Thank you for asking me to address you today on the topic “Is Love Enough? Action Makes Love Real”.
From the onset I should inform you that I am not here to lecture you on what you should do, rather to talk about what we see and do in Trust working with people generally treated and seen as outsiders and make some suggestions.
None of us asked to be born, we didn’t choose our parents or where we were born and I doubt if any of us here today chose the religion we believe in – so in some ways the words of Bob Dylan come to mind “we are all prisoners in the mystery of the world”.
I am not a theologian, I am not exercised in challenging theologians and I find the language of theology like law, medicine and spirituality etc. can appear to be at times elitist.
Institutions of all types alienate and stifle debate, and I think even growth and we can all be institutionalised in our thinking. We are here today to look at the basic values of justice and love, to look at the world and environment in which we live, andI suppose to ask ourselves – well, who is my brother?
Bishop Donal Murray speaking at the recent Bishop’s major Conference on “Who is my Neighbour?” said “Our society is becoming more complex and, some would argue, more remote. I believe – now more than ever – that the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ poses a real challenge to all of us in the Ireland of 2008. Clearly greater debate and responsibility around this issue is now required by faith groups, public policy makers, media commentators…in truth each and every person in our society needs to ask, and answer, this question”.
Here today in this Jesuit Centre I am reminded of the words of Pedro Arrupé, the Great Jesuit Leader, born over a Century ago (1907) when he called for the education of men for others “men and women completely convinced that love of God which does not issue in justice for others is a farce”. This of course is implied in the title of this Conference.
Let me talk to you about our work in Trust – daily as we walk through the streets of Dublin, tripping over people sleeping in sleeping bags, dealing with extreme misery and pain, despair and hope. Recently, endless questionnaires in the post, invites to numerous conferences, media reports on our health service and education, one could be forgiven for thinking it is all a figment of our imagination, but no, it is real.
Trust founded in 1975, grew out of work I carried out in night shelters and with people sleeping rough with a group of doctors, all working in a voluntary capacity. That work, and the generosity of the late Ann Rush, led to the foundation of TRUST – a private charitable trust and our 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 service we set up was first of its type, and has been used as a model for services here and overseas. We are sandwiched between St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Christchurch Cathedral in the Liberties area of Dublin. We work in the basement of the Iveagh Hostel for which we pay a nominal rent.
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.
Our work would not be possible without the enormous generosity and support of people from all walks of life, rich and very rich, poor and very poor.
Everyday we meet over 50 men and women who sleep rough and meet with people as they present themselves to us – all outsiders in a city of plenty. Many come from outside the city, some from the remotest parts of rural Ireland, some returning to the land of their birth to be buried in the “old sod” and many from outside the jurisdiction, with increasing numbers from the EU Accession States and other countries. Some people we meet we have grown older with. We provide a health service, advice and dressings, but more important, human contact – sometimes it looks like a casualty department as many people we work with will not go to A&E, and if they do go they will not wait. As part of a holistic service we provide bath and shower facilities, a complete set of clothes and information on rights and entitlements. We seek to treat people as people recognising that they need help and have rights, especially their right to privacy and a right to be heard. Coming to TRUST we hope people can feel secure and are hopefully able to trust us. Hospitality is important – we provide tea and coffee as we would welcome visitors to our own home and provide a listening ear – now daily phone calls from prison from people we know with no one else to call. Many people we meet have no family contact, and often family members contact us about loved ones who have disappeared.
The people we meet are perceived by the wider society as being different and difficult and indeed many are difficult. They suffer from the effects of isolation, neglect and health problems, exacerbated by what are often described as chaotic lifestyles. Accessing mainstream services – particularly basic accommodation is a major problem. We meet increasing numbers of people who were ‘re-settled’ in totally unsuitable accommodation, and then find themselves homeless again.
I meet people homeless in Dublin whose heartbeat I listened to while working as a midwife in the Rotunda and consider it a sad reflection on our society that we are now meeting 2nd and 3rd generation homeless.
The people we meet everyday present with a wide range of medical problems including bodies that are ravaged by disease and violence, some with 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 and gangrene; as well as lice infected heads and scabies. In addition we often meet people who are suffering from malnutrition and all of the medical conditions common to the general public but exacerbated by their living conditions. We are now coming across conditions long disappeared since the advent of good food e.g. trench foot and impetigo (wild fire) – conditions clearly associated with extreme poverty and many of these people are our new neighbours from Eastern Europe, like our own Irish who immigrated in the past. Racism is a new phenomena.
Some people we meet cope with very serious addiction problems, including drugs, alcohol and gambling, suffering from despair and the pain of loneliness, pushed from service to service, often unable to get relief for minds at breaking point and the only solution offered is a brown envelope of medication and often unable to read the directions – seen just as statistics in our increasingly bureaucratic world.
Many people we meet struggle to create a sense of normality after years locked away in institutions and others who have been relocated from one institution to another. Some people who are locked in prisons they have created for themselves, often out of the frustration of not being understood or ignored. Many people we know have attempted suicide, and many have died on the streets. Increasingly, young people are dying on the streets on in the homeless circuit and one never hears about it as families are ashamed.
This time last year, a woman in her 20’s known to us for years, from rural Ireland called to Trust. She had a shower, change of clothes, put on her make-up and as usual was so grateful – that night she died on the streets. Her body was brought from the hospital morgue to a well known City Centre church for the regular mass. There were a dozen people in the church and the only flowers – a small bunch of flowers from Trust on her coffin. Quite by chance we heard of her death from the paper vendor in Grafton Street. Her death outside a fast-food shop didn’t merit a mention, a non entity.
We meet some people who are so cut off from everything around them that they at times appear to be beyond reach. Others however challenge and inspire us everyday to look at the way we all live our lives, and indeed to pose the question – Who is my brother? I am reminded of Joe who one day with tears in his eyes told me that when attending morning mass the woman beside him refused to take his hand at the sign of peace – yes he had the weather beaten cigarette stained hand of poverty.
Sometimes the only hearing the people we meet ever get is when they are being researched – an issue we have grave reservations about because of the quality and quantity of research taking place today as well as the time and money spent on “evaluating outcomes and cost effectiveness” while ultimately making no difference to the lives of those who have been examined in the course of these expensive research exercises.
Some people feel pressurised to take part in research into homelessness in case they lose their hostel bed or their entitlements. We in Trust only become involved in research, when we believe the research design is sound, ethical and likely to provide useful information and would be concerned about the sharing and storage of confidential information without due regard to the rights of our fellow human beings.
Of course research is essential to plan services. “If we are to push for fundamental change in the whole area of homelessness, then a certain amount of constructive research is necessary. We feel strongly however that it must be pursued with the greatest caution. It is clear to us that the ‘research industry’ uses that section of our society, which is the most vulnerable and the least able to battle for its rights as its’ source of material. We must never forget that we are working with human beings, who for the most part have been battered by our society and who for so long have been pushed about as just another number in a cold inhuman bureaucracy”.
This last quote is from Leahy and Magee – Report on Broad Medical Services for Single Homeless People in the City of Dublin – March 7th 1976 – 30 years later, in a new millennium -what has changed?
We have met with the Data Commissioner about our concerns regarding the recent Assessment Forms people are now required to fill in. We should not allow ourselves to be blinded by statistics and jargon – we should be prepared to question what is happening, rather than facilitating reports to further distance people from people, or just support entrenched ideas. Homelessness is not just about housing alone, it is much more about not fitting in, being different, being an outsider.
“To be without a home is to be suspect. The homeless are easy targets. Their bodily integrity is constantly at risk. Their lives are an offence against the sacred canons of private property and consumerism. Their privacy is regularly intruded on as part of the price of being statistics in the poverty industry; their painful experiences are reduced to sociological research data. The true test of a civilised community is how people at the margins are treated. Not only must individual liberties be defended, but society should be educated and sensitised towards a broader vision of life and living.” – Dan Sullivan, then President of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, describing what it means to be homeless in Ireland in a piece I asked him to write in 1995 for a book I co-authored.
Today many people including those in Church, State and Community groups who work hard in building and fostering community involvement are also beginning to feel disenfranchised by an increasingly insensitive bureaucracy and meaningless jargon, many of you I am sure fit into this category but I am sure we all need to ask ourselves – are people being treated equally?
Tom who looks seventy but is only in his mid fifties lives in Dublin 4. One day a week, before 8.00am he makes his way to Trust, along Patrick Kavanagh’s well worn path along Baggot Street, Stephen’s Green, and Grafton Street. He carries a large ESB golf umbrella which he got in Trust and carries all of his earthly possessions in a small plastic bag. He likes this time of year, the dark evenings mean he can go to bed early – his home is under the bushes in a park.
Some time ago a Welfare Officer, decided that his money, a meagre €165.00 a week (try living on it) should be stopped because he refused to move into a hostel. His medical card had run out and his doctor hadn’t signed a disability form even though he was not disabled! The Welfare Officer told me it was a ministerial order and that was that! Is this about playing about with numbers, not her fault perhaps – people need to be trained and informed about the complexities of homelessness as well as people’s rights.
We must be acutely aware of the social determinants of health and be prepared to discuss them and stop intimidating by our silence those who speak out. Mary Robinson, former President of our country, said in 2001 “Each time you speak out with a critical voice you pay a price”. On the other hand, if we are honest, we don’t encourage people to speak out at times because we all know the price to be paid.
Caring for people does require us to speak out if we feel people are being denied their rights. If anyone is not being treated with dignity or worse still being excluded from society or our world we have a big responsibility to be their voice if we claim to be truly Christian. The message of the Gospel is an inclusive one and silence in the face of people being excluded cannot be an option. We also need to care for each other and defend those who speak out or nothing will change. Care and love to my mind is about concern and about defending a person’s most basic rights. The mark of a truly caring society is one that respects everyone in equal measure.
I reflect often on the words of Pastor Martin Niemoellen in 1945 – “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and Trade Unionists. I was neither so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out and when they came for me there was no one left to speak for me”.
A Christmas morning a few years ago I happened to catch Eurovision Mass from Circus Pinter Top in Paris. Apart from the charm and artistry of Parisians I was struck by a few quotes from the Pastor: “Encounters with people move us” and I am sure the isolation of many at times does something to them and he further said “It is the blind application of the law which makes us inhuman”.
Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. However, by looking at the conditions and the way in which those who are marginalised in our society — from those who are homeless on the street to people unable to care for themselves and those living lives of isolation in urban and rural Ireland – If we are not asking are their human rights being protected and respected, love is a meaningless word.
For over thirty years TRUST has been involved in advocacy work – trying to be a voice for the voiceless – as well as providing health and social services. Today through the development of human rights based approaches – which should be developed into a potential management philosophy in the health and social services, including all statutory and voluntary services – we have the potential to transform the way the most vulnerable are treated and in this I include all of us. However, it is vital that everyone becomes involved and it is not seen as a legalistic formula of how to deal with people but as the right way to treat people and each other.
The dignity of every individual should be at the very centre of everything we do.
Some years ago I met in the RCSI Phil Barker, former Professor of Psychiatric Nursing, who runs workshops on the premise that “Knowledge can only be gained through experience”. I once wrote to him for permission to use a quote and he replied: “Alice, people don’t remember what you say or what you do. They will remember how you made them feel” – this excellent advice comes to mind daily and is a quote from a well known Afro American female poet.
Love, I suggest means justice. In our rush to work with the poor, are we forgetting those providing love, care and hands on service daily who are doing just that. We should have the confidence to reflect on some of the wisdom and love from all over Ireland, rural and urban communities – not confining the debate to academic circles and visiting experts and new age thinking – we should not be afraid to pose awkward questions. If we don’t I suggest love is a meaningless word.
We should not rush to criticise our forefathers who had a tremendous faith, many now treated as outsiders – but many didn’t have the education or financial support we now have today. Everyone in their own way needs to consider where they stand and what kind of community they want. The power to change things is in our hands. At times we can be overwhelmed by what is required of us, we can loose confidence, our compassion can be taken for granted, our energy sapped, our vision destroyed – but if we are believers, if we have faith, we can be energised. You will note prophetic voices have been silenced by grant aid. Privatisation of services and State off-loading to the voluntary sectors makes it cheaper to run but there is a down side as referred to above.
Just a few questions to ponder and before you do just shut your eyes and be still.
Are we afraid to be unpopular by posing questions?
Have we ever the time to analyse what is happening in the world, in our community and in our Church?
Have we ever asked if Christ appeared to us in the form of the most excluded in our world, perhaps a homosexual, a drug addict, a recluse, a failure, a terrorist, an ex-prisoner – how would we react? It is only in asking this question can we reach an answer that might help us to see that love really is about justice.
Some time ago, a man known to us for years who calls to Trust daily was seriously assaulted, beyond recognition, outside a shelter at 7.00pm as he waited for a bed – he ended up on a life support machine – again, nothing in the papers. What about a man and woman sleeping in the sand dunes in North Dublin because it is too violent and unsafe for them in the City – do they matter? Meanwhile pages and pages and hours of air time about Britney Spears, cutting off her locks, and the hype around the diamonds and clothes worn by Oscar attendees. This is why reports, seminars and requests from Trust for something as basic as public showers are ignored. Incidentally, we have made a submission to Dublin City Council highlighting the need for public showers, for the use of all, see our website www.trust-ireland.ie, the least one would expect in a modern EU capital, where there is growing concern about the lack of social housing and poor quality private rental accommodation.
Is it not time we decided what type of world we want, indeed what kind of Church we want. In former times when Ireland was poor Churches provided services. Today people are entitled as a right to education, health and social services and the Church must ensure that they are not compliant in developing 2-tier services and letting the State off the hook.
We as Christians must ensure priests and nuns are not further isolated by recent events and must also ask why are so many young people ending their lives.
To love we so often say is about good works, of course important, but giving time to work with and give time to people it is important to question the balance of power in the relationship. It is just as important to ask ourselves “am I hear because it makes me feel good?” or “is it important because I will have a better standing in the community?” Am I here because I believe that love in action is about justice, justice often requires shifting ingrained thoughts and values, becoming unpopular, questioning the status quo relentlessly and often standing alone, supporting those who speak out, even if of a different faith or no faith. It is also important to ask the question – are we just talking the talk and afraid to walk the walk? Are “We Wasting Time with People?” Incidentally the title of a book I have compiled and will be published by Gill & Macmillan in April.
Accepting that we are all ourselves, vulnerable, as all humanity is. There is a tendency to think that Christians, and I guess all religions to think they are the only ones who care. On the contrary, there are many with no religious or dormant religious beliefs who fight injustice – On the one hand if one is seen as a religious person, they can be seen as superior or see themselves in a superior position, quite simply denying our shared humanity. Religious often exert power in agencies when their only expertise may be that their religious views are what count – this is an injustice of sorts. That power could be used to good effect, to ensure dialogue and debate around the privatisation of schools, housing and increasingly healthcare which is now happening – more than any other time in the history of this State.
Sometimes love comes across as a flowery concept. Just think how often we use that word during the day without thinking and all we have to do is look back at the materialism of St. Valentine’s Day.
Human rights is not just a concept drawn up by and for lawyers and academics, neither is love a meaningless romantic and flowery word. Human rights is about treating people with respect and dignity – so too is love and I suggest that if we believe that, we should have no problem answering the question posed – Is Love Enough?