Figures from COPE Galway’s Annual Report 2015 show an alarming rise in the number of people facing homelessness in Galway. One of the most striking features is the changing demographic of what was considered to be a ‘typical’ homeless person. Ann*, a well-spoken grandmother found herself in the shocking position of becoming homeless in her late 50s.
Quietly spoken, well dressed and articulate, Ann is open and honest in her recounting of her experience of homelessness. She’s anxious that no one finds out about that period of her life - she’d be embarrassed - for herself, her children. It’s just not something you’d ever imagine would happen to a woman like Ann, a mother and grandmother.
But homelessness is like that - it can happen to the most unlikely people in the most unlikely circumstances. For Ann, it was a combination of illness, a family disagreement and timing. It’s an experience she’ll never forget.
She arrived in COPE Galway’s Osterley Lodge, having spent some time in a city hotel. She had nowhere to go, no family to stay with, no home to go to. She tells her story with dignity, but still shaken when she discusses the events that led to that very difficult part in her life.
All the good things that mothers hope for
Divorced from her husband some years back, Ann raised her children more or less on her own. “My marriage was a challenge, rearing my children was a challenge, although I like to think that’s one of the things I did a really good job with. They’re all educated, they’re all partnered, they’re all independent and working - all the good things that mothers hope for.”
It was when her children left home that she decided it was time to start afresh and moved from another county in Ireland to Galway over a decade ago, and started a new job. “Everything was going along nicely; I was settling in and was very happy. Then I was diagnosed with a potentially terminal illness and everything just fell apart. It was the first time that I didn’t have a wage - suddenly I was on illness benefit. I found it very difficult to deal with.” She went back to work after recuperating from treatment, but found she wasn’t well enough to do all the hours she was contracted to do. Around the same time, her mother became ill and needed looking after, and so a new job she had planned on starting had to be turned down.
“Then I became ill again and had to go back to the hospital. It took me quite a bit of time to pull myself together after that. It was a tough one. But I have good solid friends, and I’m a strong independent person; I wouldn’t let things get on top of me. Or if I found that they were, I’d do something about it. So we got over that.” Around the same time, the property she was living in was sold and so she moved in with a family member on a temporary basis. However, following a disagreement, she was forced to move out and was left with nowhere to go.
“I was in such shock, and at the same time, I was dying with the flu. I couldn’t even think about where I was going to go or what I was going to do. My GP suggested I contact COPE Galway, and the council, but I wasn’t even able to think because I was so sick at the time.” After staying in a hotel for a few nights, she was given a room in Osterley Lodge. “This was all totally alien to me”, she says; “I had no idea where I was going or what would happen”.
I had no idea where I was going
Ann ended up spending eight months at Osterley, unable to find accommodation due to the shortage in the city at the time. “I had a deposit - money wasn’t the issue. I simply couldn’t find somewhere to live,” she stresses. So what was the experience like? “I was in a state of shock,” she recounts. “I never knew what a broken heart was. I now understand what it feels like to have such a pain in your chest, in your heart, from what happened. Obviously, there were buckets and buckets of tears, but it was great to get it out and have someone listen. Having the structure at Osterley was great. There was breakfast, and then you could help yourself to food during the day, then there was dinner at 5pm, there was TV, if you wanted to watch it. You also had your own little space, so you could go up to your room to read, then come down and socialise with the other ladies if you wanted to. That level of support and kindness that they offered at Osterley really helped towards a level of healing.”
A continued search for somewhere to live proved to be a “huge challenge”, with substandard and over-priced accommodation. “I must have made hundreds of phone calls to different people, and a lot of them wouldn’t even give you the courtesy of letting you view the property. There was one landlord who was considering it, but he needed the €650 to pay his mortgage. I would have been paying a little extra on top of that. I looked at sharing, I looked at a house that I was thinking I could sublet.”
When three months of searching for accommodation turned into four, and five and six months, she was starting to lose hope. “I thought, ‘This is mad’. Everyone was talking about homelessness at the time, that there wasn’t enough accommodation, that rents were too high and that the rent allowance was too low. But I didn’t just want a rented house, I felt I needed a home.” Being a naturally resilient person who “rolled with the punches” her entire life, Ann says the feeling of vulnerability was very difficult for her to swallow. “It wasn’t like I wasn’t used to upheaval, but this was a different level. I was a mess. I was also going through the menopause at the time too - it was just like someone had banged a bus into me,” she says. “I can’t conjure up the pain now because thankfully it’s gone but I’ll never forget the shock. Who wants to tell their friends, or even their family what had happened? Only my small circle of friends and my children are aware of what happened. Nobody outside of that know - I would feel very embarrassed if anyone knew.”
She says she found it very difficult when reading articles on homelessness online to see the scathing comments that people would leave, suggesting that it was their own fault. “When you read articles about homelessness, they may try to imply there’s a stereotype, but it can happen to anybody. People have no idea what it’s like. Until you walk in that person’s shoes, you will really never know. Yes, there are people that are homeless due to alcohol or drug abuse, and yes, it’s a choice they make to begin with, but then they can’t find a way out or maybe they’re not strong enough. There are other people, like me, who are homeless for other reasons. Fortunately, for me, I am strong, but if I was a delicate flower, I don’t know if I’d be here today. Even with the support and the kindness, nothing could prepare you for the broken heart.”
Feeling strong again
After eight months of searching, Ann’s wish for a home was granted and she now has a home through the council. Her strength, along with a lot of help from COPE Galway and the council, has meant that Ann now has her life back on track. She’s feeling strong again, and is very optimistic and about her future.
“All the dots connected eventually, so here I am in my nice new home, there for life. I can’t buy it, but who cares? It feels absolutely unbelievably magic. I wish I had known the sense of what having a home is like when I was younger, this feeling that I have now. I wish I had known that that was the feeling I should have been striving for in my 20s. I wish I had felt this sooner rather than later, but I’m still very appreciative.
The level of gratitude that I would have toward COPE Galway and everybody that I met and who crossed my path during that journey is huge. To know now that there’s somebody from COPE Galway at the end of the phone that I can call or they will call to make sure I’m OK is wonderful. It’s a whole new way of living for me. I don’t suppose you could come through something as dramatic as that and not come out feeling different. I feel differently about everything and everybody. I’ve also forgiven those that didn’t either know that I needed help or didn’t offer it.”
Ann says she has a different view of homeless people now, and says it’s a “crime” that women with babies and children will be out on the street tonight. “People don’t understand the hurt, people don’t understand the pain. I’ve read about women with their children, sleeping in cars, sleeping in hotel rooms and it’s criminal. If they’re lucky and they come across COPE Galway and the ladies in Osterley, then there’s hope,” she finishes.
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the interviewee.