From top: Two people sleep rough on Salthill promenade in Galway earlier this year; journalist Ciaran Tierney
Last month, the Cope Galway claimed 50 people were sleeping rough in Galway while there were also 50 homeless families, including up to 100 children, and 45 “single person” households in emergency accommodation in Galway city on any given night.
Ciaran Tierney writes:
The mood was sombre as we left the ground. Galway United had just lost a crucial game to a last minute goal from Dublin club Shamrock Rovers and the unseasonable drizzle matched the mood of the home fans for the walk back to the city centre.
It was the first Friday night in months that Eamonn Deacy Park was in darkness as we left the ground following a home game and the shortening days seemed to bring grim tidings of a long winter to come for the city’s soccer club.
Relegation was beckoning and suddenly, given the biting wind and incessant drizzle, optimism was in short supply.
I normally drive to Galway United games and park my car across the river at NUI Galway. On this night, though, I had brought a group of 22 students from Mexico, Switzerland, Spain, and Brazil to the SSE League game, where they had revelled in the atmosphere and the quality of the football, if not quite the result for the home side.
So I zipped up my jacket and braced myself for the 15-minute walk into the wind and rain, towards the city centre where I had arranged to meet an old friend in a pub.
What I didn’t expect to discover was that a whole new “neighbourhood” had popped up in my city, barely ten minutes away from Eyre Square and the pedestrian heart of the city.
The Dyke Road is really green at this time of year, a bush-lined roadway between the soccer ground and the heart of the city.
To our right, amid the overgrown bushes, a number of discarded sleeping bags caught my eye. I had ignored them earlier, given the logistics of arranging match tickets for 22 foreign language students, but now I was in no particular hurry as I made my way back into town.
I heard some voices coming from behind the bushes. Someone, unseen, called out to me from just metres away.
Curious now, I stopped and peered in through a gap in the bushes. A man of about my own age approached me.
I asked him politely what he was doing there and he told me this was his “home”. Leaving the road for a few minutes, I walked in through the bushes and discovered a makeshift village of six or seven of the kind of cheap tents you can buy for €25 or €30 in one of the discount supermarkets.
He told me that there were a dozen people living there and I felt ashamed that I knew nothing about this makeshift “community” which had popped up just ten minutes from the heart of my city.
I asked him if he was alright and told him I didn’t smoke when he asked me politely for a cigarette. There seemed to be a look of resignation in his weather-beaten face and despair in his quiet voice as I surveyed his appalling living conditions for just a few brief moments.
This was Galway in 2017, the kind of place the tourists never see, and it made me wonder how many other people scattered throughout the margins of my city were living in similar conditions just minutes from prying eyes.
How many were sleeping on friends’ couches or in their cars because the hostels were full? How safe did these people feel, sleeping in tents so near to the city’s main thoroughfare?
And so I walked on into the city centre, where my friend had arranged to meet for a post-game drink before driving home to his small town an hour from Galway.
With him was another man I had met once or twice before. Also about my own age, he began to question me urgently about the rental situation in the city.
On strong medication for the past decade, the man is desperately seeking a change. He wants to move out of the small town where he can’t find any employment opportunities, where he feels trapped, but feels he is stuck in limbo and can’t move on with his life.
He has battled mental health problems for a long time and now feels it’s time to move on. He would love to get a job in the city, to have something akin to a normal life, and I can see despair on his face when I tell him it costs about €350 per month now to rent a room in my city.
How could he afford that? he wondered. How could he get a job when a decent place to live is beyond his means?
He wants to live a fruitful, meaningful life, but he’s in a spiral of unemployment and broken dreams, surrounded by people in the same predicament as him. Although he barely knows me, he confides that he’s trying desperately to get off medication and that it has hampered his ability to regain control of his life.
I feel bad. I feel as though I’m destroying his dream, even with a brief little chat about the rental situation in my city. And I wonder how hard he would struggle to return to the jobs market, given how the medication has “numbed” him out for years now.
I feel desperately sad to see how sad he is about his prospects of getting a job or a flat in Galway. The “half-way house” he lives in is keeping him off the streets, which he is thankful for, but things most of us take for granted (a job, independence, a girlfriend) seem totally beyond his reach.
Surely, in 2017, “numbing” people out of pain because they have had mental health difficulties in the past is just not good enough. Especially if they really want to make changes in their lives.
I feel apologetic as we bid our goodbyes.
I’m not drinking tonight, as I left my car in Salthill an hour before the football game. So I take my leave after almost two hours in the pub and make my way through the city centre.
In Forster Street, there are bodies huddled in doorways, beside some of the city’s busiest and most trendy pubs. Their faces covered under hoods, people have laid their sleeping bags out as they prepare for an uncomfortable night’s sleep.
In Eyre Square, two young men in their early 20s shout loudly to each other as they urinate in full view of a group of appalled Swiss or German tourists. They are oblivious to the disapproving eyes.
I cross the road, where three young women are alighting loudly from a taxi. Already drunk, one of them clutches a drink in her right hand. Excited, perhaps, by the prospect of a night out in one of the city’s clubs, they shout loudly at each other. One of them racially abuses the cab driver before heading off into the night.
The driver glances at me for just a brief moment, shrugs, and drives off to pick up his next fare. His reaction seems to make it clear that this is not an isolated incident on a weekend night.
At the corner of Eglington Street, it seems there is a riot going on. Not to worry, it’s just a group of young people socialising loudly outside one of the city’s biggest bars.
I’m no prude. I used to love socialising in the city centre late at night in my 20s and 30s. But trying to walk by a large group of people who are clearly out of their minds with alcohol is no fun if you are completely sober and walking alone on a Friday night.
I turn down Shop Street, a place which tourists tell me they find scary in the early hours. The place is buzzing with activity, as young people make their way towards the city’s late night bars and clubs. It will be heaving again when the clubs empty out around 2.30am.
I have to admit I haven’t been here for a while in the early hours. On the city’s main thoroughfare, in the heart of the pedestrian zone, I’m quite shocked to see quite a few people bedding down in doorways on either side of the street.
A couple from Eastern Europe seem oblivious to the passing eyes as they argue loudly while laying out their sleeping materials for the night. Tomorrow, people will be drinking lattes right next to the place they now call “home” for the night.
Just 50 metres away, some poor woman is sleeping out on her own. I don’t want to appear too curious, to discover her nationality. A kindly passer-by is down on his knees, asking her if she is ok, and I wonder what circumstances led her to sleep in a shop doorway in my wet and windy city, of all places, in August 2017.
I wonder how she will sleep when the pubs empty out at 2 or 2.30am and the young revellers make their way to the fast food premises. Will she face verbal or physical abuse? It’s already cold and wet in August, but will she still be here in November when the conditions will be much worse?
How did it come to this? That a little makeshift village has sprung up within a ten minute walk of the city centre or that people have no option but to bed down in shop doorways through the night?
That young revellers now see it as “normal” to come across people lying outside under the elements as they make their way to and from the late night clubs?
This is Galway, in August 2017. We have just had an amazing festival season, yet the sad underbelly is impossible to ignore if you venture into the city at night.
Why isn’t there more of an uproar in a place where the City Council can devote an entire meeting to whether or not they should say a prayer before their monthly meetings?
Yes, I felt like a bit of a prude on Friday; or a little naïve, to have been so oblivious to the extent of the homelessness problem in my city right now.
But the City of the Tribes did not feel like the most welcoming place for everyone when viewed through sober eyes on a cold and wet Friday night.