The realities of life on the streets, sleeping in doorways, in old sheds, in dark damp corners where the ill-wind blowing in from the bay always finds a way to find you. Living a half-life in the half light of a city that you think doesn’t care. You walk through the streets, almost invisible. If they see you, they don’t look for fear you will ask them for something they cannot give, like time, or a kind word, or a smile.
Anything that would allow them to feel human, to be acknowledged. So you shuffle across their space, and they move around you, to avoid you. Your stomach aching, pure aching with the pain of hurt that’s there. That your life has come to this, that you are disregarded so much.
This is the reality of a lifetime of life on the streets, as told to us by a man who has known more than his fair share of dark cold nights, feeling sub-human, unloved, hungry, ignored.
Often those who experience this do not get the chance to elaborate on the reality of the situation. The experience either shocks people into a sort of embarrassed silence, or else it takes away their life. The harshness of the wind, the rain, and the heart burst into smithereens by the tangents of sadness soaring through you. And although you temporarily push this to the back of your mind as you think your way through another day, it wears off and the hurt still remains when the sun rises.
Now in the depths of winter when the arrival of the Christmas fair seems to bring along its annual drop in temperatures, on nights when the well-housed sit down beside roaring fires; who find solace on soft mattresses; who can bolt a door to keep themselves in, and keep others out.
On nights like this, we should think of those who are out there, huddled in doorways, their woollen fabric no protection against the water seeping up through the saturated cardboard; unknowing what the next passerby will bring to your situation; will they smile, or spit; or laugh; you huddle against the light, and shield your face as you sob at the reality of how it has come to this.
Now, one of the city’s best known characters has spoken out for the first time about how he saw a flicker of hope in a bleak landscape and grasped the power of that light.
A man who is using his profile to raise funds for Galway Simon Community, who helped him to close the door on homelessness; and to give hope to those who expect little.
Dennis Connolly was born in Shantalla in 1953; he had a very difficult childhood. After his mother died, he was put into St Joseph’s Industrial School in Lower Salthill, where life was extremely challenging. When he left St Joseph’s in his late teens, he had nowhere to go and he turned to drink to cope with the loneliness. Galway was a very different place then, but the streets still let the same Atlantic breeze blow through them. And the hearts of those who dismissed him and the other homeless were equally cold.
Speaking about what it was like to be homeless, Dennis explained how he and other homeless people were treated when he was sleeping rough.
“I was homeless living on the streets of Galway for years. I used to sleep in an old shed at the back of the old Claddagh Palace in Salthill. Back then people ignored you if you were homeless, you were kept down, you had nothing at all.
Cardboard in the shoes
“I never had any possessions, only what I wore. If the shoes went, sometimes I would put cardboard in them. Christmas was the loneliest part of the year. You had nothing. You had no Christmas dinner.
“You never mix with anyone when you’re homeless. You’re a lonely person,” Dennis said.
And this takes its toll on you. When people don’t speak to you and you don’t get to speak back, you forget what —is it like to be human. You shun interaction because you expect none in return. You feel like you have been allocated a place in society and you stick to it. During his time on the streets, because of his time on the streets, because he was of the streets, Dennis became a well-known character in Galway.
We define characters strangely nowadays — a monicker we throw onto people who are different and who share a public space that we all inhabit. It covers a multiplicity of eccentricities.
In 1979, he first came into contact with Galway Simon Community when some of the charity’s original volunteers visited him on their soup run.
“They were my only friends at that time. I’ll never forget how it felt to be treated like a human being, like I was worth something. At the beginning they used to come three nights a week to talk to us and bring us soup and sandwiches. Only for them I would be dead a long time ago,” Dennis said.
After years of sleeping rough and being in and out of emergency accommodation, Dennis turned his life around. He moved into one of Galway Simon’s high support houses and he started going to AA to battle the drinking.
Through his own hard work and with the help of his key workers, he was eventually able to leave homelessness behind him for good in 2015 when he moved into a place of his own.
My own paradise
“When I was ready to move on from high support and when a small council flat became available, Galway Simon helped me move and settle in. I’m in my own little paradise now,” Dennis explained.
This Christmas, Dennis is using his voice to help others like himself who weren’t as fortunate, and for those still out there who urgently need support.
He says there are no hopeless cases.
“Look at me years ago, I changed my life and I don’t drink today. I’m years off the drink and I did it for myself.
“I can’t stop thinking about the people, including friends of mine, who weren’t as lucky as me. Galway Simon didn’t give up on me. Please give them your support this Christmas.”
And with that he steps up and shuts the door and takes pleasure in it — an action that reminds him of the many nights he slept without a door. And he sleeps the sleep of the innocents. Thankful for what he has got, and glad to be able to offer hope to those who at this moment are finding dry cardboard; who are tormented at the thought of another night at the mercy of the wind, the rain, and the rest of us.
If you would like to support Galway Simon Community this Christmas and help to close the door on homelessness for others like Dennis, visit www.galwaysimon.ie to make a donation.