Last Friday, a plumber agreed to rig a temporary shower in a toilet cubicle at the Mendicity Institution in the south inner-city.
“Some type of rudimentary, festival shower,” says Louisa Santoro, head of the homeless day centre on Island Street.
Each day, about 25 people still find their way across the city from the doorways, or parks, or benches where they have slept rough, over to one of the few places to open its doors to them during the day.
For those who drop in, the shower will likely be a big bonus: they will finally be able to wash.
Many haven’t had access to showers for as long as five weeks, says Santoro. Not since other day centres – the ones with places to wash – closed their doors.
She expects a rush of interest once the word gets out, she says.
That there has been nowhere in the meantime raises questions about whether the complete closure of other day centres was hasty without other options in place, or a necessary intervention.
It also throws into relief an ongoing debate around how many people are still, during the pandemic, sleeping rough on the city’s streets – and, for those who want, possible barriers to accessing homeless accommodation, where there are facilities like showers.
Those who are newly homeless are not being offered beds, says independent Councillor Anthony Flynn, CEO of Inner City Helping Homeless. Santoro says the same.
A spokesperson for Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) didn’t respond directly to queries about whether newly homeless people are being refused access to services.
“While day services funded by the DRHE are largely closed and staff redeployed to Covid-19 response residential facilities, we continue to actively try to encourage people off the streets and into accommodation,” they said.
“All our accommodation is now 24 hours with food and shower facilities provided,” said the spokesperson.
On the Streets
It’s unclear how many people are sleeping rough on Dublin’s streets these days.
Flynn, of Inner City Helping Homeless, says that his volunteers meet around 90 people each night who they believe to be rough sleeping.
But a spokesperson for DRHE says the number sleeping on the streets of Dublin has dropped to by far its lowest point in recent years, with just 25 people sleeping out on some nights lately.
“The sourcing of additional accommodation by the DRHE and the assertive engagement work by the (outreach) teams has resulted in a significant reduction in the numbers of people sleeping rough,” they said.
Some people who were previously sleeping rough have come into regular emergency accommodation and others identified with underlying conditions have been placed in cocooning facilities, she says.
“We are continuing to monitor the situation, along with the teams, to ensure that the more vulnerable members of our society are protected during this crisis,” says the spokesperson.
DRHE didn’t carry out its rough-sleeper count in March due to social distancing so nobody knows how many are on the streets really, says Santoro.
But around 25 people come to her door each day after a night sleeping on the streets, she says.
Closing day centres seemed to be based on the idea that rough sleepers would all go into hostels, says Santoro.
But she doesn’t think that is going to happen, as most people she speaks to are in shared rooms, although perhaps sharing with fewer people than before, she says.
“If people have been long-term rough sleepers and have consistently declined to go into congregate settings, I don’t think the arrival of a highly contagious pandemic is going to encourage them to do so,” she says.
The New Homeless
There are others too who desperately do want a bed but can’t get into hotels, says Santoro. DRHE is refusing “new presentations”, she says.
People turn up at the Mendicity Institution, and staff ring the freephone with them – to book them a bed for the night, she says. “And they are being told no.”
Many of those she works with have complex needs, she says. But regardless of their background, while the pandemic unfolds, the DRHE’s central placement service “won’t add you because you are a new presentation”, she says.
On 15 April, Flynn, who is also an independent councillor, wrote to Brendan Kenny, the council’s housing manager to say that volunteers at Inner City Helping Homeless were unable to secure beds for people who became homeless for the first time, during the Covid-19 crisis.
“It is unrealistic to expect that during a global pandemic and financial downturn people will not become homeless,” he says.
A spokesperson for the DRHE didn’t answer a question about how many times staff on the freephone refused people access to beds in the last two weeks.
Due to “providing and managing essential services for homeless people … it is not possible to compile these statistics”, they said.
The DRHE has added 1,000 extra beds, 450 of which were to facilitate social distancing within the larger hostels, said the spokesperson.
Santoro says that she expects the number of people sleeping rough in the city to grow if the DRHE keeps refusing hostel beds to those who become homeless.
For those who lose their homes, it’s a really bad time to try to “impose yourself as a house guest”, she says.
The DRHE didn’t answer this query directly, but said their outreach teams are consistently working to get people off the streets and into hostels.
Sometimes there are other reasons, beyond being new to the system, why a person is not allowed to access homeless services too, Santoro says.
One man had been homeless before, but that was a few years ago, she says. After that, he had got a job and rented a room for a while, but then he recently became homeless again, she says.
When Santoro contacted the DRHE with that man, she was told that he wasn’t using homeless services consistently enough, she says.
“We are being given lots of different reasons,” she says. But for anyone who was not consistently accessing homeless services when the pandemic struck, “the answer is ultimately no”, she says.
Some people “can’t necessarily prove strong links to a particular local authority area”, says Santoro.
She talks about a woman from Limerick, who is currently sleeping in town as she can’t get into hostels, says Santoro.
Also, one person who has been coming to the Mendicity Institution since 2005 still doesn’t have all the right paperwork, says Santoro.
The DRHE says it is trying to get all rough sleepers into hotels. But “is it all rough sleepers – or is it all rough sleepers who can prove a continuous link to the Dublin area?” says Santoro.
Back to the Showers
Each day, the Mendicity Institution has to choose who it lets in and who it doesn’t – so there’s room inside for people to socially distance, says Santoro. They’re prioritising those who slept rough the previous night over other clients.
Some day services offer takeaway meals at the moment. But those that have slept rough the previous night need to be able to sit down to eat and get some respite, she says.
“We always prided ourselves on having an open door,” she says. “Now we are in a really ugly position of having to triage people to see if they can come in.”
Donors have bought new socks, underwear and toiletries for her to give out. She does laundry for people too in a nearby laundrette.
Five weeks into the shutdown, it is essential those sleeping rough to be able to wash, she says. It’s key to health and well-being.
“The shower is a really big thing, we have been communicating with the DRHE since the beginning of March,” she says. “We still have had no answer about showers.”
First, she wrote to DRHE informally by email. On 23 March, Santoro wrote to Eileen Gleeson, the DRHE director, raising concerns about access to showers and laundry for rough sleepers, among other concerns.
On 27 March, she got a letter back back from the director of the housing first programme. But it didn’t really address the issue of hygiene for rough sleepers, she says.
She hasn’t heard anything more, she says.
On 15 April, Flynn, the independent councillor, wrote to the housing manager of Dublin City Council, Kenny about the same issue.
“There are no arrangements in place to give someone access to a shower which is having a negative effect on their well being and health,” wrote Flynn.
A spokesperson for the HSE said that queries about whether the day centres were closed too suddenly, or without considering the basic hygiene needs of people who sleep rough should be referred to the DRHE.
A spokesperson for the DRHE said that “the closure of day services were as a result of discussion between the HSE / Public Health and the relevant services in relation to the risk to service users if the services continue during the Covid-19 crisis.”
Day-centre staff have been redeployed to residential homeless facilities, said the spokesperson.
Outreach teams are working from 7am to 1am daily trying to get people off the streets and handing out food packs, hand sanitisers, and face masks to people who are sleeping rough, the DRHE spokesperson said.