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PAT Austin is one of hundreds of people across Ireland who spent the festive season on the streets.
Although homeless for around eleven years, the 51-year-old remains hopeful that his dreams of having his own home will finally come true in 2022.
And Pat revealed how he has the Alice Leahy Trust to thank for giving him back his “dignity and respect” as he continues his fight for the right to live with a roof over his head.
The drop-in centre – established by former nurse Alice Leahy in 1975 – offers a wide range of services to people who sleep on the streets in the capital and have nowhere to go during the day.
These include showers, washing facilities, clothing, footwear, food, toiletries, advice on interactions with various State agencies, filling out forms and medical assistance for minor ailments.
The centre also provides advice on medication, referrals to specialist services, foot care, contacting families and healthcare professionals as well as working with hospitals and community gardai.
Those using the centre come from all ages and from all walks of life and include men and women who are battling drug, alcohol or gambling addictions.
And as Pat and others continue to use the facility, which is funded by donations from the public, he paid tribute to Tipperary-born Alice and her team for the role they have played in helping homeless people for almost five decades.
Pat has been coming to the centre in Bride Street, south inner city Dublin, for the last six years.
He provided us with a rare insight into life on the streets.
Pat said: “If it wasn’t for Alice Leahy and the staff I wouldn’t be here today.
“Alice is an angel who has helped thousands of lives over the years while her staff are all extraordinary people who bring compassion and kindness to the people they meet.
“When I am on the streets I am invisible – it’s as if I don’t exist. When I am down on all fours it’s the men and women of the Alice Leahy Trust who lift me up.
“But when I come to the centre all the negative thoughts that I have leave me, and my dignity and respect are restored.
“If I was to win the lotto I would give it to them because they are wonderful people doing a fantastic job for the most vulnerable in our society.”
Pat added: “If I had found the trust sooner then I might not be in the position I find myself today.
“When I’m on the streets I can’t wait to get back to the centre because it gives me my confidence back.
“There are times when I haven’t showered for three days and I’m afraid to go into a shop because I’m worried what people will say about me.
“But I am a human being and nobody is meant to be homeless and nor should they be.
“If I was to mark the trust out of ten for the service it provides I would give it twenty.”
Pat also urged the Government to do more to tackle the dire problem of homelessness.
He said: “On the Thursday before Christmas they looked after me again and I was just so overcome with emotion because they treat you as a person – to say they are fantastic is an understatement.
“I can’t believe the centre doesn’t get any Government funding and I will never forget the work the trust does for me and so many others.
“If our politicians are serious about addressing the issue and causes of homelessness they should be speaking to people like Alice, Jeanette and Mark at the centre, because these are the people on the front line.
“These are the people who know what it’s like to deal with this problem.”
At present and because of the Covid-19 pandemic, anyone entering the centre has to have their temperature taken and only four people are allowed in at the one time.
In the reception area of the facility, seats are also placed so that anyone visiting it can relax in a socially distanced manner.
Before the pandemic, the trust had 26 different nationalities calling in every month.
But in recent times and with many people returning to their homeland due to the pandemic, the centre now helps people from 12 different countries each month.
Also during the pandemic, the centre has seen the return of people who previously used it between eight and ten years ago.
In an exclusive interview with the Irish Sun, the trust’s founder told how the homeless situation in Ireland had worsened over the years.
Alice said: “After working in the field of homelessness for almost half a century now, I would have hoped we reached a better outcome than the one so graphically evident on our streets.
“Unfortunately we have not done so and, in spite of the efforts of many and the spending of immeasurable resources, the overall situation has, if anything, worsened.
“We are a non-judgmental, befriending, social and health service for people who are homeless – we are trying to give a voice and a helping hand to the marginalised in our society.
“The philosophy of the Alice Leahy Trust is based on the recognition of every individual’s right to be treated as an autonomous and unique human being.
“I would like to thank the many people who contribute to make our work possible while recognising that in an ideal world there should be no need for our service. We receive tremendous support all year round.”
The tireless campaigner also urged the Government to recognise how “complex” the problem of homelessness is.
Alice added: “No one agency has a monopoly of caring, compassion or expertise and there are no easy answers.
“Not acknowledging the complexities of homelessness will lead to failure for generations to come.
“We must ensure that wider discussions take place with other relevant disciplines to ensure the next generation can be hopefully redirected from life on the streets.
“It is quite clear that working hands-on with people with complex needs takes time, commitment and a belief that anything is possible.
“However, that is much harder than ticking boxes and the comfort of bureaucracy.
“It is necessary if we are ever to make a real difference.”
Former Garda Supt Joe Gannon, who sits on the trust’s board of directors, paid tribute to Alice and her team.
The retired officer said: “Alice Leahy is a remarkable lady and a national treasure.
“Along with her team of dedicated and committed staff, they have provided welfare in various forms of much needed support to thousands of people over the years.”
During her career helping members of the homeless community, Alice also told of her concerns over increased drug use in society.
She said: “People become homeless because of their drug/alcohol problem and the challenging behaviour associated with it.
“We have a very serious drug problem in our city and in our country.
“Wider society needs to be aware of its responsibility and culpability when it comes to the use of recreational drugs.
“People who use recreational drugs must recognise the reality that they are supporting a vicious industry.”
And the campaigner also told of her pain at seeing homeless people dying on our streets, adding: “Tragically, we see people who are homeless dying on our streets.
“We help sometimes and in spite of our best efforts, it is not always possible to save each and every one.
“We must support and comfort, give all we can in terms of compassion.
“The people we meet who present as homeless have a myriad of social problems related to the complexity of their own personal and unique human condition.”
Broadcaster Pat Kenny has high praise for Leahy and her team.
He said: “Alice has become a tireless advocate and agitator for those who literally have no homes to go to.
“She says unpalatable and sometimes un-PC things that rattle the cages of the policy makers and the powerful.”
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