Hope and homelessness | The Irish Times, January 24th, 2020

Sir, – I wrote to The Irish Times in the 1970s with my then-colleagues Dr David Magee and the late social worker John Long: “The buildings in which these men and women are housed belong to another age. Most of the hostels are running to capacity and they have not the staff to meet the needs of the residents other than providing a roof over their heads. There is much need for half-way houses for people trying to stay off alcohol, for psychiatric patients on discharge, and for young people to provide them with direction and support and so keep them from destroying themselves”.

Our letter said much more, especially about vacant houses in the city centre.

What have we learned over the almost 50 years, I wonder. We have had more reports from experts with vast sums of taxpayers’ money spent on same.

Meanwhile there is a huge number of people suffering, together with a growing number of frustrated workers attempting to meet their needs.

The increasing dependency on corporate-speak to highlight or cover up the real pain and potential lost by fellow human beings in a country of great wealth should be a cause for concern and acknowledged.

The following quote by Ernest Hemingway was brought to my notice recently by a friend as we reflected on these issues in the times we are living in: “Hope is never so lost that it can’t be found.” – Yours, etc,



Director of Services,

Alice Leahy Trust,

Dublin 8.


Alice Leahy presents her memoir “The Stars Are Our Only Warmth to President Michael D. Higgins

Alice Leahy presents her memoir “The Stars Are Our Only Warmth to President Michael D. Higgins in Áras an Uachtaráin Monday 1st October 2018.

Alice’s memoir “The Stars Are Our Only Warmth” written with Catherine Cleary and published by O’Brien Press is now available in all good book shops.
All royalties to Alice Leahy Trust.

When a house is not a Home

When challenged to look at what ‘home’ means to us, we usually revert to the homes of our childhood: friends, meals, pets, games, pictures, the presents we got and gave, even the rows we had. Our homes as adults can re-invent the homes of our youth. We can impose our view of home on others. Not everyone’s experience is one of warmth – some people’s memories are of violence, abuse, hunger, pressure, loss of a loved one, no hugs or encouragement. When someone who has been homeless for some time gets a house or a flat, it is not a guarantee of a happy home. It can bring with it other problems: the pressure to become part of a community, to cook, to maintain the space and to pay rent. The fear of not being ‘successful’ at making a home can be a huge burden. The person may not want to ask for help or have anyone that they can ask. They may lack the basic skills that many of us take for granted: cleaning, budgeting, turning on and off the gas, changing fuses. They may leave the front door open, lose keys, leave a tap running or drop a burning cigarette. Their inability to cope can reinforce low self-esteem and make the person feel a failure. Understanding these difficulties, while still having a respect for someone’s right to privacy, could go some way to helping the person to feel more at home in their space.

Taken from TRUST information booklet 2000

Watch your Language

Stigma is one of the greatest problems facing people who are homeless. Because of it, people may feel afraid to talk to someone who they think is homeless or on the street, they may not want to shake hands or swap information about themselves, or they may worry if a person who appears to be homeless talks to them.

When people are afraid of any group, they often employ a set of language to define them. Pejorative words like ‘wino’ and ‘dosser’ are sometimes used to describe people who are homeless in an effort to isolate them and to remove the need to confront the problem of homelessness. They infer that the homeless person is an alcoholic or too lazy to work. These words attempt to sum up a person in one word and ignore the complexities of the human being and the human spirit.

Soft words like ‘client’ or ‘customer’ can distance us from people needing help. They also lull us into a false sense of security that people who are homeless are being cared for to the best of society’s ability.

These words also give the impression that the person who is homeless has the same rights as a consumer. This is not the case. They infer that someone who is homeless has the same power as a customer or client of, say, a bank or a department store.

If they were genuinely treated as a ‘client’ or ‘customer’ they would have a say in the level of service they receive. Yet the person who is homeless, who pays for a hostel bed or avails of a service, has little or no say in how they are treated, or what type of facilities they receive.

The use of nice acceptable language can be even more distancing than the simple meaningful words we have come to consider old-fashioned.

In short, someone who is homeless has little or no power and that is exactly what a ‘client’ or ‘customer’ has. For people who operate in the mainstream, it is possible to exercise the power of choice, to take your money elsewhere or to voice a complaint which will have an effect.

Many people who are homeless are already disempowered because of the problems they have which made them homeless in the first place. In many cases, they may be reticent where authority is concerned and fearful that they will not get a bed in a hostel if they are seen to complain.

The language of consumerism used in assessing funding (like ‘performance indicators’) pressurises services to work only with people likely to be successful – further alienating the homeless person most in need – and service providers can be equally lulled into a sense of achievement.

As a society, we need to be more aware of how we use language, to understand its power and to take into account its effect on people who are vulnerable.

Paddy Gallagher who worked in Trust for 12 years says:

“For a short time I was a homeless person. I emphasise the word ‘person’, for this in many people’s eyes we cease to be, even to some of those who should know better (the ones who daily attend seminars and meetings, discuss case histories etc). They speak only of the homeless. The homeless what? Cat, dog, mouse! Jesus will you look at me, I’m a person’.

Paddy sadly passed away in 2004 and he is fondly remembered by all in TRUST.

Taken from TRUST information booklet 2000