Sitting down with the Book Man

By Joyce Rubotham

The Book Man. He was the first person I thought of. My son came home from school asking if it was true. Are all homeless people just druggies and drunks?

My son reads a lot, he’s my book man. I guess that’s why I was so moved by the sight of this homeless man sitting on the ground on Nassau street. I wondered did he start out like my little boy, did he always read?

There is something special about this man, sitting quietly reading, selling and surrounded by books. He has a dignity. The sign he sometimes holds telling passers-by that he doesn’t drink or do drugs seems redundant to me.

I decided to sit down beside him. I bought us both a coffee. His hand was cold when I shook it. Even on a warm day in May.

They say you don’t know a person until you’ve walked in their shoes. Well, you don’t know homelessness until you sit in its place.

On the ground. The first thing you notice is how low you are. Everyone who sees you looks down on you.

John (not his real name) introduced himself to me. He’s been living on the streets since 2002. The small inner city flat where he grew up just got too small.

John's books

He talks about his family briefly, his mother’s health is very bad and he worries about her. The pain in his eyes tells me that this subject is raw and difficult for him to discuss.

I read between the lines and wonder what kind of childhood traumas burden this man and weigh him down.

A true Dub, John is part of the city. His family has lived in Dublin’s north inner city for generations.

John’s Grandmother worked as a cleaner in the Old Jervis Street Hospital. He recalls the stories she loved to tell him about what she saw during her time working there.

I ask John about a typical day on the streets. His day starts every morning at the Merchant’s Quay Homeless service where he showers and gets clean personal items.

Then it’s down to the ground to beg for a long lonely day. He reads to pass the time and keep his mind busy. “I love reading, I read anything I can,” he tells me. It helps distract from the hunger too.

At four pm every day John calls Dublin City Council’s Freephone number in an attempt to secure a bed for the night. The process frustrates. Callers are repeatedly told to call back later.

John has been sent across the city to various hostels late at night, often to learn that there is no bed available. Two to three times a week he is lucky enough to get a bed.

Over one hundred extra callers will be trying the same Freephone number this month as two Dublin hostels close.

Bru Aimsir on Thomas street Dublin 8 and the Brigthon Road hostel in Bray will both close, turning out more people onto the streets.

With the homeless situation at crisis point and reports of families on the streets, focus sometimes shifts from the people who pre-date the current crises.

The Book Man's books

Young men with potential and history are caught up in long-term homelessness. The single homeless man is the image often used to portray the issue of homelessness.  

But the same man will not always be first in line for assistance from the organisations that use this image.

A calm positivity emanates from John. “I’ve met some great people here,” he tells me referring to where he sits on Nassau Street. I believe him.

As we sit together a woman drops money in his cup and says hello, she knows him by name.

“Why don’t you sit on the sunny side of the street?” she asks him pointing to the area opposite.

“The Guards will move me on from there.”  

Even the sunshine does not come free in this city. John is forced to sit on the shady side of the street.

Politicians have failed to address the homeless crisis we now have on our streets. Where they have failed however, others have succeeded.

John beams with gratitude when he recalls how the secretaries of the government buildings got together last December and bought him warm clothes.

The publishers up the street provide him with books to read. One man who passes by every week stopped to chat with John and has promised to bring him more books.

And then there’s the people who helped him come off heroin. John started using when he was fourteen.

Twenty years later, he followed the example of a good friend he met in the Backlane Hostel on Christchurch Square. This man urged him to seek help and come off the heroin, as he himself had done.

John made contact with the Ana Liffey Drug Project on Abbey street. He speaks with great affection about the service.

Without the help and support of one man in particular, Paul Duff, John is certain that he never would have made it through.

Paul Duff is team leader of the Assertive Case Management Service at the Ana Liffey Drug Project. This pilot scheme was established eighteen months ago and has yet to go mainstream.

In that short time Paul estimates they have engaged with a hundred cases similar to that of John’s. Paul describes the “stigma and social exclusion experienced by homeless people”. He believes the stigma in particular, is a major obstacle.

The process of coming off heroin after a twenty-year addiction is harrowing. I ask John what it was like.

“Well, it wasn’t easy, especially while living on the streets,” he replies.  

I have the sense that John doesn’t realise the enormity of what he has achieved. Many people with money and resources have failed where John has succeeded.

He has so little yet he is so grateful. He speaks happily about the feeling of waking up in the morning without that dependency. I am humbled.

Getting off the drugs was one thing but getting off the streets is proving a challenge too. John qualifies for the new Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) Scheme. The scheme is designed for people like him, with a long-term housing need.

Under the HAP scheme a homeless person sources a rental accommodation and local authorities pay landlords directly. Discrimination against potential tenants who apply under the HAP scheme is not allowed. But discrimination is an everyday reality.

John recounts all the landlords he has contacted. He knows that they cannot refuse him on the basis that he qualifies for the HAP scheme. He also knows why none of them ever reply to his calls or emails.

The Book Man's signs

I imagine the frustration of sleeping on the streets knowing that if you could only find a place, a local authority will actually pay your rent. But no landlord is interested in John’s local authority rent.

I say good-bye to John and thank him for sharing his story with me. He gets back to reading his book. Later in the afternoon I see him pack up his belongings and walk across the street through the sunshine. His bag looks heavy, it’s full of the things he loves the most, his books.

John reads other people’s stories; I want other people to read his story. He’s not a drug addict or an alcoholic, he’s an amazing man who has overcome unthinkable challenges. He has earned his title as The Book Man.


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