I met Christine O’Donnell in 1999 as a teenager, hanging out at the steps of the Central Bank of Ireland building in Dublin’s Temple Bar.
Christine is educated and a talented writer, but like many people in the capital at a far remove from family elsewhere, she is made vulnerable to homelessness by low wages, insecure accommodation arranged through the private market and her need, sometimes, for intensive medical care.
How did you become homeless?
I underwent a trauma and a major trigger and went into a meltdown, because I have schizo-effective disorder.
I was diagnosed when I was 19. It affected me in patches here and there, but it would usually wind up with a stay in a psychiatric ward where medications would be adjusted.
But you could still work?
I always worked, from when I left college; I had a job in college. I studied Russian and used my Russian to do internships for the migrant rights centre, Crosscare and various places. I also held on to my paying job in a holistic [health] store which was low pressure, low money so I was broke but I was managing and doing work that I found satisfying so I was quite happy.
How would you compare yourself to people you met in emergency accommodation?
Everyone comes with their own story; gauging things by vulnerability to homelessness can be problematic. The markers aren’t the most obvious. I believe that anyone on the spectrum of dual diagnosis - which is where you have a mental health issue or an addiction issue and they play havoc with each other; if someone has a dual diagnosis [or has a mental health issue] I would see them as being extremely vulnerable to homelessness. A lot of research has been done in the U.K. to [show] that younger LGBT people are more vulnerable to homelessness and people with an addiction.
It ultimately come down to a perceived or actual fallout within the support network that a person has.
Did you have that problem?
Yes. When I get like that I isolate myself quite severely [and] I was [already] feeling very isolated. I knew I didn’t have enough money to meet the rising rent. I was getting doors slammed in my face [when I was] looking for the homeless HAP (Housing Assistance Payment} because I hadn’t found Pathfinders yet.
What is Pathfinders?
Pathfinders is the name for the programme in the Dublin City homeless services to aid people in finding HAP accommodation. So they locate tenancies which are specifically geared to HAP [applicants]. The landlord has already signed them up as [willing to accept] HAP. They contact the landlord; the landlord then will have a viewing and the potential homeless resident will come to view the property.
I didn’t know what it was. In the homeless sector there’s a big case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.
Why would you say that?
I think it’s down to too many lines of bureaucracy and bad communications between the different members of different units within the housing unit.
[For example] I was told one day to go to Focus Ireland because there would be caseworkers there to help me. I went and was told “there are no caseworkers here who can help you”. I [told them] I was on the verge of a mental breakdown and I really need help. So, somebody came out, told me to dress up, smile, look my best and go out and find a house.
When you’re single and homeless there are less services available.
I got a call on March 4th 2017 telling me I would have to be out by April 1st, because I had fallen behind on my rent. I suspected they wanted to increase the rent for the room and I had already asked to go on the homeless HAP. They just didn’t want me and I owed money, but they never gave me a warning or anything. At one point I owed them €500.
How much was your rent?
It was €375 [per month].
Then I went down to the county council [office] because I knew I had nowhere to go. I [asked if I could] get the homeless HAP and they said that I could, so I started looking. Then I started travelling between Tipperary and Dublin and started couch surfing; I have family in Tipperary
But your work and your life are here [in Dublin]?
Everything is here. Also my psychiatric care team are here and they were invaluable to me at that pint in my life. I was doing daily visits to a psychiatric day hospital. It was a downward spiral. Circumstances just became worse and worse. I would up doing the couch surfing thing [but] I managed that for not even three weeks.
Do you mean staying with friends?
Staying with friends; couch surfing here and there but generally feeing like a burden. That was my own self-perceived, internalised notion that I was a burden on my friends and being places where I didn’t feel welcome. I’m sure I was welcome, but I didn’t feel welcome and I just said “I can’t continue to rely on people, I want to be independent,” so I went into a homeless hostel.
When you made the decision to do that, what did you to make that happen?
I went down to the county council in the morning and said “I have nowhere to sleep tonight" and they managed to get me a six-month rolling bed.
What’s a rolling bed?
It means you can stay for six months and if there’s a place for you [after that] you can stay for another six months. But it’s not a fixed bed; you change where you sleep all the time. You’re assigned a different bed on [what can be] a nightly basis.
On top of the hostel system you also have the freephone, [which is] for rough sleepers that haven’t been able to get a bed from the county council.
But you didn’t need to avail of this service?
No. I was lucky [that] I got a six month bed; not everyone gets [one] but being a young, single female puts you at [an advantage].
In comparison to a man?
Yes, men would be treated differently.
Where did you put your things when you were being moved around all the time?
We were supposed to pack up all our things into a bag every night in case we had to be moved in the morning.
I just had one of those chequered heavy-duty bags. There’s hostels where you have to leave at six in the morning and you can’t come back until six in the evening.
Some are run by the council, by Peter McVerry, by Crosscare…
What was the atmosphere like in the hostel?
[The hostel] consisted of a building of three stories; there was on male floor, one female floor and one mixed for couples; I was on the floor that was mixed for couples, for the most part. On the very first day I was there I was waiting outside the hostel…
To be admitted?
Yes. I was out and I was feeding grapes to the ducks; it’s close to the canal there, so I used to do a lot of that. I went back - you’re always back a bit early - because you have been out on the street all day and you’re anxious to get indoors. As we were coming in, there was a couple in the hostel. The boyfriend had his girlfriend’s hair in his hand and he was trying to… it was as if he was trying to put a hole through the door with her head.
I was absolutely terrified because I wanted to intervene, but I knew he was wild with violence and [that] I wouldn’t stand a chance.
The worst thing that happened for me personally was with another [resident] of the hostel. We took a warmth to each other. So she said to me one day “do you want to spend the day with me and I said “sure, why not?” We went somewhere in Dublin which would be an underprivileged area; she took me inside this house, and it was just a crack den.
I sat in the corner smoked cigarettes and stayed pretty quiet. I left and, as I was leaving, I saw children in the next room. That was probably the worst thing; seeing children in that house [which] just really shocked me beyond words.
Was there anyone you met in the hostel who you thought wasn’t that bad?
I connected with practically everybody from the hostel. I was treated very well. People were looking out for me and I looked out for people. I would listen to people, and they would tell me about their lives and their experiences and their stories. It was very humbling.
So even in the midst of all this you were sitting there feeling somewhat fortunate?
I can definitely count my privilege. I have the privilege of education [and] not everyone has that.
Do you think that’s the thing that set you apart, in that situation?
I think that the motivation to be busy, not even education [sets you apart]. Get out there, volunteer; get your references. You don’t have to go to college. There are loads of ways of getting out there and getting more active and involved; building that support network back up and trying to foster relationships that are good for you.
Whereas, I I would say - in my estimation - 95% of the people in that hostel were chronically addicted. So it’s easy to say get on out there [but] if somebody has a bad heroin habit it’s hard to get these messages across, but I think that if you’re in a place where you can [be busy], it’s the best way to get out of that situation.
I was in that hostel for one month and in a different hostel for another seven months and that hostel was on the South Circular Road. There was an extra person that had to come in and my name got chosen so I got moved.
The difficulty in finding a place came from the fact that I was going to a lot of viewings where there were people with references and cash deposits upfront. You don’t have a cash deposit upfront if you’re looking at [availing of] homeless HAP; the landlord has to be willing to wait to fill out paperwork. Most of them just don’t want to do that. Then there is the added stigma against people in lower socio-economic situations. I have proof of that from some of the landlords I spoke to who told me not to come when I told them I was on HAP, [even] having told them I worked.
How many viewings did you go to?
About 45. Every single one of these viewings had dozens of people at them but as soon as I mentioned the HAP they would just write “HAP” in big letters; what those letters signified remains to be known to me.
Christine was neither sick nor without the ability to advocate for herself. She even had a job, but in her own words “becoming homeless was, for me and many others, a result of bad luck, bad timing, and a chronic health condition … between the coal faces of the housing crisis and the health crisis, I am not alone.”
“There are people on chemotherapy who are sleeping rough.”
N.B. Christine later changed her estimate of those suffering with addiction to around 4 out of every 5 residents.
Photo credit: Lois Kapila