Trust has been meeting the needs of homeless people for more than 35 years. Yet, the pressure on its services has never been greater. CARL O’BRIEN spends a morning with the team
IT’S A midweek morning and a queue has already formed outside the basement of the old red-brick building.
They have come from all parts of the city – from hostels and squats, parks and pavements – to spend an hour or so with an organisation that has been a lifeline for homeless people for more than three decades.
Dozens file into the centre run by Trust where they can get breakfast, a shower, a change of clothes and help with practical issues, such as welfare, medication or job applications. For many, though, it’s just a matter of day-to-day survival.
“Our numbers are worse now than they ever were, because people aren’t staying in decent accommodation,” says Alice Leahy, who co-founded the service in 1975.
“They’re being referred all over the place by homeless services. It is virtually impossible to get across to people the problems we see.”
This morning, about 60 people have turned up. They are not all old, withdrawn or eccentric, as you might expect. Most are in their 20s or 30s, and about half are non-Irish from countries such as Poland, Latvia, Russia, Hungary or the UK.
Mark Longworth is 26. It’s his first time visiting Trust, although he says he’s been homeless in some shape or form since he was 15. He’s bright and has a twinkle in his eye.
He’s trying to get his life back on track after losing most of the past decade to the rough and tumble world of heroin addiction.
“I heard about this place from a friend, so I just came down today,” he says. “I’m on methadone now, just a small amount. My big aim is to be able to see my son more regularly. He’s in foster care. I’d love to be able to give him what he needs and wants.”
He has a few cups of tea and biscuits and gets a change of clothes. He says he’s impressed by the homely atmosphere of the place compared with other drop-in centres.
Jaroslav (50) is from Poland and has long, dark hair tied back in a ponytail. He says he spends most of his day looking for change on the ground which he collects into a bulging plastic bag. He turns this into cash at a coin machine in Tesco. (He produces the bag, full of five and 10 cent pieces).
“I don’t drink and I don’t take drugs,” he says. “I am just homeless. But I do not get anything. I cannot. All they say is you can get a flight home.”
The staff at Trust have seen everything, but even they are shocked when Mark hobbles in with another homeless person.
When they roll up his trousers, they see his yellow nails digging into his toes. One leg is inflamed. The other has a shockingly large and deep wound between his knee and ankle which is blackened and gangrenous. Part of the bone is visible. The smell is gut-wrenching.
If he doesn’t get proper medical attention soon, he will lose his leg.
They treat his wounds and bandage him up. The staff give him a letter to present to St James’s Hospital, and provide him with a lunch – a sandwich and some fruit. He tells them he’ll head up there later in the evening, though they aren’t convinced he will.
“We ask ourselves every day, ‘What are we doing here?’” says Leahy.
“Today is an example of making one person feel better, and making him feel like a human being.
“You hear Libya in the news and the conditions some people are in. But I can guarantee you, we have people in similar conditions here in the Dublin of today. And it is shocking. This is our reality.”
What is striking about homelessness is how little has changed. Trust was set up in 1975 and was formed from work carried out in night shelters and hostels by Leahy and a group of doctors.
“We were beautifully naive,” recalls Leahy. “We thought it would all be solved within six months . . . I remember a senior official at the Department of Health saying after we started, ‘Ah, sure, they’ll come and go and they’ll be gone in a year’. But the great thing is we’ve kept that vision and enthusiasm and stuck with it.”
But more than 35 years later, Leahy confesses to feeling that things have gotten worse, in many respects, despite State agencies targeting funding at the problem.
Services are far too bureaucratic, she says, and the focus is often more on “box-ticking” rather than meeting people’s real needs.
Trust survives on support and donations from a combination of statutory and voluntary bodies, church and business groups, as well as dozens of individuals. It receives fresh fruit, bread and clothes. But at a time when its services are in greater demand, she says donations are falling.
“We can see a big difference this year. Donations are way down. We never ask for money and we don’t send out begging letters, but times are tougher.
“We’ve had a number of people write to us, apologising that they’ve had to cut back on their donations. That is very sad.”
Despite the challenges, there are success stories. Many people who were homeless still come to see the staff at Trust, even though they may have moved out of homelessness.
Fintan (44), is a regular. He’s wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap and has his iPod in one ear listening to The Streets’ album, A Grand Don’t Come for Free.
Originally from Carlow, he worked in the hospitality industry before succumbing to heroin a decade ago. Within a short period of time, he lost his job and his girlfriend.
“You know, when you’re homeless, you can really feel sub-human. I’ve begged and robbed in the past. But here, you feel human. You get a smile and a helping hand. The cup of tea, the scone, the shower, the sock and jocks. It makes a big difference when you’re not feeling very good about yourself.”
Trust, he says, helped him to access the support that is available, such as housing and de-tox services. He now has a flat and has plans to go back to work and “give something back to the community”.
Too often, though, there is a hostility towards the homeless even though most people are more vulnerable than they think they are.
“Many people are just two pay cheques from the pavement,” he says. “And if you’ve a disability or addiction, you’re at even greater risk. That’s not something that’s widely appreciated.”