by Catherine Cleary & Richard Oakley

At last week’s Labour Party conference Alice Leahy stole the show with her three-minute attack on the ‘poverty industry’. Catherine Cleary and Richard Oakley visit centre she runs for homeless people in Dublin. He took a last look in the mirror, fixed his tie, shot his cuffs and puffed out his chest. “The best dressed homeless man in Ireland,” he said. The other men in the washroom laughed. “No it’s true, ‘Suits’, that’s what they call me.”

The young man was just one of dozens of people who visited the Dublin centre of Trust last Thursday morning. Homeless men sat patiently in the clean waiting room waiting for their turn to get a shower, a shave, a complete change of clothes and a pair of shoes.

They came to get their blisters and sores dressed, bites on their hands disinfected, their beards trimmed and a warm, dry pair of socks to put their bandaged feet into. Some of them are in the throes of a killer hangover, others already have an early drink in their systems. One man admitted to Geraldine McAuliffe, the in-house nurse, that he had eaten nothing in days. The human bite on his hand was inflicted, he said, as he held on grimly to his bottle of vodka. “You need drink to survive the streets,” he said. “You won’t sleep without it.” He held onto his bottle in the fight and got his night’s sleep.

Alice Leahy, director and co-founder of Trust, explained why this man and others wanted to tell their stories. They get rare opportunities to speak their minds. They are treated as people to be feared or patronised. To some in the “poverty industry”, they are statistics to be moved around the system. “If there weren’t all these homeless people there would be a lot of people out of work,” she said.

The week before she had given a blunt message to the Labour Party national conference in Cork. In her 30 years working with Dublin’s homeless people it was her most trenchant criticism of the inadequate care system offered by the state. It was run by “highly paid but inexperienced people” she said and has been reduced to a multi-million pound business, she told party delegates. “More researchers and consultants produce more and more reports to be discussed in centres of luxury far removed from the smell and pain of poverty.”

If you want a perspective on poverty, she told the party faithful, try bending over the feet of someone who has walked around on “blistered bleeding and ulcerated feet, afraid their shoes will be robbed, they leave them on 24 hours.” On those sore feet they have usually shuffled from one agency to another.
She related the stories of Ann, a 21 year-old mother of two who had died in a doorway the previous month. Ian, a man in his thirties, drowned in the Dodder river. A couple, Sandra and Mark, whose home for years was the Phoenix Park before Trust set them up with a B&B lost their “much-longed for baby” who was just a few months old recently. “Their grief is barely imaginable.”

For most people the lives of Alice’s men and women are also unimaginable. Hostels are under pressure to cherry-pick the best prospects from the estimated 8,000 homeless people in the country. Beds have to go to “people who fit in and do not have ‘problems’ because grants are increasingly becoming dependent on performance indicators.”

That is one of the jargon phrases that makes Leahy see red because she believes it is symptomaticof a system more interested in paying research consultants than stocking tax-payer funded B&Bs with soap and clean towels.

The gulf between what the poverty industry calls service providers and their “clients” (a word and Leahy and her staff reject) is obvious in the efforts to link homeless people with empty beds. A freephone number often does not result in the offer of a bed. Even if there is a bed some of the men who Leahy sees cannot cope with current hostel requirements. They have to fill out forms and tell their life stories to an under-paid and over-worked hostel worker. Then they find that all they can get is an emergency bed for a single night, often in a dormitory shared with chronic heroin addicts. The next morning they are back on the streets.

In the yellow-painted waiting room at Trust the men and women give their name and take a seat to wait their turn for hot showers, razors and clean towels. In the storeroom Old Spice aftershave and bottles of toiletries are lined up alongside neatly folded sweaters, jeans, jackets and trousers.

“They’re concerned about you,” one Galway man, a graduate who lost his job in the finance department of a computer plant more than ten years ago said. “It’s not pleasant being homeless. I came from a good background. My father would turn in his grave if he saw the way I was living now.”

Patrick Grogan, the young man who looks after the clothes stores and deals with people arriving joked with the “culchie” about being a “jackeen”. It’s a recurring joke the two men share. “Into the west, we call him,” Patrick said as the other man grinned broadly.

At a talk on Friday to a meeting in Portlaoise Leahy listed the type of ailments she sees every day. Knife wounds, cigarette burns, pressure sores, scabies, malnutrition. Everything that is common to the general public but exacerbated by the living conditions on the streets. Those she sees are “human beings whose minds and souls are so dispirited by feelings of despair and inadequacy, people who are pushed from service to service, just like figures on a chess board.”

Every month the organisation hands out full set of clothes for 350 people. Minor condition are treated before they became a hospital admission case. Every week up to 150 people enjoy a wash, a shave and a splash of something fragrant. The ethos of Trust is to facilitate homeless people and provide some comfort to haphazard and dangerous existences.

“The human condition is not all about people who want to be taoisigh or supermodels,” said Leahy. “Life is about the weak and the strong. Some people think the problem is drink – ‘If we could get them off the drink, or the drugs, they’d be grand,’ they say.”

“A lot of people we are dealing with are not going to change,” Geraldine McAuliffe added. Performance indicators are not part of the programme. Success is anything from getting a person off the streets to sending someone back out with clean, dry feet and a slightly crumpled but smart suit.