Samaritans Regional Conference 2012, Newbridge, Co. Kildare.

It is indeed an honour to address you at a time in our country where the work of the Samaritans is more important and in demand than ever before. In the early days of TRUST I remember having a lot of contact with the Samaritans, less so in recent years. Let me tell you first a little about the work of TRUST.

TRUST was founded in 1975 – see our website for more information. Our work would not be possible without the enormous generosity and support of people from all walks of life, rich and poor, and even very poor. We have always said that in an ideal world there would be no need for TRUST – but of course this is not an ideal world.

“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. In an area dominated by the culture of individual acquisition, homelessness may have important lessons for us all.” – 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 with Ann Dempsey “Not Just a Bed for the Night” published by Marino Books in 1995.

The service we set up was the 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 and are grateful to the Iveagh Trust who only charge us 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.

Everyday we meet up to 60 men and women who sleep rough. We meet with people as they present themselves to us – all outsiders in our Capital City. 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 this jurisdiction. In February this year we had 15 different nationalities through our door. They came from Ireland, Romania, Latvia, Poland Czech Republic, Lithuania, Slovakia, Hungary, Estonia, Spain, Iran, Russia, Moldova, Slovenia and Canada. However, the numbers are decreasing – in February 2011 people from 25 different countries used the services of TRUST.

Many people we meet we have grown older with. Sometimes our place 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, which obviously poses huge problems for hospital staff.

As part of a holistic service we provide bath and shower facilities. We have lobbied Dublin City Council to provide public shower facilities. Ironically, one of the best-known public baths in Ireland was sold by Dublin City Council and is now home to a very expensive gym, which is located just across the road from where we are based.

We seek to treat people as people recognising that they need help and have rights, especially the right to privacy and a right to be heard.

Hospitality is important. We provide tea and coffee, as we would welcome visitors to our own home and, most importantly, provide a listening ear. We frequently receive phone calls from members of the public about their entitlements and on behalf of people in prison and other institutions we know, with no one else to call. A lot of the calls we receive from members of the public are due to the frustration of having to deal with machines rather than an actual person. 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 – often 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, an experience that often makes them feel even greater failures and more isolated.
People present to us with a wide range of medical problems including bodies that are ravaged by disease and violence. Some have pressure sores from sleeping out in all weathers, sometimes 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). These are conditions clearly associated with extreme poverty and many of the people who suffer in this way are our new neighbours from Eastern Europe, who like our own Irish who emigrated in the past. In addition we witness the consequences of racism, a new and worrying phenomenon in Ireland.

Some people we meet cope with very serious addiction problems, including drugs, alcohol and gambling. They suffer from despair and the pain of loneliness. They are pushed from service to service, often unable to get relief for minds at breaking point. These people are seen just as statistics in our increasingly bureaucratic world. Some people we meet have literacy and numeracy problems of which they are so often ashamed.

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 eg. psychiatric hospitals to hostels, much cheaper to run but often as institutionalised without the expertise available to them. 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 who were known to us have died on the streets and many more will. The true number is impossible to gauge because very often families feel ashamed that their loved ones ended up on the streets – some didn’t even know. The lifestyle of many who died would have been a contributing factor to their demise. A number of people we knew ended their own lives tragically and others have attempted to.

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 every day to look at the way we all live our lives.

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 amount and quality of research being undertaken today. In that context nothing has changed in the last thirty years as a quote from a report we wrote in 1976 which could be published in its entirety today: “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”.

The title of my paper sounds odd perhaps, but let me explain. My last book was entitled “Wasting Time with People?” This title I chose having read a piece in British Medical Journal by Simon Challand, a former Medical Adviser from the UK 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.” A contributor to the book suggested the question mark in the title. I am sure there must be times if you were honest with yourselves when all of you or at least some of you must ask yourself that question too.

When the Rev. Dr. Chad Varah founded The Samaritans in 1953 little did he foresee the world we now live in and particularly his neighbouring country – ours, now attempting to recover from the after effects of The Celtic Tiger and struggle through the mine field that has been created. He ensured from the outset that the voluntary principle would flourish and thanks to the dedication of so many it has.

Reading in the Irish Times in December last a report on the Report of The Samaritans “Recession leads to rise in calls to Samaritans….. loneliness, depression and anxiety also feature strongly”. Today anyone reading the papers or listening to the radio can add flesh to these comments. Listening to the sound-bites and spin from those in a position of power and responsibility I suggest can add to the isolation of many in need rather than offering hope and also to those who daily deal with the complexities on the frontline.

“Today I spoke to no one,
and no-one spoke to me.
Am I dead?”

This is taken from a book of poems by Tony Gill Street Poet, they were edited by Thomas Crilly after his death. He was well known to us in TRUST and is buried in our plot in Glasnevin. These lines capture what many people experience. I stand open to criticism by suggesting that for example in rural Ireland where elderly men particularly found comfort in a local hostelry, maybe a mug of tea shared, a pint, a chat in a warm space to discuss maybe the land, the state we now find ourselves in, the hurling, football or rugby match is now off limits.

Last Christmas I got a lovely card from The Most Revd Walton Empey who presided at the funeral of Rev. Billy Wynne who died in 2000 and who founded the Irish Samaritans in 1970. Rev. Billy was known to me and I attended his funeral in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. St. Anne’s in Dawson Street, home to Rev. Billy Wynne is well known to us too – they include TRUST in Black Santa. Interesting to note how many very important voluntary bodies came to be in that decade. Interesting to check 1970 in Ireland from Wikipedia – nothing about voluntary bodies who then and now provide services that in many instances should have been provided by the State

Rev. Billy Wynne was never afraid to say it as it is. He had a great energy, hating hypocrisy and I am sure the health zealots would frown on his pipe smoking, however he lived to the great age of 81 and look at his legacy.

I refer to above because I think it is important to reflect on the founding principles that guide your work, particularly in these challenging times with pressure to probe into the personal details of lives of those hurting and many requiring professional help but more importantly a listening ear, often the first step to getting it.

In the area of work I am involved in it is shocking to see how debate around the issues of confidentiality is non existent. Resistance to compiling reams of data, storing and sharing it to fit into case management agendas, designed all too often by faceless bureaucrats has led to people being dismissed as “not being progressive enough”. I can vouch for that as we have ongoing contact with the Office of The Data Protection Commissioner about our concerns.
I see a huge challenge facing your agency at a time when more agencies are coming on stream, many are massively grant-aided and find themselves under enormous pressure to compile personal data, to meet targets, measure outcomes all to meet grant aid requirements when one phone call that may save a life may be undervalued in time. We may also think at times when we see other agencies on the television or in the media in general that we should be out there too – it comes to mind particularly at Christmas time. Don’t waste your energy dwelling too much on not being in the limelight because the importance of your work is surely that which is done quietly and you are aware of the sensitivities of the people needing your help. Of course there are times when you would like to know what happened to some of the people you meet but you must let that go too. The fact the people make contact in the first place is what is important.
Suicide has reached crises point and I am sure the numbers may be more than that reported. It is not surprising that huge numbers of people feel life is worthless looking at the situation they find themselves in, in these recessionary times. We can all remember the attitude to suicide a generation ago – I do wonder have we now reached a space where yes we can discuss it more openly but is there a danger that the importance of a listening ear and that often provided by a dedicated volunteer will be devalued in the rush to collect information. I think you in The Samaritans must be careful not to get into the trap of prying into peoples lives just to meet grant aid requirements. The way charities are being grant aided to deliver services is changing. The trend is now towards contracts where grant aid is based on outcomes achieved. Yes, surely this does make a lot of sense, particularly to those who are giving the money, but so often far removed from the frontline. Being paid on outcomes achieved poses particular difficulties for groups like The Samaritans who may be under pressure to change their structures and more importantly their core mission. It also is possible that outcome based contracts, particularly in the area of healthcare will go to large for profit organisations with huge balance sheets and they in turn could end up sub-contracting to the charities. The Samaritans particularly based on their mission will have to look at where they are in today’s world being aware of the increasing numbers of people likely to need the services you provide – that is the main challenge facing you into the future. Now with ever increasing demands on services, agencies must ensure they too can speak out – prophetic voices have been silenced by grant aid and will continue to be well into the future. It is possible that structures now being put in place can be more important than the humanity of those suffering or those attempting to alleviate their misery. Giving time to people is not easy. I know from our daily work sometimes meeting people who never had a listening ear and now we are meeting people some months from 26 different countries – their body language, dead eyes and solace found in alcohol and other drugs, the symptoms of pain, isolation all too obvious and hard to penetrate.

We regularly refer people to The Samaritans and we can only hope that they use the service. We have known many people who died by suicide and I am sure more will – a terrible indictment of all of us and reflection on the world we share. It may be suggested to you that you should refer people on to other agencies – too often referring people on can give the impression that others may have the solution to the problem. It could also mean pressure would be put on them to give very personal details they are not ready for. Worse still it could give the impression you are anxious to get rid of them. You could however signpost appropriate services, it’s really a question of how you do it and I would suggest that dropping the idea gently is possible. For example there are useful freefone numbers like that for people who find themselves homeless 1800 707 707 for accommodation and 1800 724 724 for social welfare that might be suggested to people and they can decide for themselves without pressure. This is something you could look at guided by those of you with experience and also have a list of appropriate services.
There are a number of issues I would like to draw your attention to:-

Who cares for the carer comes to mind when I was compiling this paper. Listening to someone hurting isn’t easy. We are all but human, while you have a strong support network it could be all too easy to be overwhelmed – it’s not a sign of failure to say its not for me and walk away. In my experience when one door closes another opens. The reverse side of the coin is that maybe we think we are too important and that we are the only one who can solve someone’s problem. If so, we need to pose the question – are we just satisfying our own needs without being aware of the dependency we may be creating, leading to an even greater problem down the road for the person requiring help and colleagues providing the listening ear.
Rev. Chad. Varah and Rev. Billy Wynne got great sustenance from their religious beliefs but they also appeared to have a great capacity to live life as presented to them and spared no energy in ensuring that those for whom life was difficult and at times too painful to live were supported. We owe it to them getting support from their vision to ensure the work of The Samaritans continues and that it is possible for all of us to “Waste Time With People” to great effect.

Director & Co-Founder
A befriending social & health service
for people who are homeless
Founded in 1975
Bride Road
Dublin 8
Tel: 01 454 3799 (w)
24th March 2012