From homelessness to hopefulness

From homelessness to hopefulness Garry looks down St Patrick’s Hill on the streets where he used to beg.
Homelessness Supplement 2019
Support from Cork Simon can transform lives, Greg Daly learns

 

Becoming homeless and having to rely on emergency accommodation in his home city seven years ago was a desperate experience for Garry, a native of Cork City.

“Some weeks you might get a bed three nights out of seven so you might have to sleep out rough for the other four nights. It was lonely, it was cold – it was around this time of year. It was probably the loneliest time of my life,” he tells The Irish Catholic.

Now 31 years old, the onetime window fitter is living in Gateway, a high-support housing unit run by Cork Simon, which operates as a supportive bridging community, intended to prepare long-term homeless people for independent living. It’s a far cry from how he lived on the streets.

“When I first became homeless, I went to the homeless persons unit,” he says, explaining how once he had a letter confirming him as homeless he turned to Simon.

“I was using the day centre daily,” he says. “You put your name down for a bed that morning and then around lunchtime they gave whoever’s there dinner, and let you know whether you’ve got a bed for the night or not. There would be so many people they didn’t have enough beds to give everyone so they rotate it, so some nights you’re in, some nights you’re out.”

Biting cold

With the January cold biting, the charity’s provision of blankets, sleeping bags, and a chance to get in from the cold and have a hot meal in the evening – even now the daily soup run serves over 12,000 meals a year – was especially welcome.

“Then you could try and find a safe place where you can sleep that night, where you’re not being kicked or you’re not having abuse thrown at you, smart comments and that,” he says, saying the dangers and discomfort of the night could vary, with drunk passers-by being a real challenge.

“It was hard, it was tough, just trying to find a safe place to sleep,” he says. “You spend most of your day in survival mode, really, trying to think where am I going to tonight, or how am I going to about it. You’re planning it really, most of the day. You’ve nowhere else to go, because all you’re doing is walking round town for the day.

As time went on the city’s homeless crisis worsened, and Cork Simon expanded its capacity, with an emergency night service being added to the community’s day centre so an extra 15 people without beds could be given at least a mattress to lie on in the night.

“A lot of the time it’s full and not everybody can get in. That’s how I started and it took a while before I got a bed in Simon full time,” Garry says.

“When you do get a fulltime bed you get assigned a keyworker,” he continues. “I was still using heavily at the time – I was on heroin at the time. I’d progressed obviously from smoking weed to cocaine, ecstasy and then heroin. That was kind of the end of the line.”

It was difficult to fight addiction in the emergency shelter, Garry adds.

“It’s very hard to get clean in the shelter because there’s so many people using and whatever is going on behind closed doors that the staff can’t see. It was very hard to get clean there, and I was using heavily at the time, and the keyworker was working with me to try and get clean,” he says. “I managed it after about 12 months. I was so sick and tired of it, and gave it a break and got in contact with Gateway here. They told me that if I could stabilise myself and get some clean time behind me that they might be able to provide me with a bed, so there was a bit of hope there then, where I’d had no hope and felt hopeless before that.”

The prospect of a way out was key to him getting clean, as it gave him things he knew he could live for. Not least the hope of being able to see his infant daughter.

“I was suicidal at times,” Garry says. “At the start when I was sleeping out, many times I thought it’d be easier…sometimes I’d pray to God that I wouldn’t wake up the following morning, but when I got the bit of hope from Gateway I stopped using, stabilised myself, and got a routine. I got a second interview with Gateway here, and they told me there was a bed here for me, so from that point on I got clean and started working on myself and getting my daughter back in my life.”

Praising staff at the community for helping him get access to his child, he says: “I’m on a methadone programme now at the moment, on a reducing dose and hopefully I’ll be off that as well come the summer. I only got access back with my daughter last week. When I got here that was one of my main priorities. Obviously, my main priority was to stay clean, because without staying clean none of that was possible. There was plenty of motive there.”

At the same time, Garry says, getting clean and staying clean are different things, with the latter being much harder, though Gateway provides him with an environment where he has a fighting chance.

“When I got here it was a lot easier, and a lot more relaxed because everyone in the house was in the same boat as me, trying to stay clean,” he says. “This house would be a kind of stabilisation house, focused on helping you in recovery and stuff like that. It’s a lot more relaxed – the shelter would be a lot more chaotic, I suppose, whereas Gateway’s a stabilisation place: keyworking sessions weekly, and if something needs to be done or the staff notice a certain behaviour they’ll pull you up on it and say you need to work on this.”

Community

Routine is key to his day, he says, with daily meditation being an important part of his life there, along with meetings, working with his keyworker, courses, and his own room, as well as common areas for recreation, with the members of the community occasionally having outings to the cinema, go-karting or football matches among other things. As much as anything, it’s about warding off boredom.

“Idle hands are the devil’s playground, so you’re battling addiction and don’t want to fall backward into homelessness again. You’re working both sides of it, and it’s hard,” says Garry.

“It’s kind of like being in a houseshare at home with support from the flat, which is good. It kind of helps you to move on to independent living as well. It kind of gives you all the tools that you need for when you do go to independent living,” he says.

Simon also arranged for Garry to work part-time as a kitchen porter ahead of Christmas to get him used to possibility that he could work again. “It gave me great confidence. It showed me that I can go back and do it, to move away from homelessness and addiction, and go back to normal living,” he says, adding, “before I became homeless I always worked as a window fitter, a glazer and I’d like to go back doing that fulltime again”.

“I wouldn’t have dreamed of that a year and a half ago,” he continues. “I would have been suicidal then, sleeping rough. A year can make a big difference – without the help and support of Gateway and Cork Simon it wouldn’t have been possible.”

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