Homelessness: Life on the streets of Cork

The number of people sleeping rough in the city increased from 38 people to 345 in four years. Ellie O’Byrne joins the Simon Community on the streets of Cork at dawn for the beginning of their working day.

The city is waking. At 6.30am, the streets are deserted, apart from a few delivery men on early runs. 

Midweek, there are no night-before stragglers, and the crows and herons who pick over discarded chip bags at the weekend are absent too, still sleeping in their cannily concealed nests.

Kasia Stubba and Denise Cremin peer into doorways and the spaces behind civic buildings. 

They are looking for rough sleepers, who are also cannily concealed, but Kasia and Denise, Cork Simon Community’s outreach team, know where to find them.

Kasia gently lifts the duvet from the head of a man sleeping in a gateway and says his name; the Simon team know everyone by name.

“John, how are you? Are you all right?”

The man stirs and mutters a sleepy response; Kasia and Denise quietly move on. 

Kasia Stubba and Denise Cremin: ‘There are people who come from industrial schools and backgrounds of institutional abuse as well as people with a family background of addiction.’
Kasia Stubba and Denise Cremin: ‘There are people who come from industrial schools and backgrounds of institutional abuse as well as people with a family background of addiction.’

Once a week they walk and drive the city before the start of their day shift in Cork Simon’s emergency shelter on Anderson’s Quay to reach out to rough sleepers, offering day services such as a meal, shower facilities, and access to specialist services that Cork Simon provides, such as in-house medical help, treatment for addiction, and employment training.

“There are people who don’t use the day service and this is our way to connect with them,” says Kasia.

“We check all the regular places, but sometimes we get calls from people saying they’ve seen someone somewhere specific.”

People new to sleeping rough, or those who’ve been refused a bed in Anderson’s Quay, often sleep within a short distance of the shelter, bedding down under security cameras for safety, while the more experienced have their own spots away from prying eyes.

When Cork Simon launched its annual report in early July, it confirmed what the outreach team already knew about the numbers; 2015 was the busiest year on record for the charity.

Cork Simon Centre, Andreson Quay
Cork Simon Centre, Andreson Quay

The number of people sleeping rough in the city increased nearly tenfold in four years, from 38 in 2011 to 345 in 2015. 

1,298 people used the charity’s services in 2015, including a core of 398 who slept at the emergency shelter, where the occupancy rate was 114%. The 44-bed facility slept 50 per night.

To Kasia and Denise, who turn people seeking a bed away every day, in the knowledge they will have to take their chances on the streets, this is the frontline.

Pressure on bed spaces in the emergency shelter stems from the housing crisis; 25 to 30 of the 50 people who sleep at the shelter each night fit the government definition of long-term homeless and many occupy a bed for months as they struggle to find accommodation.

Now there’s an average of 15 people sleeping rough on the city streets each night, vulnerable to attack, health and hygiene issues, and the lure of substance abuse.

Mental health issues and addictions are rife among the people most familiar to Kasia and Denise. 

They often have to refuse beds to rough sleepers who’ve been drinking. 

Homelessness: Life on the streets of Cork

The long-term homeless are often caught in a vicious circle of emotional distress and self-medication.

“There are people who come from industrial schools and backgrounds of institutional abuse as well as people with a family background of addiction,” says Denise. 

“Then there are those who fall into substance abuse to cope with the pressures and insecurity of life on the streets.”

Despite all the frustration, there are still successes: Recently, Kasia and Denise found permanent accommodation for a man who had over-wintered in a shelter on the Marina walk. 

“He wasn’t interested in coming in to the shelter. We kept going down to visit him, and now he’s housed in one of our residential projects. It took time to build up that trust. He sees you’re not giving up.”

The man was assaulted where he was sleeping. Frightened by the attack, he moved to Patrick Street and when Kasia and Denise tracked him down again, he was ready to accept help.

Homelessness: Life on the streets of Cork

Outreach run over, Kasia and Denise have counted nine rough sleepers, but there are more; for their own safety, they don’t go into squats, and in the milder summer weather, some rough sleepers move out to the outskirts of the city to sleep in tents.

Back in Anderson’s Quay, a clean-cut man with his possessions neatly folded in a paper bag is one of the few willing to share his story.

George, from Poland, won’t use his real name or be photographed; being recognised as homeless would ruin his chances of finding work. 

He sleeps in a tent 6km outside the city and doesn’t drink or do drugs. 

He uses the day services at the shelter for personal hygiene for presenting for job interviews, or simply to expand his options of places to go: “If you smell you can’t go anywhere, not even into a café because you’ll be asked to leave.”

In his last job, which he held down for a year-and-a-half, his low income and lack of guaranteed working hours meant he could never save enough for a deposit.

“In winter, sometimes I had to pay for a hotel because I was getting sick. But I was on less than €300 per week,” he says.

Seán was a painter and tiler by trade who lost his job at the beginning of the economic downturn and lapsed into heroin addiction. 

He had been living with his mother but when she died in 2014, a family dispute saw her house sold; Seán had received treatment for his addiction by then, but ended up on the streets and has lived in the Cork Simon shelter since January.

Homelessness: Life on the streets of Cork

He worries about ending up back on the streets, but the private rental market is merciless, he says: “I went to look at a flat last week and when I mentioned rent allowance, the landlord put the rent up by €80 on the spot. I turned around and left.”

Dermot Kavanagh has been the director of Cork Simon for five years, through the worst of the housing crisis. 

“It’s appalling to see the scale of the suffering that’s going on for people. It’s relatively straightforward to address the problem, the solutions are well-known and there’s no mystery about it.”

What works is what is termed a “Housing First” approach, says Dermot. 

“We need to house people as quickly as possible without any pre-conditions. You provide support in the housing, effectively bypassing the whole shelter system.”

Battling complex health and addiction problems and a lifetime pattern of institutionalisation is simply not possible while sleeping rough or in the stressful environment of a shelter. 

“Once someone is in housing it has a stabilising effect on people; your home is where you relax, recharge your batteries, and prepare yourself for challenges,” says Dermot.

In 2006, author Malcolm Gladwell penned an article for the New Yorker called ‘Million-dollar Murray’.

Two police officers working in Reno, Nevada, calculated that one of their long-term homeless service users cost the state $1m in hospital bills, emergency accommodation, and other services. 

They noted that for the same cost, he could have been provided with an apartment of his own and round-the-clock care, instead of the cycle of binge drinking, hospitalisation and arrests that constituted the decade before his death.

Homelessness: Life on the streets of Cork

“It cost us one million dollars not to do something about Murray,” ran the article’s tagline.

Cork Simon spent €8.5m last year, €5.4m on staff costs. 

Dermot’s own salary is €89,000 per annum, which, he says, is “in line with anyone else in the sector running a service of the size and complexity of this organisation”.

The 1,298 individuals who used Simon’s services in 2015 cost the charity alone €6,550 each, without factoring in other costs such as admissions to hospital emergency departments and other emergency services.

Before any humanitarian considerations, purely on a pragmatic basis, Dermot says that Gladwell’s article is accurate; it’s costing more to provide shelter beds than it would to provide housing. 

And Housing First works: “We housed 17 people in 2013 and two years later, 80% were still housed,” he says.

“It’s great to hear Simon Coveney talk about 47,000 units of social housing but the previous minister promised 35,000 in 2014,” he says. 

“Two years later, 75 to 80 units were completed. We don’t want to be here in 2018 with another 100 built. The minister is going to have to pay a lot of attention to delivery.”

Rather than propping up another building boom, it is also important that there are incentives to make use of the 4,500 vacant properties within the city bounds, and the 22,000 in Co Cork,

Dermot says: “You could look at introducing a tax on properties that remain vacant for 18 months. For landlords who can’t afford to bring a property to rental standard, there could be tax reliefs or incentives through local authorities to help with that.”

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