With the number of people experiencing homelessness in Galway on the rise, and with COPE Galway’s annual report showing a doubling of those sleeping on the streets of the city, we talk to one woman about her experience of living rough in Galway.
It was a long and arduous road that ended with *Sandra, a 48-year-old mother-of-four, sleeping out on the streets of Galway. A three decade-long struggle with alcohol and drug abuse, throughout which she lost her four children to state care and lost her brother to a drug overdose, Sandra is only now starting to recover. But throughout it all, she admits that it wasn’t until she found herself lying in a bed in her own room in Osterley Lodge, COPE Galway’s emergency accommodation for women experiencing homelessness, that she realised how seriously close to self-destruction she was.
The daughter of a bricklayer and a housewife, Sandra and her two younger brothers enjoyed a happy childhood in the UK. When her dad was killed in a car accident by a drunk driver when she was 18, things took a turn for her and her family. Her mother, devastated by the death of her husband, was further haunted by the fact he had been in the car with another woman when he died. The whole family was in turmoil, and Sandra and her brother began using drugs and drinking more and more regularly. Two years later, her brother was found dead of a heroin overdose. He had just turned 20.
“A lot of tragedy seemed to happen in such a short space of time. So I just carried on drinking. I just tried to block it all out,” says Sandra. Her first child, a girl, was born in 1995. They moved to Ireland when her little girl was two, travelling around the country to numerous new age traveller sites, and then travelling throughout Europe. Having three more children in close succession, while also losing a baby, Sandra was finding it increasingly difficult to cope. Her partner, John, was a support, but he was also drinking and using drugs. In 1998, her mother passed away, and she describes things going downhill very quickly after that. “It was like I just crossed a line after that and that's when I really started using a lot. Something went. I was in my early 30s by then.”
It was after Sandra moved back to the UK with her partner and family that social services got involved and her four children were taken into care. “I honestly didn't think I was ever going to lose my kids. I thought I was a good mum. I know it sounds weird, looking back, with all the drug taking. Sometimes I think in some ways I was a good mum.”
After a failed attempt at taking her children back from the authorities in 2003, she and her partner were jailed. The authorities brought the children to see them and that was the last time she saw her two little boys. Jamie had just turned 5, Jack was 3. Her children were separated and placed in different foster homes.
"It was terrible. I never knew what it was like to be properly homeless before and it is the most lonely feeling to have. I’d just sit in Eyre Square during the day, reading books. You can't go in for a cup of tea anywhere. All the friends you’ve had, you've pushed away because of drugs. If you meet someone you know and they ask how you are, and you tell them you're homeless, a wall goes up. People don't want to know. They only want to know you when things are going OK. I think people used to avoid me in case I asked them if I could stay in their house.”
Sandra was on a methadone programme while living on the streets for a month. She slept in a squat in Salthill, and at the back of a city centre hotel on other nights. “I used to wake up in the night freezing, not being able to breathe it was so dusty. I wasn't eating anything.” It was when she started visiting the COPE Galway Day Centre that a place was secured for her at Osterley Lodge.
“I honestly don’t think I’d still be alive if I didn’t come here when I did - I was so sick when I came here. Where do you go for help in that situation? I had pushed all my friends away and there was no one left. Where do you go when you've no money and you've ruined everything? Where do you go for help?”
With the aim being to have Sandra rehoused in transitional accommodation in the coming months, she has been spending her time at Osterley recuperating and preparing for a fresh start. She’s doing art therapy, has been out gardening, and has also taken up crocheting again, something she hasn’t done since she used to crochet with her mum as a little girl. “Really, I feel like I'm still just recovering. I feel a new calm in my life. I’m just so relieved. And the staff at COPE Galway have been just brilliant - so supportive and caring.”
“All the staff here have influenced me positively in so many ways, they’re so great. This service is so important - there’s no other place like it. If you find yourself on the streets, it’s so important to have places like this. I think I'd be dead if COPE Galway wasn't there. Where would I have gone?”
Looking forward, Sandra says she’d love to go to university or college, something she never had the chance to do. She’d also like to travel to South America, where her grandchild lives, but says that as one of her boys is turning 18 next year, she is hoping he will come looking for her and she’d like to be around if he does.
“I'm hopeful half the time, the other time I just think it’s amazing I'm still alive at this point. Some people might say it's your own fault, some people think as long as they're alright it doesn't matter about anyone else, but thank God not everyone's like that though.”
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the interviewee.
For more information download a copy of the 2015 Annual Report.
In 2015, COPE Galway provided emergency accommodation for 281 households experiencing homelessness, and supported a further 378 households with prevention, resettlement and tenancy support services in 2015.
In 2015, on average 13 people per night sought a bed in the COPE Galway Cold Weather Response, operating from the Fairgreen Hostel from November 2015 to March 2016 (up from 6 in the previous year).
COPE Galway is calling on the Government to commit to resources for its “Action Plan for Housing & Homelessness – Rebuilding Ireland” to demonstrate its commitment to issues relating to homelessness.
COPE Galway is a local Galway Organisation whose vision is an “Improved Quality of Life in a Home of your Own” for people affected by homelessness, women and children experiencing domestic violence, and older people. COPE Galway helps to Improve Quality of Life in a Home Of Your Own by Supporting Home, Promoting Community and Reducing Isolation.