The day I met Jonathan Corrie, offered to buy him lunch and he told me about his life
PUBLISHED16/12/2014 | 02:30
‘People die on streets all the time. Ever since people have been living on the streets, they’ve been dying on the streets,” a homeless friend told me recently.
Back in the 1980s, when I was a child, a friend and I found a homeless man dead on a bench in a city centre park.
Just like many homeless deaths, it wasn’t meaningful enough to make the news. Yet something has changed in recent weeks.
The death of two homeless people in Cork – Michelle O’Riordan, a 27-year-old mother, and 53-year-old Patrick O’Driscoll – who drowned in the River Lee, and the death of John Corrie in a Dublin doorway opposite the Dail has provided a watershed moment.
The Gardai didn’t treat any of the deaths as suspicious, though sadly all three suffered from serious addictions problems. “It’s only because he (Jonathan Corrie) died close to Leinster House that everyone is up in arms about it,” a homeless friend told me last week.
“A lot of the time, people on the street will have used heroin and goofed off. It makes you feel really warm for a while and then when you fall asleep your body temperature drops. That’s the way it is, and there’s not much the Government can do about heroin abuse.”
In a bid to find out how people ended up on the streets in the first place, I spent a few months talking to rough sleepers in what turned out to be the lead-up to John Corrie’s death.
From hearing heartbreaking personal stories, in many cases I found homelessness is as much a mental health issue as it is an economic issue. Trying to keep people off the streets and in safe accommodation can be extremely difficult if they have addiction and mental health issues.
“I had it all – five children, a husband, a car, a roof over my head. One year later, I’m the dregs of society. My children are in care and I’m sleeping outside a fast food shop. All because of heroin,” one well-spoken woman informed me.
Another woman had travelled to Dublin from the country town where she originally lived, so her family wouldn’t find out she was sleeping rough. “It’s all because of this,” she said, lifting up a small bottle of cheap beer outside the Customs House on a frosty morning. “I know people who had five shops, children, money in the bank, two mortgages – and within nine months they were on the street drinking wine,” said the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Christy Burke.
It makes you wonder how far things had gone for family, friends and communities to turn their backs on people and for them to end up in a doorway.
When I spoke to Jonathan Corrie at the back of Stephen’s Green Centre in September, he told me he was on the streets after returning from the US, where he had lived with a woman and worked.
“I had a life. When we broke up, I came home and I had no friends, money or people to turn to. I’ve also made mistakes,” he said. I asked him if he had family to stay with. Don’t we all come back from abroad broke after all?
He said his family relations weren’t great and that he hadn’t seen some of them in some time. He was still mourning the loss of his father, who had died of Parkinson’s. He had originally got my attention because of the teardrop tattoo under his right eye. “Amongst US gang members that means you murdered someone,” I said. He laughed and said it was more a reflection of his situation.
He told me how much he hated the hostels and would rather sleep rough, as he had been robbed and beaten up in the hostels. He said he had self-sabotaged along the way, and now was used to being on the streets.
I found him to be very pleasant and when I offered to buy him lunch, he just said it wasn’t necessary and he only wanted a hot drink. He then agreed to let me film him for a short documentary I wanted to make about homelessness. We arranged to meet a few days later. Unfortunately, he wasn’t where we had arranged to meet and, as he didn’t have a phone, I never saw him again.
His death obviously has a lot to do with substance abuse, mental health and personal issues.
Despite the number of volunteers out helping the homeless night after night, they can’t individually help people with long-term illnesses and addiction issues. Some of the people I met – like the 18-year-old heroin addict with €10,000 worth of drug debts sleeping rough, or an elderly man who had just punched a homeless women in the face – may need more than just a place to stay.
A study by the Partnership for Health Equity in collaboration between the Health Service Executive and the University of Limerick surveyed 601 homeless people in Dublin and Limerick and found that 89pc had been diagnosed with a mental or physical health problem. One in three homeless people has attempted suicide, 52pc of homeless people suffer from depression, 40pc from anxiety and 11pc had been diagnosed with schizophrenia or psychosis.
It’s definitely a chicken-and-egg situation. What came first? The mental illness and addiction issues or the homelessness?
Last week, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said that a €2m investment in social housing would ensure that these people had a home, a life. But some of them will need a lot more than just that.