by Stephen J. Costello
Alice Leahy is a nurse and co-founder of Trust, which was set up in 1975 to provide medical and related services for homeless people. Up to thirty men and women call each day on Alice Leahy and her team in the Iveagh Hostel in Dublin’s Liberties. They range in years from 18 to 80. I learned so much from my chat with Alice Leahy about homelessness — for example, I was told, to my surprise, that there are no free hostels in Dublin. The philosophy of Trust is based on two principles: the recognition of every person’s autonomy and the respect owed to them as unique human beings; and the need to restore the dignity of people whom society has labelled deficient, deviant or undesirable. The success of Trust in supplying not only much-needed services but a hearing ear and helping hand is due, in large measure, to this exceptional and quietly determined lady who works silently with those who are suffering and sidelined by mainstream society.
SJC: You are the Director of Trust, which is a non-political and non-denominational voluntary body that provides medical and social services for homeless people. How did you become involved with Trust? Was it connected to your work as a nurse?
AL: Yes and no. When I came to Dublin to train as a nurse, you had very little time off. I felt that, in the time off I had, I wanted to get to know the city and, particularly when I worked as a midwife in the Rotunda, I came across families living in extreme poverty who were, nonetheless, contented or, at least, appeared to be contented human beings. I then did voluntary work with Voluntary Services International in the city and a group of us were involved in visiting the elderly and mothers and children and setting up a youth group in Benburb Street. I worked as a night sister and I was invited to go to London to set up an intensive care unit (the first of its kind), but I felt I didn’t have the time to do the voluntary work I was doing; and while I see the importance and the role of technology in medicine, I also missed the hands-on work, which I think is vital.
I decided to give up being a nursing sister and went to work in Simon. I remember the consultant setting up an appointment for me to see a psychiatrist — and he really meant it, because I had given up a good job! I got to know the founder of Simon, who was a wonderful man. Simon was in existence a few years then but the building was appalling, though there was a tremendous sense of community. I worked there for a number of months and it was very tough. After it, I felt you either never wanted to see a homeless person again or you wanted to do something about it, so I went to England to do some private nursing to make some money, because I had no money and when I was there (and I now look back in hindsight and see a pattern). A number of things happened. One night, a woman who was very battered and bruised and physically unattractive, was ill, and there was a young attractive doctor there in the hospital we brought her to, I think one of the most attractive men I had ever seen in my life. He was beautiful, and he threw his arms around her because he knew her. When I came back to Dublin, he wrote to me and said that, if I were interested in pursuing this, he would be very interested in becoming involved with me. At this time, I had applied for a job in India and the letter went astray — I wasn’t meant to be there.
A doctor and I visited the Simon shelter once a week and a job came up in the national Simon office. I applied for it, as Assistant National Director, and I used that time to do a report on the medical problems of homeless people. That was in 1974. The questionnaires went to all the hostels and ideas came back from GPs, voluntary bodies and from people who were homeless themselves. But the main part of our work was visiting the Simon shelter once a week with a doctor and a nurse team. There were people with appalling medical problems, people who had experienced terrible violence; but there was a great sense of hope amid all the hopelessness. There were a lot of professional people who wanted to help as well, but they felt they couldn’t cope with the chaos and yet their skills were needed. So I wrote this report and presented it to the Health Board and they employed me as a nurse. I don’t agree with wanting to change people unless they want to change. That’s up to them.
David Magee was a psychotherapist who, as a medical student, had worked in Simon, and he started to work with me in a voluntary capacity. We had no base and at that time, a young woman, Anne Rush, discovered that she was dying of cancer. She did a soup run for Simon and one of the people she befriended was Kitty, who was well known on the streets of Dublin. She was a very happy woman who walked around the streets of Dublin with loads of plastic bags and used to go in to all the different hospitals where she was known. She did her washing in the toilets and we were all told that those bags belonged to that woman who comes in at night. She would stay in the hallway of one of the hospitals. That was her way of living. She would pass my flat and look in to make sure I was there and all right. So Anne was dying of cancer and she decided that some money was to go to helping people who were homeless. So a group of us got together, from the Vincent de Paul Society, etc., and there was a wonderful solicitor, Eoin Mulholland. We used the facilities in the old Vincent de Paul headquarters and we met there one night a week. We drew up a business plan; we decided to set up a private charitable trust and that together we would provide a service for people who couldn’t avail of services. The Health Board gave us the use of the old health centre in Lord Edward Street. It was an appalling building, but was very well known to the people of Dublin and it was a place where the poor went to get free milk and money. Our deeds of trust were drawn up and it was set up as a small-scale medical and social service for people who were homeless.
What to call the agency was a dilemma; Anne herself came up with the name “Trust”. I think that’s no accident, because if we don’t trust ourselves and others, we are going no place in our world. We worked very hard, going around town on bicycles, visiting people who were sleeping rough, and we linked in with all sorts of services. Fred Donohoe, who worked in the Health Board at the time, was very open to accommodating us. We were involving people in their own health care. We didn’t see health care as being only about medicine. Professor James McCormick was our Chairman. We decided we would never keep personal records of people’s lives, believing that people’s privacy is their privacy. We have no right to be extracting information from them. Some people had lives they didn’t want to talk about. They wanted to forget about them. Then, after a year, David said he was going off to do psychiatry, so we advertised and employed a doctor for a number of years. We also felt that we needed better premises — we needed showers, for instance. We then got the basement of the Iveagh Hostel and we have been there since 1980.
We strongly feel that homeless people shouldn’t be discriminated against, that they should be using the normal services, and that frees us up to work with the more difficult people. So we decided we wouldn’t employ a doctor any more. We employed a man who had been in prison for many years. He was wonderful, and great with people who were struggling with their lives. He could also relate to people who were homeless. I remember a young fella coming in one day with the keys of a BMW — he had been robbing cars all over the place — and Paddy said to him: “Come on, cop yourself one, prison is no joy. Do you realise that this isn’t going to do you any good?” It worked and he did listen to him because he felt this man knew — he was there.
Now, to where we are now. Over the years, a lot more money has become available and our health services have a lot more personnel. When we started, nobody was going around hostels; in fact it was very hard to gain access, but now you have outreach and re-settlement workers, and so on. Our work got busier, so we cut back and expanded into other areas, to concentrate on our own centre. Paddy retired because of ill health and so we wanted to get somebody who could treat people just as other human beings — we got Patrick. Also at this time our trustees felt that we should be putting our experience to good use and there was a need to get a little involved in education. We looked for another nurse to work with me. We now describe ourselves as a befriending social and health service. We would see befriending people who come in as being much more important than putting on the bandages, because if we get to know people, over time, they will tell you their problems and if there’s something you can do to help them. That’s very much how we work now. Our day-to-day work hasn’t changed. Our philosophy hasn’t changed, except that we are doing other things as well. We would constantly be frustrated at the way many services are going and our society is going. There is no place for a different voice. The little people are being pushed aside and silenced. Also, if you work with people who are outsiders, you are likely to be seen as an outsider yourself. I think there is a great poverty of vision out there.
SJC: A poverty of the imagination.
AL: A poverty of the imagination, and there’s no sense of how we are all in there together. People are working so hard and compiling statistics and sorting things out and not stopping to ask where we all are in the scheme of things.
SJC: I always think that these endless scores of statistics and sociological research don’t translate into practical solutions.
AL: This is very frightening in our area of work. I could spend the whole day in meetings, but I’m not going to meetings unless we’re discussing people.
SJC: If people are homeless, one would think that the provision of housing would be the simple solution but, in reality, the solution is more subtle and complex, as many people who are homeless have rejected the community and the conventional values of society and have spent some time in prison or mental hospitals. What brings them to the brink? Why do people become homeless?
AL: I suppose there are no easy answers to that. I think it’s all too simple to say that it’s a housing problem. If it’s a housing problem, why wasn’t it solved long ago? I think there’s a terrible emptiness in people’s lives. I mean, who would want to be locked away in four walls and going to a local community meeting and nothing happening. There’s something cruel about locking people away and that’s what happening at the minute. There is a major housing problem and people can’t afford mortgages, but that’s very different from what we’re saying. A lot of people end up in prison who shouldn’t end up in prison and people end up in psychiatric hospitals who shouldn’t be in psychiatric hospitals. I think there’s a tremendous danger that we’re medicalising and criminalising poverty. Thirty years ago, there would be groups of us huddled in a corner and discussing what Laing said or what Ivor Browne or Noel Browne were saying and doing. There was real debate going on. But now there are people with no training or experience deciding whether someone is mentally ill. Recently, this happened at a meeting when we were discussing a woman who has great difficulty getting her money and surviving. She’s had a terrible life. But she won’t queue to get her money and somebody said she must be mentally ill. That’s frightening and frightening things are happening out there which no one is questioning or challenging. In a way, it’s the subtle use of terminology and power and medicine.
SJC: The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan describes psychiatrists’ discourse as being the discourse of the master.
AL: That’s right, and we all listen and you can’t challenge them. One way of rubbishing people, especially women, is to say they’re too emotional. I would say that if more professionals were more emotional, we would have far better services. We are fooling ourselves. If you go to a doctor, he’s no good unless he gives you a pill. I don’t agree with that at all. This is what’s happening to a lot of people who are poor and going around like zombies on massive dosages of medication. People in the professions will privately agree with you but none of them will rock the boat because they feel they won’t get promotion. The time has come when they need to ask themselves why they’re in those jobs. We forget that people who are poor or whatever keep a lot of people in jobs.
SJC: And Ivor Browne told me that many psychiatrists kow-tow to big pharmacological companies because of the huge profits involved.
AL: That’s right.
SJC: Would you say that in some cases they unconsciously want to remain homeless, for whatever reasons, that even as they sit on the street corner exposed to the elements and to other people’s contempt, loathing and aggression, they experience, nonetheless, some jouissance (i.e. pleasure in pain), that there’s something in it for them?
AL: I suppose I would like to say that we never know what’s going on in another person’s head. We’re lucky if we know what’s going on in our own heads! We all get recognition some way and maybe the only way somebody can get recognition is by being out there.
SJC: It’s almost a protest against society or the “symbolic order”, as Lacan would put it.
AL: That’s right. We would meet people who will not claim social welfare, even when they’re entitled to it. There would be that sense that “I am going to go out there and shame the state”. Another thing that comes in is the whole notion of sin, guilt. People would feel that they have to suffer to get to the next life. We meet people who feel a lot of guilt that hasn’t been explored so they don’t know what they’re guilty of. It’s all about the human condition and what we see out there is the extreme of that condition that challenges something in us. That’s why a lot of people are so afraid to get involved with people who are so broken, because when you do you have to look inside yourself.
SJC: We hear talk of the housing crisis but what is the solution to the homeless crisis?
AL: I think there are some things for which there are no solutions and very often the solution is one we’re trying to impose. Sometimes those people are happier than us, that’s their way of coping with the world, and it’s very hard to understand that in this day and age. I think the housing crisis should be solved. There are massive tracts of land all over the city and country and there is no reason why there shouldn’t be a massive public housing programme with all the money we have. We have no free shelters in Dublin. I think people think that homeless people get everything for nothing. In fact, some homeless people won’t take a penny for anything. And sometimes people think that all homeless people are beggars. Sometimes the biggest beggars may be the agencies collecting on their behalf.
SJC: Like the government holding out the begging bowl to Europe.
AL: Yes. I have problems with the whole European thing because I think it’s impacting on our services here; it’s all about performance indicators and endless reports.
SJC: That’s the culture now.
AL: Yes. We do a report every month for our trustees but what’s in our report is
x number of new people sleeping out, the number of people we met, people like yourself, the numbers with showers. The reason we do that is because it costs something for someone to have something as basic as a shower. You can’t put a cost on community care, though. Homelessness is a term we can use to . . . what is a home anyway?
SJC: Freud uses a term, “unheimlich” (unhomely or uncanny) to describe a sate of being in which we feel that we are alienated from ourselves, that we are not at home in ourselves or our world.
AL: We’re not.
SJC: The home is the mother’s breast and we’re trying to get back to that.
AL: That’s right.
SJC: So psychologically, we are all homeless. It’s a psychical state.
AL: I would agree with that interesting insight. And I really value this discussion we’re having now, which just would not take place in the area of work I am currently involved in. It’s important to spend time to reflect on the issues you’re raising. There is a space for this type of question. Part of what our essay competition is about is to encourage this type of questioning, questions I try to raise myself.
SJC: The name “Trust” is interesting. Francis Fukuyama wrote a book entitled Trust, in which he argued that trust is the central and cardinal ethical virtue.
AL: Well, I think it is too.
SJC: The philosophy of Trust centres not just on important medical, nursing and social services, but also upon the restoration of worth and dignity to those the world would seem to despise or disown. How do you do this?
AL: Everyone is important and nursing helps in a way in that, very often, people are put off by dirt. To be a part of the culture we are living in is to be beautiful and squeaky clean, but we don’t realise that others are battered and bruised. What strikes me sometimes is that when someone comes into us and looks in the mirror and smiles, that’s so important — someone smiling who normally never smiles. I would see nursing as touching and helping people and healing their wounds. There isn’t a value put on this work anymore. We place a value on success and that influences how we see people. But we don’t see the wounds, we see the person behind them. People are afraid of difference and we see all types of people in our work, but there’s always a gentleness in them, which maybe we don’t allow them to have. But part of treating people as equals is to say: “Look, this behaviour isn’t acceptable.” It’s not preaching. It’s not saying: “You have been hard done by.” We say to them that people might be frightened of your behaviour. We have no fancy courses on anger management.
SJC: You work at the coal face and every morning from 7.30 in the basement of the Iveagh Hostel in the Liberties, you see up to 30 men and women between the ages of 18 and 80 who are sleeping rough on our city streets or who need various kinds of attention. You wash and comb and clothe them and dress their wounds. How do you cope with such difficult and demanding work?
AL: And getting to know them. How do I cope? We make sure that we have time for each other. We have a number of rules for ourselves, like if you make a mistake, just say it and that’s the end of it. We don’t play one off against the other. If someone is hassled, we discuss it and that’s the end of it. So we don’t hold any grudges. We are very open with each other. We also work very well together. We all muck in and do what has to be done. It’s also important to have time off. We try to have a day, once a month, when we’re all out of the place together, a day away. And once every two months, Gerry and I always make sure we have lunch out. We support each other. What keeps us going is realising, not that you can change the world, but that you can make life a bit better. If people want to change, they’ll change themselves. We would be very clear that we wouldn’t get involved in projects and going to useless meetings just for the sake of it, trying to please the powers that be. We would be very focused on what we’re doing and seeing the value in it and you see the value in it by looking at the people coming in. They’re the main source of encouragement.
SJC: As you speak, the image that comes into my mind is the image of Christ battered and bruised and Scripture says that he was an object to despise, an object of scorn from which men looked away. It’s a failure of vision. Iris Murdoch’s whole moral philosophy centres on this. She says that we don’t really see people as they are. We see from our personal perspective. It’s a projection.
AL: Exactly, we do. When it comes to people who are very noticeably different, people just can’t cope.
SJC: Many homeless people come from psychiatric hospitals, from drug and alcohol treatment programmes, from orphanages or the army, from industrial schools or borstals, from hostels or jails. Many end up in crime or drugs or prostitution. Have you any statistics on this?
AL: No, and we resist the pressure to compile statistics. There’s a wonderful saying: it’s like a drunken man leaning against a lamppost — it’s for support rather than illumination! Our services are judged in terms of statistics. If you had a hundred people passing through your door and out the other door, with no eye contact even, that would be seen as a successful service, but if you had a service where ten people came in and spent time and then left feeling happier, that would not be a successful service — but that’s how we measure success. They’re necessary to get money but that raises another issue, because some agencies can’t say no to money. Does more and more money mean that services are any better? I don’t think so.
SJC: Yes, it’s like watching tennis on television. During the Wimbledon season, endless streams of statistics come up on the TV screen about the match and it’s a distraction to actually enjoying the game.
AL: That’s right. It becomes boring.
SJC: We talked earlier about 18-year-olds coming to you; but what if they’re younger, 12 or 13 or 14?
AL: We would strongly feel that if young people came to us, we would link them in to the statutory services. There should be more community care services, especially for children who are at risk. We would see a number of women and men who are in prostitution, but we don’t dwell on that. We see the total person. They are primarily human beings. Labels are convenient. They are convenient because you can refer someone on. It’s an easy way of dismissing people.
SJC: It’s like psychiatric labels, which is just part of the master’s discourse.
AL: It’s like the word “client”. The other day, someone said to me: “We have a client here.” And I said: “A man or a woman?”
SJC: A lot of people may not know (I certainly didn’t) that there are no free hostels in Dublin, that a hostel bed can cost from a few pounds a night to £50 a week. How do they get that money if they can’t avail of social welfare, as they are what’s referred to as having “no fixed abode”?
AL: We’re lucky to the degree that people can still get money here if they have no fixed abode, generally. The general public thinks that there are masses of free shelters in Dublin. There are no free hostels. Some people book in a week in advance and it’s a bit cheaper, but if you like to have a drink or gamble or a smoke, you are going to have very little money left over. The hostels need money to survive but I think it’s very important for the general public to know that there are no free shelters. People can end up on the streets for any reason. The general public thinks that these people are scroungers. They’re not scroungers. Many of the people we meet would have worked very hard in poorly paid jobs. In order to avail of grants, there is pressure to take on more successful cases. Because of this, many agencies have lost the freedom to speak out on behalf of those who are most needy, and that’s dangerous.
SJC: Is there any difference between homeless people and beggars? We briefly touched on this topic earlier.
AL: I don’t like the term “beggar”. People who are begging are people. There are people who are homeless who do not beg and there are some people who beg who are not homeless. That’s discriminating against people who are genuinely homeless. How do you define a beggar? Is it Bertie, going over with his begging bowl to Europe? Is it some of the powerful lobby groups? We can use the term in whatever way suits us. And agencies that make appeals at Christmas time: who’s the beggar and who’s not?
SJC: Should we give money to people who beg on the streets or not?
AL: I think it’s very arrogant for someone in power to say, “Don’t give money because they have money themselves.” It takes a lot of courage to get out there and beg. I would say to people to find out what services are available. Very often, giving money means that you can avoid eye contact. Sometimes it’s an easy way out. It’s harder to stop and speak to the person, because you have to exercise your brain. I heard someone say that we should give the money, not to the person, but the agency. But what guarantee is there that if you give the money to the agency that the person will be helped? There’s no real debate on these issues.
SJC: I remember a priest in a pulpit saying: “Don’t give money to the beggars in the porch. It will only encourage them to come back.”
AL: And the Church sometimes takes up two collections during Mass. There are very few public support systems out there for people who want to give up their drug addiction or drink. The question is: why did they get into drugs in the first place? It’s very easy to stand up and make a political statement.
SJC: I remember Charles Melman, who is a French Lacanian psychoanalyst, saying to us once about drug addicts: “Why would they want to give up their drugs? What are you going to give them instead of their pleasure: reality?”
AL: We find that with alcoholics too. But these questions aren’t being asked.
SJC: One man, Freddie, lived in the hostel, was physically disabled, loved the horses and sport, was very attached to the church on Francis Street where he cleaned the wax off the candlesticks, generous with what little he had. When he heard that the Sligo Rovers football team was in trouble, he sent them a £50 donation. After his death, you found mention of him in a book on Sligo Rovers — his was the only donation received. You must hear hundreds of heart-wrenching stories such as this one?
AL: We do, but then Freddie wouldn’t have seen himself as a victim. That was a few years ago, but life doesn’t change for people. The other morning we went into work and an elderly man living in the Iveagh (I don’t know him at all) had a glass jam jar with £2.60 in pennies he had saved for us. He left us a beautiful note apologising that it was such a small amount. We don’t allow people to give. That was better than winning a million in the Lotto.
SJC: There is still a lot of stigma attached to the homeless and some people say that there is plenty of work now available in our thriving economy and that these people are simply lazy. What would you say to that viewpoint?
AL: People who say that they have already decided that all these human beings who are homeless are lazy but if they could look at them as people, they would probably find that there is a greater work ethic in that group than in people who are saying it. How do we define work? How do we define what’s useful? It’s so easy to brand people as lazy.
SJC: I know some people who work nine to five and many of them who appear to be working on their computers are actually writing e-mails to their friends!
AL: Yes. And is their life any less meaningful than people who are compiling statistics and attending meetings? I have frequently gone to meetings and felt that it had been a most useless afternoon. Maybe that person who is labelled homeless might have done a lot more in an afternoon. They would have time to think.
SJC: Sometimes doing one thing is enough. Mark Patrick Hederman told me in his interview that the yucca moth lives to do one thing, and if it is not carried out, the whole ecological system is put awry.
AL: Yes, that’s very important.
SJC: Presumably, in terms of our Celtic Tiger, you would be severely critical, seeing both negative and positive sides to our story of monetary success?
AL: I think it has affected everything. Even with phone calls, you get music first, then an answering machine and then you don’t get a call back. There are good things about technology — it makes the world smaller, but in our area of work, more money means streamlining services and producing more reports and having more meetings. We have left no space for people who aren’t achieving things. It’s a rarity to come across somebody who’s happy. Everybody is in a hurry. Even bicycles would mow you down. The price of houses has gone way up.
SJC: There’s also no cause, no mission in which to believe.
AL: No. There’s nothing to protest about anymore. Those of my age are almost seen as cranks if you complain. There’s no reflection anymore and no bringing together of ideas and there’s no sense of a past. It’s as if Ireland only came to light three years ago and nothing happened before that. Plans that are now being put forward for homelessness we were doing twenty-five years ago.
SJC: Are you depressed about Ireland?
AL: Oh yes, I think we are going nowhere. Something needs to happen to bring people to their senses. Our politicians are all the same nowadays. There’s no different voice. The voice of reason has been silenced. I think, though, there are still people in the media and people like you writing out there and there must be people all over the place who are feeling the same as I am feeling. Despite the psychobabble and PR taking over, there are a lot of people out there doing great work and getting on with their lives. Somehow these people have to be used, but they’re not being used in the political system. You have to be a member of a political party to be in there. Politicians have advisors around them of the same ilk, but they need more vision. We’re streamlining everything.
SJC: So do you think Ireland has lost its soul?
AL: I do. Maybe we haven’t quite lost it. I think we need to shake it up. It’s something to do with our identity. We are an island race and it’s inbred in our psyche, but we’re not secure in that. Just because we are and should be part of a bigger, global picture doesn’t mean we should lose part of our identity. We’re struggling to satisfy America and Europe but we are part of a global picture and each place has something to contribute. I’m not talking about bombs and bullets, but feeling we have a voice. We’ve been sitting here for over two hours and we haven’t used one meaningless word such as “partnership” or any of the buzz words. We are using those words to alienate thinking. It’s almost like the emperor’s clothes. I was at a meeting when they were talking about partnership, and I remember saying that this is like a Christmas cake with icing but no ingredients! People are afraid to laugh and to question and look beneath the surface. There’s a terrible sterility.
SJC: Homeless people are citizens of the state and I am reminded of the fine words of the 1916 Proclamation, that all children of the nation are to be equally cared for and cherished. Is there any political party or government that has lived up to that promise?
AL: There are good people in all political parties. I’d prefer to see a politician as a person and politician rather than in terms of the party they represent. But I think that when people join groups, they lose their own identity. In the political parties, the whip tells you what to do. I think that has a terrible effect on human beings — it has to. Look at them — they age by the day because they are losing their own identity and vision. Why do politicians feel they have to be what people want them to be and not themselves? I think we need a National Party. We need to encourage people to vote. They queue for hours in third world countries to vote but they’re not going to vote unless things change. But I have great hope myself that, for example, someone like you would feel that what I have to say is worthwhile. The kind of work I am involved in is not seen as valuable. Is it ever going to change? I think it’s time to say, “Stop giving out the money and sit and look where it’s going.”
SJC: At least once or twice, some politicians speak out, like Mary Harney and more recently, Síle de Valera.
AL: Yes. They are saying something and if we could have a reasonable debate rather than saying that it wasn’t sanctioned. We’ve become too narrow.
SJC: There is nobody of ideas left in the political parties, except perhaps John Bruton who seems to be a thinking man.
AL: He does and there’s a certain vulnerability and humanity about him. We have the same people everywhere, on the Sunday programmes, on Questions and Answers, etc. They shouldn’t be afraid of people who have a different point of view. Vision tends to come from people who aren’t part of any group, because if you are part of a group the group tends to take over.
SJC: We get what I call The Big Three — the lawyer, the politician and the journalist. We don’t get the writers, the philosophers, the psychologists, etc.
AL: You do, that’s right. It’s terrible. We were a nation of thinkers, of great playwrights, poets and politicians.
SJC: I’m more proud of Ireland’s past than its present.
AL: So am I. Present Ireland is awful.
SJC: Where does Trust stand in relation to the Simon Community and to the other charitable organisations, which also work with the homeless. Would you not be better to unite under one single umbrella?
AL: Well, we would never be into comparing one agency with another. We would see ourselves as being one agency out there, constantly asking if we should still be working the way we are and constantly we say that we should, based on what we see in our work. There’s a view that we should all come together under the one umbrella and pool the resources, but then you have a controlling influence and the individual voice is not going to be heard. There’s no guarantee that any new structure will be any better. Are you any nearer to listening to the person down at the bottom? I don’t think you are. Endless conferences and reports give the impression that everything is happening. Very often, they’re just talking shops. Now, voluntary bodies are really doing the work that statutory bodies should be doing. Is there any watchdog asking the deeper, philosophical questions?
SJC: Esperanza Productions produced a video, A Fragile City, on the work of Trust, and you launched an essay competition in secondary schools on the subject of “The Outsider”. How are these projects developing?
AL: The response was very interesting. It was amazing. It was people themselves speaking about themselves. We presented the project to the Department of Justice, because if we went to Health they would see it in terms of illness, and Environment would see it in terms of housing. In Justice, it’s seen as matter of equality and discrimination, and The Irish Times was used for the media. And Rotary will provide the prizes. We have an e-mail address. Though I’m low-tech, we are using technology to get our message across, a message that won’t change. In terms of the essay competition, the “outsider” can be anyone. It can be the philosopher or a wealthy person providing employment.
SJC: Camus wrote a book called The Outsider where someone felt such an outsider that he shot a few people. And Julia Kristeva, a philosopher and psychoanalyst, said that society’s problem with the outsider is based on the fact that we have failed to face the outsider in ourselves, that we are étrangers à nous même (“strangers to ourselves”). Would you share her opinion?
AL: I would and I think that one of the reasons that we can keep working is that there is an outsider in all of us. If you can see the outsider in yourself, you will have no difficulty about that. “The Outsider” is a poem by Micheal O’Siadhail and A Fragile City is taken from the name of his volume of poems. His poem said it all. No statistic or sociologist could or would describe that poem. He’s Chairman of the adjudicating panel for the essay competition.
SJC: Do you ever relax away from the Centre? Do you have any time for other interests, for yourself? I know you’re writing a novel.
AL: Also, I do yoga. I really believe in meditation. I read a lot. I usually am reading three or four books at the same time. I read something light and then read something on psychology or philosophy, poetry and historical novels. And I am also writing a novel, which I have been writing for a long time. I also walk. I believe reading is so important because you realise that other people have gone before you and they’re saying the same thing. It’s very supportive and encouraging because you realise that you are not alone in your thinking and that’s really important.
SJC: What type of philosophy and psychology interests you?
AL: Anything really. I go to the library. I believe in libraries. I read Laing’s books. I dip into them. I read government reports and also something light and frivolous. I love John Grisham.
SJC: In the Gospel stories, we are told that the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. How do you see your work (if you do) in the light of the Gospel and the Christian message?
AL: I believe in the Christian message, and if Christianity was practised the way it was supposed to be, the world would be a better place. I do believe in the Christian message but I do come into contact with people who claim to be Christian but what they practise in their lives isn’t Christianity. I also think Buddhism has a lot to offer, and also being in contact with the power of nature. They’re all intertwined. Others would disagree with that.
SJC: In one of the Gospel stories, Mary Magdalene wanted to pour an expensive perfume over Christ and the apostles scolded her, saying that the alabaster jar could be sold and the money given to the poor. But Christ encouraged her to do it and in turn scolded the apostles, saying, “The poor you will have always with you.” What do you make of that?
AL: That’s right. I suppose you could write volumes on that and read what you like into it but the more you look at what’s being said in the Gospels, has anything dated or has anything changed? We use Mary to talk about the sinner but there’s a powerful message in her whole role. The purpose of those stories is to get people thinking and do you have to come up with their solution? The Gospels are there to focus and challenge us and make us think.
SJC: Are you a spiritual person? What are your beliefs? I know you meditate every day for at least twenty minutes.
AL: I would consider myself a spiritual person, but the difference between religion and spirituality is extreme. I think we don’t often make that distinction but we should. I think we are all spiritual human beings and there’s a great poverty in people’s lives and a great emptiness. People are searching and we don’t place enough emphasis on spirituality. Spirituality is a much deeper thing than religion and I think there’s a great hunger out there.
SJC: What does the future hold for Trust specifically and for homeless people generally? What more is to be done?
AL: I think that every day we have to continue to work the way we are working and never lose sight of people. The future of Trust lies in the lap of the gods. I think there’s a role and a greater need now for small agencies than ever before. I think the future of Trust will depend on others who come along the way and who value the philosophy of Trust. We owe it to the people who have gone before us to make sure that the philosophy of Trust continues.
SJC: I asked you earlier had Ireland still soul, but what do you think soul is?
AL: I think soul means different things to different people as well. It’s almost about a certain vibrancy and difference and vision that makes us unique. The soul of Ireland isn’t only about Irish music or dancing but about something that makes us unique. Maybe we’re ashamed of our uniqueness. Maybe soul is about energy and spirituality and meaning. We are an island community and soul is that thing that makes us what we are. It’s about passion and we did have passion, though it’s not politically correct now to be passionate. We have stifled ourselves, stifled our vision and our soul. We are never happy with what we are. We have lost hope.
SJC: Are you happy?
AL: I am. I think life is never about one hundred per cent happiness. I wouldn’t work unless I got satisfaction. I would be constantly questioning myself. Like everyone else, I have my good days and my bad days. That’s life. It’s about balance.
SJC: I want to end by quoting from Micheal O’Siadhail’s poem, “The Outsider”, taken from the book A Fragile City.
A sheltered arch or where underground
kitchen of an inn sent
through grids of pavement grating
the warmth of the ass’s breath –
Where did last night’s Christ lie down?
Every morning for months I watched
a man I might have been
about my age and bearded too,
his face blotched crimson
with cheap wine and sleeping rough.
He walked the far side of the street
always hurrying somewhere;
a father who couldn’t praise, I wondered,
or what had blurred his star?
For months our eyes never met
though the street between us was narrow,
until that eve he crossed.
‘Some help,’ he said, but it must have been
my double’s eyes that asked
where would He lie down tomorrow?
An old outsider within me winced,
shook him off and fled;
that street between us was so narrow –
I chose the Inn and was afraid.
I’m sure I’ve never seen him since –
but tomorrow where carafes go round
a lone presence will pass
tremors through our frail togetherness;
again those eyes will ask
Where did last night’s Christ lie down?
(© 1995 Micheal O’Siadhail. Reproduced with kind permission from the collection Poems 1975–1995, Bloodaxe Books, 1999.)