Lecture Delivered by Alice Leahy, Director & Co-Founder of TRUST

John Keegan Weekend, Portlaoise, Friday, October 5, 2001

Alice Leahy, Director and Co-Founder of TRUST, delivered a lecture on the Theme: “Is Home where the Hearth is?” at the John Keegan Weekend.

Describing a direct link between her work with people who become homeless to the work of John Keegan, Alice Leahy said:

“I do believe strongly that our writers challenge us and remind us that the human condition is complex and doesn’t change in spite of so called progress.”

Alice said that she believed that writing, radio and drama do much to pose questions and stimulate debate and emphasised that the work of a writer like John Keegan was especially important to her given the work she does.

“I have a special interest in the poor houses where people lived and died because even today I meet people where the word poor houses brings tears to the eye and a shiver to the spine. Sadly many professionals in the area of health and social care don’t even know of their existence.”

Describing Trust’s work Alice went on:

“We encourage and help people who come to us to avail of statutory services and to obtain their entitlements; to place a value on themselves; to develop a sense of self-esteem and avoid dependence on private charity.”

“We meet people whose bodies have been ravaged by disease, stabbed, burned by cigarettes. Many have pressure sores from sleeping out in all weathers, sometime sleeping in urine soaked clothes for weeks. Major skin problems are not uncommon like leg ulcers as well as lice, scabies and even malnutrition.

“All the medical conditions common to the general public but exacerbated by poor living conditions. Often dispirited by feelings of despair and inadequacy and many taken over by addiction to society’s drugs, including alcohol and gambling.

“Many pushed from service to service just like figures on a chess board and some unable to get relief for minds at breaking point. The only solution at times brown envelopes of medication. Some trying to create some sense of normality after years locked away in institutions and others just relocated from one institution to another in the name of progress. Many who have attempted suicide and some who sadly decided to end it all.

“We attempt as best we can to meet people as they are, listen and do what we can as fellow human beings – it’s not easy. Sometimes the only hearing people we meet get, is when they are being researched. That is why we have grave reservations about the quality and quantity of research taking place today.

Alice Leahy also highlighted the work undertaken by Trust to make people aware of what it means to be an outsider in Irish society today. The widespread reaction from students and teachers to the documentary about TRUST’s work led to the creation of the TRUST Transition Year Project and a National Essay Competition on the theme of the OUTSIDER is only one example of the several projects organised over the years to raise awareness. That project also led to the creation of the TRUST web site www.trust-ireland.ie .

Trust Alice Leahy pointed out is very committed to everyone’s right to privacy and respect.

“Some agencies involved with people who are homeless may not respect everybody’s right to the confidential use and storage of information. Some people who are homeless feel pressurised to take part in research into homelessness in case they may lose their hostel bed or their entitlements.

“The most important part of our work is accepting people as they are. We refuse to use labels like client, down and out etc. and you will realise that causes problems for decision makers etc. We are also conscious of the fact that research appears to be the answer to everything these days and I use every opportunity I get to question research.”

Alice said that John Keegan’s work provided real insights into how destructive such invasions of privacy can be without appropriate respect being shown to the individual.

“The people I meet daily are labelled homeless by service providers, politicians etc. but most have created a home for themselves in sometimes the unlikeliest of places. Structurally the home may be a hostel, a car, a skipper which can be anything sometimes like the cabby houses or dens (imaginary house) some of us invented in our youth. But home is more than physical structures.”

Alice Leahy during her lecture also quoted many examples from the people she meets
everyday to show what it means to be really homeless in Irish society today.

“It comes as a surprise or shock to many to discover family members homeless – some people manage to hide it from family and neighbours. Sometimes at Christmas people come to us for a suit of clothes to go back home, some give fictitious names and places of abode when in hospital or participating in research.

“It is easy to understand this at times – people leave the family abode for various reasons. Some leave to work, get experience, see the world, create their own world. Others leave for less identifiable reasons.

“Home is not always as cosy as the Christmas Card presents. Small towns how ever nice they appear can be stifling. The valley of the squinting windows still exists. A visit to a psychiatric hospital or prison can still lead to stigma. Irregular relationships may cause gossip.

Alice also outlined why some of the people she had come in contact with in Trust had returned penniless with no accommodation from the UK.

“We were going through some data at work recently, going through 300 – 400 names from the early eighties all male 150 approximately of those had returned from U.K. all penniless and with no accommodation arranged. There were various reasons for returning:

Many had spent from a few years to 30 years in the services – army or navy. Some had returned without pensions being sorted out.

One man poignantly returned for a holiday and got drunk the night he was to go back to the U.K. missed the boat, spent the rest of his money and slept out.

One man who was committed to a psychiatric hospital by his wife, escaped, went to U.K. and returned many years later.

Many had spent years working hard on the buildings.

A number ended up in hostels, lonely, drank to blot out the pain, they then became part of the homeless population and statistics in some report gathering dust somewhere.

Some slept out, ended up in prison or psychiatric hospital and managed to keep this from their families.

“We should remember that there were no mobile phones in those days and indeed land lines were not that plentiful either. Many people then and now couldn’t read or write – I should note the letter writing of people in the past was a treasure.

“I wonder in spite of increased wealth can we still wonder at the innumerable wrongs or have we really learned anything about mans inhumanity to man.

In her concluding remarks Alice expressed the hope that they would never become insensitive in their work as the pressures in the society continue to mount:

“The deaths of people we work with always make us think and please God it will always be the case. Sadly in recent times many people who have been homeless have died on the streets of our cities – generally these days never mentioned and sometimes if they are it can be insensitively.”