Updated: Jul 27
As part of Waterford Rotarys initiative, Sleep Out Help Out to raise funds for Helping Hand Waterford I took it upon myself to do something a little differently. While we were encouraging people to sleep outside from home, in tents, under the stars or sheltered, I literally hit the streets of Waterford City, with just a sleeping bag, change of clothes, a €10 prepaid mobile, that barely worked, (just for emergencies), a can of deodorant and the grand sum of €8 in my pocket. No bank cards, no fancy smancy mobile phone or tablet, no books or reading material just trust in myself and a whole heap of "what the hell am I doing"..
That Friday morning, the 29th of May, I went into the city at 8.30 am and when you don't have a purpose, only to get through the day, no matter what the weather is like, it is very daunting. Remember, this was May 2020, and all businesses, save one or two coffee shops and newsagents were open at that point, and what seemed to be, a long never ending queue outside of Dunnes Stores with people stocking up on supplies due to the lockdown. Thankfully, the weather was glorious, cloudless skies, radiant sunshine and just a warm breeze blowing through the very quiet and empty 'Hollywood movie like apocalyptic streetscapes' and here I was, actually alone in a City. A city where I have come to love and know.
But what lay ahead was literally nothing, nowhere to go, no one to chat with, no destination and nothing in my pocket. Old habits die hard, and on reflection I made a stupid mistake of buying a cup of coffee. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against the coffee vendor or the actual price but when you have just €8, I blew just over 25% of my 24 hour budget in the space of 45 minutes. Which doesn't sound like bad value, except that 25 minutes of that was queueing for the coffee, 10 minutes trying to find somewhere reasonably comfortable to plonk myself down, and 10 minutes consuming the coffee. At least it killed 45 minutes of 24 hours, so only just 1,395 minutes to go......
What struck me very early on, was the isolation. Okay, it was Covid Lockdown, but I had nothing. I made a conscious decision that I would not be surfing the internet on my mobile, no Facebook, or Youtube, no video games and no reading the online news services. Every time you use your phone, it takes you away from where you are, not physically, but mentally and emotionally. Many of the people who come to Helping Hand do not own a mobile phone, and if they do, it's on a shoestring budget, you would never see the latest tech devices, it's a luxury no one can afford, because food, teas, coffees, smokes all come first. Anything outside of that is fluff, its items like that are nice to haves, not need to haves. I was determined that for good or bad, I would take it all in, for every minute of the 1,440 minutes of my time on the streets.
With nothing open, what do you do? Simple, nothing. Only walk, sit for a while, walk again, and repeat. You can easily pass the time walking, with nowhere to go, and nothing to do. It's akin to being tossed around on an empty sea, except your legs are the wind and waves and they take you everywhere and nowhere. No direction, no purpose and no hope. It's amazing how quickly a person can lose hope, when the simple things we take for granted are not available. The libraries were all closed, the shops were closed and it's not as if those living on the streets would be able to go shopping, splurging out on the latest fashion items, but it's about literally watching the activity in the shops. People living their lives, watching their purchases, watching as they sit with friends for coffee and chats as they discuss the highs and lows of Love Island, making plans and going home. Their home, their space, their safety and security. When you have only your life in a backpack or holdall, these people's lives may as well be on Mars, because it is a whole world away from where you are, and is so alien in its own way. What life is to a homeless person, is it's a reality show, not on a screen but in 3d, glorious technicolor, where you are only an extra, never the lead and your world is in simple black and white.
Getting back to that cursed coffee, I unfortunately do not have the constitution of a camel, and basic bodily needs must be attended to. Ah, and here is the rub, in the normal course of daily life, one has at least one lavatory in their abode, or at work, or in shopping centres, but with Covid, all public conveniences are in a word inconvenient, so now the real panic sets in. I am in no way a world class athlete but always imagined if I needed to escape a predatory lion, all I had to do was outrun the slowest person around. Unfortunately, my bladder became Usain Bolt, and I was suddenly the world's largest oil tanker with the agility to match, so I had to get my skates on and get sorted quick march. Luckily, one of our clients at Helping Hand had given me a tip, which I acted on, quicker than you could say "legger". I will save you, the reader the details, suffice to say I was on a mission. The nearest available 'convenience' was 15/20 minutes away, and I cannot thank them for having a bathroom available. These toilets are not and should not be considered luxuries, by either public authorities or Governments, they are truly necessities. Their availability is literally about providing dignity to everyone, none so more than those without a bed or home.
By now, I was getting hungry and looking at my paltry €5.80 I needed the best bang for my buck. Before leaving home this morning, I had two slices of toast and a bowl of cereal, I will be releasing that particular recipe in my future cookbook, but it was now just gone 3pm and I felt I was reliving my 24hr fast for Concern from my secondary school days. Thankfully a local supermarket were doing a 'meal deal', sandwich, crisps and a small can of soft drink, which devoured a vast chunk of my €5.80 leaving me with the grand total of €1.81. It filled a hole and passed some of the time, because I had a purpose, even if it was just eating and watching the stray cats eyeballing me.
Finding a nice place to sit was difficult, there were no comfy benches, no padded refuge to sit down on and observe the minutes tick by. So I walked and walked, sat down anywhere and hoped that time would speed by. The real hope I had throughout the day was that at 7pm Helping Hand Volunteers would be attending service, providing food, refreshments and a genuine caring ear to all who attend. It's wonderful to be in the privileged position of working with so many caring individuals who give up their time freely, before and during Covid, providing a social and practical setting for the homeless, those in emergency shelter, to the families in temporary accommodation and those in sheltered homes. For once, I was no viewing Helping Hand through the eyes of those who attend, and I will be honest, before today, I heard all the stories from our clients and attendees, I have seen what we did, but I had never lived it. But today, boy was I living it. Don't get me wrong, I knew that come 8.30 on Saturday morning I could go home, have a cuppa whenever I liked, used the bathroom when I wanted, curl up on a soft bed and pillow, with a roof over my head. Not for one minute did I think that this experience gave me the full insight of living on the streets, do I really get it. I would be arrogant and foolish to think I was. As difficult as I was finding it, it was nothing compared to what our clients faced, every minute of every day. This was a snippet of what people up and down this country face, so if anything, it gives me a better understanding, that's all, of what people go through. But roll on 7pm, to see helping Hand Volunteers and to see and socialise with others.
People who are homeless, who live on the streets, spend every day invisible to most people's eyes. They don't register as people, no one cares who they are, they judge, they blank them out, they ignore and shuffle by. It's not people's fault, its life as we have it now, people are too busy to stop, too caught up to care, they don't understand addictions, they don't want to know. We at Helping Hand are lucky, we've stopped, we've looked up, to see these people for who they are, not what they are, or what they've become, we don't label. What we all do at Helping Hand is give people time, yes we give food, refreshments, clothing, sleeping bags and tents but we give time to people. We listen, we talk, but we listen, we engage, because everyone has a story to tell. Remember, you have one mouth and two ears, so listen twice as much as you talk.
Our Service that night was busy, we had prepared 25 dinners and by twenty past 7, they were all gone. We ensured that no one went hungry, except for me, I couldn't take a meal to keep me going, because I was going home tomorrow morning. It wasn't a selfless gesture, it was just the practicalities of the situation. Logic overruling sentiment. Personally, I was just happy to talk and chat with people, have a chance to listen, take advice on the night to come. These are the things we miss, to gather and chat (physical distancing and all that), to be seen as more than we present. I was sad watching the Volunteers depart, our clients retreating back to streets and I was alone again, save for my €1.81 and my 'home' on my back.
One of the key tips I received regarding my 'accomodation' for the night, was to try and obtain some rubbish, like a bin bag of recyclables, or some cardboard. This wasn't to provide comfort for sleeping on a hard surface, it was to hide under. Because, safety when sleeping rough is paramount and no always guaranteed. Over the years we have witnessed the 'after effects' of sleeping rough in public places, and unfortunately it wasn't pretty at all. Clients have shown us their tents wrecked and destroyed by vandals, people taking time out to defecate and urinate over tents, personal belongings and in some cases, directly on those people in their sleeping bags. As if sleeping rough wasn't hard enough, some of our clients have been subjected to outright violence and aggression. So, one must blend in with all the other rubbish of our City to try and protect oneself. The thoughts of spending the night on the street, literally at this point filled me with dread. Throughout the day, I knew it would come to this, but as the streets emptied, darkness fell and the street lamps came on, I realised that this was it. As I meandered through the streets during the day, I protected my backpack as my life depended on it, because without my sleeping bag, there would be no solace or comfort to be found anywhere in the city. I deliberately did not bring a tent, because the vast majority of people coming to us at Helping Hand, do not have that luxury, whatever about having a sleeping bag.
Every sense becomes heightened, when you know you have nothing only yourself and whatever is on your back. every shadow is a potential threat, every cough or sound an assailant and every doorway a bed. For someone experiencing sleeping rough for the first time, it's scary, and not in a funfair type or rollercoaster way. It's dangerous, because you become so exposed, so invisible to help and so alone, its hard to keep those horrible thoughts in check. Will it rain, will I be attacked, will I get help if I need it, will I be robbed, will I get cold and wet, and will I see the morning light? Waterford isn't New York, and this was during Covid-19, so there were no pubs, bars, night clubs or restaurants open, all the shops were closed, so surely there would be only empty streets. But there weren't empty streets, numerous small groups of people flitting between the yellow ambient lighting of the City, right into the early hours. I have no idea who they were, or what they were doing. The only thing I did know, regardless of their own purposes or motivations, their presence did nothing to appease my growing fears, in a city I knew. What would it be like for someone going to a strange or unfamiliar location, to try and survive any length of time on the streets. Eventually I found a place to 'bed down' for the night, a shopfront which got me out of the elements slightly, so I set up my base camp here. But then the mind starts asking questions, have you an escape route, are you vulnerable, are you backed into a dead end or will you be found or heard if the worst happens. I know from experience, I would be okay, but it doesnt stop your brain from going into overdrive, I might as well been trying to stay over in a haunted house. Eventually, I drove myself up the walls, and about 1.30 am, I packed up out of the shadows and found another place to stay, after a short walk. I so hoped no one seen me moving, it wasn't that I was afraid of being recognised, but I had switched into a survival mode, I didn't want any sort of attention that would highlight my position and leave me vulnerable. By 2am I had found a slightly better position that would accommodate and ease the worst of my own fears, so I set up base camp. I had rummaged through some bins and filled the bin bag I had brought to keep me dry, just in case. My pillow was now my backpack, all hard edges of my supplies making an impression on my skull, fully dressed and behind the strategically placed black sack of rubbish.
There was no sleep, and genuinely, I was tired enough to sleep, it had been over 1,000 minutes since I began this journey. Every sound is amplified, every click of a heel, every bang, and every noise is played through a wall of amplifiers that wouldn't be out of place at a Metallica concert. I dozed, no more, and suddenly every few minutes you'd peek out from under the sleeping bag to reassure your brain that this was real and not some bad dream. The most welcoming sounds were the birds beginning to sing and cherp around 4am followed by the shards of light from the rising sun. In one way I was so glad to have made it through the night, on the other.....Bugger no sleep is happening now!!! The city sparked into life, shortly afterwards, the busses, the cars and before you know, life has returned to the streets of Waterford. I sat for a short while, taking in the images before me, head down as people walked past. For the first time, since darkness fell, I actually felt that I couldn't be seen. Oh the irony. I had to wait till the sun came up before I became invisible again, out of the conscious view of passersby.
At this point, I packed up by belongings and emptied my bin bag back into the bins and just struggled to get my mind of the fact, that sleeping rough isn't actually sleeping at all. Yes it's rough, but there is no way anyone could sleep. I was shattered, emotionally, physically and mentally. And that was after one day and night? I know that some people who end up sleeping rough and homeless have to deal with their addictions, and my heart breaks for them. While I wouldn't condone their battles, I understand the why's. The loneliness, the boredom, the stigma, the lack of hope, surely anything that can dull those pains just a little, can be better than constantly struggling through each and every minute of the day.