At 6.15am last Thursday, in a car park in the Dublin suburb of Rathmines, Robert awoke to the sound of a generator kicking into life. Light flooded the car park. Out beyond the concrete skeleton of a building, rain was being pulled this way and that by the wind. Robert got up, dressed himself and folded his four blankets. He had slept soundly through the night.
Dawn was still an hour away when he made his way down to the street and began walking towards the city centre for breakfast. He doesn't mind the walk and prefers laying his head down a bit out of the city – less hassle, less danger. He's not into drink or drugs and doesn't mind his own company as long as he's safe. It has been like that since soon after he arrived in Dublin around Hallowe'en last year. He is a tiler by trade and came from the south-east of the country when the job he was on finished up. Things haven't worked out the way he planned. He is 32 years old.
Across the city in Phibsborough, Stephen has left the bedsit which he recently acquired from the city council. Until a few weeks ago, Stephen slept in a hut in the Phoenix Park, where he managed to stay dry and safe from the threat of violence that stalks those who sleep rough.
"A lot of people go around in twos or threes for company and safety, but I preferred to keep to myself," he says. It's been like this for him on and off since he arrived in the city from England 12 years ago. He is 52 and found out last year that he is diabetic. He is now on medication, and is glad that he has a roof over his head as he would feel like a target on the streets if he was carrying any form of medication. He sees little prospect of work.
"I do low-skilled stuff, stacking shelves and that. But the likes of Tesco and Dunnes aren't taking on anybody, and when you don't have an address they don't want to know," he says.
On Thursday, Stephen walked down towards town through the darkness, beams from car headlights lighting up the incessant rain. By 7.30am, he had arrived at the Merchants Quay drop-in centre for breakfast.
Soon after, David hobbled through the door of Merchants Quay on crutches. He broke his foot a few weeks back, "one foot forward two feet back, the evil drink", he grins. He has a place in a hostel, but slept rough the previous night at Copper Lane, off Dame Street, after the match.
"I saw it in a pub which is a rare occurrence these days," he says. "So I stayed out with the lads after it. I used to stay out with them all the time and old habits die hard." Despite the stormy night that was in it, he managed to keep dry. They were woken by a garda at 7am, and David made his way down to Merchants Quay for breakfast.
He is 39, a carpenter by trade, and worked all his life until three years ago when his sister committed suicide and his father died soon afterwards. David sought refuge in drink and found himself on the streets within months. He's been there since.
These three men were among 50 or so who rose early on Thursday in various doorways, shelters and hostels across the city and made their way to the Merchants Quay drop-in centre for an early meal. The centre sits in the shadow of the Dublin City Council offices at Wood Quay, across the river from the Four Courts.
Five tables, each seating 10, are laid out in the canteen. Most of those in for breakfast slept rough the previous night. Some gather in groups, others eat alone. Breakfast consists of cereal, two slices of toast and a boiled egg. Tea and coffee are on tap and will continue to flow for the remainder of the morning.
Nobody in the canteen is too concerned about the public service day of action scheduled for Tuesday, which will include one group, some of whose members earn over €100,000 a year. None eating breakfast will be preparing a budget submission proffering a poor mouth, as Tom Parlon will on behalf of developers. None of these people without a home will be taking to the airwaves describing themselves as 'vulnerable' – claiming, as one homemaker recently did on radio, that she couldn't survive a cut in child benefit despite her husband's €100,000 salary. At a time when legions of people are reclassifying themselves as victims and vulnerable, the men (and a couple of women) gathered at Merchants Quay on Thursday are more concerned with survival.
The canteen is still festooned with balloons since an anniversary celebration the previous week. What started out as a couple of Franciscans opening a tea room for homeless people in 1969 has developed into a full-blown service. The drop-in centre provides breakfast each morning – 95 people availed of it one day last week – and tea and coffee.
The basics that most of us take entirely for granted are provided at the centre. Showers, clean socks, the use of a telephone. Counselling and assistance with basic form-filling are on hand. English language classes are available to the large number of immigrants who arrived during the boom, but never managed to plant their feet properly on the ground.
Apart from the basics, the place also offers a sanctuary from the loneliness of the streets. Many who use the service suffer from addiction or mental health problems. The company of others in a safe environment provides a sheltered harbour from the storms that rage within.
The staff operate a message book, as a contact point for family members of those who use Merchants Quay. News from the family, a medical appointment, a court date – all are typical of the messages left by families of those who live on the streets.
After breakfast the men loiter, many gathering in knots in the smoking area outside, others scouring newspapers or books. One or two drop their heads down onto the table and grab sleep while it's going. Not everybody enjoyed a dry or restful night.
The recession hasn't yet put a strain on services at Merchants Quay. Down at this socio-economic level, the ranks have always been full, if largely unseen.
"We haven't seen a huge increase yet," says team leader Niamh Thornton. "There are newly homeless people presenting all the time; that's just the way it is. But we haven't yet been hit by a big fallout from home repossessions and that type of thing. Maybe that's to come."
The squeeze has, however, been turned on at the funding end of things. "There have already been cutbacks and there is an expectation that we provide the same service on less. Much of that expectation comes from ourselves," she says.
After 9am, as breakfast is drawing to a close, others arrive in. Kenneth Dempsey is 32 and has been coming here regularly for the past two years. Before that he lived in a tent in Tallaght for some time. He has had problems with heroin and self-harm. He first came into contact with Merchants Quay through its needle-exchange programme, which operates out of the adjoining health promotion unit.
There is a constant queue at the unit, for safe needles, or to see the doctor or nurse. The unit also has a dentist's room, but the dentist is on maternity leave and the public service embargo prohibits hiring a replacement. In the meantime, dental health deteriorates among those who use the service. It is one of those little things, inconsequential in the big picture, but vital to the quest to bring stability to chaotic lives lived at the margins.
"I come here for the company," Kenneth says. "I'm on methadone at the moment. I get my methadone and come down here. The staff are great and I have a few friends here." He first abused drugs when he was 14. A few years later he did an apprenticeship in plumbing, but things didn't work out.
"Did he handle it?" Kenneth asks of Thierry Henry. He didn't get to see the match, but he's tuned into all the talk about it.
Robbie has also dropped in after breakfast. He has a place of his own now, but he still comes down here most days for the company. Robbie did time in prison and hasn't been able to get his life back on track since getting out. He says he is fond of the gargle, but has no interest in drugs.
"Prison is like the AA," he says. "One day at a time because you never know who or what's around the next corner."
Robbie, like others in the centre, is particularly perturbed by the government decision to discontinue the Christmas bonus for welfare recipients. The extra money actually made Christmas an occasion, raising it above the drudgery of everyday life. It is not dramatic or an exaggeration to suggest that Christmas will be cancelled for some. The only other outstanding part of the Christmas season that many mention is the annual dinner for homeless people laid on in the RDS.
Other cutbacks are almost certainly in the offing. The centre itself is unlikely to escape the cuts of €1bn proposed for the health budget. Merchants Quay receives around €1.2m from the HSE annually and those the centre serves are among the most vulnerable in society, by any barometer. Last Wednesday, a typical day, 335 clients visited one or both arms of the centre for food or shelter, or for help with health matters or one of the basic needs of living which the rest of us take for granted.
Undoubtedly, on budget day, the minister for finance will refer in his speech to a duty to protect the most vulnerable. It remains to be seen whether the measures he enacts take cognisance of those who are beyond the confines of the electorate, out there in the margins, where the human spirit perseveres against all the odds.