I wrote this piece on December 27th, but didn’t want to publish it until it had received the ‘all clear’ from the media team at Apollo House. Given that they have more pressing things to worry about, this took a while. 🙂
I did my first shift at Apollo House yesterday. For those of you who don’t know, Apollo House is a government building that is owned by NAMA – the National Assets Management Agency (essentially a ‘bad bank’). That means that, really, the building (which – ironically – was a social welfare office) is owned by the Irish people. About a fortnight ago, the building was taken over by a group of activists, artists, actors and musicians, who opened the doors of the building to homeless people.
‘Ordinary’ people responded with generosity, solidarity, and kindness. They donated books, clothes, shoes, food, more food, kitchen equipment, toiletries, blankets, office equipment, money, washing machines, dryers, washing powder, plates, cups, coffee, tea, milk, time, talent and love.
NAMA responded by taking the Home Sweet Home Group – under whose auspices Apollo House is run – to court in an effort to get them to vacate the building. They claimed that part of their reaction was on the grounds that the building was unsafe. The counter-argument to that was that the building was checked by Health & Safety Officers, and by Fire Safety Officers – who deemed the building safe. It is beyond ridiculous to suggest that people are safer on the cold streets of Dublin than they are in a secure building where they are treated with dignity: Where they have access to nourishing food, tea, coffee, water, medical care, showers, cooking facilities; and people who will talk to them, listen to them, and show them love and kindness.
Enda Kenny, our head of government, said that there are enough beds available so that no one needs to sleep on the street. At best, he is ill-informed. At worst, he is lying through his teeth.
Last Thursday, Judge Gilligan granted the order to vacate, but gave a stay until 12pm on January 11th. He further stipulated that the house could only give shelter to 40 people.
By the time I turned up for my shift at 3pm, all 40 beds in Apollo House had been allocated. People who had no beds secured for the night wandered by, asking if they could be put up. Over and over again, it was explained that we absolutely had to keep to the 40 residents that the judge had ruled. The best we could do was feed people we couldn’t accommodate, offer them clean, dry, warm clothes, sleeping bags, and a phone call to the Freephone number to seek a bed in a hostel.
Not everyone wants a bed in a hostel – they can be dangerous places; we heard tales of people being beaten up, robbed, having their clothes stolen; of recovering addicts being exposed to drugs, and worse.
After a handover and a brief, I went on the first of five runs for the day; bringing food, blankets and clean, dry clothes to people on the streets who didn’t have accommodation. We tried to get beds in hostels for people who wanted them. By 7.38pm, however, the operator on the Freephone line told us that there were no more beds available. Of course, our runs were done in co-ordination and co-operation with other charities who were doing runs last night so that we didn’t end up visiting the same streets.
Inside, Apollo House is a well-run organisation. Volunteers are divided into teams – media, finance, security, support, outreach, medical, cleaning, catering, legal – according to their skills and experience. The volunteers are well-managed, with handovers at the start of each shift, proper briefings, tasks allocated, and a team manager who answers questions and makes decisions.
Apollo House is a home for the residents. Unlike the hostels, where people are usually only allowed to stay between 9pm and 9am, the residents of Apollo House are not put out on the streets mid-morning. They come and go as they please (as long as they sign in and out – for obvious reasons). They eat, shower, wash their clothes, watch telly, chat, read, hang out and – since yesterday – play pool (thanks to the generosity of a man who drove from Kerry to Dublin to bring a pool table to Apollo House).
The Apollo House initiative is a short-term solution to a long-term problem; we all know this. But, for the 40 people who have been safe, warm, clean, fed, kept company, cared for, cared about, and nourished in several different ways since the takeover of the building, each night inside is a better proposition than a night outside on the cold, dangerous streets of Dublin.
The point of the initiative is two-fold; to provide for as many people as possible, and to continue to raise awareness. I’m not telling you this because you haven’t heard it before. I’m telling you this because you have heard it before. There is nothing new in the plight of the homeless in Ireland. There is nothing new about how shamefully they are treated by successive Irish governments. There is nothing new about people shivering, hungry, and wet on the streets of Dublin – and the streets of other cities and towns around Ireland. There is nothing new about women and men being treated disrespectfully on the streets of Dublin. There is nothing new about women and men being scared and vulnerable and abused on the streets. That’s precisely the problem. It is an old story, and it’s still being told, just with new narrators.