Homelessness-New Responses
Simon Ireland National Conference

Speech Delivered By Alice Leahy, Wednesday, November 15th, 2000


Thank you for asking me to speak today. A pity the time is so short for such an important topic. My association with the Simon Ireland office dates to a time when finance was limited and the office was situated in D’Olier Street under The Irish Times where Dick Shannon typed away on a second-hand typewriter as steam from the coffee pot wafted through the grids outside. We should never forget Dicks contribution.

I should perhaps say a little about the agency I work with called TRUST established in 1975. On a morning we work with between 20 and 30 men and women all sleeping out, some over many years who cannot even get an emergency bed, some have third world health problems. One man attending us I met first as a homeless youth in 1973 still homeless.

Here today near the site of the old Simon Shelter in Sarsfield Quay where I lived for a period in the early seventies seems like a lifetime away to say worked there would take from the highly charged atmosphere of living in appalling conditions such was the squalor that as I speak I still smell the stink coming through the rotting floor boards. Yet in the midst of such squalor there was an inter-play of real humanity, real pain, real honesty, real vision, real frustration and constant questioning this surely is the essence of what we call education. Looking back should not prevent us from looking ahead but reflection ensures there can be a real foundation for progress.

Education doesnt begin in school or end in college, it is a life long process and indeed if we had sufficient time available I would ask you all to sit still and ask yourself the question what have I learned from people who are homeless? Have they contributed to my education? What has entitled me to claim expertise in this field? There are of course no experts in the field of poverty only those who claim to be.

The awful term Celtic Tiger has somehow given us a false sense of achievement and expertise and the notion that all can be successful. Looking at the weekly advertisements for staff (Statutory and Voluntary) in the caring field would be comical were it not for the fact that many people are seriously excluded from participating in the work force around poverty and as a result the gap between talk shops and hands on work is getting bigger not to mention the salary differential. I should state at this stage that while acknowledging the hard work of many I do not share the sense of optimism or achievement currently being expressed by many in the field i.e. in services for people who are homeless.

Political correctness and the language of consumerism in vogue, instead of opening up – is in fact stifling real debate and as a result real education and lack of vision in service development. We also seem to have lost our sense of connectedness. We in TRUST work on a daily basis with men and women living in extreme squalor on the main sleeping out. My own attempts to discuss human emotions expressed and experienced by the people we meet e.g. violence, pain, hunger, isolation, hatred, the list is endless and all common to the reality of the human condition was considered to be inappropriate by a body set up to “solve” the problem of homelessness at a meeting I attended. I run the risk of being misunderstood by commenting on the fact that in 1974 I with others, many of whom had worked full-time in Simon set up the type of service now being proposed and delivered this service until a few years ago when money became available to employ more and more personnel and commission highly paid consultants to produce more and more reports. We now no longer visit hostels but work from our own Centre.

Surely we cannot be so naive as to think we have all the answers, those who have gone before us had tremendous vision an example being that which enabled the setting up of the small hospitals now viewed as expendable. On October 21st the Irish Independent reported on comments made by the General Secretary of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, George Maybury. Gardai questioned the Government for “wasting millions of pounds on private consultants to produce a report which is not likely to be implemented. There is absolutely no evidence that what the consultants are proposing will improve policing in this country there is a real danger in fact that their proposals will make matters infinitely worse”. A view I share regarding services for people who are currently sleeping out.

Education and prevention appear to be self-explanatory. If homelessness is solely about housing why is it still a problem at this time of great wealth? Why have hospitals been sold off for millions of pounds? Why is the amount of land around St. Brendan’s Psychiatric Hospital not used for social housing seeing that many of the people who passed through that building have died in less than desirable conditions many still live in less than desirable conditions. Of course one of the reasons is they dont have a voice or a vote.

Education is vital if communities are to accept people labelled homeless, it is easy to understand why at times communities feel unable to cope with more problems because rarely if ever is there sufficient support available to them when problems arise or indeed even acknowledgement of their services provided free. Often the support for vulnerable neighbours is seen as interference rather than real concern.

Education must include education of those in positions of influence and more importantly power.

Increasingly people at the coal face are seen in the same light as those they work with, outsiders in the real sense. Their views are often ignored and therefore what is really happening on the ground never reaches the people in power, it stops at middle management where often exposing a problem is seen as personal failure. Generally left that way until at times the media come to the rescue this in turn often leads to staff being accused of dealing with the media.

If we are to attempt to deal with the problem effectively much needs to happen. A greater understanding of the contribution of all working the field in statutory and voluntary bodies is required. People dip into working in the area of poverty, all for reasons best known to themselves, some use it as a stepping stone to move on to better things and frequently skilled personnel are not considered for promotion because working in the one field for a long time is seen as not having any motivation rather than having accumulated great skill and experience. Others give up working in the field because of little support from employers.”Who cares for the carer?”

Such an attitude has led to the real crisis that currently exists in our Health Service.

It has become old fashioned to reflect on the philosophy of our founding fathers, reflection is a vital part of education if the future is not to push more people to the margins including service providers as more “expert”groups replace them. We appear to have more and more information collected but I am reminded of T.S. Elliots comment in 1934 “where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge, where is the knowledge we have lost in information”. Our own experience of seeing a description of the work of our Agency in the recently published Directory of Services completely different from our two submissions made and indeed with inaccurate data just makes me wonder how effective the whole exercise is in the field of Education.

We in TRUST last month circulated our Teachers Pack incorporating a National Essay Competition on the theme “Outsiders” sponsored by Irish Times and Dept. of Justice, Equality and Law Reform supported by the Rotary Club Dublin. Our website www.trust-ireland.ie was launched to ensure maximum exposure. This is our attempt to stimulate young people to express their views on outsiders. We hope we will have a great response from the next generation of planners and thinkers.

We sincerely hope young people will be encouraged to speak out for people on the margins and not be inhibited by the meaningless language currently being used to analyse and describe poverty a language which is creating even bigger problems than solving as already stated.

History will judge us on how we treat the most vulnerable of human beings at the beginning of the millennium.

Are we any better than those we criticised early last century who provided care for vulnerable children. Voluntary bodies now in our new partnership role sometimes feel under pressure to provide in some cases questionable, inadequate care for those who should be adequately cared for by the State. Have we learned anything from our past?

This fact I repeat is rarely articulated and never addressed at the many meetings and launches taking place until this happens more people will join the ranks of the forgotten and the disenfranchised.

A recent invitation to a focus group for stake holders for a scoping exercise could mean different things to different people depending on where you come from what is clear is that such terminology is not necessary – it is clearly alienating. From our daily work it is clear that increased funding has not greatly helped the people on the streets if anything it is destroying any sense of community and an ability to identify and acknowledge our own shared fragility. It is not helping to create an awareness of the importance of all even those seen as “no hopers”a term I would personally not use.

Education is about having the knowledge and confidence to express same without having to use meaningless jargon?

Dean Swift who walked these streets 300 years ago reputedly reprimanded a junior colleague for using big words in his sermon when simple ones meant the same, would that he could be a fly on the wall at some meetings.

Vaclav Havel President of the Czeck Republic playwright and prisoner once said “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility”. We all view the world from where we stand. Education helps us to look at things in different ways everyone has a point of view. All our realities are different, we all view the same thing from a different perspective and education should help us to appreciate that fact.

The University of Life to which we all belong but sometimes fail to realise is truly free and open to all.

George Bernard Shaw once said “My education was interrupted by my schooling”. A sentiment I understand. However our curriculum now encourages creativity, teachers working in the field need all the support they can get.

We are all but students of life and should never forget that fact. We are all human (see “Outsider” by Micheal O’Siadhail in our TRUST booklet and also on our website) and have much to learn from the people we claim to provide services for. We must ensure that we are not unconsciously widening the gap between them and us and between each other in the name of education and progress.

The bigger the gap becomes the poorer we are likely to become in our understanding of the human condition and our place in the planet.

Alice Leahy Director and Co-Founder of TRUST