The cold light of day


It’s the season of goodwill and Alan Jacques tested the temperature when he braved Limerick’s streets to experience what it is like to be homeless in the city and see how those on the fringes of society pass the day.

by Alan Jacques [email protected]

Father-of-two Fergal Corcoran homeless on the streets of Limerick this Christmas
Father-of-two Fergal Corcoran homeless on the streets of Limerick this Christmas

AFTER spending a night rough out on the streets of Limerick last year, a worker with the homeless in the city put a challenge to me for this Christmas.

It was put to me to head out onto the city’s streets from 8am to 7pm and step into the shoes of our disadvantaged and socially excluded for a day.

As part of this challenge, I was required to go unshaven for a couple of days, to wear my oldest clothes, and to have no more than €4 in my pockets to live on.

I was to look the part to make the experience as real as possible, and while I had a warm home to return to, making the challenge effectively redundant, the exercise did shed light for me on the true hardships homeless people face on a daily basis.

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After spending a night out in sub-zero conditions last December I foolishly believed this little test was going to be a teddy bear’s picnic in comparison.

I began my expedition on a cold and frosty morning, hitting the streets at 8am, as another bustling shopping day closer to Christmas sprung into life.

I had barely turned onto O’Connell Street when I was struck by a homeless man rummaging through a bin for newspapers before using them to insulate a shabby, flimsy jacket, which stood no chance against the harsh winter elements. I had considered approaching the man to speak with him but a steely glare in my direction made it clear that he did not want to be bothered so I kept moving.

For the next couple of hours, I walked around the city looking for signs of the homeless, but other than the fingerprint of empty beer cans scattered in dank doorways, there was none to be found at this early hour. By 10am the city had come to life as Christmas shoppers started to scurry about the place and I quickly felt a self-conscious sting about my bedraggled appearance and decided to take to the back streets.

I headed for the Society of St Vincent de Paul’s drop-in centre on Hartstonge Street, where for the past ten years soups, sandwiches, teas and coffees have been generously provided free of charge on a daily basis to those most in need. The centre also offers hot showers and clean clothes to Limerick’s homeless population.

On entering, I was confident that the challenge put to me to look authentically downtrodden must have been achieved when I was stopped by a volunteer at the centre.

“What’s in your coat pocket?” he asked pointedly.

“My wallet,” I replied nervously.

“Yeah right,” he said with a chuckle.

“There’s no cans or alcohol allowed in here,” he warned me.

Rookie mistake number one! Homeless people do not have bulging wallets in their coat pockets, even ones filled with nothing but business cards and old video shop memberships.

After assuring him that I was not trying to sneak booze onto the premises I was allowed in and went to the counter to order a cup of tea. Two kindly looking ladies were busy making sandwiches and taking orders for the handful of people sitting around the tables. The place was bustling with laughter and steaming kitchen appliances. Above the din, a gentle voice asked, “what can I get you love?”

“A cup of tea,” I replied sheepishly.

“Will you have a toastie with ham and cheese as well?” she offered kindly, all too aware of my unease.

I sat at a table and took in my surroundings.

Four people, two men and two women, sat at a table opposite and made light of run-ins with the social welfare office and their latest trials and tribulations over rent allowance. I watched people, mostly men on their lonesome, arrive in and order food before marking out their territory in quiet corners of the centre.

“Who’s the ham and cheese for?” I heard one of two ladies behind the counter ask her colleague.

“It’s for the gentleman over there,” came the reply.

I was really struck by this. No matter how shabby or down on your luck you might be, here everyone was treated with dignity and respect, and not made feel any less about themselves.

Simple fare, but for those who most in need, a warm drink, bowl of soup or sandwich is undoubtedly the nectar of the Gods. I was very grateful for my tea and toastie, especially as I had only €4 in my pocket to get me through the remainder of the day.

As I was about to leave, two down-on-their-luck migrants arrived in looking worse for wear. They were shivering with the cold and covered in muck and grime. They looked so weather worn that the frosty morning dew was almost rising off their backs. These two men, took a quick scan of the centre, ordered their corned beef sandwiches and took to a table near the door with their heads hung low. They looked exhausted. There was no doubt that these two poor souls had a very rough night and known much hardship in their lives.

I decided to try and speak with them but didn’t want to interrupt them while they ate, so waited for them outside the centre.

As I approached, I could see their disquiet. They were not at all comfortable with my trying to speak with them. They were nervous and did not want to talk to me. In our brief conversation, I learned that they had been homeless in Ireland for three and a half years and did not know on any given day where they would rest their heads that night.

“Where are ye off to now?” I asked.

“I can’t really talk right now, I feel sick from drink. I’m going tapping (begging) with my friends,” one of the men told me.

When I asked where I might find them later, “here and there” came the vague response, before they wished me luck and took off up the street.

I felt really sorry for these two men. There was no doubt they were living on the edge so I called them back and gave them the €4 I had been allocated to get me through the day. They needed it more than me, and I was only sorry I didn’t have more on me to give them. I would return to a warm bed that night, but this was their reality every minute of every day. I wanted to try and help them but it was clear they wanted to be left alone.

I followed them at a distance up the street, keeping them in my eye-line. Crossing the road, I took my eyes off them for a split second, and when I turned back they were gone.

I gauged where they were when I last saw them and noted a couple of derelict buildings. I decided to investigate later on when there were fewer people around to see where they might have gone.

I then headed to the train station to use the toilet facilities, a location I returned to several times during the day when nature called. It was about 11am as I headed to the People’s Park to sit down on a bench and rest my legs while planning my next move. After about 10 minutes I decided it would be good to see what reaction I would get in shops and whether I would be turned away.

I decided to walk out to a shopping centre on the outskirts of town where I would have lesser chance of meeting people I know. It took me about 30 minutes to get there and was almost midday when I arrived. With all the traipsing around the town, I was starting to feel tired and gasping for a cold drink. Alas, I had no money so I was going to have to somehow put this thirst out of my mind while I stayed in character for the rest of the day.

I sat on a bench inside the shopping centre and fumbled about with my prop carrier bag to see if I might draw any attention to myself, but nothing. No one paid me a blind bit of notice. I sat for a while on another bench with my eyes closed as if I were asleep to see if I might be asked to leave, but again nothing. I then walked around some of the stores in the shopping centre to see what reaction I might get, but yet again I was left alone.

I walked back into town, totally knackered at this stage, and about ready to pack my assignment in. I headed back up to the train station to use the bathroom yet again before trying my luck at sitting in different doorways and street corners around the city to garner the reaction. I did this for about two hours, sitting on the cold, damp pavement with my head buried in my hands and my hood up so I couldn’t be recognised and still no one paid me a blind bit of notice. Whether it was on O’Connell Street, William Street, Cruises Street or Denmark Street people just quickened their pace as they approached me, while others simply turned their gaze the other way.

No one asked if I was okay, offered a friendly word or even acknowledged my existence. I found the experience very disheartening.

Of course, I am not homeless and in a few hours would be gladly going home to my real life, but the lack of human interaction began to nag at me all the same. I expected my day on the street to be an easy ride after sleeping out rough last year. But I couldn’t have been more wrong and just wanted to pack it in.

By 3pm I was back in the People’s Park feeling totally dejected and worn out. The thirst from earlier only grew stronger as the day went on. I really felt like calling it quits and at the same time was grateful to have that option.

This wasn’t my real life and I couldn’t fathom how Limerick’s homeless lived this harsh and lonely existence day after day. I was lucky that it was dry and that I didn’t have the rain and biting cold to add to my misery. I was grateful for all I have and couldn’t wait to put this day behind me, a feeling that made the remaining hours all the harder knowing that those on the street today would be back out here tomorrow to face the same ordeal.

After all the walking, my feet ached and I had a thirst on me that would not be quenched. I tried to put this thought out of my mind by picturing myself that night downing a cold drink with the same gusto as John Mills’ character in ‘Ice Cold in Alex’.

I was finding my day out on the street more mentally and physically challenging than I had anticipated. If I had to sleep out on the street that night I don’t know where I would have found the strength to repeat this exercise again tomorrow. I longed for day to be over and darkness to fall. I found that the bustling city centre only magnified that sense of loneliness and isolation I was feeling as people went about their business totally oblivious to the homeless.

The dark, of course, brings woes of its own — fear and the biting cold. But it also cloaks those hidden in shop doorways to make their invisibility a bit more bearable. The brightness of day drives it home in all its cruel, crisp, clarity that the homeless are of the fringes, at arms length from society — out of sight and out of mind.

At night, survival instinct kicks in and all focus is simply on making it through to another day. The daytime, however is more taxing, more mentally arduous and physically draining because you have time to kill, time to fester over the plight you find yourself in. This in itself is as exhausting as walking the streets all day every day.

I felt wearier as the day stretched into evening and was glad I had only a few hours more out on the streets. I had walked miles during the course of my day and my feet felt raw and sore. By 5pm I was glad to be under the cover of darkness and decided to retrace my steps back to where I had last seen the two homeless men I had met earlier.

On my way, I passed a young man in his twenties who appeared to be zonked on drugs. He was standing outside a newsagents speaking gibberish and grew increasingly aggressive and more agitated as I approached.

“Give me a cigarette,” he demanded in a strong Limerick accent.

“I don’t smoke,” I said.

“You’re a f***ing liar! Give me 40 cent. Give me 30 cent. Give me 20 cent,” he laughed, seemingly oblivious to where he even was.

I moved on quickly and saw another poor unfortunate street drinker up the street standing in a doorway. As I passed a young man came out of the building and shouted at him to “go stand in another f***ing doorway”.

Under darkness I might be, but things on the fringes were turning uglier as night fell and I felt unnerved. I couldn’t wait to get out of here.

When I arrived back to where I had lost the two men earlier I tried the doors of a couple of empty buildings and found they had been nailed shut. I had presumed they had somehow gotten into one of these buildings but it was clear now that that wasn’t the case.

As I was about to leave, none the wiser of where the two men had earlier disappeared to, I looked down the stairwell of the next building and spotted a sopping wet double mattress surrounded by empty beer cans and an assortment of rubbish. It was certainly not fit for human habitation, and I prayed that this was not where the two men had been camped out. Could desperate people with nowhere else to go be forced to live in such squalor? I hoped not.

I looked out for them all day but they were not to be found. I have not seen them since and they still play on my mind.

By 5.30pm I was sitting out on the cold pavement on O’Connell Street again as people made the dash for home after a day’s work. My spirits were low at this point as every painstaking minute dragged by. Again I appeared completely invisible to the Christmas shoppers on the thronged city streets.

‘Where was the goodwill?’, I asked myself. I felt frustrated and saddened by the whole exercise.

It was starting to get colder and I felt ashamed that I had expected today’s assignment to be anything other than pure misery. My eyes had been truly opened to the cruel, grim reality of life on the periphery. It was a lonely and harsh existence for sure.

With my assignment drawing to a close I was feeling jaded and anxious to get home in time to put my children to bed. My day on the streets had filled me with a great sense of gratitude for all I have and a greater empathy for all those who have nothing.

At 7pm the city’s homeless make their way to the former Ferguson’s chemist on O’Connell Street where, 365 days a year, warm drinks and sandwiches are distributed through the Novas Initiatives Soup Run. Distributing around 4,000 meals annually, it is kept going by the goodwill of its volunteers and the generosity of The Greenhills Hotel and Foodcourt Catering. True heroes if you ask me.

As I made my way home, I was glad in the knowledge that those living out on the streets had the small comfort of a hot drink and a bite to eat before returning to their shelters for the night.

I also took comfort from the fact that there are lots of kindhearted people who give their time freely in numerous charity organisations across Limerick to aid our city’s most abject souls.

I have no doubt that for those in a dark place, a kind word can light up their day and make them feel less alone. It was this sense of apathy towards the homeless that I met on the city’s street that I found hardest to stomach.

It would serve us well to remember the words of American writer Henry James. “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”