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In conversation with Dominique Zino

You have to tell people what you think, don’t you? When I started at the night shelter I was quiet and kept to myself. But once you start talking to people and get to know them, they’re alright. When people are homeless, they’re homeless for a reason. Especially the old men, a lot of them are homeless because their marriages have broken down. A lot of them have been in wars. You hear some good stories. If I get out I’m gonna write a book about it. And then you get the looney tune ones you can’t help but laughing at, though it depends which staff is on. Some of them don’t let you laugh.

We’re gonna have to start all over again now since I came out of the night shelter and Charlie came out of the drug treatment centre so we could be together; we’re tired of them trying to split us up all the time. They said it would take four months to get relocated, after we’ve gotten all the paperwork. But now they keep telling us we need to wait. They took me and my Uncle Madden to see this house and told us to wait two weeks, and then two weeks passed, and then they said wait another two weeks. Really you’re kept like prisoners. One of the workers in the night shelter threatened me that I wouldn’t get a room. I was talking to the people camping out in front of the shelter, the same people who helped me out when I first came down to Oxford. When I walked into the shelter the staff said, ‘If you get seen talking to those people in the front again we’re going to have to move you off of resettlement. You’re not allowed to be talking to them.’ I told her, ‘Excuse me, when we didn’t own nothing and didn’t know anybody those people helped us, so not talking to them would be ignorant, wouldn’t it? That’s not right.’ I told her she would have to kick me out of resettlement. But then the manager came and set things straight. Sometimes though, it seems like we’re being punished for being homeless in there. It seems to me that they’re not helping you. Since they moved into that new building it seems to be all about money. They’ve put a lot of the old people back in the night shelter because they’ve got nowhere else to go, but then in the middle of the day, if they need to lie down or anything, they’re not allowed to go into the private rooms until after 6 p.m. Think if that was your grandfather and he wanted to take a nap, shouldn’t you let him?

I think really that we should have a committee in the shelter so some of the homeless lot can talk with the managers. They do need rules in there but it’s too strict. We said they should have music in the open room downstairs where everybody sits. Even a radio would cheer people up. After half an hour sitting there doing nothing you feel like you’re drugged. But they don’t listen. And if you do start complaining too much they say you’re a troublemaker and threaten to bar you. They’re barring people for three months now for stupid things. That’s a long time for old people. The young ones they can stick it. But my Uncle Madden has been outside for five or six weeks, and he’s got a bad heart. When you think of a night shelter you think of drunks shouting at each other, don’t you? You don’t think of the old ones.

I asked them to give me a job, because most of the residents come to talk to me anyway. But they said that I would have to be out of the shelter for two to four years without coming near the building and then they would consider me. One of the guys in the kitchen was going to ask his boss if I could get a job, but another staff member overheard and said ‘Oh, no, he can’t do that’. Really they’re supposed to be here to help, but are they helping us? In the old night shelter they’d let you do a couple of nights if you couldn’t pay, and you would give them the money when you had it. But here you can’t do that. I don’t think they’re even bothered about homeless people.


I came to Oxford with one of my cousins. He was having trouble with his girlfriend; someone said she was going to nick his money, so I came down here with him. I thought he had somewhere to live, then I found he was staying in the night shelter. But I liked Oxford so I stayed. I just liked the country. But when you can’t get a job, you can’t get anything down here. I’ve tried the post office, shops, everything. But you’ve got all these students, they’re gonna get it before us because they’ve got the qualifications. It’s hard. They give us application forms. But you have to put O’Hanlon House, the shelter, as the address, so they just think of drugs or drinking, but we’re not all the same. We’ve been homeless all our life. We’re gypsies and we’ve always lived in caravans. It’s harder now because there’s nowhere to stay. You could just go anywhere in the old days, but you can’t now, it’s coming down. My nana she had twenty-three children and grandchildren. It was alright though. It was really the other kids that brought me up, I never really saw my nanny much. Since she died ten years ago all the family have split up. Now they’ve all gone into houses and turned into different people.


I’ve been with Charlie since last August on and off. We keep falling out because he has been on the drugs and I haven’t. He still tries to say that he’s not taking them but I know he goes to the chemist every morning. He’s hyperactive; he needs someone to look after him. I can’t say I trust him. But he’s the one I stick with. Madden too; he was in the night shelter. He got off the drink but he just got back on it. Most of us Irish lot, we stick together.

Early on all these drugs and all this drinking I never understood. When I first went in that night shelter I just thought they were all idiots just wasting their money for nothing. It all seemed stupid to me. But when you get to talk to the people and hear their stories you see that most of them are just bored, that’s why they’re doing it. You talk to half those people who are drinking and they don’t even want to be drinking, it’s just the boredom, nothing to do. Even in the night shelter there’s nothing to do. Half of them just sit there staring at the wall. I go in the telly room, go for walks, then go out. Sitting in there gets you depressed, and then the staff looks at you like you’re stupid or something.

I feel most lonely when Charlie’s at DTR treatment, that’s when I start thinking about moving on. Charlie keeps me here, I think. I like Oxford, I like it a lot, but I just don’t like all these drug addicts at the shelter. And you can’t ignore them; you have to talk to them. You could be sitting there talking to nice people and then one of them walks by and says ‘You alright Dawn?’ and you have to respond and then the person you’re talking to is like ‘Oh God, you know those people? The men in the shelter constantly try to get you. They look at you like you’re pieces of meat. There’s three of us women in there. You go up for coffee or tea and you can hear them talking about you and watching you. I lost my temper one day and said ‘Don’t keeping staring at me like that’. They’ve put all the girls on one landing now, so that’s a bit better. In the old night shelter the men could get into the girls’ dorms. A lot of those girls latch on to one man one day and then another man the day after. We try to talk to them and tell them that in ten years after they’ve been going with all these men the nice ones won’t want to know them. But they don’t hear it. I lived in Leigh one time, when punk rockers, and skin heads and glue sniffing had come out. We were all scallies, but this young lot they think because they’re on drugs they can do anything they want and get away with it.

We went in to see the social workers when we first came here. The first thing the social worker said to me was ‘You’re a young gal, go get pregnant’. I said, ‘Excuse me I don’t think you should have to have a baby to get a house. And I don’t think you should go around telling people that because there are girls that would do it’. I come from up north where there are nice manners. It seems to be in Oxford that if you’re a woman you’re there for only one thing. You’ve got people walking up to you on the street trying to come on to you, it’s hard. I know how to look after myself but some of these young girls, they have a man come up to them they think is being all nice and they don’t get it.

Like there was a little girl called Jessie, she was about fifteen. She ran away from her mum because she was beating her up all the time. Her mum was a social worker, you wouldn’t think she’d do it, so we didn’t believe Jesse at first. But we kept her with us when we were living in the car park, to keep her out of trouble. We asked her if she wanted to go back, if her mum wasn’t missing her, but she said ‘No, no she’ll hit me’. So we told her we’d go with her to meet her mum, who had been sending messages through the police asking if she was alright. We met her at a McDonald’s. She told us to go away and then she hit her there, right there in McDonald’s. Now Jessie’s gone back home because her mum’s dying of cancer. She’s working though, she’s doing really good. Some of them you can’t help, some of them like living like that.


I don’t know very much about love, nothing really. When I was growing up no one really cared what we did anyway. We just got a smack and were told to go away. But I used to work with disabled kids and that’s one of the most loving things you can do, I’d have to say. I had a disabled daughter, Adelesse. I ended up working at the place that she went to. When she died I left. That was about eight or nine years ago. She died at eighteen months, but she had a good life. She was happy.

I can’t have any more kids. Charlie and I lost one anyway, but that one was going to be disabled. I wouldn’t want another baby to go through that. You’re suffering but in the end they’re suffering more. And with Charlie, he has this split personality, he’ll be all lovey-dovey one minute and angry the next. At first I couldn’t understand where he was coming from, I was thinking of going to a battered wives home. But since then he’s been talking to me proper. I threatened to leave but he said ‘If you go I’ll just kill myself.’ I told him we would have to keep talking about things because I wasn’t going to be used by anyone else. I had a bad husband before Charlie who I divorced. At the end of the day he’s the man so I can’t beat him, so all I can do is threaten to go. Charlie and I aren’t actually married, but it’s like we are. We’ve been together a year and a year for the streets is a long time. It splits most couples up. A lot of those girls will come up to your man and start kissing him in front of you. But I don’t get wound up about it. If he wants to go off with another girl he’ll go. He still gets wound up about it though.

When I first met Charlie I didn’t really know him. It got to a point one time where I was in the night shelter and Charlie was barred, so he couldn’t get into me. He was screaming from the outside and passing notes through with some of the residents. I told to the staff that they weren’t helping by letting these letters in saying he was going to cut my throat and things like that. I had to get on nerve tablets to calm me down. Charlie’s hard work. He’s really hyper. One day he says he really wants to try to get a house and get off the drugs but the next he’s saying he needs to go out. And he makes up all these really stupid stories. He told us all he was dying of cancer and we felt really sorry for him, until we found out it was all a joke. When he’s being normal he’s a nice lad. He’s told me all that happened to him when he was younger, and that it was travellers that did it to him. We were brought up the same way so we relate to each other.


We have rules as travellers. First you don’t talk to police. When we were younger we were told not to talk to anybody, really. In the camps the boys were split up from the girls. You didn’t mix with the boys; you’d get in a lot of trouble that way. In a way we’re a bit like Asians in how strict we are. The girls do the cooking and cleaning and don’t really talk to anyone. But things are all changing now. These new generations are going off doing what they want to do and running away. We never could have done that. We would’ve gotten dragged back. There are good things though: you’re always safe. At the time you think it’s a rough way to be living, but when you’ve left it you wish you could go back. Nearly all the people I knew when I was younger, they’ve all gone into houses anyway. Without housing here it’s like you’re just stuck, everything stops. That’s why I’ve thought of leaving. I’m waiting for a disability payment to come through and if that happens I’m leaving and going north. It’s easier to get housing up there - and friendlier people up there too.

If you’re a traveller and you’ve got a trailer or a tent the police have got to give you an eviction letter before they take your belongings. I was staying out on the field by the ice rink in Oxford and we got an eviction letter telling us to move. So this guy showed us a place over one of the bridges where we could move our stuff. We moved over the bridge, but then we were told there was another call saying we needed to move again. When we came back that night all of our things were gone. We’re still trying to write to the police and get them back. I don’t think we will though. The police are saying it has nothing to do with them.

When we first got into the night shelter we thought we were better than other people because we were living in the trailers. But there’s no difference in us really. You get good and bad in every type of people. Up in Manchester a couple of years ago we saw a boy, only about fifteen, get hanged off a balcony because he was coloured. I thought at first they were taking bags of rubbish out because sometimes in Manchester they throw bags of rubbish out the window, but then we saw the boy. The police came and asked us if we knew anything. But we couldn’t talk to them. We just said we didn’t want to get involved and we had just come to do our work. There were four other boys that did it, they all looked upstanding but they weren’t very good people, were they?

There are signs up in pubs sometimes that say ‘No travellers’ because when we come in we can take over the pubs. There’s lots of fighting that goes on about who belongs to which family. My Irish family criticizes me for moving to England but I don’t care because I’m sick of all the fighting, it’s stupid. Really I brought myself up so I don’t have to say that I belong to any of them. I’d rather just be myself. I’ll go where I want to go. It’s hard to settle down, sometimes I get a really bad depression and I just want to leave. When I was in that night shelter there were times I couldn’t breathe. Some days I would feel a panic, like I had to get out. And I would go up to a field on my own, especially when there a lot of fighting about drugs - you get sick of hearing it, you need to get away. Charlie doesn’t understand that. Sometimes you just want people to talk to, but sometimes you need to be on your own.

We went to Yugoslavia for two weeks before the war. My nanny used to help smuggle refugees out. She never told us what she was doing, we only found out later. We just thought they were other funny kids that don’t talk correctly joining the group. And in those days you only needed one passport for the whole group in the trailer. I was born in Kilkenny. I used to love Ireland, but it’s no good now. It’s all euros and you can’t smoke, it’s too strict. The troubles are never going to end. They keep saying it’s because the English are there, but it’s all about Protestants and Catholics and all that, it’s all stupid.

Sometimes you regret your upbringing. People can tell who travellers are from how they look. But I just want to be classed as me, not as a traveller. Think of it, everywhere you go you have people coming up to you thinking you’re a certain way because you’re a traveller. People asked me if I could look in my crystal ball and tell the future. I tell people, ‘I could take your money off you right now, but I’ll tell you the truth. It’s a load of mumbo jumbo’. There’s only one travelling woman I know who really could do fortunes. She used to take something off of you that you’ve had for a long time, like a ring. She only charged a tenner and said, ‘In a month, if nothing that I said happens, come back and I’ll give you back your money’. No one ever goes back though. She lives up in Leigh. She’s about ninety-something now. People seem to have this thing: if you’re a traveller, you must be trouble, and they think they should be scared. People think if you start trouble with one of us hundreds will come to join in. But my nanny brought me up that it you start trouble yourself you’ve got to end it yourself. If you get into trouble you’ve got to get out of it, she always used to say that. If we came home crying because some other little girl hit us my nanny would tell us to get out and go hit the person back.

People asked me if I ever got hugs and things like that, but what did I want to get hugged for? I think that’s why now I don’t like people touching me. Even Charlie, if he puts his arm around me I’ll shrug him off, or I won’t be comfortable holding his hand. Sometimes he feels like I ignore him, but I’ve told him that it’s just me. Sometimes I just want to be in my own space.

The police used to see all my nanny’s children in the caravan and think we were kidnapped. They didn’t believe all the kids were hers. One time they took us off of her to some house and made us answer questions like, ‘When was your first memory of living in the caravan?’ and ‘Is that really your nanny? Of course it was my nanny; they were asking such stupid questions. Then we had to take a blood test to prove it was true. They also made us all go to school, but I didn’t get what the teacher was saying to me. She was going on about Henry VIII I think. I stood up and told her I was going. I said ‘I know how to do money, I can just about write my name, and I know how to drive, so I don’t need to come to your school,’ and I walked off.

I can read now. When my little girl was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, too much water in the brain, I didn’t understand any of it. When she had to go into a special care facility they told me I had to check her doctor’s records, but I told the nurse that the records were just pieces of paper and I didn’t understand what they were saying. She taught me to read while my baby was in the hospital, she taught me really quick. I can read anything now. I read all the time and I read to Charlie because he can’t read. We just finished one book about a little Irish boy with only one leg who joins the IRA. Now we’ve started one about a little girl in a sideshow.


I don’t judge nobody now. Charlie sees people on the street and calls them tramps. But we’re both living that life now. He thinks because he’s in a tent he’s better but we’re all relying on the night shelter. The one good thing about the night shelter is it allows people to change if they want. They can go into drug rehab. I can understand when people start to do drugs because they had a baby die or something. But I tell them drugs won’t bring their child back, at least you had your time with your child. I think things happen for a reason.

There was a girl in there, Georgina, and I didn’t want to talk to her at first because she’s a prostitute. I didn’t want to walk the street with her. I told her that too, that I would never mix with people like her. I wasn’t going to look down on her because she was a prostitute; you do what you have to do in life. I can just go and walk by her and sit on my own. She told me she was prostituting herself because she was on the drugs. She had a little boy too. She had this letter from him: ‘Please mummy, stop doing bad things so you can come home’. I told her that at least she got to see her kids. Some of the women in there never see them again. They put her into rehab and I think as of last week she went on from there and went back to her son. She’s done good.


My ex-husband’s probably the only enemy I’ve made. He lost both his legs working in construction. Even his family doesn’t get on with him, but they’re generally all pretty bad people. They’d shoot you for a loaf of bread. In that night shelter you can tell who has been brought up right. I ask people, ‘What would your mummy say if she saw you sitting around like this? There are some people in there that have molested children. I just couldn’t think of being in the same building with a child molester at first, I just couldn’t get it. I want to say something to them, and that can be hard. If I do I’ll get barred, but people like that shouldn’t be let into the shelter in the first place. And then when the men start blaming the Mrs. for all the problems in the marriage, I have to start sticking up for the girl’s side.


I think you’re better off to just look after yourself. There’s good people, but it’s finding them isn’t it? It’s hard.

This one born-again Christian fellow that works in the night shelter, he got us going to his church. Charlie and I asked the preacher there about getting married, but he said we needed a thousand pounds. We didn’t want a big fancy wedding. We just wanted to say ‘I do’ and walk out. He wasn’t exactly a very good practicing preacher. I don’t think he had read his bible lately.

I especially don’t trust the social service profession. They’re sitting in an office doing a job and you’re just another name on a list. They’re not really bothered. T hey shouldn’t class everybody like each other because they’re not the same. You see people from outside that come in the night shelter and you’ll see that they look at you like you’ve come from outer space or something like that. But we’ve started saying something to them now, asking them if they have a problem. There are bad people in the night shelter but there are good ones too.

You have to go to bed at eleven o’clock in the shelter. And they get you up at half past seven for breakfast, even on weekends. That doesn’t make much sense to me. You get people up but some of them just sit there all morning until the shops open, or some of them sit there until eleven o’clock when they can go back to bed. In The Bridge where the little young ones are they’re told to be out by eight o’clock and not to get in any trouble. But where are they supposed to go? What are they gonna do? Go shoplifting or something. It’s stupid. And I don’t think you can change it. I just want to get out. I used to ask questions at the night shelter about who runs it, if it’s run by the government. But they won’t answer you. If they think you’re a bit clever and want to know what’s going on, they won’t tell you anything. There’s a book being written by some lads in London about what goes on inside these shelters; they’ve got a lot to say. There are men walking into the girls’ showers, staff trying to get girls to go on their boats, but you can’t say anything. You can write a complaint if you want, but then you get classed as one of the troublemakers. I used to work in a night shelter in Preston. I knew there were probably good people in there and I knew the ones to keep away from.


People shouldn’t think about the future too much, just get through your day. You don’t know what your future’s going to be. You could go outside and get hit by a bus. You can make plans about getting married and stuff like that. But, like I’ve told Charlie, it’s not just a piece of paper (and we don’t even have the money to get that). It all takes time. He’s never been married before and I have. I tell him that we’ll do it but he has to get through his DTR and sort things out. I think he’s five years younger than me but in his mind he can be like a six-year-old. Charlie can be really charming but if he doesn’t get his way things can go bad. With him you’re better off just agreeing with him instead of fighting.

One time I was really scared of him and I wouldn’t walk off because he kept saying things like ‘I’ll slit your throat’. We split up for about a week because at the end of the day I’ve got to stick up for myself. Finally he wrote me a really nice letter. When Charlie’s not on anything he can be proper nice. But he had bouts of schizophrenia. He was cutting up his back and stuff and was extremely paranoid. His mates warned him if he kept acting like that I was going to leave. Since then we’ve been alright. Every couple has arguments. You don’t have to think about what you did in life, just what you have to do right now to get you on. Charlie’s really loud and I’m the quiet one. But if he’s carrying on too much, I tell him. He looks at people sometimes who come into the shelter and smell because they haven’t had a chance to get a bath and starts calling them tramps. But I’ve told him he can’t do that because when we came down here we were all black, covered with dirt: ‘At the end of the day, you’re the tramp aren’t you?’ I’ve told him. ‘We’re all tramps. That’s what we’re in here for, isn’t it? You shouldn’t come living in here then if you don’t like it.’ When I first came down here I felt like he does. But now I notice that all the Oxford people they’ve got that same type of anger that Charlie’s got as well. There’s something about Oxford. When you walk in the street everybody’s smiling and getting on with each other, but then you walk into a pub or somewhere like that and you get looks from people like they want to kill you. They don’t seem like very happy people to me. I was talking to one councilman and I told him the best thing to do is to just put a sale on all the shops one weekend and let everyone go on a shopping spree. They’re really depressed people. Is it because they’re students? They all look like they want to kill themselves.

I’m classed as Charlie’s caretaker so the staff at the night shelter want me to tell them what he’s doing. I told him that next time he saw his psychiatrist that I would go with him and talk with him. The staff has told me to be careful though, because they see him getting possessed on me, which isn’t right. He’ll even say to girls down at DTR that hit on him that he’ll get me to beat them up - then I hear about it from them. The staff told me that Charlie didn’t have a girlfriend for five or six years before I came down here. He took to me because I’m a traveller. He’s got a big thing about being a traveller, even though I haven’t. To tell you the truth, they way my family treated me I hated being a traveller. There’s a lot about travellers that I don’t really like, but I was born to it, I don’t have a choice. But that doesn’t mean I’m like the rest of them. I’m not. They’ll hit you just for looking at them funny. They’re hard people. But Charlie thinks it’s all good, all the armed robberies and that. He’ll go into shops and start saying how he thinks that’s so great and then you have all the security people looking at you. He doesn’t have to do that.


I would go back to the travelling rather than settle down – but I would go on my own. It’s when you mix with all the other travelling people that there’s trouble. The men all get together and get drunk and the women start fighting about whose daughter is looking at whose son funny. You have to just talk about things and if you can’t talk then just walk away. But it doesn’t work like that. Every since I was eight I would run off and go sit in trees and things like that. I was sick of the fighting. When my uncle would come find me and ask why I ran away I’d tell him, ‘Well, the tree doesn’t shout at me’.

I just want to get somewhere to stay and be happy. But then again I’m not even the one that wants the room, it’s Charlie that wants it. I’ve had really posh houses before I came to Oxford. I’m not being funny. I lived in Preston before this and I signed the house off to my niece. It wasn’t cheap stuff that I left in this place. But that’s the thing: when you’re in houses you’ve always got money. I hated it. Then it’s all about who’s got the best curtains and the best carpets. The house ends up being like a tomb. Like you go out and buy an ornament and put it in your house, and then you polish it and make it look nice. But it’s just there, it doesn’t mean nothing after a bit. It’s like a picture. When you die who’s going to get all that stuff? When I pass away I want people to say ‘She was a really nice girl’ and ‘she really helped people’. And that’s what people do say down in that night shelter, that I really try to help people.

July 2005