You would have more free­dom liv­ing in some pris­ons than in some shel­ters


An a cap­pella group sings ‘Amaz­ing Grace’ in close har­mony out­side Brown Thomas on Grafton Street as the evening skies draw in. In­side the store, a woman is sell­ing python-skinned Gucci hand­bags for €5,000.

Of­fice work­ers are rush­ing off home, and it is at this time that the char­ac­ter of the street be­gins to be trans­formed.

By day, Grafton Street is the re­tail mag­net for well-to-do shop­pers hunt­ing for de­signer goods — shirts in Tommy Hil­figer, Rolex watches in Weir & Son and cash­mere sweaters in Mas­simo Dutti.

Noel Pur­cell, a Santa-like icon of Dublin, used to sing: “Grafton Street’s a won­der­land, there’s magic in the air. There’s diamonds in the lady’s eyes, and gold dust in her hair.”

But as the shut­ters come down on the glitzy shops, a dif­fer­ent type of street emerges in the twi­light.

The area’s ever-ex­pand­ing pop­u­la­tion of rough sleep­ers be­gin to turn Grafton Street into their home for the night.

In the win­dow of Marks & Spencer, there is a sign — “Find a coat that can weather a shower of com­pli­ments”.

The men and women who live on the street are just look­ing to se­cure their fa­mil­iar door­way — a place where they can weather a shower of rain.

We have a fixed idea of what a rough sleeper must look like — scrawny, un­kempt and crouched.

We don’t tend to see them at eye level, and that can have a de­hu­man­is­ing ef­fect.

But some of the rough sleep­ers here do not look so rough, and as night falls, you might only spot them mov­ing im­per­cep­ti­bly through the crowd if you look care­fully.

Soon af­ter 7.30pm, I spot a neatly dressed mid­dle-aged clean-shaven man in jeans and a waist­coat. He is sort­ing through fresh card­board that has only just been left out with the rub­bish be­side one of the shops.

He care­fully places four long strips of clean card­board in a pile in the door­way of Fitz­patricks shoe shop — this is his mat­tress for the night.

On top, he places his folded blue sleep­ing bag, and next to it the holdall con­tain­ing all his pos­ses­sions. And he en­closes the area with a card­board box.

The man, in­tro­duc­ing him­self as Mar­ian, tells me he used to drive a dumper truck in Kin­negad in the good times and rented a “beau­ti­ful apart­ment”. He has a wife back home in Poland, and he talks to her on the phone, but he can­not ex­plain to me in fal­ter­ing English how he has ended up on the street.

Slowly, as the evening pro­gresses, the door­ways fill up with card­board, sleep­ing bags and their home­less res­i­dents.

As one shop­keeper points out to me, the badge of home­less­ness is the bright blue sleep­ing bag, given out free by char­i­ties.

This week there was shock in the area at the death of four home­less peo­ple, two in Dublin, one in Cork and an­other in Kil­dare. The death toll in­cluded Jack Wat­son, who died around the cor­ner from Grafton Street on Suf­folk Street.

Soon af­ter his pass­ing, a shrine with can­dles, pho­tos and flow­ers was placed on the ledge next to where he used to sleep.

But by Tues­day night his framed pic­ture had been re­moved af­ter it was re­ported that he was a con­victed pae­dophile on the sex of­fend­ers regis­ter. A vigil planned for him by the Home Sweet Home char­ity was called off.

On Grafton Street, the flower seller Cather­ine Claf­fey was ap­palled that he had been al­lowed to roam the streets.

“I used to see him walk­ing up and down, but I didn’t know what he had done. When he died, I sent over flow­ers as a mark of re­spect, but I re­gret that — now I know who he was.”

An­other flower seller, Tina Dempsey, has been work­ing on Grafton Street since she was a girl.

“I have never seen the home­less sit­u­a­tion as bad as it is now, and it’s get­ting worse.

“You would never have seen chil­dren sleep­ing rough be­fore — kids as young as 13 or 14 — but I see that quite reg­u­larly now. There are peo­ple from all walks of life down here now.”

There is lit­tle safety in sleep­ing out on the street, as re­cent deaths have shown.

And, of course, there are drug and al­co­hol prob­lems among some rough sleep­ers. A few on Grafton Street are volatile — and at times, even men­ac­ing. Oth­ers are friendly and keen to talk.

One sur­pris­ing as­pect of the way of life of some of the rough sleep­ers is the strange or­der­li­ness and sense of rou­tine.

They tend to sleep in the same place, and know their neigh­bours.

Ger­ard Long­wood, who begs at the en­trance of the Brown Thomas car park and sleeps in the door­way of the Foot­locker store, tells me: “A lot of the gen­uine peo­ple liv­ing out here look out for each other.”

Liam Oliver sleeps next to a friend in the door­way of the Tommy Hil­figer shop ev­ery sin­gle night.

“The peo­ple in the shop know me,” he says. “I al­ways get up be­fore the shop opens and make sure the door­way is clean.”

When I pass by him, he is non­cha­lantly read­ing a Pa­tri­cia Corn­well novel, us­ing a street lamp as a bed­side light.

Liam grew up in the mid­dle-class sub­urb of Black­rock, Co Dublin and says he be­came home­less af­ter his fa­ther died, and the fam­ily home was sold.

There are com­mon themes that you hear when you talk to rough sleep­ers about how they ended up on the street.

The death of a par­ent is one event that pro­pels an alarm­ing num­ber into des­ti­tu­tion, and the end of a re­la­tion­ship is an­other.

So what draws the rough sleep­ers to Grafton Street, with its bright lights, and de­signer man­nequins gaz­ing, al­most mock­ingly, out of shop win­dows?

On any one night, there may be 200 peo­ple sleep­ing rough in the cen­tre of Dublin. And a good por­tion of these are in the prime shop­ping ar­eas of Grafton Street and Henry Street.

“I come to Grafton Street, be­cause it is safer. There are usu­ally peo­ple around and the guards pa­trol up and down the street,” says Liam Oliver.

“When I was first home­less, I stayed in a side street, but you would be in more danger of at­tack.”

Like many oth­ers liv­ing on the street, Liam stays out, partly be­cause he dis­likes the re­stric­tions and cur­fews im­posed by the shel­ters. “You would have more free­dom liv­ing in some pris­ons than in some shel­ters,” he says.

With con­stant pedes­trian traf­fic, the rough sleep­ers here re­ceive more in do­na­tions than in other ar­eas, of­ten from the puz­zled tourists wan­der­ing up and down the street.

The men and women who live on Grafton Street can also be as­sured of a hot meal ev­ery night from one of the char­i­ta­ble groups who or­gan­ise soup runs.

The num­ber of rough sleep­ers in Dublin city cen­tre is al­most matched by the num­ber of vol­un­teers pre­pared to help them.

Set­tling for the night: A home­less man on Grafton Street; a rough sleeper in the door­way of Clarks (be­low); and vol­un­teers from the Home­less Street Café, in­clud­ing Anne Car­roll (third left), serve food

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