THE head of a charity that helps vulnerable people in Cork has said ‘stomach-churning’ sex attacks are taking place on homeless women on the city’s streets.
Caitriona Twomey of Cork Penny Dinners has spoken out about sex attacks on homeless women in a bid to raise awareness of a problem that often goes unnoticed.
Ms Twomey recalled with gruesome clarity how she was forced to physically remove a man from an unconscious homeless woman before raising the alarm with gardaí.
The former Cork Person of the Month revealed how, in this and a similar incident, both of the perpetrators were also homeless and had been known to their victims. She said the charity is seeing the effects of sexual assaults firsthand from a number of clients who visit Cork Penny Dinners to eat.
The homelessness prevention advocate stressed that the majority of homeless men are not partaking in these crimes. She also pointed out that it is not just women who are vulnerable to assaults.
A number of young male victims confided in her about experiencing sexual assaults while new to the streets.
Ms Twomey is working closely with Mary Crilly of the Sexual Violence Centre to ensure homeless women and men get the help they need after such deeply traumatic experiences. She praised the organisation for its valuable work which, she said, is needed now more than ever.
“This is an element of the crisis causing alarm that is frightening,” said Ms Twomey.
“While so many people in the homeless community have respect and look out for one another, this is a problem that goes deeper than we can talk about. We’ve seen sights that are shockingly sad.
“One man was on top of a woman who had passed out. We had to physically pull him off her. We also had to intervene in another incident where a man was on top of a woman.
"This woman was not in a state of mind to realise what had just happened to her. We’re not quite sure what happened after that. Gardaí took over as soon as we contacted them.”
She warned that the situation is getting worse every year.
“We are seeing young girls with their faces battered,” she said. “There are things happening on our streets that would make your stomach turn.”
According to Ms Twomey, a number of women living on the streets are in relationships out of protection rather than love.
“One woman summed it up well when she said that she would rather be with one man who will protect her than be abused by a number of men.”
She explained why these vicious crimes are going unreported.
“If a victim makes a complaint and is on the streets, they know they’re at their abuser’s mercy.”
Ms Twomey has on occasion reported suspicious activity to gardaí.
“We came across a young girl in a tent with four men in their 50s. She was completely spaced out. It isn’t, and didn’t look, right. While this girl claimed she was 18, she looked much younger.
“Sexual abuse is horrific and nobody should have to endure it. Our streets are unsafe. They are very unsafe, and action needs to be taken.”
Caitriona said the victims of crimes that go unreported are referred to Sexual Violence Centre director Ms Crilly for help.
“Mary Crilly has helped so many people who have suffered sexual assaults, and we are so grateful for her support.”
Ms Crilly also spoke about the alarming situation.
“When people hear of rape happening, they often assume it is perpetrated by a stranger as they lay in a doorway,” said Ms Crilly.
“This can happen. However, just like in the wider community, abuse is carried out by someone they know and trust, offering them protection and a means to feel safe.
“Many women have run away from abuse at home. In some cases, the perpetrator will have given their victim alcohol and views this as the payoff.
“It’s a lot like the crimes you hear of that happen in refugee camps. You would assume that a group of people who find themselves in difficult circumstances would all be kind and respectful towards one another, but this isn’t always the case. There are women in their 40s and 50s who are being raped on an ongoing basis.
“I don’t think there’s a woman in Cork who is homeless that hasn’t been raped.”
She said the majority of women who have been raped on the streets feel unable to rebuild their lives.
“Most don’t engage in counselling,” she said. “Because they lack the structure in their lives, many homeless women just don’t see the point.”
Ms Crilly described how homeless people experiencing sexual assault on the streets feel that there is no escape for them.
“This is an epidemic,” she said. “Many have been raped more times than they can count. Just like women who have been abused by someone in the workplace, they have to see their abuser every day. Only, in these circumstances, there is nowhere to hide so the situation is more exaggerated.”
She said that many women avoid hostels because of the threat of sexual abuse.
“I’ve no doubt that the owners of the hostels and B&Bs are doing the best they can, but a lot of women feel safer on the streets.”
- Anyone affected by this article who has experienced sexual assault can contact 1800 496 496 or text 087 1533393. They can also email firstname.lastname@example.org.