Alice Leahy, Director & Co-Founder, TRUST accepting the John Shelley Bursary 2007

The services for people who are homeless cannot be run like a business because of the complex nature of homelessness, and the failure to recognise that means the problem is getting bigger and more persistent, and the services are at risk of being transformed into “a homelessness industry”, ALICE LEAHY, Director and Co-Founder of TRUST, said today (Thursday, 06 December 2007) accepting John Shelley Bursary 2007 from the Environmental Health Officers Association.

“Services for people who are homeless are at risk of becoming a self perpetuating “homelessness industry” because the application of corporate style management techniques with an emphasis on benchmarks and performance indicators which place the emphasis on “moving people on”. In other words, each service, in both the public and voluntary sector, is perceived to be doing well if it passes a “client” to another service, regardless of whether that person has received any real help. However, the problem with this system is that people who are “difficult” get little or no help because they cannot fit in and often do not even make the official statistics. We know this because these people find themselves outsiders in our society and they come to our door everyday. Under this system there appears to be no real acknowledgement as to why people become homeless, and the very people the services should be helping are actually being further marginalised,” ALICE LEAHY said.

ALICE LEAHY went on:
“There is only one way the current trend will be reversed. We must ensure that all of the services adopt a culture or philosophy of caring that puts the person, the services are meant to serve, first and not the system. Indeed, in a business context everyone would agree you must put the customer first but this is not happening in the area of homelessness. Indeed, the person who becomes homeless, though called a client, must comply with the demands of the system and if unable to do so will find life very difficult. Evidence of that was provided recently when we had to make a complaint to the Data Commissioner about people who are homeless being apparently forced to answer a detailed and highly intimate forty page questionnaire before they received help. Obviously anyone with serious mental or psychological problems being put through that by an inexperienced person could suffer serious health consequences, of which no account appears to have been taken, let alone any consideration being given to the violation of the basic rights of the people subjected to that process.”

Alice Leahy in describing homelessness as a complex problem said that it required a commitment from all of the services to resolve, especially in terms of the way in which they treated people. Underlining that the reason many become homeless on the street is because they cannot fit in, she said that a sensitive and caring approach when a vulnerable person turned up at any service provider in the health, social or homeless area could actually prevent someone literally falling out of society.

“The key issue of course is time. You need to give time to people, especially people who are already marginalised because through out their lives they probably never enjoyed any caring relationship. However, the way the services are organised today, governed and operated according to budgets and quantitative measures, giving time to people can look like wasting time, and personal problems that lead to human tragedies go unanswered. This is what we mean when we say you cannot “manage” the so called “homeless problem” like a business because vulnerable and marginalised people are not machines. In other words, those who take time are deemed to be wasting time and the state goes on wasting money as people are constantly referred from one service to another never getting real help, often because they are deemed to be too “difficult”!” ALICE LEAHY said.

(Describing the situation as serious, ALICE LEAHY said TRUST felt compelled to have a book published to draw attention to this problem. Called “Wasting Time with People?” it will be launched in April 2008 and will be published by Gill & Macmillan.)

A culture of caring also implies listening to people in the frontline, as you cannot help people without organising services to meet their needs, ALICE LEAHY said. Indeed, the failure to respond appropriately to the growing numbers of people from the EU Accession States finding themselves homeless on our streets is because this does not happen.

“We owe it to the people from other countries who end up homeless on our streets to help them as their experience is very similar to that of our own people in former times who got into difficulties in other countries. Indeed, given the huge contribution workers from abroad are making to our economy, we also have a duty of care to respond to them as well. However, the failure of the Homeless Agency to acknowledge this growing problem is a good example of the unresponsiveness of the current system. This also explains why some of us have no confidence in current figures for the numbers sleeping rough on our streets as they simply are too narrowly defining the problem. A phrase such as “between the two canals” to describe the parameters of the recent survey sounds like something out of the 19th Century and completely fails to take account of the mobility or lifestyles of people who are homeless,” she said.