Dublin’s Phoenix Park boasts the official residence of Ireland’s president, but for a while it was also home to Eddie Dooner who lived there in a tent with three dogs.
Dooner, 27, plans to return to his old haunt soon, but this time he will be leading a party of tourists under a scheme which trains the city’s homeless as tour guides.
Ireland is in the grips of a housing crisis, with homelessness topping a record 10,000 people, according to housing charities.
My Streets Ireland – one of some 1,400 social enterprises in the country that tackle social and environmental problems while also making a profit to reinvest in their missions – aims to give homeless people new skills and an income.
Enthusiastic and articulate, Dooner is keen to dispel the stigma of homelessness while showing off his home city.
“I want to change people’s views,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation during a walk around the capital.
“Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you’re a bad person – you still have a good heart.”
The tours, launching mid-March, come at a time of booming tourism in Dublin, which attracted an estimated 6.4 million overseas visitors in 2018, according to the tourism authority.
The guides will get 50 percent of the ticket sales with the rest ploughed back into running the project.
Director Austin Campbell said he helped set up the scheme after becoming frustrated at the lack of opportunities for homeless people.
“We want to humanise the issue,” he said. “This gives them a chance to earn money and tell the real story of homelessness behind the statistics.”
The crisis has been fuelled by a major lack of affordable and social housing.
Rents have meanwhile soared by more than 23 percent since 2015, the biggest increase in the European Union, according to a European Commission report last month which called for urgent action to tackle Ireland’s homelessness.
After growing up in care, Dooner fell through the cracks when he turned 18. He says he was bullied out of his first home by neighbours who tried to force him to sell drugs.
Fearing for his life, he bought a tent and moved to the canal, pushing his belongings around in a supermarket trolley, before settling in Phoenix Park to avoid police harassment.
Severely dyslexic, he says teachers wrote him off at school. Now in his own flat, Dooner has recently started a literacy course and joined a basketball team.
He says My Streets’ three-month training programme – which includes lessons in storytelling, performance and creative writing – has given him “an opportunity to make a difference with my life”.
“It’s opening up a load of doors for me. I never even dreamed this would happen for me,” Dooner said.
“I once thought I was going to be living in a tent for the rest of my life, and now I’m being trained to be a professional tour guide. How amazing is that?”
My Streets, inspired by a similar programme in the English city of Canterbury, set up its first project in 2014 in the historic town of Drogheda, north of Dublin, and has so far delivered tours to 10,000 customers.
The programme, which won the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland award last year, lets trainees choose the theme of their tour and helps with research and presentation.
Irish comedian and actor Tommy Tiernan recently ran a session with them to polish their performance skills.
For Ronya Arya Phoenix, 44, the course has boosted her confidence and ended the isolation homelessness often brings.
Phoenix, born in Finland, has created a tour combining Dublin’s Viking past and her own passion for Norse mythology.
She lost her home after her landlord evicted her with four days’ notice. He has ignored a court order to pay compensation.
“Just as I was starting to get on my feet here, I was pushed down in a way that I couldn’t get back up,” said Phoenix, who does casual work as a TV and film extra.
“Landlords can break the law and there’s no consequence. It seems to be common practice.”
She lives in a caravan outside Dublin, where she can go weeks barely seeing anyone. There are holes in the walls and winter temperatures dip below zero at night.
“When you are homeless, it’s a very lonely place you end up in,” said Phoenix. “People treat you like you have done something wrong.”
Patrick McEvoy, 44, who has been homeless since a relationship break-up, says the crisis is getting worse.
“You see new faces on the street every day,” he said. “It breaks my heart. The government has failed us.”
McEvoy described hostels as “worse than prisons and very, very demoralising”. He is particularly concerned that families with young children are ending up in hostels with drug addicts.
The Dublin musician is creating his tour around some of his favourite Irish writers – Brendan Behan “because he’d be fierce good company”, Patrick Kavanagh and James Joyce.
“I don’t see myself being homeless much longer,” McEvoy said. “I see light at the end of the tunnel for the first time.”