Small ideas can give homeless a big break

Politicians must pay more than lip service to the big issue highlighted by death on a doorstep, writes Dr Maurice Gueret.

It was a week of contrast in our capital city. Over at Dublin airport, little Leona the rescued loggerhead turtle was being readied for her new life in the Canary Islands.

The plane’s hold would be too cold for a safe journey, so she was issued with her own boarding pass and seats for Las Palmas. Carers coated her skin in Vaseline to make sure she didn’t dehydrate on the four-hour flight. Aer Lingus cleared three rows in the passenger cabin for Leona’s box and her entourage. The state broadcaster was at the airport to record the flight of the turtle for posterity.

Across the city, on Molesworth Street, a homeless man lay dying on a doorstep. One kindly passerby took the trouble to check on his condition and found he was quite blue. He died in view of our national parliament. He might have died anywhere. Homeless people do. Their average life expectancy is decades lower than loggerhead turtles. The blame game began. Out came the opposition, the senators, the mayor, the councillors, the punters and the columnists. Such outrage hadn’t been heard in the city since the Garth Brooks concerts were cancelled in high summer.

Joe Duffy summed up the spectacle succinctly on Liveline. He said it resembled a circular firing squad, everyone was shooting each other with blame. A meeting of bigwigs in the church, state and homeless industry circles was called for. There were clamours for extra money to be handed over for services. A minister promised a warm bed for every homeless person by Christmas. The nation could go back under their blankets.

I know a little about the homeless situation in Dublin. For some years, I was honoured to be a trustee and then chairman of a small charity called Trust. Louis Copeland, the master-tailor, is now in the chair. Trust is located in the basement of the Iveagh Hostel in Dublin. The service began about 40 years ago with a group of concerned people led by an inspirational nurse from Baggot Street hospital. Her name is Alice Leahy. Alice is still in charge.

The service runs on a shoestring. It doesn’t accept state funding, nor does it have any fundraising wing. Deliberately. Friends and supporters quietly look after Trust. In return, Trust supports many of the most vulnerable citizens of our city. It opens early each morning and warmly embraces those who need that warm embrace. There are no forms and no questionnaires. There might be a wound that needs dressing, a bath that needs taking, clothes or shoes that need replacing, a slice of buttered brack with tea, or a referral to a hospital or family doctor.

Trust are the outsiders of the homeless services. And they look after the outsiders of our city. Alice has for many decades been the conscience of our city. She constantly challenges the status quo and lazy thinking in homlessness.

For many years now, nurse Alice has been crying out for the installation of very basic washing facilities in our inner city. Men and women who sleep rough in the capital have to rely on canals and charity for the human need to bathe and wash.

With assistance from young civic-minded architects, Alice went to Leinster House and City Hall and submitted wonderful plans to the very same councillors and ministers that were hopping up and down about homelessness this week. Eight years ago, she highlighted the urgency of this measure, suggesting that it might prevent people becoming long-term homeless by making it easier to overcome temporary difficulties.

Public showers would help out people in emergency accommodation, newly arrived visitors or backpackers to our city as they find their feet and people living in overcrowded accommodation with poor washing facilities. Public facilities would help isolated elderly people who are afraid to bathe at home in case they fall and are not found. A very serious and thoughtful proposal for glowing cubes, advertising drums and shower shelters was made to those who have the power to change. Potential sites all around the city were identified. Alice’s call was politely listened to, and then ignored.

A friend was speaking to me about homelessness this week. He said there are a lot of people having summits, and talking about root causes, and paying general lip service to the big issue. But they accomplish little, and there are rarely any benefits for the daily lives of men and women on our doorsteps. He suggests that when everybody has failed to solve the big problem, the small ideas might prove much more interesting. And you know what? He is dead right. Just as the little things, like Vaseline, matter to turtles. Little things can matter to people too.

Action on Homelessness

We in TRUST are neither surprised nor shocked to hear of the man sleeping in a bin and miraculously saved (Irish Independent, February 22). We provide on a daily basis a most basic service in a tiny premises for up to 40 men and women. These men and women sleep rough in squats, tents, cars, parks, bins, flimsy sleeping bags in shop doorways – all unimaginable spaces in our capital city and beyond.

The majority are penniless and a few get a bed from time to time. Their physical and psychological conditions and personal stories are horrendous. All carry their possessions on their person and the pain of living is clearly deeply etched on their faces.

In a given month we meet people from 18 to 26 different countries – like many of our own Irish who moved to cities here or abroad a generation ago to work and send money back home. Many of those we meet had a dream of a better future; the dream never materialised and they now are ashamed to go home, some too proud to tell their story, their privacy all they have.

The situation is worse in my experience of working in the field for over 40 years and this for many reasons. This too at a time when a lot of money was made available to address the problem. We have for years been raising our concerns about the lack of good, basic emergency shelter, a first step at least. There has been and continues to be reluctance to accept this fact at all levels.

The time of talking shops is long over and it is time to accept that there is a crisis – “a time of intense , difficulty or danger” from my Oxford Dictionary – when is a crisis not a crisis?

The quick-thinking young man who heard the cry for help and pressed the red button and saved a life deserves all our gratitude.

Alice Leahy
Director & Co-Founder
TRUST, Bride Road, Dublin 8

Remembering Mary Lahiff

Madam — Reading of the death of Mary Lahiff, (Death Notice, Sunday Independent, October 28) brought to mind an era worth reflecting on at a time in our country when we struggle to make sense of what is going on, where hope, gratitude, vision and inspiration appear to be in short supply.

Mary worked as a social worker in the Meath Hospital, one of the small voluntary hospitals in Dublin. She worked in a cramped space without so many of the technical mod-cons we have now become accustomed to.

She worked way beyond the call of duty, ticked all the boxes of care, commitment, compassion and professionalism — not those now ticked to measure performance and success. She sat and listened patiently and was familiar with the environment people came from, not least so many of the people known to us in TRUST, outsiders even in the space they inhabited. People, to her, were individuals with names and a personal history and never just ‘clients’, ‘customers’ or cold statistics. She would have been shocked to hear the latest buzz word — ‘churning’ — in the lexicon of assessment. Time spent with people in need was never time wasted to her.

During her working life Mary brought comfort to so many, who were often unable to express their gratitude. She truly was one of the unsung heroes of public service and has left a wonderful legacy in her wake.

Alice Leahy,

Director & Co-Founder,

TRUST, Dublin 8

Failed plan

Reading the report on the death of a homeless man on December 7 by Louise Hogan I am mindful of the death of Pauline and Danny in a derelict site in Benburb Street in December 1992 and all the publicity that followed. Now 19 years on, what has changed?

Millions of taxpayers’ money has been spent, more reports have been produced, more experts have moved on — and so, too, public representatives.

What has changed is the amount of reactive press releases from the Dublin Region Homeless Executive.

We have publicly stated, and so, too, have some other non grant-aided agencies, that the plan hasn’t worked; the new plan, which is much the same, is also unlikely to work.

I am greatly concerned that unless those in a position of responsibility accept the fact that the plan has failed, and stop blaming those who question it in 50 years’ time we will be repeating the same mantra.

Alice Leahy
TRUST, Bride Road, Dublin 8