Full Text of Submission by Alice Leahy on behalf of TRUST to the Democracy Commission
Irish society has become a highly competitive, insensitive and even hostile place for anyone who is different or cannot keep up. We know that well in TRUST as we meet the casualties everyday of the week. This paper draws on that hands on work with Ireland’s outsiders.
I begin with some background about TRUST, give some examples of our experience in dealing with State institutions at all levels and conclude with some proposals for your consideration.
In 1974, I carried out research based on a questionnaire and clinics held in night shelters with a group of doctors working in a voluntary capacity. Based on this work, and the generosity of the late Ann Rush, TRUST – a private charitable trust – was set up in 1975.
The organisations’ aims are:
“to serve homeless people in need by promoting human services which would meet their immediate and long-term needs and by these means to encourage their development and give their lives a dignity which is their birthright.” …from the Deeds of TRUST.
The philosophy of TRUST is based on two central principles:
- The recognition of every individual’s right to be treated as an autonomous and unique human being.
- The need to restore the dignity of individuals whom society has labelled deviant and undesirable.
It is over 30 years since I started working with people who are labelled homeless, the landscape of the city has changed but the human condition hasn’t.
Our centre is situated in the heart of the liberties – one of the ancient, historical areas of Dublin – well documented by Swift – in fact we are in the shadow of St. Patrick’s Cathedral where he was Dean. Today, if Dean Swift walked our streets, what would be his response, we often wonder?
We are sandwiched between St Patrick’s Cathedral and Christchurch Cathedral. We work in the basement of the Iveagh Hostel and are grateful to the Iveagh Trust who only charge us a nominal rent.
Daily we meet now over 40 men and women who sleep rough and deal with people as they present themselves to us – all outsiders in a city of plenty. Many come from outside the city and many from outside the jurisdiction. Some people we meet we have grown older with, meeting them first in the early 70’s – daily we meet new people.
Our services include the provision of shower / bathing facilities, a change of clothes – as part of an holistic health service, information on their rights and entitlements, meeting people on the level they are at, to address their more complex needs. The people we meet are perceived by wider society as being different and difficult. They suffer from the effects of isolation, neglect and health problems, exacerbated by lifestyle. Accessing mainstream services – particularly basic accommodation is a major problem. We meet increasing numbers of people ‘re-settled’ in totally unsuitable accommodation, and then out homeless again. Voting is not an option for those not having an address.
We meet people daily, whose bodies are:
- Ravaged by disease and violence
- Pressure sores from sleeping out in all weathers, sometimes sleeping in urine soaked clothes for weeks
- Infected and untreated minor skin conditions and major skin problems e.g. leg ulcers, Lice infected heads, Scabies,
- Bodies suffering from malnutrition
- All the medical conditions common to the general public but exacerbated by their living conditions
- Minds and souls dispirited by feelings of despair and inadequacy
- Human beings taken over by addiction to society’s drugs, including alcohol and gambling
- Human beings pushed from service to service – just like figures on a broken or incomplete chess board.
- People who are unable to read or write, and as a result become stressed because of letters arriving, for example, a man called for jury service whose doctor was unaware of his difficulties and wouldn’t write him a letter.
- Some unable to get relief for minds at breaking point only solution at times a brown envelope 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 succeeded?
Our Educational Initiatives include:
- Pocket size information booklet
- Web site – www.trust-ireland.ie – click on all buttons for full information
- Video – A Fragile City – made by award winning film makers, Esperanza Productions – and shown on National TV
- Students on placement
- TRUST training day – ‘the Homeless Experience’
- National Essay Competition – Transition Year 2000 / 2001
- National Art Competition – 2nd level schools – 2002 / 2003
- Our book With Trust in Place: Writing from the Outside was launched in October and is in all bookshops at €12. 99 published by Townhouse
- We make submissions where relevant to Government Departments.
- Interviews on Radio, TV & in Print Media
- All the above are carried out to create a greater understanding of exclusion and the need for advocacy based on same. All of which is political with a small P.
My experience of working with State Institutions at all levels:
I have worked at the coal face all of my life, believing in the rights of individuals to have a say in the political process and how “privileged” we are to have a vote, constantly questioning the erosion of democracy. I am acutely aware of the disillusionment of people of all ages.
To attempt to understand why people are not voting or see themselves as not having the power to change things it is necessary to look beyond the politicians.
I daily work with people who are disenfranchised. The gap between service providers and decision makers has widened dramatically, helped by the structures put in place for “debate “and “consultation”. A management imposed “consensus” has stifled debate and those using a different language or raising issues seen as difficult are sidelined.
The emphasis on partnership has not been thoroughly debated. Many see it as letting the State off the hook, agencies doing the work which should be undertaken by the State but costing less. Yet these groups are expected to become more bureaucratic to suit the funders with little emphasis on the complexity of human beings and human needs.
“Collective participation by citizens in political decision making is critical to achieving equality in our society”. A comment all would agree with.
The political system has distanced itself from the community; there is little vision and little contact on the ground. The numbers of reports presented and working parties set up usually made up of party political “friends” do little to inspire confidence
It is not uncommon in my experience that the views of those working on the ground are not recorded or minuted. All is generally sanitised for presentation to management, these often charged with the responsibility of informing Government of social trends.
The role of politicians at local government has been replaced by layers of management. This raises questions about the power of elected representatives or indeed their willingness to inform themselves of issues of concern or delve through the layers of bureaucracy.
Summary & Conclusions:
- Contemporary “management speak” now common in the State and Public Services alienates people.
- Political education must start in the schools at a young age especially in terms of looking at what we can do for our community/country rather than vice versa.
- We need to instil a sense of citizenship which carries rights and responsibilities. We need to ask ourselves what kind of country we want and what we all too easily accept.
- The role of local and national government should be explained as should all legislation going through the Dail in simple English devoid of jargon. The value of our vote does need to be explained, using comparisons with States where people are denied voting rights.
- Separating older from younger people in debate and targeting areas of “exclusion and areas of inclusion” separately is not helpful.
- Much more emphasis need to be placed on accountability across Government and State agencies and not just for voluntary bodies and other community based groups, otherwise cynicism will become more pervasive
- The legal system should be demystified; law cannot be separated from citizenship as only the Courts at times are the only option available to raise issues of national importance. The current debate regarding rights based services and the role of Courts versus Government needs to be extended.
- A philosophy of acknowledging the value of all should be actively encouraged and promoted and not just selective quotes from our Constitution to suit the occasion.
- Politicians at all levels need a new inclusive vision to inspire confidence where the outsiders and those who are different will feel included. The current model of society leaves many out as we in TRUST know well as we meet the casualties every day of the week.