“We will pull through the current crisis if we are united in our concern for each other”

“I have no doubt we will pull the current crisis and prosper again, but we will only do that if we are united in our concern for each other”

Alice Leahy, Director & Co-Founder, TRUST

“Are you mad?” I can still remember vividly being asked that question, one morning in the early 70s, by a leading Consultant in the hospital where I worked, and where I had just set up the first intensive care unit of its kind in Ireland. That is the only question that occurred to him when I told him I was leaving my highly secure, pensionable job, as he saw it, to go and work full-time with people who were homeless.

Mind you I did not tell him that I was going to be paid a wage that equated to the dole at the time, and that I would be working in a run down building, or he might have tried to have me certified.

The remarkable thing about that fateful meeting is how it foreshadowed similar experiences I would have in the years that followed, especially after I helped to set-up TRUST in 1975. When you try to do things in a different or new way, even for people who find themselves outsiders in society, you meet resistance. When you upset the status quo you generate real fear, and even hostility, because there are always people with a vested interest in doing things the way they have always been done, regardless of the cost to others. Sadly that also applies to the health, homeless and social services.

The Celtic Tiger years produced much that I found very unacceptable, but one of the good things about the transformation of this country, was that more and more people were not afraid to leave their comfort zones and try new things. We were not intimidated by the doubters, the naysayers and brushed aside the questions like “….are you mad?”

To get through the current crisis we need to rekindle and nurture that spirit. President Obama summed it up well in three words: “yes we can!” In my own case, the importance of the belief that we can make a difference for others by treating them with dignity and respect has kept us going, and allowed us to resist those who might like to see us close up shop because we refuse to conform.

I do not want to labour the point, but people often assume that because you want to help people no obstacles are placed in your way. Unfortunately, that is not the case, as I quickly found after I left the hospital. I sought out a well known priest in the inner city for his views, when I was doing research into the health needs of people who are homeless, and I remember vividly being told “go to university, you can never do anything if you don’t study social work”. And later, the leading civil servant who said after TRUST was established that “it would only last six months!” Mind you, we are working to put ourselves out of business because in an ideal world there would be no need for our service.

Hope is definitely not
the same things as optimism.
It is not the
conviction that something
will turn out well, but
the certainty that something
makes sense, regardless
of how it turns out.
Václav Havel

We do not just provide health and social services for people who are homeless, we also try to share our insights and experiences, to help create a more tolerant and understanding society so that fewer people might find themselves excluded. To do that we all have to “waste more time with people”. The power of that idea was brought home to me one day by our late former Chairperson Professor James McCormick, when he gave me an article from the British Medical Journal, written by Simon Challand, a former Medical Adviser 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.”

If we make time for others, in our families, at work and in our communities we will transform the country we are living in. Now more than ever, when new pressures and strains are evident everywhere, and people are hurting and feeling real pain, we must not shut our eyes, or be afraid to help others.

Something became disconnected during the Celtic Tiger years because we lost touch with what is really important. We are now paying the price because we allowed rampant greed to almost destroy our economy. But we have a chance to start over, to begin by doing things differently, and recognising that the quality of our lives are determined by what we do for others and not how much we can exploit them.

I have no doubt we will pull through the current crisis and prosper again, but we will only do that if we are united in our concern for each other. That type of concern can build a real unity of purpose. A caring and considerate Ireland, that makes necessary sacrifices for the future, while protecting those who cannot look after themselves, will far surpass for what was ever achieved during the so called Celtic Tiger years.

New Approach Needed To Tackle Homelessness

Dear Madam

Your feature on the plight of those who find themselves homeless on the streets of Dublin was very timely. However, the very last paragraph of that two page spread was the most revealing in highlighting the very destructive effects of “increased bureaucracy” which explains to a great extent why we continue to fail so many of those who find themselves outsiders in Irish society.

The full implications of this bureaucracy needs to be understood. Having worked with people who are homeless for almost thirty years, and while acknowledging that some things have changed, it is also painfully true that much has remained the same; and this can be explained by a very serious management failure at the top. In short, those in overall charge appear to be out of touch with what is happening on the ground.

To underline that point it was very revealing that only one of the people involved in homeless services, the deputy chief executive of the Homeless Agency, the body responsible for overseeing policy in this area, agreed that it was possible to reach the government’s target of ending “rough sleeping” on the street, as it is described, by 2010. In other words, anyone involved in anyway in front line services knows that is impossible, given current policy and commitments, and shows a profound misunderstanding about the nature of the issue. One of the most serious issues at the moment is that there are not enough emergency beds – highlighting how far behind we are at the moment in attempting to meet that target.

Indeed, the need for a very different approach was clearly shown in the article.

However, there is a very practical way of making real headway even before investing more money – talk to those at the front line who know what is happening. Your paper presented a picture that is at variance with the official view. If we want a caring and inclusive society we must, like you did last Sunday, begin by acknowledging what is wrong and seek to address why people find themselves alone on the streets in the first instance.

Yours sincerely

Director & Co-Founder

One Morning in Trust

by Catherine Cleary & Richard Oakley

At last week’s Labour Party conference Alice Leahy stole the show with her three-minute attack on the ‘poverty industry’. Catherine Cleary and Richard Oakley visit centre she runs for homeless people in Dublin. He took a last look in the mirror, fixed his tie, shot his cuffs and puffed out his chest. “The best dressed homeless man in Ireland,” he said. The other men in the washroom laughed. “No it’s true, ‘Suits’, that’s what they call me.”

The young man was just one of dozens of people who visited the Dublin centre of Trust last Thursday morning. Homeless men sat patiently in the clean waiting room waiting for their turn to get a shower, a shave, a complete change of clothes and a pair of shoes.

They came to get their blisters and sores dressed, bites on their hands disinfected, their beards trimmed and a warm, dry pair of socks to put their bandaged feet into. Some of them are in the throes of a killer hangover, others already have an early drink in their systems. One man admitted to Geraldine McAuliffe, the in-house nurse, that he had eaten nothing in days. The human bite on his hand was inflicted, he said, as he held on grimly to his bottle of vodka. “You need drink to survive the streets,” he said. “You won’t sleep without it.” He held onto his bottle in the fight and got his night’s sleep.

Alice Leahy, director and co-founder of Trust, explained why this man and others wanted to tell their stories. They get rare opportunities to speak their minds. They are treated as people to be feared or patronised. To some in the “poverty industry”, they are statistics to be moved around the system. “If there weren’t all these homeless people there would be a lot of people out of work,” she said.

The week before she had given a blunt message to the Labour Party national conference in Cork. In her 30 years working with Dublin’s homeless people it was her most trenchant criticism of the inadequate care system offered by the state. It was run by “highly paid but inexperienced people” she said and has been reduced to a multi-million pound business, she told party delegates. “More researchers and consultants produce more and more reports to be discussed in centres of luxury far removed from the smell and pain of poverty.”

If you want a perspective on poverty, she told the party faithful, try bending over the feet of someone who has walked around on “blistered bleeding and ulcerated feet, afraid their shoes will be robbed, they leave them on 24 hours.” On those sore feet they have usually shuffled from one agency to another.
She related the stories of Ann, a 21 year-old mother of two who had died in a doorway the previous month. Ian, a man in his thirties, drowned in the Dodder river. A couple, Sandra and Mark, whose home for years was the Phoenix Park before Trust set them up with a B&B lost their “much-longed for baby” who was just a few months old recently. “Their grief is barely imaginable.”

For most people the lives of Alice’s men and women are also unimaginable. Hostels are under pressure to cherry-pick the best prospects from the estimated 8,000 homeless people in the country. Beds have to go to “people who fit in and do not have ‘problems’ because grants are increasingly becoming dependent on performance indicators.”

That is one of the jargon phrases that makes Leahy see red because she believes it is symptomaticof a system more interested in paying research consultants than stocking tax-payer funded B&Bs with soap and clean towels.

The gulf between what the poverty industry calls service providers and their “clients” (a word and Leahy and her staff reject) is obvious in the efforts to link homeless people with empty beds. A freephone number often does not result in the offer of a bed. Even if there is a bed some of the men who Leahy sees cannot cope with current hostel requirements. They have to fill out forms and tell their life stories to an under-paid and over-worked hostel worker. Then they find that all they can get is an emergency bed for a single night, often in a dormitory shared with chronic heroin addicts. The next morning they are back on the streets.

In the yellow-painted waiting room at Trust the men and women give their name and take a seat to wait their turn for hot showers, razors and clean towels. In the storeroom Old Spice aftershave and bottles of toiletries are lined up alongside neatly folded sweaters, jeans, jackets and trousers.

“They’re concerned about you,” one Galway man, a graduate who lost his job in the finance department of a computer plant more than ten years ago said. “It’s not pleasant being homeless. I came from a good background. My father would turn in his grave if he saw the way I was living now.”

Patrick Grogan, the young man who looks after the clothes stores and deals with people arriving joked with the “culchie” about being a “jackeen”. It’s a recurring joke the two men share. “Into the west, we call him,” Patrick said as the other man grinned broadly.

At a talk on Friday to a meeting in Portlaoise Leahy listed the type of ailments she sees every day. Knife wounds, cigarette burns, pressure sores, scabies, malnutrition. Everything that is common to the general public but exacerbated by the living conditions on the streets. Those she sees are “human beings whose minds and souls are so dispirited by feelings of despair and inadequacy, people who are pushed from service to service, just like figures on a chess board.”

Every month the organisation hands out full set of clothes for 350 people. Minor condition are treated before they became a hospital admission case. Every week up to 150 people enjoy a wash, a shave and a splash of something fragrant. The ethos of Trust is to facilitate homeless people and provide some comfort to haphazard and dangerous existences.

“The human condition is not all about people who want to be taoisigh or supermodels,” said Leahy. “Life is about the weak and the strong. Some people think the problem is drink – ‘If we could get them off the drink, or the drugs, they’d be grand,’ they say.”

“A lot of people we are dealing with are not going to change,” Geraldine McAuliffe added. Performance indicators are not part of the programme. Success is anything from getting a person off the streets to sending someone back out with clean, dry feet and a slightly crumpled but smart suit.