A woman has been staring out the window of a B&B on Gardiner Street, on and off, for a couple of hours.
The former guest house is one of the many properties on the Dublin city centre street now used as homeless accommodation. Most of these former B&Bs are manned by receptionists or security guards but when we call here this woman, Sarah, answers the door.
Sarah is 39 and she lives with her four-month-old daughter, Mya, in the room adjacent to the hallway. She often answers the front door because she’s nearest to it. “I’m like the receptionist,” she says.
Gardiner Street is believed to have the highest concentration of homeless accommodation in the country, accounting for more than 1,170 of the 13,179 people currently recorded as homeless.
Sarah has now spent nine months here.
Sarah goes and gets her baby and holds her as she talks at the doorstep. Last year she was pregnant and sleeping at the GPO or at Store Street Garda station, she says. Eventually she was placed in a hostel. “Full of addicts. I’m not an addict myself … I was losing my head. They were fighting and aggressive,” she says.
She was going to be put into homeless accommodation for mothers and babies but she has older daughters, one of whom is 20. “It’s not my first rodeo … Try putting me around a load of little teenage mothers,” she laughs. So, towards the end of her pregnancy, she was put here.
Mya gurgles happily. “Babies, they don’t understand, but it will affect her later in life … Isn’t that what they say?” she says.
In recent years Sarah was evicted from her home in Finglas, experienced sexual assault and lost a pregnancy on the streets, she says. “I had a very rough go of it.” Of her current situation she says, “beggars can’t be choosers.”
There’s a shared kitchen but she doesn’t like how messy it gets. “When I was pregnant, I was scrubbing the place up and down, going ‘grand, I’ll be having my dinner’ … but now I’m going to get my chips or go to the homeless places.”
She shares a bathroom with other residents. “You can’t complain but, as a woman, it’s very difficult. You don’t feel private.”
When two men come down the stairs, Sarah introduces us. One of them has lived here for over a year. “I met my girlfriend here and after that everything came together,” he says. “He finally popped the question,” says Sarah. “So he’s out there trying to scrub himself up.”
“I thought you were dead,” says Sarah to the other man, Johnny. “He goes into hibernation every now and again,” she adds.
They invite us into the hall. There’s a noticeboard with some signs on it. One has the wifi password. Another says: “Bringing visitors = €30/visitor.”
Sarah gestures to the room to the left, behind a fire door. “That’s my living situation.”
Johnny’s been here around three months but he’s been homeless for a few years. “He had a mental breakdown,” says Sarah. “He’s missing his [family]. He’s having it hard. He’s trying to detox off the alcohol but it’s not working too good.”
“You walk out there and you can buy crack,” says Johnny, pointing to the street.
Recently someone overdosed in the building. Both Johnny and Sarah mention this at different points. “His ghost is probably sticking around,” says Sarah.
Do they feel unsafe around here? “I don’t,” says Sarah. “He gets jumped every day he walks out.”
Johnny was mugged three days previously. He still has cuts on his face. “Phone gone, wallet gone.”
Johnny asks if we’d like to see his room. It’s up on the turn of the stairs. It’s the room Sarah was put in when she arrived here first. She describes it as “a coffin”.
“Police cells are bigger,” says Johnny, when he opens the door.
You’re a product of your environment, so she’s taking all of this in
It’s tiny, just about wide enough for a bed and a small wash-hand basin next to it. It’s painted creamy white and lit by a too-bright light. There’s a small TV screen above the bed. There is a microwave and some empty bottles on a shelf. “I’m an alcoholic and depressive and I can’t sleep,” he says.
Johnny is from Co Offaly. After his breakdown he was in a psychiatric hospital followed by some rehab facilities. He worked on a farm for a while then lived in various hostels in Offaly – places “not fit for a dog”, he says. Once he found himself sleeping in a shed. Recently, after a hospitalisation, Offaly County Council sent him here, he says.
His ex-girlfriend visited earlier that day and he’s very touched by this. He’s very affected by the fact there are children living in this environment. He keeps coming back to it. “The worst thing is the babies.”
Sarah spends a lot of time looking out the window. At one point someone complained about her doing so. “What the f*ck else am I meant to do? I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. I love psychology. I love human behaviour,” she says.
She talks – and worries – about all the homeless families who live on the street. “There’s a school around the corner and the cars are flying [and] my heart is jumping. They’re flying up and down the road with all the children.”
She notices someone passing. “There’s our Judy.” She and Judy befriended each other when they were both sleeping in Store Street Garda station, she says. “She’s 60 years of age … She has cancer … You can’t give her just one little bedroom?”
Sarah tries to take Mya out as much as possible. She walks around in circles, she says, going to the Light House cafe for homeless people on Pearse Street and the Capuchin Centre in Smithfield where she can get “baby food, nappies and breakfast”. She goes to museums and to the beach. She prefers reading to television. She shows us photographs she has taken of street art, plants and interesting buildings.
What does Mya enjoy? “Attention,” says Sarah and laughs. “I say she’s beautiful. She says ‘I know’ … There’s another little girl upstairs and she’s watching everything. ‘How do her legs work?’ She’s miles ahead of herself in her own way.” But she worries. “You’re a product of your environment, so she’s taking all of this in. My biggest fear is that when she gets older, she’ll repeat the cycle.”
We say we might return later. They say they’ll probably be here. “Nothing to do, nowhere to go,” says Johnny.
“No money, no fun when you’re young from Ballymun,” says Sarah. “That’s what they used to say.”
Before we go, Johnny says: “You can go up and down this street and every place you go in to is going to be like this. You can meet another Johnny or another Sarah over there in 10 seconds. [They’ve] stuck all the homeless people on one street.”
Gardiner Street is particularly bleak on winter evenings. While there are signs for B&Bs, hostels and hotels along the street, in reality the vast majority of the former tourist accommodation is now used to house either homeless families, single homeless men or asylum seekers. Through some windows you can see whole families in rooms with double beds and bunks.
The northeast inner city, for the last 100 years it’s been the most disadvantaged neighbourhood in Ireland
A family heads into homeless accommodation in the Adelphi. A mother and father lift a pram with their child up the front steps, while struggling with a suitcase and other bags.
On an afternoon later that week a parent has left three pairs of children’s shoes out to dry on the window ledge of a basement-level room in the Townhouse, one of the largest sites accommodating homeless families on the street.
The Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE), which co-ordinates and funds homeless services, does not release the names of the companies and individuals who lease properties for use as homeless accommodation.
However, through a search of land registry records, planning files, company accounts and door-to-door enquiries, The Irish Times has identified more than 20 properties used for homeless accommodation on Gardiner Street, as well as the individuals who own the sites.
The properties include the Townhouse, Horizon House, Anchor House, the Maple Hotel, the Marian and the Adelphi.
On one stretch of Lower Gardiner Street seven out of 10 properties in a row are used for homeless accommodation.
Paul Flynn, who chairs an inter-agency network, Young People at Risk (YPAR), in the north inner city, points to several B&Bs on the street. “These don’t need to open up as B&B’s ever again because they’re full, chock-a-block,” he says. “They’re not hubs. That’s political speak. Hubs are fully staffed social care facilities that enable people to move and progress. These do none of that.”
He thinks that there is even more homeless accommodation here than is apparent. He points out some Georgian houses at the Dorset Street end of the street with no B&B signs, which he believes are also being used to house homeless families. “Some [of the accommodation is] horrendous. Mushrooms growing in the rooms. Some have no locks on the doors,” he says.
Why is so much concentrated in this part of Dublin? “Because the owners don’t need to change the planning. It’s still classed as singular overnight accommodation and so you don’t have to change any planning regulations,” he says. “Generally, there’s nobody here to complain … The northeast inner city, for the last 100 years it’s been the most disadvantaged neighbourhood in Ireland.”
He believes the area is in the midst of a social care crisis. “What you get then, essentially, is ghettoisation. You put a hugely at-risk population all together … We’re creating a huge population of children [that], in 10 year’s time, will be a massive burden on the State, because of the damage caused to them now.”
Nicholas Flood (58), who runs Harvey’s Guesthouse on Upper Gardiner Street, has seen the area change significantly over the four decades his family has run the business.
When the little fella comes in from football, he has to do his homework on the bathroom floor, because he can’t turn the light on because the baby’s asleep
A few doors down is family homeless accommodation in Flynn’s former B&B, while nearby is a stretch of three properties housing 150 asylum seekers. The family were approached about pivoting from tourist to homeless accommodation 10 years ago but “weren’t interested”, he says.
He feels the concentration of so much emergency accommodation on a single street, without enough supports, has led to an increase in antisocial behaviour and other problems. The “political powers-that-be” were not interested in the potential long-term consequences, Flood says.
Brian Moloney, owner of the Abbott Lodge, says the guest house first started accommodating homeless people around six years ago.
At one point half of his guests were tourists and the other half homeless. “It wasn’t really a good mix … and eventually we became used for homeless families full-time,” he says.
They have 32 families there at present, with people signing in and out at a reception area. Many are single mothers with one to three children but there are also couples.
In the past people often moved on within days. “Of late they’re not, because there’s nowhere to go. There’s no movement at all.” Some have been there a year and a half.
Families have access to laundry facilities and a kitchen to cook food in. “It’s a sad situation to have people living in B&Bs,” he says. “But they don’t complain ever.”
Caroline Kelly is a Focus Ireland child support worker who works with children in three sites housing homeless families on the street; the Townhouse, Horizon House, and Flynn’s B&B.
The homelessness charity has five child support workers, which “is absolutely not enough,” she says.
The housing crisis means families are often stuck in the accommodation for long periods. “There are fewer places available. People are no longer given emergency places near where they live and people are in homeless accommodation longer. Being in there for two years is no longer unusual,” she says.
Overall, in Dublin, half of the 3,060 children who were homeless this October had been in emergency accommodation for more than a year, with a fifth homeless for more than two years.
The standard of accommodation varies hugely. Some places have kitchens, common areas and play areas for children. Others offer little beyond a room.
There are seven dedicated family homeless accommodation sites on the street housing up to 636 parents and children, according to DRHE figures. However, a spokesman added a further four guest houses are used to accommodate homeless families on an “as-needed basis”.
Even in the best scenarios, small children cannot be let out on the busy street. Children cannot practice instruments, sing or be noisy in any way. Many of them spend a lot of time on tablets and phones, says Kelly.
“You would get a lot of children that are withdrawn, that are struggling with school. They can be tired in school, they can be falling behind … not meeting their developmental milestones because they’re not getting the space to play. They can find sharing, turn-taking, making friends difficult, because they’re just in the room all of the time. They could be falling behind in terms of their physical development … They’re anxious, they’re withdrawn, they’re acting out,” she says.
They have so little control over their lives … That means having their clothes perfect, having everything neat, being very particular about being clean
In the past families were placed close to their communities but increasingly this is not the case. Now many families have to decide between putting up with long commutes to schools, sports teams and friends, or to sever those ties, she says.
Relationships are affected. “I would get a lot of referrals for cases where siblings would be having difficulties getting on. The parent-child relationship can be really deteriorating because of the situation with parents not being able to manage outbursts or the children with challenging behaviour,” Kelly says.
What is it like for parents? “I don’t think people [can] imagine what it’s like to have a very small baby in the same room as a toddler or a nine- or 10-year-old … or a teenager … So when the little fella comes in from football, he has to do his homework on the bathroom floor, because he can’t turn the light on because the baby’s asleep. Because if the baby’s up for the night, then mam’s up and then it’s just a nightmare … There’s no space for a table and chairs. They’re eating sitting on the bed or on the floor.”
Many teenagers living in such scenarios are also anxious and withdrawn. Some display signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), she says. “What’s coming back is [that] it’s not actually that they have OCD, it’s that their environment has caused them to want to organise everything a certain way. They have so little control over their lives … That means having their clothes perfect, having everything neat, being very particular about being clean.”
This level of childhood homelessness, says Kelly, is “going to have massive knock-on effects long term.”
Land registry and company records show the owners of some properties used as homeless accommodation on Gardiner Street also hold State contracts to accommodate asylum seekers or Ukrainian refugees.
The Townhouse, at one point the largest “hub” for homeless families, is owned by Absolute Accommodation Providers Ltd, which has reported assets of more than €7 million. Financial reports from the DRHE show homeless accommodation in the Townhouse cost €15.7 million over the last five years, or about €3 million a year.
The directors of Absolute Accommodation are Maurice O’Connor (62), from Howth, north Dublin and Muriel O’Connor (59), from Glasnevin, north Dublin. Maurice O’Connor Investments Ltd previously held contracts to run direct provision centres accommodating asylum seekers for many years.
A parent company for several of the family’s businesses, Posado Limited, is jointly owned by Grace O’Connor (37), from Fairview and Raymond O’Connor (34), from Clontarf. Most recent accounts for Posado state it had €20 million in assets and a turnover of €9.7 million in 2021.
Next door to the Townhouse is more homeless accommodation in Anchor House, which is also owned by the family.
Horizon House, owned by Old George Ltd, used to be Georgian Court direct provision centre, which shut in 2018 before reopening as homeless accommodation for families.
A sister company, Fazyard Ltd, has been involved in running direct provision centres since 2007, earning tens of millions of euros in State contracts, including more than €7.5 million last year.
The companies are run by Sean Lyons jnr (52), from Shankill, Co Dublin, with his business partner Graham Carry (49), from Glenageary, Co Dublin.
Both companies are owned by Sean Lyons Jnr, who took over from his father, Co Wicklow businessman Sean Lyons (75). The firms had combined assets of more than €12 million last year, according to financial accounts.
The Holyhead, which is leased to a third party, is owned by four cousins in the Downes family, who in previous generations ran the successful bakery business behind the Downes Butterkrust factory in Finglas.
The Maple Hotel is owned by Emerald Smithfield GP Ltd, which in turn is owned by a Guernsey-registered entity in the Channel Islands called Prime Developments. A representative of Emerald Smithfield said the property was “leased to an unconnected third party”.
Many properties that may outwardly appear to be tourist accommodation, such as Backpackers D1Hostel, are now used to house homeless people.
The Marian Guest House, which land registry records show is owned by Kavaria Ltd, also accommodates homeless families.
That company is owned by Gavin McEnaney (26), from Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, who is the son of former Monaghan GAA football manager Séamus McEnaney. A holding company owned by the younger McEnaney reported €8.8 million in assets and profits of €3.6 million in 2022.
Company records show he also owns Corduff Jg Enterprises Ltd, which was paid at least €3.1 million last year to provide accommodation for Ukrainian refugees.
Séamus McEnaney is one of the largest providers of private accommodation for asylum seekers in the country. His company, Brimwood Unlimited, was paid €23.8 million under Department of Integration contracts last year.
Several doors down from the Marian, Flynn’s B&B is used as family emergency accommodation. It is owned by Aidan O’Hara (51) from Kilmainham, Dublin 8, and Peter Bolustrom (58), from Manor Street, Dublin 7, through a company called Papsta Accommodation Ltd.
Mr O’Hara is a “corporate development director” at Fulcrum Metals, a company involved in gold and mineral exploration projects in Canada, and he previously set up a private mining company in west Africa.
Many owners of properties being used for homeless accommodation on Gardiner Street did not respond to requests for comment.
The DRHE said family homeless accommodation on the street had “on-site food service or access to cooking facilities, in addition to communal laundry facilities”.
“Focus Ireland are commissioned to provide a service to all families in emergency accommodation via in-reach or through their family centre. In addition to this, each family in private emergency accommodation has access to a housing support officer,” the agency said.
The Department of Housing said the concentration of homeless accommodation on Gardiner Street was an “operational matter” for the DRHE.