Gail Kelly and her partner Brian Bolger had to leave their home a year ago. For a while, friends put them up.
But last September they ran out of options. “We have knocked on every door and begged for help,” says Bolger.
These days they rely mostly on the city’s emergency freephone, ringing up each day to try to secure beds – and that usually means sleeping on the floor in Merchants Quay Night Café. Or, occasionally, in a tent.
Sometimes, though, they have gotten a break from that.
“Housing First, in fairness, have placed us in a hostel for six nights,” says Bolger. “Two nights here and two nights there, but it was probably the best rest we got.”
Other homeless couples have reported that they too were desperately trying to access hostels – but couldn’t get a long-term placement and have been offered at times a bed for two nights at a time.
The informal practice of these two-night beds, sometimes called “respite”, suggests a gap between the theory of moving people onwards through the system and the realities for some of those stuck within it.
It is also, in a way, recognition of the distress of those who have to call the freephone every day and stay in shared rooms at night – that they need, and are given, “respite”.
While some say they have gotten this break, the communications manager for the DRHE, which runs the freephone and oversees homeless services in the region, and the national director of the Housing First programme said no such system exists.
“We don’t have a respite element,” said Bob Jordan, the national director of the Housing First Programme. “There wouldn’t be any question of giving them a time-limited [service] – that isn’t how it works.”
“The whole purpose is to get people from the streets into emergency accommodation and then into tenancies,” he said.
Bolger, 48, and Kelly, 46, rented in Balbriggan for almost five years.
In February 2018, the landlord sent them a notice that he needed to move back in himself, says Bolger.
They’d always paid rent on time and got a good reference from the landlord, he says. When they started to search for another home initially they were confident that they would find something.
“We were looking all the time, on Daft, We would go down for viewings, present well,” says Bolger.
One landlord told them he’d rent them an apartment – if he hadn’t just been given six months’ rent upfront by others, Bolger said.
They ran out of time. In March 2018, the couple were homeless. “It was scary, but we still thought we would find something,” says Bolger.
For a while, a friend of Kelly’s in Athlone put them up. But she had children, and they couldn’t stay there long, he says.
They hopped between other friends. But ran out of those who they could lean on, and in September 2018 they started to rely on the homeless freephone for emergency beds, says Bolger.
They’ve kipped down on the floor of Merchants Quay, stayed in a mixed-gender night-time-only hostel separated from each other, and occasionally in a tent, says Bolger.
He’s a small stocky man with greying hair, and he sips on a coffee in the reception area of the Aisling Hotel near Heuston Station.
Kelly, in a black blazer and black trousers, says she’s regularly mistaken for a staff member in homeless services. She holds a paper folder full of documents on her lap.
Page by page, these documents tell their story.
They record how the couple wrote to the Fingal County Council – it’s stamped by reception – on 23 January, telling them the situation in Merchants Quay was affecting their mental health and how they wanted to stay somewhere together.
They show Bolger’s doctor outlining how Bolger has bipolar disorder and is on 14 types or pills and medicines. Kelly helps him manage his meds, it says, asking too that that the couple can stay somewhere together.
They include advocacy letters from staff at Merchants Quay, and a hostel that accepts couples saying they’re suitable for a long-term placement there.
They tried to liaise with the council to climb out of their situation. “Every time we went to Fingal, they requested more paperwork, doctor’s letters, x, y and z. Then every time we bring that back,” says Bolger.
They’ve done two assessments, they say, for a hostel that takes couples. But have no idea how long they will have to wait for a bed there.
“We have begged, the two of us in tears, for a bit of help,” says Kelly. “We never had a cross word with anybody.”
Kelly has endometriosis and needs a hysterectomy. She was advised by staff in the Simon Community that after she has that operation she will get “respite” for two weeks, she says. After that, she would be back to using the freephone.
She will have to postpone that operation until she is at least in stable hostel accommodation, where she can stay in one place for longer than just overnight, she says.
A spokesperson for DRHE hasn’t responded to queries as to what the current waiting list is for couples’ beds, and how many hostel spaces for couples have opened in the last two years.
One Night at a Time
Kelly and Bolger, who are both on the Fingal social-housing list, say they have used the freephone number for “emergency” beds consistently since early September.
Through the freephone service, they have only been offered the Merchants Quay Night Café and another night-time-only hostel, where they are placed separately from each other in small dorms, assigned by gender.
In the last couple of weeks, they were given rolling bookings for that hostel, says Bolger It meant they wouldn’t have to ring the freephone every day.
But Kelly says she was attacked by another woman there. After that, she went back again – but this time was sexually harassed. She won’t go back, she says.
The hostel has “no doors and no rules”, says Bolger. Other residents were openly smoking crack, he says.
“We have had all our stuff robbed, Gail was attacked. It is absolutely horrendous,” said Bolger. “I can’t tell you how bad it is and this bullshit that the government are going on with – a safe bed for everybody – that is absolutely untrue.”
The couple feel safer in Merchants Quay because they are able to stay together on the yoga mats, says Bolger. “We have our own little corner and Gail is able to go inside me and beside the wall.”
For a while, they quit Merchants Quay Night Café too though, after witnessing a stabbing, they say. (A spokesperson for Merchants Quay Ireland said they have no record of that incident.)
“We stayed in a tent on the coldest night of the year. Remember that Sunday when it snowed?” he says – referring to Sunday 3 March. “It’s the only time in my life I thought I was going to die.”
A Garda came over to them in the morning to see if they were okay, says Bolger. “He couldn’t have been nicer, he was lovely, he said: ‘Jesus how did you stay out in that?’”
It took a long time to get their housing claim sorted, says Bolger. Like other couples, they say they’re unable to call the freephone together.
Often, Bolger gets a space while Kelly does not, she says. “They say there is no female beds available,” says Kelly. “Ring back at half ten. Then ring back at half 12.”
Often she only gets in on the very last allocation after 12:30am, she says, sounding demoralised.
Kelly says she had a mental-health breakdown several years ago, and had to leave work.
“I worked as an engineer and I paid my taxes all my life,” she says. “And I have to sit outside Merchants Quay until 1am to get a mat on the floor.”
Kelly and Bolger say they have been given “respite” on several occasions. That meant a private room in a hostel, but only for two nights.
“You can get in at half five and you can relax, it’s your own space. Gail loves her lotions and potions,” says Bolger. The room has two single beds, which they could push together and a TV.
They still had to leave by 9am. But got a much better nights’ sleep than at Merchants Quay, where you’d be lucky to get to sleep by 2am and are up again at 6:30am, he says.
The feelings of immense relief when they got access to that room were replaced by feelings of total hopelessness when they had to leave it and go back to ringing the freephone and sleeping on the floor of Merchants Quay.
They felt powerless. “We need someone to stand up for us,” says Bolger.
Staff told them the reason they had to leave after two nights was because of the shortage of couples’ beds, says Bolger. “They have so many couples looking for couples’ beds, they say they have to rotate it.”
Staff in Housing First and Merchants Quay have tried hard to help and advocate for them – but “their hands are tied”, he says.
The system is broken, said Anthony Flynn of Inner City Helping Homeless. “That the standard of accommodation being assigned through the freephone is so low that people need respite from it – that is ridiculous.”
Bolger and Kelly aren’t the first couple to being given “respite” from homelessness for a short time.
In November 2017, in their tent on the banks of the Royal Canal, Mary Kelly and her partner Christopher Paul Maughan had letters showing they were linked in with the Housing First outreach team and had been sleeping rough for more than two years.
During that time, they had only ever been offered accommodation for one or two nights at a time, said Kelly.
In May 2017, Lisa Brady and her partner James said they were frustrated by the system – they’d been sleeping on the streets and thought it wouldn’t be too long before one of them got sick.
They too had been given “respite” for a couple of nights on several occasions, by the Housing First outreach team, said Brady, at the time.
But Bob Jordan, the National Director of the Housing First Programme said that this “respite” system described by these couples doesn’t happen.
“There is no three-nights-at-a-time approach at all, just to be clear,” he said, in a recent interview at Dublin City Council Civic Offices on Wood Quay.
A spokesperson for Dublin Region Homeless Executive also seemed unaware that the respite system is in operation. “I would find that unusual, we have been doing rolling bookings for couples and singles,” she said.
But Mike Allen, director of advocacy with Focus Ireland, which runs the Housing First outreach team, said they do place couples in hostels for one or two nights at a time, on an “emergency” basis.
It’s not a formal respite system although those beds are often referred to as “respite beds”, Allen says.
“The DRHE have given the Housing First team the authority to allocate a certain number of beds on any given night,” says Allen. “Two of these beds are couples’ beds.”
“Because of the shortage of beds for couples, the team have tried to allocate these beds to couples who are particularly vulnerable at that time – given of course that everyone who is homeless is already vulnerable,” he said.
The ultimate solution to the problem, Allen says, lies in the “provision of secure and affordable homes”.
Jordan, the national director of Housing First said the service is meeting its targets. In 2018 they moved 83 people out of homelessness and into homes, he said.
They have created more some 250 tenancies since 2014 and 19 of those were couples, he said.
As they wait for permanent tenancies, though, homeless people do need hostels. “We are not looking for a penthouse, we’re not even looking for a house or anything,” Bolger says. “We just want a room in a hostel, so that we can get back on our feet.”
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