A blue sleeping bag discarded near Binns Bridge in Drumcondra is the only clue that people once slept there.
On Thursday 2 November, fast and high waters covered the area under the bridge, and the pathway on either side of the canal that used to run under it.
In July this year, Waterways Ireland raised the water level to prevent homeless people from sleeping under the bridge.
“We also have an ongoing problem under Binn’s Bridge on Dorset Street with people living rough and a lot of drug taking activities taking place,” says an email from Waterways Ireland to the Gardaí last April.
“We hope to try another solution to prevent this continuing by raising the water level under the bridge to try to discourage them from using this area,” says the email, released under the Freedom of Information Act.
An official from Waterways Ireland requested that Gardaí accompany them to the bridge to assist in “vacating anybody present under the bridge”.
Solidarity Councillor Michael O’Brien says that “The contemplation of raising water levels in order to deter rough sleeping is disturbingly reminiscent of the so-called defensive architecture approach we’ve seen elsewhere.”
A spokesperson for Waterways Ireland says the issue went beyond rough sleeping. It included “drug-taking, public defecation, fear of dog attack and drunkenness”, they said.
In April, Waterways Ireland wrote to the Gardaí informing them of their intention to raise the level of the water at Binns Bridge, as a result of “illegal encampment and anti-social issues”.
“There are huge health risk(s) with drug related waste and human waste present,” says the email, which also raise concerns about the safety of staff.
As well as raising the water levels, the railings around the bridge appear to have been modified to prevent people climbing over them. There are silver bars, slanted inwards, that have been added to the top of the original black railings.
But the architecture hasn’t deterred everybody.
Last Thursday, a fair-haired man who looked to be in his 30s locked up his bike nearby, then climbed around the railings over the water. He faced the bridge with his back to Croke Park, at a section of railing that has not been modified. The man hopped over.
Another tall man was waiting for him and had placed a thick wooden plank across the water. “We’re just doing a joint here,” he says.
The water hasn’t always been as high there as it is now, he says. He says he thinks that it was raised because people were sleeping there, but doesn’t know who was there, or where they have gone.
“They must have just moved on somewhere else,” he says.
Getting Planning Permission
O’Brien says that all modifications which prevent rough sleepers from accessing shelter should require planning permission.
His party colleague, Solidarity TD for Dublin West Ruth Coppinger, has proposed an amendment to the Planning and Development Act 2000 to “ensure that development with the object or effect of deterring homeless persons from obtaining shelter from a structure, land or building is not exempted development”.
Back in June, she argued in the Dáil that people should be allowed to raise objections to these modifications, including “spikes, bars, sloped windowsill and sprinklers which are aimed at deterring rough sleepers from sleeping at those buildings”.
There is no way of knowing when this will be debated though. Small parties have limited private member’s time, so it could be a while before it comes up, says Councillor O’Brien, who is also a parliamentary secretary for Solidarity.
According to a map provided by Waterways Ireland, the agency served notices to leave to 10 different encampments along one stretch of the Grand Canal on the south side of the city between May and July this year. Those sites were vacated, according to the documents.
O’Brien wonders why Waterways Ireland didn’t contact a homeless charity to help the people sleeping under the bridge.
“All their correspondence, besides with the public, is with the Gardaí,” says O’Brien. “Could they not have at least once talked to one of the many agencies dealing with homelessness to make an intervention?”
Waterways Ireland said they did not contact any homeless charities to come and help the rough sleepers who were sheltering under the bridge. “No individuals were identifiable, as rough sleeping only took place on a periodic basis,” said a spokesperson by email.
(Although, in the email to Gardaí, they noted that there were people “living rough” there, so they needed help to move them.)
Along the Canal
Further along the canal, past the statue of Brendan Behan between Drumcondra and Phibsborough, there are now 12 tents.
Lots of green Waterways Ireland bin bags are hung around the makeshift campsites and along the canal. Last Thursday, at 3pm, the bin bags were being used for rubbish and most of the camps were tidy.
One camping area had sleeping bags hanging out on railings and a bit of rubbish around, including cans and plastic bottles.
Along the canal that evening at 7:30pm everything was quiet. A teenage couple sat holding hands on the other side of the canal. A blonde lady in her 50s walked a small dog.
But apparently it isn’t always like this. Between March and early September 2017, Waterways Ireland received 15 complaints from members of the public about the people living in tents along the canal.
Many of the complaints were about rubbish, some related to the presence of dogs, and others said the presence of people in tents made them “feel unsafe”. Public urination and graffiti were also raised as issues.
One complainant said that people who had previously walked the canal every day were now afraid to use it because “it has become an urban jungle inhabited by squatters who drink all day, defecate and urinate in public and intimidate passers by with the presence of their dogs and comments”.
Another said that the tents were “an eyesore” and that “an attractive public amenity (is) currently being abused by this unauthorised use on the lands in question”.
Another person said that those in the tents were littering the canal, and this could be dangerous to swans and rare birds. “I live in the area (and pay high rent to live in the area) and really don’t feel safe with these people just hanging around and destroying our beautiful Canal,” they said.
The homeless people living along the canal were given an eviction notice dated 31 August, but they haven’t been forcibly moved on, and a lot more people have moved into the makeshift campsite. However, the possibility of eviction has not disappeared.
“Camping of extended duration is not permitted on the canals,” says a Waterways Ireland spokesperson. “A notice of trespass has been served on some campers. Waterways Ireland has been working in conjunction with the Gardaí as they are the enforcement body.”
Christopher Paul Maughan lives in a tent there with his fiancée Mary Kelly and their two small dogs. He says they haven’t heard from Waterways Ireland since the eviction notice.
The couple have been living in a tent for two and half years, he says, and have never been offered any long–term alternative accommodation. “All we are asking for, me and my partner is a place,” he says. “You know, like a hostel together.”
They are sometimes offered a couple of nights in a hostel, Maughan says, but they have to turn it down because they can’t bring the dogs. Anyway “it’s only for two days and you go in at nine o’clock and you are kicked out at half eight the next morning”, he says.
A spokesperson for the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive says that there are some services that take couples and also some that take pets.
“There is a limit on the amount of available accommodation, but we are actively working to increase capacity for the coming months,” she said.
[UPDATE: This article was updated on 17 Nov. at 17:30 to include more links to the emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, and to clarify what the Waterways Ireland spokesperson said.]