A helping hand for the rough sleepers of Navan

It's just after 4pm on Sunday 20th December, officially the shortest day of the year and the light that flooded the passage tomb at Newgrange at the start of the day is now fading rapidly in Navan.

The centre of the town is bustling with shoppers, many laden with bags of gifts and groceries, others just enjoying the atmosphere as best they can in the midst of the pandemic.

As darkness descends the twinkling lights of the tree in Kennedy Plaza come into their own while the sound of Christmas songs on store speakers hang in the chilled air.

Just yards away from what passes as a traditional Christmas card scene, there's a different story to be told.

Behind a row of shops in a glass and rubbish strewn yard, Peter - not his real name - is wrapped in a sleeping blanket and precariously perched on a six-foot high ledge that supports a bank of air conditioning units.

Peter's been on the streets for more than six weeks now and this precarious ledge is a semi-permanent home for now. Originally from Lithuania, he's been in Ireland for a number of years. He doesn't speak English, has no family here, no passport, money or optimism that his situation can get any better in the short term.

We've been alerted to Peter's plight by Independent Cllr Alan Lawes who has been providing his own outreach service to people living on the streets of Navan for some time now.

He's just brought a turkey and ham dinner for Peter and is accompanied by Johnstown woman and Lithuanian native Sanita Zvirgzdina who is acting as interpretor. Sanita also speaks Lativian, Russian and Polish and has become an invaluabe ally to Cllr Lawes in helping him provide assistance to those who find themselves sleeping on the streets.

"What we've done with the help of ICHH (Inner City Helping Homeless) we began an outreach service probably since the start if Covid-19. We try and get out to see anyone sleeping rough in the town at least once a day and check on them.

What we are trying to do with the help of a group of volunteers belonging to Johnstown Tidy Town is visit anyone we know sleeping rough.

Cllr Alan Lawes along with a small band of volunteers from the Johnstown Tidy Towns Ctte distributes food and hot beverages to rough sleepers Photographer: Gavan Becton

Cllr Lawes has been critical in the past of the local authority's policies and response to the plight of those living rough in the county but believes positive changes are happening

"In fairness to Meath Co Council the homelessness situation in Meath is a little bit different to that in Dublin in the sense that we have no 'wet hostel' - a facility that can cater for individuals who may have issues around addiction or mental health. So, what can happen is Meath Co Council engage with an awful lot of these rough sleepers and will try to find them accommodation but sometimes because we don't have the right supports for them, they can fall through the cracks and can end up sleeping rough, sort of like a revolving door."

"What the Council has allowed us to do is give us grant funding as a community response group which allows us to buy gift cards from SuperValu in Johnstown who have been very good to us."

Back to Peter, he's flippant when asked how he manages sleeping on the streets. "It's simple, no problem," he says with a laugh, gesturing to the squalid surrounds around him.

Quite simply there currently is no suitable location for Peter to go in Meath. Photographer: Gavan Becton

Peter has issues with alcohol and broken relationships and with no family in Ireland and no English language perfectly slips between the cracks in the housing policies of most local authorities. Quite simply there currently is no suitable location for Peter to go in Meath.

A former Lithuanian army man in his 50s, he says he's not fearful about living on the streets but has been attacked and has had his passport stolen.

Through Sanita he tells us: "What do I have to fear? What else can happen to me, I've already been robbed and had my passport taken. I just want to get away from all of this."

He says that a "lovely local lady" allows him into to her home once a week to shower and change but he's hoping that he can get off the streets permanently, soon.

We leave Peter, with Alan assuring him he'll be back again at 5pm tomorrow with another meal. Sanita hands him special heat wipes that will warm his hands against the cold.

Minutes later we meet another man who has Alan has come into contact with and arranged to provide with a hot dinner.

John - again not his real name - is a Navan native and has found himself on the streets since last Thursday. "I've made mistakes" he says twice, holding up gloved hands, not wanting to blame anyone else for his misfortune but himself. He's says he's found a shed to sleep in tonight "which is something".

While we're waiting for Cllr's Lawes' Johnstown neighbour and volunteer to arrive with the meal, John surveys the Christmas mania that has convulsed Kennedy Plaza with cars trying to get in and out and people rushing to and from shops before they close.

"Hopefully I can get something sorted, it's just a pity it's this time of year," he says wistfully.

Robin arrives and hands John the food parcel, in a glittery Christmas bag no less while Alan pops his own car boot to reveal a big Thermos flask which was paid for by Meath Co Council.

He hands John the hot cup of tea, the steam hitting the sharp December evening. He tops up the milk and sugar before John heads on his way. He thanks the Hi-Viz wearing helpers profusely before he goes. Alan tells him he'll call him tomorrow to check in on in him, making sure his phone is okay for a charge first.

It's fully dark now, and notably colder. Alan's not finished yet. He's reports of a man sleeping rough in the dug out of a local sports club and is heading off to check it out. Any bit of shelter, any respite from the elements are coveted by rough sleepers.

It's the shortest day of the year and for some people in Navan it will be the longest night.

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