CALL it naivety, optimism even or just plain ignorance, but as I leave the comforting glow of the home fire to take up residence on a raw street in the heart of Dublin for the night, I remind myself that I want to get a little perspective of what the flipside is to a life lived comfortably.
It’s Wednesday night and the temperature hovers in and around a respectable three degrees, on par for a winter’s night. Armed with my sleeping bag, my alarm clock and a notebook and pen, I have stripped myself of all modern day luxuries and gadgets such as my smartphone, laptop, iPod, even my watch.
I recall a conversation I had once with a colleague I pulled pints with in the Olympia Theatre. He mentioned how someone had told him that Dawson Street offered the best doorways and one even had a hot air vent above it.
I make my way there and join the 139 other people who sleep rough in the city on a night like this.
It’s just after 11pm when I find my spot. There’s a bar across the street with a healthy stash of flattened cardboard boxes. It’s a dry night, but I wrestle one free to sit on. Placing the flat box on the ground I suddenly become hugely self-conscious and feel a little silly. How is this little mission I am on possibly going to benefit the scores of people who find themselves genuinely in this position without a safe place to lay down each night? Music and raucous bursts of high-spirited merriment pierce the air every few minutes.
Of course I’ve chosen one of Dublin’s most sociable streets to sleep on. And then it hits me. I am embarrassed. Dressed as I am in my oldest winter woollies, a friend’s mud-splattered hiking boots, no make-up, hair scraped up under a thermal hat and no phone to distract myself. I find myself better dressed than the average street dweller but clearly below par in the fashion stakes given my current stylish location. What if some of the late night revellers recognise me? Or worse still, I’m at the receiving end of unprompted, drunken abuse with no back-up, no means of protection and nothing but a half decent pen to offer a potential mugger. I abandon my sheltered doorway and keep walking, sleeping bag once again tucked under my arm.
Walking, I realise, I feel safer. I feel like I appear to have somewhere to go, that I don’t look shifty, or needy, or just plain idle. There are several options available for me to sleep. There is the Bank of Ireland. But on closer inspection it is too open and exposed. I decide to stick to the southside of the city and choose the tourist hub of Temple Bar to set up for the night.
It’s 1.30am now as I nestle in my sleeping bag on a narrow street. Rows of twinkling lights shine overhead. It’s quieter than other spots around the cobbled cultural quarter. I notice one or two people knuckling down for the night. One completely cocooned in their blue sleeping bag under an arch. Another sitting, knees bunched up, head resting on forearms and a paper cup housing a few meagre coins.
The general misconception is that homelessness is always a consequence of alcohol or drug abuse, but it’s not always the case. Anything from family breakdown to poor mental health plays its part. Like everything, it’s a lot more complicated than it looks from a distance.
It’s now 3.02am and as the cold and a mild hunger kicks in, I realise that I am bored.
Ordinarily, I would either be asleep, out with friends, or reading by now. It would involve a heated room, cold drinks and security. I’ve never felt so vulnerable in my life. So far, nothing alarming to report. A couple of strange looks, but mostly I have been avoiding eye contact.
At 3.20am I am alert to each and every little noise. Every footstep poses a potential threat. I remain sitting upright as I realise there is no chance of sleep. I didn’t have the forethought to bring a book with me. I miss music and I make a mental note to book tickets to the Isle of Wight festival next summer. The irony of it all saddens me.
There is a silence that permeates the night that doesn’t exist during the day. It’s the same silence that adds to the magnitude of stargazing, or so it seems at this hour.
My alarm clock blinks 3.44am and an eerie stillness closes in. I need to use the toilet, yet another concern I hadn’t factored in. I haven’t seen anyone in over half an hour, which is unnerving. My eyes are beginning to sting with tiredness and my face is numb. I try singing to myself but my voice sounds comically foreign to me. It reminds me of Rose singing in the sea after the Titanic sinks. Pins and needles take a hold of my feet and creep up my legs. I make a poor attempt to stand up, it’s like I’m frozen from the neck down. I walk up and down my makeshift, open-air bedroom. My motivation to see the night through is evaporating. This is a life nobody should be forced to live.
It’s 4.07am. The thought of sitting back down and wrapping a now-freezing sleeping bag around me in a useless attempt to get warm is soul-destroying. It hasn’t rained. Lucky I picked tonight.
Once the sun comes up, everything will look better. But maybe that’s because it means I can go home.