Nothing could match the feeling of excitement and exhilaration as myself and seven friends neared the end of the tortuous U.S. immigration procedures in Dublin Airport.
Excruciating as our preceding half-year wait may have been, hopes were high as we prepared to embark on a three-month Mid-western J-1 odyssey which threatened to put Homer’s to shame.
Our aspirations were firmly grounded in reality, of course.
A luxurious five bedroom apartment situated in downtown Chicago with only the finest amenities and facilities, including the obligatory pool, where the minimum requirements as our heads were filled with tales of revelry by those who’d lived the American dream in summers past.
Stepping off the plane on a balmy Memorial Monday our mood was unrivalled. Nothing had been sorted yet, but after a day or two in the hostel finding accommodation for the rest of the summer would be a mere formality, surely.
Fast-forward 10 days and the collective mood had darkened decidedly.
Having already obliterated my $1000 nest egg for which I had scrimped and saved so diligently during the previous months of hard work, my new airbed provided scant consolation as I lay demoralised on the floor of Dan O’Donnell’s abandoned bank, homeless for another night.
That said, it was a relative luxury compared to the trials and tribulations of the previous few nights.
Rather than pay premium rates to extend our four-day stay at the hostel, we decided to rely on the abounding kindness of far-flung friends and relations with a couch or a bit of spare floor space, and even spent two nights in a southside seminary after our pleas for help to the local church fell on deaf ears.
Indeed, if it weren’t for the generosity of good Samaritans such as Mr. O’Donnell we very realistically have been forced to scour the city streets for a spot to rest our heads until flights back to Ireland could be arranged.
Amid all the talk of great nights out and unforgettable memories to last a lifetime at pre-departure seminars, my sponsor agency had somehow managed to omit such minor details as the inevitable difficulty finding accommodation in a city that has reverted to an attitude reminiscent of the old ‘No Irish need apply’ mantra which had allegedly been consigned to the past.
Numerous letters and agencies had cited our nationality as the primary motivation for denying us a place to stay as our attempts to secure lodgings became increasingly more frustrated. Distain and indifference became our constant and most unwelcome companions as we trudged disconsolately through a city with an abundance of empty properties, but no-one willing to lease them to the like of us.
Granted, some were willing to put an end to our plight, but by and large these individuals tended to be, let’s say, less than scrupulous.
One such opportunist had the audacity to offer us an unfinished renovation with holes in the floor, wires sticking out of the walls and panes of glass missing from the front door for what could only be described as an exorbitant rate.
No-one understands the plight of J-1ers in the Windy City half as well as the aforementioned Dan O’Donnell.
A true bastion of the Irish-American community in Chicago, Mr. O’Donnell’s record of helping Irish students find temporary accommodation is unparalleled.
Starting with 50 in 1997, Dan aided a record 1,250 J-1 students in finding affordable and safe housing last summer while seeking no remuneration for his services.
However, with the renting climate becoming increasingly more difficult, even he is finding it tough in 2013.
Despite helping approximately 900 students find rentals so far this summer, Dan estimates that there are still around 60 without suitable accommodation at the moment. Given that as many as 200 more J-1ers are expected to arrive in the coming weeks, the crisis may be at tipping point.
The Armitage-based hardware store owner apportions much of the blame to those selling the J1 packages for providing inadequate information and resources to visa participants before and during their visit to the States.
“Go4Less, USIT and SAYIT all charge these kids large fees and make a lot of money on every person they get, but once these kids get off the plane they abandon them- they don’t do anything for them,” says Dan.
“They’re making millions of dollars so surely these companies could afford to maintain meaningful presences in all the major cities to solve all these problems. All they care about is making a buck for themselves regardless of these kids’ wellbeing.”
Realising the gravity of the situation, Dan contacted newspapers and universities before the summer rush in an attempt to dissuade too many students from coming over, but his pleas to the authorities fell on deaf ears.
Indeed, amid reports of similar difficulties in other traditional J-1 hotspots, he’s even had to rebuff overtures from New York to send desperate students in need of accommodation his way.
“I got two calls from New York in the last three weeks asking could they send people down and that they couldn’t find accommodation there and I said stay there because our situation is just as bad.
“That said, it’s a fantastic programme to be offered to the Irish students and if these organisational problems can be overcome, and I believe they can, then there’s no reason why it shouldn’t continue on strong into the future,” concludes Dan.
In the end, our group was one of the lucky ones. While staying in Dan’s bank (a vacant property which he uses as a homeless shelter for J-1 students) we managed to get in touch with a landlord willing to rent.
Granted, all the plugs mightn’t work, the walls are a bit mouldy and the beetles and roaches make for lively night-time companions, but we’ve a roof over our heads, we’re safe, and we’re not 10 to a room as is disturbingly prevalent in cases similar to our own.
Let there be no mistake- we’re paying for the misdemeanours of certain J1 predecessors whose thuggish antics and blatant disrespect for the properties in which they resided has precipitated this unsavoury situation.
But we also paid €1,200 for the help and support of our sponsor agencies, whose seemingly apathetic attitude to the struggles being faced by Irish programme participants may have turned many American Dreams into mere fallacies this summer.