by Michael Clifford
Alice Leahy has spent 40 years bringing comfort to Ireland’s homeless population, writes Michael Clifford

ALICE LEAHY could light up a room with her smile, not to mind heat the place. There is warmth in her smile, and a twinkle that lightens the colour of her eyes.

To see that smile might well prompt one to believe she would be a pushover.

Nobody capable of emitting such warmth could possess steel, or the capacity to manipulate, cajole or engineer others to do as she pleases.

Nobody, that is, except Alice Leahy.

What she nearly always wants is something that will bring comfort or solace to those who are invisible to the rest of society — that constituency referred to as “the homeless”.

This is an issue that is not going away. Just earlier this week, Focus Ireland published a report that showed the number of homeless families in Dublin has doubled in the last year, with the problem spreading rapidly to Cork and Galway.

In April alone, 71 families accessed Focus Ireland’s services, 63 of which were homeless for the first time.

The most pressing issue of accessing housing is the main thrust of policy on homelessness, but for people like Alice Leahy there is another element that requires constant attention.

Forty years ago this year, Leahy set up an organisation called Trust — dedicated to humanising those who have, for one reason or another, been cast beyond the boundaries of society.

Trust operates outside the State infrastructure. There are no beds here that would register on the statistics of those without a home.

There are no forms to fill out in order that a body may be categorised and have his or her needs recorded in official language.

Instead, there is human contact; a cup of tea; an opportunity to have feet washed; the possibility of a new pair of boots, or a coat; basic medical attention; assistance with tackling the bureaucracy of the State.

There is even the kind of thing that might appear mundane, like helping a woman in putting on some make-up, that she may relocate some self-esteem, or the sense of dignity denied to many who are invisible on the streets.

Trust operates out of a basement in the heart of Dublin city.

Each morning, men and women make their way there — seeking out an oasis in a desert of indifference.

A bird’s eye view of the city might track these figures, rising from doorways, folding cardboard, exiting hostels, checking time, all moving purposefully to congregate at the door of a basement room, as if queueing up for access to a shot of energy to see them through till nightfall again.

One of Trust’s key features is a refusal to be gobbled up by the State’s services, which might compromise its central mission.

This independence is maintained through functioning on donations from the public, rather than the State.

Leahy refers to many who use the service as “outsiders”, people who for a myriad reasons could not function within, or conform to, the strictures of society.

She’s a bit of an outsider herself. The structure of Trust enables her to advocate without any fear of repercussions from discommoded public servants or politicians.

She is constantly holding up a mirror to society, telling it like it is, banging on doors, often shouting in the dark, haranguing society to sit up and take notice.

Forty years down the line, Trust is probably more important than ever. Society has not got to grips with homelessness.

Every so often, a death like that of Jonathan Corrie outside the Dáil last December grabs attention, before the issue slips from the headlines again.

Alice Leahy thought it would all take a few years. When she set up Trust in 1975, she was of the opinion that it would fill a gap until such time as the authorities copped on that all the children of the nation required a little more cherishing. It didn’t happen.

Far from making advances, the problems associated with homelessness have ballooned in recent years.

A report a few months ago showed that 30 people a month are becoming homeless in Cork. A report from the Homeless Executive for the Dublin region last month showed that almost 1,000 children are now living in emergency accommodation in the capital.

That’s apart from the rough sleepers, those who actually spend their nights on the streets, unable — or in some cases for good reason, unwilling — to access emergency shelter until the morning comes.

Back in the mid-70s, Alice was working as a nurse, putting in a little extra effort with the Simon Community.

She compiled a report on the medical needs of those who were at the time described as “vagrants”.

“Experience has shown that the presence of a voluntary worker or other person with knowledge of the individual vagrant helps to break the barrier separating him from proper medical care,” she reported.

Her experience in surveying so-called vagrants convinced her a service was required, where those without a home could at least have access to basic services the rest of us take for granted.

When Alice Leahy mentioned to a consultant in the hospital where she was nursing that she was packing in her safe and secure job to work with the homeless, his response was understandable.

“Are you mad?” he asked.

Later, Leahy revealed she didn’t bother filling him in on other details, such as that she would be working out of a rundown basement for the equivalent of what one would receive on the dole.

“He might have tried to have me certified,” she recalled.

But that’s how it started, when she and a few others got together and put in place what was a radical idea.

Since then, Trust has been working to put itself out of business, but society keeps ensuring that its service has become even more vital as the “problem” of homelessness goes unsolved.

Change has come dropping slowly over the decades. When the country emerged blinking into the frontline of wealthy nations in the 1990s, efforts were made to tackle homelessness.

Greater resources were deployed, but greater accountability was also demanded. Those availing of services were required to behave as “clients”, as if they were attending with an accountant to sort out tax affairs.

The approach made no concession to the reality that most who find themselves on the street are burdened with emotional or mental health issues, which render them overwhelmed by matters like bureaucracy.

A client is an individual seeking a service, rather than a human being in search of something lost along life’s journey.

The bureaucracy forced on homeless people is a bugbear of Leahy’s; but more pressing matters have arisen in the years since the economic collapse of 2008.

The recession has seen homelessness balloon, particularly among a new element of immigrants, who like many Irish emigrants of old, can’t go home because of the shame.

For Alice Leahy, and her kindred spirits, the war on want carries on daily.

This year, Trust will mark its 40th anniversary, four decades of making a real difference in the lives of people as society at large walks on by.