One woman’s 40 year fight for the ‘invisibles’ of Irish society: the homeless

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.

Homeless people suffering from long vanished ailments

By Jennifer Hough

Homeless people are presenting with conditions “long disappeared” such as trench foot and impetigo, leg ulcers and gangrene, social justice campaigner Alice Leahy has said.
Ms Leahy, director of independent charity Trust, said she and her team often meet people who are suffering from malnutrition and medical ailments associated with extreme poverty. Many of those who suffer in this way are from eastern Europe, she said.

The service, a social and health facility in Dublin City, is meeting increasing numbers of people who were re-settled in unsuitable accommodation, Ms Leahy said and then find themselves homeless again, an experience that often makes them 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 such as leg ulcers and gangrene; as well as lice infected heads and scabies.

“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.”

On a daily basis, Trust, operating since 1975, meets 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.”

The Trust co-founder also warned about the loss of human compassion in the face of an increasingly bureaucratic world and the “consequences of racism”, in Ireland.

Speaking yesterday to student nurses in Athlone, Ms Leahy said until those in power are prepared to sit with people in poverty, feel their pain and listen to their frustrations rather than looking at statistics, nothing will change.

“If they cannot do it they should listen to those who can, otherwise the vulnerable patients will continue to suffer and those of us working with them will only be adding to their misery through our silence,” she said.

A home from home

The recession has swollen the numbers of homeless in our cities. Sue Leonard talks to those who offer help and support throughout the year
STRIVING for the perfect Christmas is stressful. As we frantically cook, shop, and rush it’s easy to forget our luck. Lucky to have a family to cook for; lucky to have a home.

We’re so accustomed to seeing the homeless — crouched in doorways, shivering against the cold — that we rush past them.

Over in TRUST, it’s business as normal around Bride Street at Christmas. Director Alice Leahy and her team are providing showers to the regulars in the bright, wooden-floored centre.

“We provide 350 showers a week,” says Leahy. “A shower could take two hours because you have to deal with lice, with skin complaints, and, most of all, with neglected feet.” They may be given a new set of clothes, and, possibly, a food parcel. They can have their medical needs dealt with, or their drug regimes explained. They are helped to access their rights and other services.

Many attend each day, for a cup of tea, a biscuit. They love spending a few hours in the warm, in a place where the giving of time is valuable. Alice refers to the homeless as ‘outsiders,’ because her regulars don’t fit the societal norm.

“People need shelter,” she says, “and a lot of agencies provide accommodation. But some people who are given flats can’t cope. They may not be able to relate to people.”

All are catered for at TRUST. Tom lives in a hostel and attends a psychiatric clinic. He pops in regularly, and sits quietly, nursing a cup of coffee as he listens to Lyric FM. Josef is always polite. He shakes hands when he arrives and leaves, and says the welcome at TRUST makes it more precious to him than the place he once called home.

There are the drunks of early morning, including those who have replaced meths with an addiction to the hand sanitiser used in hospitals. There are the addicts, trying for a few hours of sleep; there are the angry and there are the despairing. Perhaps worse, there are those who have sunk into apathy and resignation.

“We see that too often,” says Leahy. “Dull, dead eyes have replaced the once-bright ones, when dreams of a better future existed.” It’s worse at Christmas, she says. “They get angry. They don’t like what’s going on and sometimes they withdraw.” Leahy is overwhelmed by the generosity of Irish people. TRUST doesn’t take money from government; they don’t fund-raise, yet clothes, food, and supplies constantly pour in to the centre.

“We give out hats and socks, tea, coffee and soup, brown bread and fruit, all the year round. Christmas is a bit special,” she says. “Then we give out the Christmas cake and the mince pies that people have sent in.”

At Bow Street’s Capuchin day centre, Brother Kevin Crowley says Christmas is lonely for the homeless: “It’s hard, always, being homeless, but at Christmas, if someone is separated from their families, or broken up from their families, it’s an especially difficult time.

“Two years ago on Christmas Eve, I remember this guy was sitting in the corner with tears streaming from his eyes. I said, ‘What is the problem?’ He said, ‘Do you hear that song?’ It’s Nice to be Home for Christmas was playing on the radio. I said, ‘Yes. It’s beautiful.’ And he said, ‘It is. But once I had a beautiful home, a beautiful wife and a beautiful family. And now I have none of those things. I’m homeless at Christmas’.”

Brother Kevin has been serving meals to the homeless since 1969. The situation, he says, has never been as bad as this year. “We’re serving 500 dinners a day, and we have 200 people in for breakfast. We give out food parcels every week. Up to three or four years ago, maybe 300 people would queue up. Last Wednesday, there were 1,240 people,” he says.

Some were the new poor. “The profile of people in need has changed in recent years,” says Brother Kevin. “We now see people who have lost their jobs and are on the verge of losing their houses. They have huge anxiety of what they face in the future. There are more Irish people these days and they’re embarrassed because they have to come to places like this for their food.

“Our expenses have gone up to €1.4m, and we’re still getting €450,000 from the Government. Were it not for the amazing generosity of the people, there is no way we would be able to continue helping people in need.”

TRUST and the Capuchin day centre are both shut on Christmas Day. But that’s when The Order of The Knights of St Columbanus step in. They’ll provide dinner for 500 in the Royal Dublin Society for the homeless, the poor, and anyone else with little food or money. Another 1,200 meals are sent as takeaways for those too sick or incapacitated to leave their homes.

The order has been providing this service since 1915. But in the past couple of years the profile of the needy has changed. “There are more Irish now,” says the chairman, Adrian King. “A high percentage would be homeless people, but last year it was so sad seeing who came. There were those whose pensions and funds had gone; there were Irish families. It’s a different profile entirely.”

There will be a full Christmas dinner; they’ll be entertainment, and there’ll be visits from Dublin’s lord mayor, and the Archbishop of Dublin. The guests, picked up and dropped in prearranged areas in Dublin, will not go home empty-handed. “Their take-away bags will contain sandwiches; drinks, crisps, toiletries, anything we can source,” says King.

Focus Ireland will be busy, too, making Christmas as happy for those using their services as they possibly can.

“Christmas is a time of great sadness for somebody out of home,” says Sr Stanislaus Kennedy, co-founder and lifetime president of the organisation. “We provide Christmas dinner for them in three different locations and we try to help them celebrate as best we can.”

Sr Stan is saddened by the new Irish poor — and because so many women and children are now affected by homelessness — a shocking one in seven of the homeless is a child.

“The recession is so traumatic for families,” she says. “When they were used to two cars, two phones, two of everything and now they have nothing, where do they turn?”

The other side of Christmas, for Focus Ireland, is to make their message known. It’s a time for fundraising and highlighting the need for volunteers. “What we give, we receive,” says Sr Stan. “If we can allow the homeless to give to us and to touch into our broken side, then they change us. And once we are changed, we are changed forever. That is the gift of the poor.”

Aimee Concannon, 15, loved filling shoe boxes with gifts for Africa. But last year, she missed the essential deadline. She was upset. Until, going for a drum lesson in Temple Bar, she noticed all the homeless sleeping rough in the cold. That gave her an idea.

“I filled shoe boxes with hats gloves and scarves; with toothbrushes and paste, plasters, throat lozenges and Vaseline. And with playing cards, cards and stamps,” she says. “I filled ten shoe boxes, I wrapped them, and on Christmas Eve, my friend Georgia and I distributed them to the homeless. It was amazing. They were so emotional and appreciative. One of them started crying. They couldn’t believe they were getting something. It was sad how shocked they were.”

This year, Aimee has expanded her scheme. She’s asked for sponsorship and has vouchers from food and coffee shops. She has vouchers for Butler’s chocolates too. “People have been so generous. I’m hoping to fill 20 shoe boxes this year; maybe even 25. I’m so happy I can help people,” she says.

Ciaran Boylan, a sixth-year student at Belvedere College in Dublin, can’t wait for the run-up to Christmas. But it’s not about partying or present-buying. He’ll be spending the days, and nights, of December 22 and 23 sleeping out in O’Connell Street near the GPO.

He’ll be there on Christmas Eve too; only stopping at around six in the evening, when he’ll go to the school for mass.

One hundred and eighty boys from fifth and sixth year apply for the sleep out each year, but only 30 are chosen.

“I applied last year,” says Ciaran, who has, anyway, been involved for the past two or three years. “My brother was on the sleep-out. I was out around the city, collecting money for the charities. Everyone in school wants to help. We all have feelings about the homeless.

“Belvedere is not in a good area of Dublin. Seeing the homeless around is unavoidable. We build up bonds with homeless guys around the city. We’re aware of all the factors that come into play.

“People are homeless for various different reasons. Some are down on their luck, for family, or financial reasons. Some have had enough of life. It’s not just about houses. Some of them use the shelters. Others find them too dangerous. They’d rather sleep in a doorway,” he says.

This year, Ciaran is in charge of the PR.

“Miss Ireland is coming along to support us,” he says, “and Ger Brennan, who was on the GAA team that won the All Ireland. He was a past pupil, he won a scholarship and was here as a teacher. He’s coming down to collect for us. Other past pupils are sleeping out in College Green. There are guys who left one or two years ago, and guys who left 10 or 15 years ago.”

At Belvedere, it’s not just a case of helping at Christmas. “The Vincent de Paul is a big thing in our school. We do a soup run with them every Wednesday. We give out soup and sandwiches, but the greatest thing is to give people your time.

“By listening to them, and finding out how they feel, we gain an awful lot from it. Some of them lift your spirit. There’s one guy, Dave, in Dawson Street. It could be raining, you could be in bad form. You sit with him, and in 20 seconds you’d be crying laughing. He’s a great sense of humour,” Ciaran says.

Doe he resent giving up all that time, just before Christmas? “What we get from chatting to the guys is the best present you can imagine. Their appreciation is better than any iPod or bike. We’re seeing the real world,” he says. Ciaran is trying not to emulate a boy, who, three years ago, went home after the sleep-out and straight to bed. “When he woke up, and went down for Christmas dinner, there was nothing there. His mum said he slept for 18 hours. He’d missed out on Christmas Day completely.”

By Sue Leonard

Nothing has changed for outsiders

The following two articles appeared in the Irish Examiner on Monday, September 13, 2010.

Nothing has changed for outsiders

By Jennifer Hough, Irish Examiner
Monday, September 13, 2010

AFTER almost 35 years in operation, homeless charity Trust has had to cease its “open door” policy because of violence, drugs and racism.

Trust founder Alice Leahy said there was often extreme violence on the part of people frustrated because of their inability to have their needs met.

Many people, she said, were addicted to drugs, including alcohol, and the increase in the number of people coming from abroad, particularly from Eastern Europe, had led to a lot of racism within the services.

Ms Leahy said two reports which she wrote about homeless people in the 1970s showed how little has changed in 35 years. She said the reports were a painful reminder nothing is changing for the outsider in society, and “a sharp reminder” of how much remains to be done.

The 1974 report, which Leahy wrote while working as a nurse and deputy director of Simon Ireland, led directly to the setting up of Trust the following year. The report highlights problems created by the lack of co-ordination between medical professionals and the voluntary sector – a gap that Trust has filled over the years but, according to Ms Leahy, the challenge is now growing rather than diminishing.

The 1976 report was completed in the first full year of Trust’s existence. Extracts from the report show how little has changed since:

“Men in their 20s and 30s – this body of mainly young men makes up the largest percentage of the single homeless population.

“Many have had little education and are unskilled.

“Many come from city ghetto areas. They are the product of broken families and deprived communities. A number will have had brief contact with the law, usually in relation to petty crimes. They come from backgrounds whose hallmarks are appalling despair, chronic unemployment and an inability to make ends meet.

“Factors such as loneliness, apathy, depression, the inability to form ongoing relationships, the misery of the dole constantly threatening the ability of the individual to remain in any way integrated and capable of coping.

“Many are crying out for human understanding and support. So often, they are met by blank faces, complicated forms and an inhuman bungling bureaucracy…

“At the other end of the scale, we find a group of people who are chronically bound up in the vicious cycle of homelessness, and its consequences. These people make up the smallest percentage of the single homeless population. These are the people who the media sensationalises as ‘the wino’, ‘bum’, ‘the dregs’ and so on.

“This is a group of human beings whose physical and mental health is in a state of abject ruin. Their lives revolve around a culture whose focus is cheap alcohol.

“Most suffer from chronic ill health, which is rarely given attention. Their life pattern oscillates from the street to the prison or casualty department and back to the street again. Most of society blatantly shuns this group of human beings. They are almost totally isolated and neglected, they are people who suffer terribly in their despair and loneliness and who crave for real love and human understanding…”

Trust contact: 11,000 consultations carried out last year

By Jennifer Hough, Irish Examiner
Monday, September 13, 2010

FIGURES from Trust for 2009 released to the Irish Examiner show it carried out almost 11,000 consultations last year, almost 7,000 of which were with Irish people and more than 3,500 with foreigners.

The service is person-orientated, and the charity meets on average 100 to 120 people weekly (about 5,000 throughout the year) in daily journeys through the city.

According to Trust founder Alice Leahy, time spent with people can range from dressings, advice on medication, housing and entitlements, referral to specialist services, assistance with washing/showering, foot-care (extremely time consuming yet hugely beneficial to those using Trust’s services), contact with families, doctors, community welfare officers, solicitors, hospitals especially emergency departments and explanation of medication. Human contact is a vital component of the work.

“While this would not be seen as structured outreach – all interactions lead to listening, advising and ultimately assisting people,” Ms Leahy said.

“Contact is also maintained with people in hospital, prison or nursing homes through visits, letters or phone calls,” she said.

Almost 4,500 showers were taken at the charity’s centre last year, but according to Trust, that the city does not provide public showers remains a serious area of concern. In 2006, the charity submitted a detailed proposal to Dublin City Council and commissioned an architect to draw up plans for public showers.

“The ability to have a shower and maintain personal hygiene is a fundamental right and critical to maintaining good health. Trust is not a public washing facility but provides shower facilities and cannot cope with increasing demand,” Ms Leahy says.

“Other European cities have these public facilities and given the innovative nature of the plans that Trust has prepared it is clear this could even become a signature service in Dublin.

“We have met Dublin City Council, the minister for the environment and other interests involved, and are continuing to work to seek to have these facilities provided. This is a need that is not being addressed,” she says.