“I have no doubt we will pull the current crisis and prosper again, but we will only do that if we are united in our concern for each other”

Alice Leahy, Director & Co-Founder, TRUST

“Are you mad?” I can still remember vividly being asked that question, one morning in the early 70s, by a leading Consultant in the hospital where I worked, and where I had just set up the first intensive care unit of its kind in Ireland. That is the only question that occurred to him when I told him I was leaving my highly secure, pensionable job, as he saw it, to go and work full-time with people who were homeless.

Mind you I did not tell him that I was going to be paid a wage that equated to the dole at the time, and that I would be working in a run down building, or he might have tried to have me certified.

The remarkable thing about that fateful meeting is how it foreshadowed similar experiences I would have in the years that followed, especially after I helped to set-up TRUST in 1975. When you try to do things in a different or new way, even for people who find themselves outsiders in society, you meet resistance. When you upset the status quo you generate real fear, and even hostility, because there are always people with a vested interest in doing things the way they have always been done, regardless of the cost to others. Sadly that also applies to the health, homeless and social services.

The Celtic Tiger years produced much that I found very unacceptable, but one of the good things about the transformation of this country, was that more and more people were not afraid to leave their comfort zones and try new things. We were not intimidated by the doubters, the naysayers and brushed aside the questions like “….are you mad?”

To get through the current crisis we need to rekindle and nurture that spirit. President Obama summed it up well in three words: “yes we can!” In my own case, the importance of the belief that we can make a difference for others by treating them with dignity and respect has kept us going, and allowed us to resist those who might like to see us close up shop because we refuse to conform.

I do not want to labour the point, but people often assume that because you want to help people no obstacles are placed in your way. Unfortunately, that is not the case, as I quickly found after I left the hospital. I sought out a well known priest in the inner city for his views, when I was doing research into the health needs of people who are homeless, and I remember vividly being told “go to university, you can never do anything if you don’t study social work”. And later, the leading civil servant who said after TRUST was established that “it would only last six months!” Mind you, we are working to put ourselves out of business because in an ideal world there would be no need for our service.

Hope is definitely not
the same things as optimism.
It is not the
conviction that something
will turn out well, but
the certainty that something
makes sense, regardless
of how it turns out.
Václav Havel

We do not just provide health and social services for people who are homeless, we also try to share our insights and experiences, to help create a more tolerant and understanding society so that fewer people might find themselves excluded. To do that we all have to “waste more time with people”. The power of that idea was brought home to me one day by our late former Chairperson Professor James McCormick, when he gave me an article from the British Medical Journal, written by Simon Challand, a former Medical Adviser in Uganda about the advice he had received from “an African Bishop with a smile –“ “Waste time with people”… You Europeans are always concerned about projects and budgets. The African does not worry about them –just waste time with people”. He gave me this advice in 1996 shortly before I came out to work in Uganda. Since then his words have kept coming back to me, and I reflect on their truth and wisdom and how difficult it has been for me, as someone with European values and attitudes, to apply them.”

If we make time for others, in our families, at work and in our communities we will transform the country we are living in. Now more than ever, when new pressures and strains are evident everywhere, and people are hurting and feeling real pain, we must not shut our eyes, or be afraid to help others.

Something became disconnected during the Celtic Tiger years because we lost touch with what is really important. We are now paying the price because we allowed rampant greed to almost destroy our economy. But we have a chance to start over, to begin by doing things differently, and recognising that the quality of our lives are determined by what we do for others and not how much we can exploit them.

I have no doubt we will pull through the current crisis and prosper again, but we will only do that if we are united in our concern for each other. That type of concern can build a real unity of purpose. A caring and considerate Ireland, that makes necessary sacrifices for the future, while protecting those who cannot look after themselves, will far surpass for what was ever achieved during the so called Celtic Tiger years.