Mar 28, 2015

Onboard Dublin’s Night Bus

Jane Fallon Griffin steps aboard the night bus aiming to help homeless heroin addicts in the city centre

Jane Fallon Griffin | Deputy Magazine Editor

Marlborough Street runs parallel to O’Connell Street, a selection of some of Dublin’s darker streets and it’s where I find myself late one Thursday night in February. On my walk to college during the day I always skip this street, choosing instead to continue walking in order to journey down the more populated and familiar O’Connell Street. It’s the sort of street where you often see brief exchanges between men and women in twos and threes in hushed tones, eager to be overlooked. Looking over your shoulder seems like a reflex rather than a conscious decision. As I make my way down the street I pass by one such interaction in the shadow of the church and overhear their conversation in hushed tones …”it’s the real thing…. Valium”. I don’t stop. I’ll admit to knowing little of the reality of Dublin’s drug scene but enough to realize that these conversations do not welcome the curious or the eavesdropper.

I draw to a halt at the foot of the pro Cathedral’s steps and linger outside its gates. Looking around I note some others looking a little unsure of themselves. After some polite small talk it becomes clear that we are all waiting for the same thing.


There is a brief lull in the chatter as lights sweep the pavement and an engine is heard approaching. Heads swivel around. The bus coming towards our stop is a bright lime green. “No Bucks Café” is spread across a circular logo, (not unlike that of a certain American coffee chain giant) which is stamped on its side. But this is no mere transport orientated bus, no this is a bus with a mission. It is the Tiglin No Bucks Cafe bus and it’s here to offer comfort to the homeless as the first stop on their path to ending their addiction.

But this is no mere transport-orientated bus, no this is a bus with a mission.

The vehicle is slightly larger than your average mini bus and it requires a bit of maneuvering as the drivers negotiates the bus into the limited kerb space available. A flurry of activity starts the instant the wheels grind to a halt. As the doors open people begin to stream out while others simultaneously clamber on. Chaos ensues. Utensils, blankets and information leaflets are passed from person to person and soon two teams appear clad in high vis orange jackets ready to bring food and, perhaps more importantly, conversation to the people on the capital’s streets.

I ask several people where Phil Thompson, the Tiglin manager, is, all of whom nod in recognition at the mention of his name, assure me he is always around yet can’t quite pinpoint him for me. Tiglin is a Christian based organization aiming to promote and aid the recovery of Ireland’s homeless population from addiction. Eventually a young man with short light hair hops down the steps. He extends his hand in greeting, introducing himself as Phil and we stand chatting inside the bus.

Amidst kettles being boiled, sandwiches passed around and soup doled out Phil explains to me how he came to work on this ‘No Bucks Cafe’, beginning with his work as manager of Tiglin, a residential addiction recovery program that gets people off the streets and back on their feet enjoying their lives.

“I used to work in a homeless hostel just down here near called Cedar house for about six years and I came across another organization in Scotland that was doing very similar work to what we do [are doing] here and that’s what we based the work on, a residential rehab”. Phil sent an Irish homeless man to this centre to help him recover and on a trip to Scotland to visit him he was impressed with the positive impact the program had on its Irish participants. “Half of that centre in Scotland were Irish guys that had comes from the streets of Dublin and they were doing really well “. He explains the nature of the program “the first six to ten months is done in Tiglin and then the last part of the program’s four to six months is at a re-entry home in Greystones. From there they go back into work and education so there is a mixture of guys that are either finished up at Tiglin or they are living in the reentry homes in Greystones”. Those living in the homes are “sober and clean at least six months” The bus is an outreach of the centre and makes four stops a week in Dublin city, Ballymun, Bray and Dun Laoghaire loaded with soup and sandwiches, ready to chat to those affected by addiction in these areas about breaking free from their life controlling addictions.

There is no ulterior motive. It’s just good quality food for those who need it in the hopes of making their day a little easier.

Standing inside the bus’s door the atmosphere is like that of a coffee shop. Tables and cushioned seats line the walls and volunteers shout jovially out the door “can’t stay? Sure would you like it to go?” It’s funny how often we hear would you like it to go and don’t appreciate it. Here it seems so much more important simply because these homeless people are getting a choice. They are being invited in but are assured that, should they prefer, they can order to go. There is no ulterior motive. It’s just good quality food for those who need it in the hopes of making their day a little easier. It is so normal, which is exactly what the outreach is getting at. Phil explains the importance of the program. “One of the things we want to try and create is an atmosphere where people aren’t judged and try to make it normal, trying to provide something that’s of a decent standard. Especially with our new bus. That’s what we set out to do, it’s kitted out like a café. It’s really sweet and nice, just a bit of a normal space for people to sit down and have a chat.”

As well as parking the bus on Marlborough Street, the group also sends two teams around the city centre with hot drinks, food and a listening ear for a chat. “It’s a very simple service, all it is a flask and a bunch of sandwiches and a few leaflets and it’s really kind of bringing “No bucks” out to the people who won’t get up and come here. A lot of them are tapping for a few quid to get their next fix so [we are] trying to meet them right there”.

Interestingly, many of the bus’s volunteers once were on the street suffering from addiction just like those they are now trying to help. A few young men stand in the bus aisle and at its door offering customers food, drinks and just generally enquiring into their well-being. They are what Phil calls ‘graduates’. They understand the use of the program, the value of a chat over a coffee and the impact the service can have having found themselves at the mercy of addiction and having returned to try to help others win their own battles. Phil explains “We’ve met them on the streets, we’ve met them in a place where they’ve been in bits, so the value of sitting down and having a conversation with someone, I don’t think you can put a price on it” . The impact of past conversations is evident as I look around at the men helping on the bus. One graduate pulls another man onto the bus with him, introduces him as his cousin and settles down to enjoy a chat and a cup of tea with him. This is really important, Phil tells me, as once one family member is seen to have recovered it suddenly paves the way for others. When they see someone close to them succeed they begin to entertain the idea that they can too.

Many of the bus’s volunteers once were on the street suffering from addiction just like those they are now trying to help.

Many of the program’s graduates have returned to the site of where they themselves suffered with addiction; the streets of Dublin. Surely for former addicts the temptation is a challenge. “To a degree, it doesn’t usually become a major problem” Phil says optimistically. “Sometimes the first couple of nights that somebody comes out, and if they haven’t been out in the real world for a while, that can be a little bit of a shock”. He tells me that there are times when a graduate will come to hm telling him he met someone he used to use drugs with and it was too much and that they need more time away from the streets. Phil is keen to state that this is perfectly acceptable and praises the volunteers saying “they don’t have to come out it’s a voluntary thing so you’ve got guys that take to it really well and do extremely well and other guys who say its not my thing its not where I’m at and that’s fine too”

The bus is versatile and during the summer months the service changes just like any other. Once more the emphasis is on social contact with a barbeque being held if they can get the sponsorship and the usual aim towards ending addiction but Phil adds smiling ““Its just a good way of having a bit of social interaction and it’s a bit of fun too”.

The fundamental aim of Tiglin is to tackle addiction and Dublin plays host to a scene of intense addiction issues and impacts. The situation with drugs here in Dublin is grim and yet not perhaps as we perceive it to be. In a country with a drink culture among others Phil has seen drugs advance in Ireland. “On the streets here you’ll probably see a split maybe fifty-fifty when you walk around in the centre we would probably get predominantly seventy per cent coming from drug addiction and maybe thirty percent coming from alcoholism. But when you look at even the guys of drug addiction will most likely have abused alcohol as well even though their primary drug of choice might be say heroin or methadone or something Ireland is polydrug users for some reason we will take everything and anything we may have one favourite but we are not biased either.”

“Less than a third of our budget comes from the government, the rest we have to fundraise ourselves so its tough going.”

More alarming still, Tiglin has noticed a concerning increase in dependence on legal prescribed drugs which can be very difficult to identify and tackle. “When you think of it” he says “we think of our drug problem in Ireland. [most] Joe soaps on the street they think the drug problem in Ireland is there’s too much heroin coming in and that might be true, most of the problem I’d say we are facing now is because of legal drugs or medication.” This is a major problem as it makes it harder to get addicts into rehabilitation. “Its very difficult if you’re addicted to benzos, trying to get help is really hard, it’s slow detoxes and you’re out of the community around very little support and so its very hard and most residential programs can’t take people in cause they don’t have the medical cover for it.”

Tiglin stress that it is not possible to end homelessness without confronting our nation’s addiction problems too. “I’m not telling you that every homeless person is an addict bit you will find a high percentage of them who are homeless are in addiction and yet the government response on behalf of the crisis like the young man that was found dead just before Christmas the response is we need housing.” While Phil agrees with this approach he also thinks it may be too simplistic. “Yeah we need housing but if you were to take the guys here tonight everyone that came in and give them a house that doesn’t solve our homeless problem. It’ll solve it for a few days maybe a few months but they’re going to be back at their drug addiction unless they get help. So if homelessness isn’t solved by giving a house neither is addiction and I think that’s the thing that needs to be looked at. There’s not enough support given for treatment centres. Less than a third of our budget comes from the government the rest we have to fundraise ourselves so its tough going.”

The name of the bus “No Bucks Café” along, with its green colour and logo, bear a striking resemblance to another coffee chain. I joke with Phil, asking whether there have been any legal problems over this. Phil smiles as he gesticulates around the bus and points out that their service is not exactly robbing the typical customer from American giant. The idea behind the name is biblical in origin coming from the book of Isaiah 55:1-2 “Is anyone thirsty? 
Come and drink—
even if you have no money!
 Come, it’s all free!
 Why spend your money on what gives you no strength?
 Why pay for what does you no good? 
Listen to me, and you will eat what is good.
You will enjoy the finest food.” When I ask Phil about the centrality of the religious ideology of the program he explains that no religious demands are placed on client or volunteers and that there is a great mix of religious and non-religious alike. The centres values are Christian, of love, forgiveness and peace and if someone learns to employ these values in life, well, the centre don’t feel it is a negative thing.

The only different thing about this conversation is the knowledge that I will go home to a house tonight where as I can’t be sure where she will go.

Phil has had many a cause to celebrate the work Tiglin are doing over the years. One such example was when he returned to college and a program graduate joined him! “I actually went back and did my degree last year with one of the guys who I sent into the rehab and we stood on stage together and got our certs together”. “He used to sleep in a doorway”. Now both college graduates, they work alongside each other in Tiglin.

Phil is pleased with the weather tonight. It is far milder than recent nights and for those who will sleep out there is further good news. “We have a couple of sleeping bags as well, we got a donation of sleeping bags today through one of the Lyons clubs and that’s great because quite often we don’t have enough sleeping bags to just even give someone who’s not going to get into a hostel something like that something warm in minus ten degrees so its nice”. And do most people get a place in the hostel? It’s not quite so simple. “Its fifty fifty I think at the moment its got a little bit better although it depends on who you talk to I was talking to a guy the other week and he was saying I just can’t get into a hostel so I don’t know whether that’s his situation or the widespread one but there’s a lot of people that don’t want to go into hospitals as well for a variety of reasons: intimidation, mental health issues, just like feeling they could relapse if they manage to get a couple of days clean, so there’s lots of different reasons.”

Around me everyone is chatting, customers and customers and customers and volunteers. I’m encouraged to go and have a chat myself and although slightly apprehensive I look forward to it. I head down the back of the bus where a group sit in conversation.

She could be a grandmother. Her grey hair is pulled back in old-fashioned plaits, which trail around, to the back of her head. Although she wears shabby ill-fitting clothes she maintains a dignified manner and at once I notice myself speaking in that respectful tone I reserve for my elderly relatives and friend’s parents. She is intelligent as the others discuss court cases. She uses legal terms and I am not entirely sure as to what we are talking about. She seems to know so much. She remembers old friends who referred to her as “Frau” because of the way she wore her hair, similar to Frau Schmidt in the Sound of Music. She refuses the offer of a thermal vest turning to me to tell me about leggings that are on sale in Penneys, reduced from four to two euro. Telling me enthusiastically that they are there in any colour I’d like! We remark on how black always seems handiest, everything goes with black. The only different thing about this conversation is the knowledge that I will go home to a house tonight where as I can’t be sure where she will go. A female volunteer who has been listening turns away and shakes her head looking at me “It’s just not right, it’s so wrong” she says.

A few men in the back of the bus are talking. I join the conversation and white-collar crime is the topic of the evening. Many of the men have themselves been in prison and they just can’t comprehend how it is that prison is the place for them when they commit a crime yet not for others. One man tells of the numerous times he had served time. He hurt a man and went to jail, another time was found sleeping in the airport and went in for a night, yet those who he feels guilty of the country’s destruction “get away”.

I begin to wonder is conversation a greatly underrated weapon in the battle against homelessness.

Next to me sits a man with his leg in plaster. He is talking to a volunteer and filling out forms hoping to get himself clean. Are you writing a story? He asks me. I tell him I am and he assures me that, while he says he cannot read or write well, he could tell me some story. He follows the volunteer down the bus with his forms and I hope that his story will have a happy ending.

One man shakes his head as he takes in the plastered leg. There are plenty of painful things I’ve been through he tells me but nothing is as bad as separation. “She threw me out and rightly so” he adds “but if she gave me a chance Id go back.” The older man next to him man agrees: “I saw my young lad Christmas Eve I was sitting on the ground as he walked past.”

A few weeks later tired, stressed and generally in the sort of mood March in Trinity brings, I begin trekking home while the sleet continues to fall. I’m chastising myself for not meeting up with people I used to see everyday for not going to more coffees, not making more phone calls not spending more time on Skype. I feel a sense of irritation at just how many people expect to see me over the next few days to discuss projects, to catch up with relatives to help stressed out and upset friends so many words to say to so many different people. I think of the emails I have ignored that day, the Facebook messages I have decided I’ll read later rather than during the day the letters from the local library piled in a corner in my room. So many mean of communication no matter how small but regardless it is someone acknowledging my existence each time. I pass a doorway and glance down see the man lying there in a sleeping bag with cardboard boxes shielding him from the sleet his head resting on his broken suitcase. I wonder how many people tried to contact him today. Wonder if he has a means to get through to anyone on Facebook. I wonder if he tried for hours to contact a hostel only to be told there was no room. And I begin to wonder is conversation a greatly underrated weapon in the battle against homelessness.

Illustration by Ciannat Khan for The University Times

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