Living in a tent with my mother and sister left me a bit broken...

A student has used his experience of homelessness in his final year project, to illustrate the trauma to families, writes ELLIE O’BYRNE
Living in a tent with my mother and sister left me a bit broken...
David Murphy from Youghal with his final year project titled Home. The project is a visual telling about his family's experience with homelessness and featured at BOLD, the Visual Communications and Creative Digital Media final year students' exhibition in the CIT James Barry Exhibition Centre, CIT.PICTURE: DARRAGH KANE

“WE all take having a home for granted. But imagine if you woke up tomorrow to the news that you’d lost your home,” David Murphy writes.

When CIT Visual Communications student David decided to produce a graphic novel on homelessness for his final year project, he didn’t have to go far for inspiration: it was a nightmare being lived by his family, even as he worked towards completing his degree.

David, his mother Annemarie and his sister Robyn, who live in a village close to Youghal, lived in a tent for two months last summer before living in a shed for a further seven months, including the winter. The experience had a profound impact on David, and the family’s struggles are far from over.

Reliving the events of last year, he says that the feeling of isolation and invisibility was one of the most difficult parts of coping with being homeless.

“I’m walking down the street in Cork and I see homeless people on the streets, and I can’t help them because the same thing is happening to me, except I’m in the countryside,” he says.

“Nobody knows what’s happening to you. Our issue is completely invisible. You’re carrying on with your day but you’re dealing with this in the background; at the end of the day, you’ll have to spend 20 minutes blowing up an air mattress before you can go to sleep.

“The way people think about homelessness is totally different to the way things are,” the 23-year-old adds.

“It’s like, people think you have to have done something bad to be homeless. But we did nothing wrong, and it still happened.”

The family’s troubles started after David’s parents divorced and Annemarie took the decision to sell the family home.

Although they purchased again, they were only able to afford a derelict property that they planned to renovate over time while renting.

But, with rents spiralling out of control, by June of last year, despite having asked for assistance from their County Council, the Murphys had to vacate the rented property and were left with no other option but to sleep in a three-man tent in a neighbour’s garden.

“We had two blow-up air mattresses, one for my mum and my sister, and one for me and our dog,” David says.

“You have no human necessities like bathroom or shower.

“It might be a week before you’d get a shower.

“If you want to charge your phone, you have to go to someone’s house.

“Suddenly, all these mundane little things become huge challenges.”

David, who had completed two years of his three-year course in graphic design, website design and branding when disaster struck, had a work internship lined up with website and communications company Babelfís for the summer.

“I was really excited for the summer before things went south,” he says.

“It was my first design job, and I couldn’t go for the first month because we were in the thick of it, living in the tent.

David Murphy from Youghal with his final year project titled Home. Picture: Darragh Kane
David Murphy from Youghal with his final year project titled Home. Picture: Darragh Kane

“My boss was very understanding and told me to come back when I could, and I was able to take it up later, but it was tough: I was in there, working away, but there was all this in the back of my mind.

“I feel like I didn’t really get up and running with the work as a result. Even though it’s a really good experience, I would have rather done it without living in a tent.”

And if it was difficult for David to maintain a semblance of normal life and to further his career ambitions while homeless, for his sister Robyn, things were even more challenging: in his graphic novel, Home, David calls his younger sister as a “superhero,” and what other word would be appropriate to describe a 19-year-old who sat her Leaving Cert while living in a tent — and still managed to get 480 points?

“My sister’s a rock,” David says, his voice cracking with emotion.

“I say in the book that my mother has some kind of mutant gene for handling stress, and my sister has it too.”

As a big brother and eldest son, David felt particularly powerless when faced with the family’s circumstances.

“I felt bad that it was happening and that I couldn’t do anything,” he says.

“I thought I was always mentally strong, but I was a bit broken last year.”

He says he was lucky to have the support of his girlfriend and her family, as well as friends and neighbours.

David was given student accommodation by CIT last October when he entered his final year of college.

Deciding to tell his personal story of homelessness for his final year project, David set about illustrating his family’s story and researching the broader issue of homelessness in Ireland.

“It took me months to decide to do it because I didn’t want to put myself out there,” he says. “You feel very exposed when you’re doing something this personal as a project.

“Once I decided to do it, I really had to dig deep inside to write it, trying to think back to all these emotions. It was really hard.

“I wasn’t in a good head space. Sometimes I’d be sitting at my desk and I’d break down crying; I was crying most of the time, really.

“By April, I went to my lecturer, Stephen Young, and we had a little talk and he said, ‘Can you repeat next year?’ and I said, ‘I won’t be able to afford to do that’. And he said, ‘There’s your answer.’ So I just said to myself I had to do it and be mentally strong.”

Having battled through and produced a stunning project, graduating comes with a sigh of relief for David, but also with a renewed determination to take what he learned from the family’s struggle and put it into action to create change.

Hhe firmly believes that no Irish family should face homelessness.

The Murphys are slowly but surely renovating their derelict property and have moved from the shed into the main building.

“Now we have plastered walls, and two rooms to live in,” David says.

“St Vincent De Paul helped out, which was amazing.

“We all still have to sleep in the same room, but there’s electricity now, which is great. Showering and cooking are still a bit of an issue but compared to the tent, they’re minor things.

“My next goal is to get a good job and put all my money into the house and help my mother out, because we wouldn’t be anywhere without her.

“And after that, I’m going to fix homelessness in Ireland,” he says. He’s smiling, but he isn’t joking.

“62% of homelessness is hidden, like ours was. There’s so much stigma about homelessness: people think it has to be someone on the street or someone on drugs or with a drink problem, but the main factor of homelessness now is down to economics: unemployment, lack of affordable housing, high rents.”

“I plan on fixing this,” he says. “That’s my motivation now: I feel like it’s my calling. I feel like me and my family wouldn’t have been put through this if I wasn’t supposed to do something about it.”

David’s work was showcased at BOLD, the Visual Communications and Creative Digital Media final year students exhibition that ran from May 30 to June 6 at the CIT James Barry Exhibition Centre.

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