio, makes itself known in the room for the first time. Was it playing all along? It’s getting late in the night, well past 11pm. Mike finishes off a call.
“That individual rang 20 minutes ago and rang me back and had forgotten he had rang me already,” he explains. This all matters in a way: if someone arrives late at night into a hostel or B&B where people are already settled, “you can upset the whole household”.
According to Mike: “One guy could trigger 20.” It’s 11.30pm. The flow of calls stops. The bed situation has gone from 85 plus six to 24 plus three.
Either side of midnight there are no calls. At 12.17am a man rings up looking for a sleeping bag. Mike parries this. “What about the other option of ringing me back in 15 minutes and getting into Merchants Quay? Would that not be better for both of you.” No takers. “I’ll ring outreach and see if they can get to you.”
For whatever reason, the caller just wants a sleeping bag. “There is always a percentage every night that will not take them,” Mike says, referring to beds on offer.
It’s 12.26am and only now is the ticking of the clock on the wall apparent. The traffic has all but stopped outside. At 12.30am, Merchants Quay confirms 10 beds. Almost immediately, two Merchants Quay regulars ring the freephone and are placed there, straight in.
The lads say these gentlemen are disappointed if they’re offered something else. One of them, says Tom, is a ‘real character’, recalling how he once rocked up in Santa gear at Christmas.
The following day is Tuesday. News breaks of the death of a homeless man whose body was discovered at Wood Quay in the city centre at 7am. Gardaí initially said his age was not known. It’s understood his death is being treated as a tragic incident.
It transpires he was known to the DRHE, but that he had not accessed or sought a place since January 2019. There had been no contact with or from him since, not even via the outreach team.
Mike’s words from the previous evening come to mind: “Sometimes they don’t have a happy ending.”