MATTHEW Moynihan’s story is of one young man’s journey through homelessness and addiction to sobriety.
I caught up with him at the Haven café on Bachelor’s Quay in Cork city, where he’s currently on work experience. We sit outside in the sunshine and enjoy the views of the river as he tells me his story.
He is at pains to stress that this is not a sad story and the only reason for telling it is that it may help even one other person.
Matthew was born in Bessboro 23 years ago and raised in Dublin and Wicklow. Until the age of 11, he never knew his father.
During his childhood Matthew said he suffered physical and psychological abuse.
A Franciscan helped him to attend Gormanstown Secondary Boarding School where at first he thrived and won academic prizes for best student in second, third and fourth years. However, by fifth year Matthew was smoking weed and binge drinking as a coping mechanism for bullying.
His mental health deteriorated to the extent he had a breakdown requiring hospitalisation. This was just one in a series of five admissions that Matthew required.
This first admission did not help him with his addictions, which he strongly states were his way of coping with anxiety, depression and strength.
He is also very strong on the notion that the addictions made the mental health issues worse. Though he could not see this at the time and so the vicious cycle continued.
When he was 20, Matthew took a train to Cork as he just wasn’t coping in Wicklow. He binge drank on the way down to the extent that the next thing he knew he woke up in Cork University Hospital. From there the Gardaí took him to St Vincent’s hostel, as he did not want to return home to Wicklow. He felt he’d burnt family connections and though they had always helped him, the time had come to stop relying on them. He said that during this time, mental ill health fuelled the addiction and the addiction fuelled his mental ill health.
Matthew wants to make clear that he takes full responsibility for his homelessness; that a series of poor choices on his part created the situation. He does, though, feel let down by the mental health services who insist on treating mental health and addiction as two separate issues. He believes dual diagnosis and treatment is required.
Matthew lived in St Vincent’s hostel over the next two years, continuing to binge drink and make poor life choices. These often included choosing sleeping partners just as a means for somewhere to sleep. Homelessness is not just rough sleeping, he says. Rarely did he spend nights on the street, once he spent an entire night at an internet café. It is, he says, having nowhere to go, nowhere to call home.
On one occasion, he polished off a full bottle of vodka and became very ill, vomiting blood. He was admitted to the Mercy University Hospital where he spent five days during which he detoxed.
From that starting point, he began a 12 step programme. He continued to test the waters, trying to convince himself that he could have a healthy relationship with alcohol.
Matthew believes services for addiction and homelessness should be state-funded not left to charities and church bodies to fill the vacuum. He says there are no in-patient services to treat addiction if one doesn’t have health insurance. And even if one could afford private health insurance, addiction is deemed a pre-existing condition and therefore he wouldn’t be eligible to join. Cork City Council will pay as much as €2,000 towards treatment that costs €6,000, which would leave a homeless addict with a massive debt to add to all the other challenges they face.
St. Vincent’s hostel gave Matthew great support and he began daily attendance at 12 step programme meetings. He stresses how lucky he’s been and that many have it much worse than him.
One piece of luck he experienced was a person he met on the 12 step programme offering him a place to stay for three months. This was crucial to his recovery, he says, as staying at St Vincent’s with 70 other addicts would not have helped. He began attending mental health services and taking medication. It was about learning new coping skills.
Matthew is adamant that both the mental health services and the homelessness services are deplorably under-resourced. He met many good people in the services who helped him enormously, but emphasised they are overworked and under-resourced.
Housing Minister Simon Coveney, he believes, needs to do much more than cap rents as a measure to address homelessness. And he says there needs to be clear multi agency strategies to tackle addiction and homelessness which so often go hand in hand.
Mental health services need to adopt a dual diagnosis approach and the Catholic Church should not be relied on to take up the government slack in providing adequate care, he added.
The State’s only response is to hand the issues over to the Catholic Church, and while church bodies do provide help, it is not effective: compulsory daily Mass and evening Rosary was not what Matthew needed, he stresses.
The government have created the socio economic conditions which have led to homelessness, it is the government’s responsibility to deal with the situation, the young man believes.
Matthew says he is spiritual without believing in any one church or creed. A higher power, though he cannot name what or who that might be, definitely intervened in his life. There was no other way he could have overcome his addiction. Just because he didn’t drink every day, he refused to acknowledge he had a problem. But addiction, he says, is not how often one drinks but rather the unhealthy relationship the addict has with alcohol.
He praises Cork Simon for helping him with education and training. Currently he’s living in the Cork Foyer where he has a bed-sit and shared cooking facilities. He says he is re-learning the skills needed for living.
He is studying a FETC level 4 support training and enterprise course through the YMCA. In September he will begin a radio broadcasting course at Colaiste Stiofan Naofa and has long term plans to attend UCC.
Matthew is a poet and was a regular attendee at O’Bheal in the Long Valley. These days he tries to avoid pubs. He has founded Spotlight as a creative space for the people of Cork. They run an open mic session once a month at the Haven and always have a guest poet. Theo Dorgan will feature in December, while others to have performed include Billy Ramsell, Afric McGlinchey and Paul O’ Casey.
Matthew Moynihan is now 12 months sober. He is continually working on his recovery and attends the 12 step programme every day.
He sends me statistics from the Citizen’s Information website for homelessness in the Cork region, which he researched in preparation for our interview. The numbers tell their own story:
In 2016, an average of 53 people per night relied on an emergency bed in Cork Simon. This figure has steadily increased since 2014.
These figures do not include those living in St Vincent’s where 70 people are in “emergency accommodation” which serves each person for up to six months, provided they pay their rent and don’t cause major disturbances. There is a great competition for beds there.
Cork Foyer serves 19 18-25 year olds with six month contracts/licence agreements and allows people to stay for up to two years. They are to open Bishop’s Grove student accommodation with Focus Ireland and Tusla.
These statistics do not include those that aren’t registered as homeless with the Homeless Person’s Unit run by the Department of Social Protection on Drinan Street.
Before we part, Matthew stresses again how lucky he is: he received the right supports at the right time, especially from Emergency Accommodation, Cork City Council, St Vincent’s and Simon employment and training.
Here are some of his poems.
Her path has cambered of late.
Her, in the moonlight hours.
Snow falls upon her essence,
A world of beauty numbed By needle, spoon and citric.
But still she stumbles on,
Eyes shifting for the warmth.
Her heart beats like a sickdrum
At the unwarranted caresses of
Dark faces in the night-time.
Bleak moments that fund oblivion.
Blackened dreams of worlds and
Times gone by.
Just one last hit.
A final needle pierces the skin.
And she doesn’t want to be brought back.
For her only peace is rest.
ST PATRICK’S BRIDGE
His eyes flash like a camera,
wading through rippled blood
for immersions navy, deep and weighted.
Trickled tears fill the bottle from
which he gawks, from which he’s trapped,
from which he swims to grip the edges.
Digits slip as he wails furiously,
fury that burns for greener grass,
as if a boiling, empty carnival.
Strife-born and fruitless,
there he floats,
warped like a gaping cage.
Some glass is not for smashing.
Spiders salivate on a meal of
nerves, knelling for the ears
of phantom ideation.
He takes a sip, lets the droplets
catalyse his shame, then ponders
the sail of air then smash.
Twenty feet into the black.
The trembles rise as he sinks
into a world of warming scotch.
He can hear the bells ringing now,
galling him – ‘put your message in
that bottle then dive, dive into the
For ignorance is bliss and death
has no name.
The ants are crawling now
as he climbs upon the ledge.
Every sense heightened in the ultimate.
His mind azure as he screams into the
icy depths of the River Lee.
The harbour blue and waiting.
Blue – as he’ll be found.
Time froze the day our eyes
Glued in that grubby, Dublin café.
Souls passed through pupils
As heat filled the ethereal
Space between us.
A warmth, a poet called love.
Fear, replaced by hope,
Pain, replaced by peace.
Fleeting moments breed renaissance.
Tickets to the cinema of the
Mind do not come cheap.
There are but rare and private
Showings. You turned the
Horror into romance.
All in a single glance.
So we strolled along the
Sands of time at Sandymount,
As the clocks began again.
Hand-in-hand, to the horizon,
Where the embers rise and bend.