We’re in the basement of the Iveagh Trust hostel, which was set up more than 100 years ago. We’re in a very old building in a very old part of Dublin city. And that brings its challenges, and also its inspiration because you’re conscious that so many people have walked this path before.
When it’s pouring rain, people won’t appear until later in the morning. Because if they’re lucky enough to shelter under a bush or a tent, or maybe they’ve got a seat in a Garda station, then they will stay there until the rain passes.
We are a team here. When we come in in the morning, we make sure we have everything ready for people coming in, make sure the fish [in our fish tank] are happy, Marty is on Lyric, fresh flowers are on the table, and our candles are lighting. Of course with health and safety we have those new candles that you just switch on. But the candle is a sign of hope for people.
Then we open up and people come in. We take them as we find them, don’t pry into people’s affairs. Jeanette and Lisa are in the office in the morning, and are dealing with an awful lot of queries from the public, sometimes from all over Ireland. Last week, we had a number of people contacting us about very basic information on their social welfare entitlements. We also have people contacting us who are fearful that they’re going to be evicted. And they’re trying to plan their future.
When people come in we ask them for their name. We’ve had Roy Keanes, we’ve had all kinds of people… and that’s okay. We don’t deal with families, and we don’t deal with children. Because we couldn’t. Our place is so small.
Brendan is at the gate, we have to keep our gate closed now. We didn’t years ago, but then drugs have created a huge problem in our country. And the lives of people have been changed dramatically.
When people come in, Mark will offer them a hot cup of tea or coffee. They can have a wash, a change of clothes, a shower. For somebody who’s sleeping out in all kinds of weathers, particularly in this heat and the rain, they’re walking in sodden shoes. There is a tendency now to forget about the importance of these very basic things. Afterwards we ask them to clean up after themselves, put their towels in a basket, because it’s very important not to treat homeless people as children, and to give them some responsibility.
Talking about homelessness in terms of housing and money, and the Government’s responsibility, we have forgotten completely about the complexity of humanity
— Alice Leahy
Maybe someone will want information, a letter maybe for the DRHE (Dublin Regional Homeless Executive), a GP or a hospital. They might want a form filled in for a medical card, or information on a hospital appointment. They may be going to the courts, and want to just look well.
Dealing with somebody with mental health issues, it can be impossible now to get people on the phone to find help. It’s all now about ticking boxes. Talking about homelessness in terms of housing and money, and the Government’s responsibility, we have forgotten completely about the complexity of humanity.
Often people come to give us things. It might be to give us clothes after someone’s death. The generosity of people is amazing. But it’s very important to give those people time. It’s not unusual that somebody would come in and say there was a suicide in the family and the clothes they’re giving were from someone dear to them who died.
Fifty years ago this year, I decided I would leave nursing and apply to work in the Simon Community. We worked in a condemned building. There were people sleeping under the stairs, pets sleeping in the bedrooms. There was cannabis in odd corners, you’d know by the whiff of it. There were people drinking. The founder of Simon, Anton Wallich-Clifford who once spent the night in my bedsit, had the right vision. Because it was about all of us in there, working together.
Later a group of us set up Trust [now The Alice Leahy Trust]. The people we worked with in the early days were all Irish, they came from the institutions, the prisons, psychiatric hospitals and the Magdalene laundries. During the Troubles, a lot of people came down from the North.
A man stopped recently at the steps and Jeanette was there. He said, “Is Alice still in there?” And she said, “Yes, she is. She’s just left for a meeting.” And he told her: “You know, 40 years ago I was in there. Can I go in and have a look?” And he told her he had come in and I gave him a bath, clean clothes and a second-hand pair of shoes. And that I referred him to a doctor, and he hadn’t had a drink since.
We are now still doing those basic things. Nothing beats face-to-face engagement with people. Time spent with people is seen as wasting time. We met a nurse recently who was leaving the profession because she was being given only allotted times to deal with patients. That culture is now creeping into the NGO sector.
I think about the young hopeful idealistic people who are beginning their work in the area of homelessness. They need to know the importance of the basics, the complexity of the human condition, and that helping homeless people is about more than money, bricks and mortar and ticking boxes.
– In conversation with Catherine Cleary