Misery, despair and a little hope... my night spent with homeless in Cork

Did you go out last Saturday night? SHAMIM MALEKMIAN did, on the streets of Cork, where she joined members of a volunteer group dedicated to helping Cork city’s homeless
Misery, despair and a little hope... my night spent with homeless in Cork

HERETO HELP:LindseyCollins and Eamonn Kearney,volunteers with Cork’s Homeless Drive, in Cork city on Saturday night.

TENTS are springing up across the city, and Cork Simon report the numbers using its services are up 18% on last year.

A total of 1,403 people used the Simon service in 2017, but who are the people behind these vast numbers?

On Saturday night, I set out with a volunteer group to find out.

Finbarr Spillane and his crew of volunteers at Cork’s Homeless Drive walk long stretches through the city each Saturday night, scouring for hungry, cold and lonely rough sleepers.

They are each equipped with walky-talkies, and ears that are willing to listen, as well as bags full of necessities — from food to hygiene products and sleeping bags — all donated by Cork people.

Finbarr Spillane.
Finbarr Spillane.

Finbarr, who has recently found sobriety after battling alcohol addiction for more than four decades, is committed to trying to provide care and a little hope for the city’s homeless.

“They are waiting for us, every week,” he says.

Maggie O’Shea, a former pre-school teacher, has been volunteering with Homeless Drive since last October. She says before she began losing weight and volunteering for the homeless, she was often struck by a sharp loneliness.

“I’m on disability now as I injured my back, so before I lost so much weight and started getting out, I used to stay in my room feeling depressed,” she says.

She is loved and revered by all the men and women she attends to each week, and one man particularly delights at her appearance. His name is Daniel, a 25-year-old former fashion designer. “Maggie’s my best friend,” he says.

Daniel has been living on the streets for the past two and a half years. “I lost my business and my house, and from there everything went downhill,” he explains.

However, he tries his best to stay positive. “I try not to look at the bad side of homelessness and think that the streets are my home,” he says.

FORLORN FIGURE: A homelessman on the steps ofCork CityLibrary on Saturday night
FORLORN FIGURE: A homelessman on the steps ofCork CityLibrary on Saturday night

Maggie asks him to show me the accessories he’s wearing, most of which he has designed himself. His rings and necklace shine in Cork city’s night, resembling his unyielding hope for the future.

Daniel has a glamorous aura and poses for my photos like a professional model. He looks especially out of place on the streets.

Daniel is transgender and has been diagnosed with ADHD. A recent study revealed that Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning (LGBTQ+) youth are 120 per cent more likely to experience homelessness.

Daniel’s laugh is warm and ready, but he looks older than his 25 years.

After playfully posing for a couple of photos, he takes his bag of necessities, hugged, kisses the volunteers, and melts into the Saturday night crowd.

 Maggie O'Shea.
 Maggie O'Shea.

There are about ten volunteers on the streets — and up to 14 some nights — and the ones with me are Maggie, Lindsey Collins and Eamonn Kearney. Lindsey, a first-time volunteer with Homeless Drive, is a 30-year-old paramedic who used to work at a nursing home in Glanmire. Helping other is a passion of hers.

Owen is waiting for Maggie and her team, lying awake on Patrick Street. He’s 63 and used to be a salesman before losing his home.

He still has the salesman habit of smiling broadly after he finishes talking. “I used to work for a windows company in Cork,” he says. Owen appears intelligent, but homelessness has made him distrustful of people.

Some people seemed hardly aware of our presence, as if we were a part of the blur of misery through which they moved.

Lou, a 24-year-old man who looked worryingly ashen, put it this way: “If you’re homeless, you blend into the wall, I’m sick of being homeless.”

Fatmah, a homeless woman sitting on a bridge, asked the volunteers for baby wipes and later confided that she uses them to keep her cuts clean.

She has had tumours removed from her breasts, but the area has gotten infected and bleeds often.

Lindsey Collins.
Lindsey Collins.

Maggie, Lindsey and Eamonn attended to many others on the night, making hot drinks and small talks throughout the night and into the morning.

It’s clear that the official figures are not wrong., There are more and more people on Cork’s streets who are homeless and in need of compassion from all the charities, support groups and volunteers we can muster.

Finbarr sums up the frustration, pointing to a derelict building in the city.

“Why don’t they use one of those empty warehouses and turn it into another Simon Community?” he asks, as his crew gets ready to head home another night’s work.

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