There but for the grace of God go any of us

753

20-11-2013 Alan JacquesHomelessness is an issue that is constantly highlighted over the Christmas period, especially as the cold winter nights set in. Rather than depend on statistics and statements, Alan Jacques braved Limerick’s streets for a night to get a first-hand experience of what it is like to sleep rough.

I TOOK it upon myself to sleep rough for a night on the streets of Limerick to experience what the city’s homeless people have to endure in our harsh winter months.

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It was a cold and wearisome assignment.

Unlike the unfortunates who find themselves out on the streets because of circumstance, I was out there as a reporter to get a sense of what it must be like for them. I was there by choice. I have a warm bed and roof over my head and, while I spent one horrendous night sleeping rough on the city’s streets, I am lucky that it was only one night.

It wasn’t pleasant by any stretch of the imagination but it was the fact that it was only going to be one night that got me through it.

I genuinely hope sleeping rough is an experience I never have to get up close and personal with again; it’s not pretty!

I honestly can’t imagine what it must be like to be out there night after night with few options for shelter as the winter’s grip draws in.

In the current economic climate, homelessness is a genuine fear. Ordinary people are now at greater risk of losing their homes as they struggle to meet mortgage repayments or pay rent.

The thought of spending just one night sleeping rough on the streets of Limerick left me daunted, to say the least.

I spent the days leading up to my expedition looking at the city’s streets in a whole new light. Every doorway, shop front and bus shelter became a prospective spot to lay my head and seek refuge. And with rain showers and sharp ground frost forecast, cover and keeping warm were obviously going to be factors.

But by far my greatest worry was my personal safety and wellbeing.

That sense of security we feel when we get home in the evenings and close our front doors should not to be taken for granted. Many of the locations I had earmarked as possible contenders for shelter were all quickly scuppered by friends and colleagues as being “unsafe”, and without question, safety was my top priority.

Confronted then by the elements and with Travis Bickle’s infamous “all the animals come out at night” line echoing around my head, this was one investigative mission that I was more than a little apprehensive about.

But then, that was the whole point of the exercise.

I have written my fair share of obligatory Christmas features on the homeless over the years from the comfort of a warm office but this year I was determined, and totally daunted if truth be told, of experiencing the reality of sleeping rough firsthand. It was time to leave the statistics and official statements behind and take to the streets for a reality check like no other I’ve experienced before.

I headed out onto streets on a cold and blustery winter evening none the wiser of where I might set up camp for the night. From the moment I arrived in the city centre, dressed for the summits of Everest I immediately felt overwhelmingly alone and disquieted. That sense of foreboding stayed with me through the night and, as bitterly cold as it turned out to be, frostbite and hypothermia were secondary concerns in comparison to my dread of being attacked or worse. It would be fair to say that I had a big anchor bend knot in the pit of my stomach.

My first port of call was to O’Connell Street at 5.30pm to take refuge under the canopy of the Allied Irish Bank. Sitting on the pavement I felt self conscious and a little foolish in the knowledge I had a warm home to go to. But, it quickly became apparent that rather than standing out like a sore thumb, I had just become invisible.

I felt like a phantom, as if I no longer existed. People passed me without as much as a glance to acknowledge my existence. I had disappeared in plain sight and this was a very strange and unnerving feeling.

I was, for one night, one of Irish society’s socially excluded.

It was on O’Connell Street that I met a young County Limerick homeless man in such despair that he described his life as a “living hell”. This brokenhearted, despondent 26-year-old left the greatest impression on me that night. He told me his harrowing life story of being sexually abused as a teenager, heroin addiction, prison, and homelessness, with a raw pain that left me haunted for days .

“I was nearly kicked to death while I was sleeping rough two weeks ago. Another night a man pissed on me while I was asleep. It’s an absolute nightmare. It’s like a dvd that just plays over and over and never stops. It’s hell and I can’t see anyway out of it. I think about suicide all the time,” he told me.

“My birthday is coming up and so is Christmas and I’ll be on the streets for both. It’s ripping me apart being out here. I spend all day everyday walking around on my own from nine in the morning until nine at night. I don’t know anyone in town. I don’t have friends or family I can turn to. I’m in a desperate situation and I don’t know how much more I can take, I really don’t. I cut myself just to escape it all,” he told me in floods of tears.

It was at this point that it became clear to me why we don’t look homeless people in the eye.

I felt powerless to help this man change his situation in any real way. I felt guilty that I could not return his dignity, begin to comprehend what he’s been through or give him any hope that things would improve. The truth is, if I wasn’t out on the streets to report on homelessness, I too would have walked on by oblivious to his pain. I am as guilty of turning a blind eye as the next man.

Here was a young, needy man who, without a second thought, opened up to me and cried out for help. I felt great empathy for him. I could not help but be moved by his story and feel concern for his welfare. Parting him, I was saddened and worried that he might not see Christmas if someone didn’t do something to help him soon. He remains very much in my thoughts and prayers.

After hearing his distressing stories of being attacked while sleeping rough, any notion I had of staking my claim on a city doorway, vanished into the cold night air. I was frightened enough as it was. I had no intention of putting myself at risk but fear was to be my only companion for the rest of the night.

After 7pm I was struck by the fact that there appeared not to be one single homeless person on the streets of Limerick. This doesn’t mean they weren’t there of course, but it is certainly indicative of the work charities like the Society of St Vincent de Paul, Novas, Focus Ireland and the Simon Community do to provide shelter and support for those who need it most.

I walked to the railway station to see if there was any homeless people taking shelter. I walked all over the city centre and its outskirts, but they were not to be found. At that I nodded my winter wooly hat in salute to the city’s many homeless services and the sterling jobs they do. It was a cold night with colder still to come. The kind of night when no one should have to sleep rough.

By 9pm I still had no idea where I was going to sleep. With the darkness deepening around me this was something I needed to sort – and sort quickly. I walked all over the city and found many spots with cover suitable for sleeping rough but none where I felt I would be truly safe. I thought of sleeping under bridges, outside shopping centres and factories, bus shelters and public buildings but none ticked all the boxes I required.

Being on my own made the task of settling on a place to plonk myself all the harder. There is safety in numbers, but “isolation is the stumbling block of the uncertain”, as Paul Cezanne put it.

By 9.45pm I had finally settled beside the strong walls and fortress of a church on the outskirts of the city. I spent half an hour or so staking the church out like a criminal planning a heist. I waited until all the lights went out and all the cars had left before taking up residence outside this holiest of houses. The spot I had chosen gave me some protection from the harsh winds, little or no cover if it were to rain, and left me totally open to the biting cold. Worst of all though, it left me vulnerable and isolated if I were to be attacked.

By the time I settled into my spot it was almost 10.30pm so I was tired and just wanted to try and sleep and get the night behind me as quickly as possible. The winds were picking up and the dropping temperatures were to become a serious issue for me.

I wasn’t long settled when three young men wearing hoodies walked past my outdoor hideaway. They took a quick glance in my direction and moved on pretty quickly without giving me a second thought. They were probably just taking a shortcut on their way home when they came across me, but the simple fact that people now knew I was sleeping at the back of this church made me feel all the more uneasy.

Every leaf blowing across the pavement, every raised voice and car passing on the main road had me all jumpy and jittery and I just couldn’t settle.

“What if these guys come back and attack me later when I’m asleep?” I thought.

I was too freaked out to sleep so I walked for a while to keep warm and returned to my shelter when I felt it was safe.

This is a pattern I would repeat for the rest of the night.

The temperatures, thankfully, never reached sub-zero, but, by 1am, my legs and toes were beginning to sting with the cold. Keeping on the move seemed like the sensible thing to do and I would appreciate my warm bed all the more the following night.

That feeling of fear never left me and, as the night got colder, I began to feel more miserable. Walking the streets late at night I felt like an outsider, like I didn’t belong. I found myself trying to keep in the shadows just to stay safe. Sleep was something that visited only for short bursts of 20 or 30 minutes at a time. I always returned to my same spot but real sleep never came, but then I never really imagined it would.

I was exhausted at the end of it all and glad I made it through the night unscathed.

The following day, I felt like Jimmy Stewart’s character in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. I was so relieved and grateful for everything I have. On the streets, I was well wrapped up in layers of warm, clean clothes; winter coat, hat, jumpers, thermals and then some!

I was lucky to have a duvet and car to leave my belongings in. I had the security of abandoning my fool’s errand at a moment’s notice and returning to the warmth and safety of my home. I had options and the comfort of knowing I would return to my normal life the following day.

The closest thing to suffering I experienced that night was meeting a young 26-year-old man lost in a world of pain and being helpless to do anything for him.

His desolation stayed with me so I made a few calls on my return to the office and found out he has since secured a private room in a city homeless shelter for as long as he needs it. He has also been assigned a key worker to work intensively with him on his issues.

For me, this outcome made the whole night worthwhile.

Speaking to him afterwards, he told me: “This is like winning the Lotto. I’m so happy.”

The lesson from all this then? Don’t turn a blind eye. Reach out. Who knows, maybe you can make a difference.

There, but for the grace of God, go any of us.