[TW]“Hot chocolate is one of my luxuries” – he smiled. A little unsteady on his feet as he tried to light the smoke, take the cup, and clutch his belongings all at once. Some of the liquid slopped out over the edge and onto the pavement. The team joked we wouldn’t bring him any more. It was hard to tell how old he was, but he was young. He told us he’d been homeless for 3 years. His home town was an hour away but in his words “there’s no help there.”
It’s not every day that a couple of hours in the company of strangers can really change your life. But honestly, after volunteering just once with Inner City Helping Homeless (ICHH) I do feel like it has. If you have a couple of hours to spare some evening go volunteer. It’ll change your whole perception of society – for the better.
The threat of storm loomed over Dublin as I double wrapped my scarf and anxiously made my away to Amiens street. I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I was excited too. This was a chance to get involved with a group that I’ve so much admiration for. The office is unmissable. A massive banner hung over the downstairs window makes sure of that. I was buzzed in, and immediately warmly welcomed by Kathleen and her sister, Bernie. Then it was off downstairs to pack bags. More handshakes. More warm welcomes. Smiles and laughter filled the narrow halls. I fidgeted with my scarf. A little overwhelmed by the scene in front of me.
Getting Stuck In
First you pick your bag. There’s a small pile of them to the left; all donated. Then you pack it. Surrounding you are shelves heaving with donations. Women’s clothing. Men’s clothing. Shoes. Hygiene products. Water. Crisps. Chocolates. Pot Noodles. If you were a child you’d be in heaven. But it’s time to think strategically. How many people do we expect? As we’re going out earlier due to bad weather will some regulars miss us? What do people always want? What can the team feasibly carry? How can we make that stretch? As questions are being answered and bags are being packed the rations deplete. Quickly. It hits you that what seems like a lot, isn’t. And it’s a lifeline for so many. For some, what you bring them will be the only hot thing they have all day. You might be their only source for clean clothes. Or for things like tampons, toothbrushes, and baby wipes. Basic hygiene is incredibly difficult when you don’t have access to privacy or water. With bags and trolleys packed it was time for a safety briefing. Neil, our team lead rattled off the list. Some were obvious, “don’t climb fences”, some are little more daunting “what to do if you’ve been pricked by a needle” – but then you’re off.
#StormCallum is approaching Ireland and the #ICHH teams are stocked up and have left the office. Please give them a call on 085-8389281 if you see anyone sleeping outside tonight around Dublin City. #HomelessnessIsNotNormal #RaiseTheRoof # pic.twitter.com/TE8Odtkl1d
— ICHHDUBLIN (@ICHHDUBLIN) October 11, 2018
As the newbie I was given the job of recording how many were presenting had no place to sleep. A little X into a box when we came across someone who had nowhere to go. No X if they do – although we’ll help them all the same. It feels sad. People reduced to a mark on a page. I clung to the clipboard. A relative comfort in it’s physicality. As we walked we chatted, and joked. Our team comprised of a marketing research analyst, a bricklayer from Drimnagh, a holistic therapist from Lithuania, and a Brazilian customer support agent. It’s unlikely our paths would have crossed otherwise.
Walking the streets what struck me was the diversity in the people we met. They were all ages, and backgrounds. Some you wouldn’t have guessed they were homeless, but you begin to learn the signs. We were asked to keep our eyes out for a 16 year-old girl. People stopped to let us know where others were. Drunken revelers passed us by. Tourists wandered the streets. Locals hurried home out of the dark – but on seeing the trolley some slowed and shot us looks of appreciation. The quick nod that comes when you see someone being sound and want to acknowledge that. But there’s a deeper feeling too.
"I can't tell friends the truth about being homeless. It's too embarrassing".
.@emma_okelly returns one year on, to speak to a young homeless student who is struggling with life in a hotel room – https://t.co/Na1LhXDq4Y
— Morning Ireland (@morningireland) October 5, 2018
A strange feeling a feeling that you’ve somehow slipped into another lane in society. Despite wearing a hi-vis, in some ways I’ve never felt more invisible. Removed. It wasn’t a Thursday heading to meet friends, or running across the bridge for pints in town, or curled up at home. We were actively seeking out what so many purposefully ignore. Tell tale signs of life in the darkness. Huddled bodies curled up against the elements. We peered into dark corners. Walked into the spaces that you’d usually avoid. Talked to strangers. Approached men by themselves. But it didn’t feel dangerous. It felt lonely. Like the lights and the laughter aren’t for you. Mannequins were finely dressed, but windows darkened. Doors on store fronts closed tight. Grills pulled down. I can only imagine what it must be like to live this night after night. Have eyes pass over your face, passersby clench their jaws and quicken their pace. Children snatched away, out of reach. It must be heartbreaking.
X’s On A Page
There are a couple of moments from that night I don’t think I’ll ever forget. The first, was the first person we met. Just a man by himself on some cardboard. But he knew us. He knew we’d come. Even remarking that we were early tonight. He was my first X on the page. But I knew there’d be more. There were several more X’s before we hit the second moment. This time it was a group. They’d built shelters out of cardboard boxes and tents. We were told to be alert. Groups can be tricky. My heart quickened as we walked down the alley towards them. The scene in front of me was utterly surreal. I must have looked alarmed as Neil offered words of encouragement. We stopped a little away and invited them over. It was quite tense but the offer of tea helped. One at a time. One at a time. “How many sugars?”, the response came back “8, please”.
As we worked, a small blonde woman walked towards us. She was obviously upset. Tears streaked her face. I smiled and offered her a hot drink. She nodded. How about some food? I rummaged in the cooler. “Chicken and stuffing?”- “that’s perfect, I love that!”. A smile began to creep onto her face. As we pulled Pot Noodles out of the kit bag she began to reminisce about the time she saw “The Grudge”. How instant noodles always remind her of the film. We talked a little more and you could see just a small bit of the tension eke out of her body. Her eyes began to light up. She laughed. We finished up, said our goodbyes and walked on. Seven more X’s.
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As we passed the Liffey, we immediately saw something was wrong. Emergency vehicles flanked the river. A boat was in the water. Lights flashed and sirens blared. In the confusion we learned that someone had gone in and his friend tried to jump to save him. What exactly happened or why someone was in the water we don’t know. But our minds wandered to the worst. They pulled someone from the water, it didn’t look good. Police began to clear those who had gathered to watch. They let us rumble by with our trolley and bags. We walked across O’Connell bridge and towards Londis. Usually a busy spot for people to sit or beg, but with the commotion everyone had gone. A couple more cups of tea to a badly beaten man and his companion who happened to be passing. Two more X’s.
From there we began to loop back. We were running low on supplies and it was getting late. As we passed Store street we stopped at the garda station. We looked in. The reception was eerily quiet. There was nobody behind the desk but two men were sleeping there, one on either side of the room. One was slumped in a chair legs stretched out in front of him. The other lay on the ground wrapped in a sleeping bag. It was shocking. Two more X’s. They weren’t my last X’s of the night but something about that scene really stayed with me. I’d already made up my mind to try get more involved with Inner City Helping Homeless but that really cemented it. It was a headline brought to life right in front of my eyes. There was no changing the channel, or scrolling on, or closing the door to it. There was no going back. It couldn’t be unseen.
That night I had a chance to get a small insight into the lives of those who are often looked over. And an even smaller glimpse at the phenomenal work ICHH do to help some of our most vulnerable. What stuck out to me most about the evening was the camaraderie. Not just among the team; which is superb. One woman travels several times a week from Belfast to volunteer. Others are in at 7am to make sandwiches. Pauline and Brian are troopers. But also among the volunteers and the service users. There are familiars. You stop and chat to everyone, hear a bit of their story. Talk to them about how their night is going. Offer a cup of tea and a little bit of respite. Some food. Tayto. Bottles of water. Socks. Hats – which are promptly pulled on. Then it’s the usual “take it easy”, or “have a good night” and on to the next stop. On reflection, I think Inner City Helping Homeless gave me more than I gave them. I know for certain I’ll be back.
All told, I made 48 X’s that night. 48 people who had literally nowhere to go. In one area of Dublin. On one night. Please help us raise vital funds for the work of ICHH. Find out more about our #1PayDayAway campaign here.