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Sleeping rough during lockdown was 'an absolute nightmare' says Downpatrick man

26 August 2021

James O Neill at SFR

James O'Neill says one night he went to get some sleep and thought 'I don’t want to live anymore'

A man experiencing homelessness has opened up about his experience sleeping rough during lockdown. James O’Neill found himself out on the streets of Downpatrick last year after issues with his landlord began to escalate. He described it as

[Downpatrick] was like a ghost town. I was trying to avoid the police because they were driving around looking out for people on the streets. I was sleeping around the side of a church, but I was happy enough.

James was holding down a job while he was sleeping rough, so he had access to some facilities that others on the streets did not.

When you’re living homeless you have to work out a routine for yourself because you’re not just sleeping on the streets. You have to work out where you’re going to sleep. Is it gonna be safe? Is it gonna be warm? How are you going to wash? You kind of live and learn by your mistakes.

Before lockdown closed shops, cafes, and gyms, James spent a lot of time at his local sports centre. Without access to it, he found it difficult to pass time when he wasn’t working. He said:

I could have had a million showers a day if I wanted do. Do a wee workout, get a coffee, hang around in the sports centre where it was nice and warm. I got to know a few people there. I was able to occupy my full day before lockdown but see when lockdown came, that was an absolute nightmare. I couldn’t believe how difficult it became to get the day in.

While on the streets, James’ began to experience some physical discomfort and realised he had a hernia. As the pain grew, James’ mental health began to decline. He said:

I was round the side of the church one night, July last year, and my hernia was quite sore. I went round just to rest and get some sleep and I thought, 'I don’t want to live anymore. I just can’t do this anymore. I just can’t do life anymore'. I woke up the next morning. I was trying to stop myself from crying because I had to face society. So, I phoned my supervisor and said I need some time off work.

I finished the phone call and I walked straight round to the nearest Simon Community hostel and I told them everything. They lifted the phone, got the paramedics down, got me to the hospital. They looked after me all day.

This isn’t the first time James turned to the Simon Community for help. He stayed in a hostel in Coleraine years before after another bad accommodation experience.

The first time I actually became homeless I was sharing a house with some people and they were grand, but it just got to the point where I couldn’t stay there anymore because their behaviour was a bit erratic. I just walked out and went to the nearest Simon Community hostel and asked them did they have any room.

After seven months, James was able to find a new place to live and moved out of the hostel with a newfound confidence. He said:

I can always fall back on the Simon Community because they told me if you ever have any housing issues, just come back to us and we’ll see what we can do for you. When I walked out of the hostel that day, I felt like I was floating. I felt on top of the world, like I was in heaven.

James says to this day the Simon Community are like family to him.

I started getting support from the Simon Community that I never had before in my life. The support workers became like a family to me. It was much greater, much deeper than family life.

James wants people to know that if they need help, the Simon Community will be there for them too.

There’s not enough people who would have an insight into the work that the Simon Community do for homeless people. The bottom line is the Simon Community has always been here for me no matter what. Just having that thought in my head every day is a relief. Knowing that they’re there, they’ve never turned me away before, they don’t turn people away, they’ll never turn me away.

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Article first published by Belfast Live 12th July, written by Amy Murray.