Wasting Time with People : Paper Delivered by Alice Leahy at Ceifin Conference.

9th Annual Céifin Conference Freedom: Licence or Liberty? Engaging in a transforming Ireland

Alice Leahy, Director and Co-Founder Trust

I would like to thank the organisers for inviting me to address the gathering here in this special part of the country on a topic that is so apt at a time when many of us are asking fundamental questions about the world and how Ireland is changing so rapidly and how we can seek to make this a truly inclusive society. Indeed, despite all of the dramatic change we have witnessed it is disturbing how undervalued human contact and genuine caring for others has become. We have got rid of the work houses, the orphanages, and even the psychiatric hospitals, as one senior civil servant said to me recently, leaving only the prison as the last refuge for many of those who are vulnerable and cannot cope and whose difficulties are only criminalised because there is no where else to send them. You will appreciate with that brief introduction why I am very happy to speak about “wasting time with people!”

I grew up under the shadow of Slievenamon in South Tipperary, part of a small family in a close knit community – and everyday we remembered our Aunts and Uncles forced to go abroad to work in the U.K., U.S., Australia and New Zealand – some of whom who also choose the religious life. Memories of cycling miles to see Tipp and Cork play in the Munster Final, my grandfather forecasting the weather from the colours and shadows on Slievenamon, and my grandmother singing “I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls ” as she crocheted. Work, debates, reading, environment awareness projects and others, recycling, drama, picking fruit and veg for Country Markets (of which my mother is the remaining founding member of the first branch in Ireland on Slievenamon) visiting old and sick neighbours, some in the County home, ensured I was a very active citizen and was aware of the value of social capital before the term was coined. My adopted home introduced me to the slums of Dublin especially while working as a midwife in the Rotunda. All of this sowed the seeds of what I do now in a dramatically changed Ireland.

One of the most important things we make for those we see everyday in TRUST is time, time to treat them as human beings. Time to treat people properly is the one thing that is increasingly difficult in the modern Ireland where we are all statistics reduced to a quantitative or monetary value. In a world, which is increasingly governed by performance indicators and benchmarks, based on these quantitative measures is it possible to preserve even the concept of a philosophy of inclusitivity, which means fundamentally treating people as people and as equals?

This means that the focus on people is being lost even as more resources are being deployed because it becomes almost impossible to advocate for a philosophy of inclusitivity and caring when we distance ourselves from people, aided by technology, voicemails, emails etc. and a flawed consultative process – all seemingly designed to keep people at a distance.

But how can we ensure that people are treated as people? This is the most basic human right – the right to be treated as a human being and not a statistic, as the award winning South African Satirist Pieter Dirk-Uys said so eloquently to me when I met him some years back.

Another African voice was quoted not too long ago in an article in the BMJ (British Medical Journal) by Simon Challand, a Medical Adviser working in Uganda, referring to the advice an African Bishop had given him 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.” However, what those so far removed from the frontline in the development and planning of our health, social and homeless services fail to understand is that you cannot really listen to people without taking time to do so. Time is much more productive in the long-term because by listening to people today they will not become isolated, disillusioned and made to feel worthless. Listening to people means we can help them avoid the misery of despair and exclusion in a “democratic” society.

Let me describe our daily work in Trust which was founded in 1975 which grew out of research I carried out in night shelters with a group of doctors working in a voluntary capacity. That work, and the generosity of the late Ann Rush, led to the foundation of TRUST – a private charitable trust and our aims are:

“to serve homeless people in need by promoting human services which would meet their immediate and long-term needs and by these means to encourage their development and give their lives a dignity which is their birthright.” (…from the Deeds of TRUST.)

The service we set up was first of its type, and has been used as a model for services here and overseas. We are sandwiched between St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Christchurch Cathedral in the Liberties area of Dublin. We work in the basement of the Iveagh Hostel and are grateful to the Iveagh Trust who only charge us a nominal rent.

The philosophy of TRUST is based on two central principles:

  • The recognition of every individual’s right to be treated as an autonomous and unique human being.
  • The need to restore the dignity of individuals whom society has labelled deviant and undesirable.

Everyday we meet over 50 men and women who sleep rough and meet with people as they present themselves to us – all outsiders in a city of plenty. 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 the jurisdiction, with increasing numbers from the EU Accession States. Some people we meet we have grown older with, meeting them first in the early 70’s – and of course we meet new people every day. We employ two nurses and provide a medical service, advice and dressings – sometimes it looks like a casualty department as many people we work with will not go to A&E, and if they do go they will not wait. As part of a holistic service we provide bath and shower facilities, a complete set of clothes and information on rights and entitlements. We seek to treat them as people recognising that they need help and have rights, especially their right to privacy, in the way that we approach them so that in coming to TRUST they can feel secure and are hopefully able to trust us. Hospitality is important – we provide tea and coffee as we would welcome visitors to our own home.

The people we meet are perceived by the wider society as being different and difficult. They suffer from the effects of isolation, neglect and health problems, exacerbated by what are often described as chaotic lifestyles. Accessing mainstream services – particularly basic accommodation is a major problem. We meet increasing numbers of people who were ‘re-settled’ in totally unsuitable accommodation, and then find themselves homeless again.
I meet people homeless in Dublin whose heartbeat I listened to while working as a midwife in the Rotunda and consider it a sad reflection on our society that we are now meeting 2nd and 3rd generation homeless.

The people we meet everyday present with a wide range of medical problems including bodies that are ravaged by disease and violence, some with pressure sores from sleeping out in all weathers, sometimes sleeping in urine soaked clothes for weeks; infected and untreated minor skin conditions and major skin problems e.g. leg ulcers and gangrene; as well as lice infected heads and scabies. In addition we often meet people who are suffering from malnutrition and all of the medical conditions common to the general public but exacerbated by their living conditions. We are now coming across conditions long disappeared since the advent of good food e.g. trench foot and impetigo (wild fire) – conditions clearly associated with extreme poverty.

Some people we meet cope with very serious addiction problems, including drugs, alcohol and gambling, suffering from despair and the pain of loneliness, pushed from service to service, often unable to get relief for minds at breaking point and the only solution offered is a brown envelope of medication and often unable to read the directions.

Many people we meet struggle to create a sense of normality after years locked away in institutions and others who have been relocated from one institution to another. And some who are locked in prisons they have created for themselves, often out of the frustration of not being understood or ignored – of course as Bob Dylan once said “we are all prisoners in the mystery of the world”. Many people we know have attempted suicide, and many have died on the streets.

We meet some people who are so cut off from everything around them that they at times appear to be beyond reach. Others however challenge and inspire us everyday to look at the way we all live our lives.

People coming from the E.U. Accession States are not all coping well – not unlike our own people who went to England and America out of necessity and not all of whom were successful. Jaroslav, a Polish man in his 40’s, arrived in Ireland almost 2 years ago. He lived in a hostel for a few months and got a job which he lost later. He never got the money owed to him so he could not pay for a hostel bed. He has poor English. He has an 18 year old son and an 11 year old daughter. He phoned them last on June 1st – Children’s Day in Poland. It costs money to phone. Going home to Poland isn’t an option, there is no work for him there and he likes Ireland. I met Jaroslav on the day of the Dublin Mayo match, he was excited as he set off to watch it in a shop window. When he arrived in on the following Monday I asked him what he thought of the match and he said “you crazy football”, to which I replied “you should see the hurling”!

Sometimes the only hearing the people we meet ever get is when they are being researched – an issue we have grave reservations about because of the quality and quantity of research taking place today as well as the time and money spent on “evaluating outcomes and cost effectiveness” while ultimately making no difference to the lives of those who have been examined in the course of these expensive research exercises.

Some people who are homeless, poor, or just different feel pressurised to take part in research into homelessness in case they lose their hostel bed or their entitlements. We only become involved in research, when we believe the research design is sound, ethical and likely to provide useful information and would be concerned about the sharing and storage of confidential information without due regard to the rights of our fellow human beings.

“Tracking People” has become a much abused word and is currently seen as best practice. Tracking people through the system smacks of Big Brother as more and more vulnerable people are forced to trade personal information to get a very basic service.

The most recent “common assessment tool” based on one designed outside our jurisdiction will be “rolled out” shortly – a huge intrusive document where data will be computer stored and I guess shared – this is of great concern to me and my colleagues.

This is of course fundamentally about human rights in the sense of respecting people as people and refusing to see them as mere statistics to be measured and researched like inanimate objects.

Of course research is essential to plan services. “If we are to push for fundamental change in the whole area of homelessness, then a certain amount of constructive research is necessary. We feel strongly however that it must be pursued with the greatest caution. It is clear to us that the ‘research industry’ uses that section of our society, which is the most vulnerable and the least able to battle for its rights as its’ source of material. We must never forget that we are working with human beings, who for the most part have been battered by our society and who for so long have been pushed about as just another number in a cold inhuman bureaucracy”.

This last quote is from Leahy and Magee – Report on Broad Medical Services for Single Homeless People in the City of Dublin – March 7th 1976 – 30 years later, in a new millennium -what has changed?

Our frontline service providing care to the most disadvantaged people in Dublin over a long period has given us some unique insights into the way in which the services, voluntary and statutory, operate in Ireland and beyond and of course we all view the world from where we stand.

“To be without a home is to be suspect. The homeless are easy targets. Their bodily integrity is constantly at risk. Their lives are an offence against the sacred canons of private property and consumerism. Their privacy is regularly intruded on as part of the price of being statistics in the poverty industry; their painful experiences are reduced to sociological research data. The true test of a civilised community is how people at the margins are treated. Not only must individual liberties be defended, but society should be educated and sensitised towards a broader vision of life and living.” – Dan Sullivan, then President of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, describing what it means to be homeless in Ireland in a piece I asked him to write in 1995.

That compelling piece is as valid today in a new Century. The unchanging nature of life for the outsider in Irish society also inspired us to launch Building Trust in the Community, an initiative to build on the work we have sought to do in recent years to change attitudes and encourage more people to become advocates for the outsider.

Until those in positions of power and influence are prepared to sit with people in their misery and poverty, feel their pain, smell the smell of human misery and waste, feel the trembling body and listen to the cries of frustration and at times hear challenging ideas or words of wisdom, rather than looking at statistics in neat boxes with grandiose titles nothing will change. They should not allow jargon to take over and should be prepared to question rather than using reports to further distance themselves from people, or just support entrenched ideas they may already have. If they cannot or will not do that a growing number will continue to suffer pain, often the pain of not being listened to and those of us meeting with them are left with the feeling we are only adding to their misery through our silence. Indeed many people including those in Church, State and Community groups who work hard in building and fostering community involvement are also beginning to feel disenfranchised by an increasingly insensitive bureaucracy and meaningless jargon.

In July this year a bulletin sent to the staff of the HSE by email from “internal comms” included a job description for the newly created position of Head of Process and Operations which states that this will “involve executive leadership of cross-pillar operational and process change, sponsorship of process developing projects and the cascading of process excellence throughout the HSE”. This was later referred to in the letters page of the Irish Times 24/07/06. I shall repeat this and just ask you do you know what this means? Can such an appointee, if such a person exists, understand what I am saying or more importantly even understand those charged with the responsibility of dealing “hands on” with people.

A gap is developing between the bureaucrats and those in front line care that is becoming wider, and those who suffer most through the refusal or inability of those running the services to listen and “waste time with people”, are the most vulnerable – the very people the services were set up to help such as Joe.

Joe – known to us for 20 years from rural Ireland was born a few months after the Easter Rising, living to a great age of ninety this month. He worked all his life, paid his way in a workman’s hostel in Dublin after years in the U.K. He remained single, he walked miles until quite recently until “the pains” curtailed his independence.

He never longed to go back to the mid western area he came from as he preferred city life. He liked to visit the local pub, have a chat, watch the races, (the smoking ban put a limit to his perhaps only social encounters outside the hostel where he lived.) He dressed well, keeping his only suit hanging in the wardrobe and his shoes polished. He wanted to live his life independently for as long as he could. As the twinkle in his eye dulled and the pains altered his gait, making him almost completely bent over and ultimately led him to decide to move to a nursing home some months ago. He had promised me he would let us know when he felt he should and we promised to help him. I shudder to think how he would have coped with the process of negotiating with a cold, insensitive and often very incompetent bureaucracy as this case will illustrate.

A bed was available in the home where some former residents of the hostel he called home had settled. We knew it as a warm, caring environment where the matron and a voluntary committee ensured the best quality care was provided in a friendly setting. He visited the place, was assessed by the medical personnel and was accepted. To enable his transfer some procedures were required, including subvention. This process can be fast-tracked – we were assured as his health continued to fail and our concerns increased.

Geraldine McAuliffe, Deputy Director of TRUST, my colleague, worked constantly for three weeks without success to secure nursing home subvention, and described the experience as soul destroying and unbelievable in terms of the heartless attitude of the staff in the bureaucracy of the health services charged with helping to facilitate access to care. The endless calls that went unanswered and the messages that were not passed on, serve to underline just how bad things have become and why those who have no one to speak up for them have absolutely no hope!

A nursing home bed for the man was secured but the nursing home could not let him have it until the subvention was sanctioned by the HSE.

Following several phone calls to the relevant staff and being left holding, listening to an interminable jingle for long periods during those phone calls, Geraldine eventually secured a commitment. However, it was subject to the condition that the man was examined and confirmed as suitable by a Geriatrician – which would have taken months as there is a long waiting list to obtain such an examination.

This required many more calls until the HSE conceded that he could be examined by a Public Health Nurse. However, when the local PHN was contacted she insisted he had to be examined by the Public Health Nurse attached to his GP’s practice. The PHN in the practice agreed to do it on the last day before she went on holidays if the forms could be faxed to her and asked if he qualified for subvention. After hours on the phone Geraldine secured a commitment that the forms would be urgently faxed to the practise. When she checked, assuming everything had gone according to plan, she discovered that the fax arrived four days late!

In the meantime, because of the delay in securing the subvention the bed in the nursing home had to be given to some one else. This means that Joe has spent the last six weeks in an acute hospital bed. Therefore, when you hear about bed shortages in our hospitals in many instances it is due to an excessive zeal on the part of those running the services in seeking to ensure the regulations are enforced to the letter, regardless of the human cost which is unquantifiable. However, you will also hopefully appreciate that if there was more human concern for the plight of this vulnerable elderly man the HSE would have freed up an acute bed and allowed him to find some sense of home in the nursing home where many of his friends from the hostel are also cared for. It is clear that the training of personnel requires much more than just filling in forms.

Freedom, liberty and indeed choice should be basic rights in a wealthy transforming Ireland! However, as Joe’s experience illustrates things are getting worse rather than better for the most vulnerable in some situations.

Tom who looks seventy but is only in his mid fifties lives in Dublin 4. One day a week, before 8.00am he makes his way to Trust, along Patrick Kavanagh’s well worn path along Baggot Street, Stephen’s Green, and Grafton Street. He carries a large ESB golf umbrella which he got in Trust and carries all of his earthly possessions in a small plastic bag. He likes this time of year, the dark evenings mean he can go to bed early – his home is under the bushes in a park.

Recently a Welfare Officer, decided that his money, a meagre €165.00 a week (try living on it) should be stopped because he refused to move into a hostel. His medical card had run out and his doctor hadn’t signed a disability form even though he was not disabled! The Welfare Officer told me it was a ministerial order and that was that! Is this about playing about with numbers.

This highlights in quite compelling terms why people with no voice rely so much on anyone they can find to intercede on their behalf with the bureaucracy. From TD.s and Senators and local public representatives to local groups in the community all of whom should not of course have to play a role in softening the impact of an apparently heartless system, often more interested in enforcing the letter of the law instead of seeking to make certain that the rights of the citizen to a service is made easy to obtain. In that regard anyone who listens even occasionally to the Joe Duffy Show will understand what I am talking about and the vital importance the media also plays in informing people of their rights and protecting them.

Legislation too can impact on the lives of people who should be able to relax in the autumn of their lives. How many for example are aware that VAT is charged on care in the community. Many do not have the freedom to live out their days in their own homes. Indeed many live in fear in their own homes because of crime, breakdown of neighbourhood values and the closure of rural Garda stations. Some facilities for people are not available countrywide, like access to free travel and free chiropody for the elderly, to mention just two – both of which would help people to enjoy freedom of movement and access to social activities. Many older people experience real poverty because they feel they must save money for their funeral rather than enjoy a little luxury. The impact of the closure of some rural post offices, rather like the closure of small hospitals in Dublin has never been properly assessed. How often services put in place can further isolate and label people rather than enhancing the enormous value of socialisation.

We must be acutely aware of the social determinants of health and be prepared to discuss them and stop intimidating those who speak out and forcing them to remain silent and conform. Mary Robinson, former President of our country, said in 2001 “Each time you speak out with a critical voice you pay a price”. On the other hand, if we are honest, we don’t encourage people to speak out as the lack of proper whistle blower legislation especially in the health and social services clearly shows. Last week I listened to Mary – a wonderful ambassador of our country who exudes passion for Human Rights and encourages all to speak out fearlessly.

Caring for people as citizens does require us to speak out if we feel people are being denied care and liberty. If anyone is not being treated with dignity or worse still being excluded from society or our world we have a big responsibility to be their voice. We also need to care for each other and defend those who speak out or nothing will change. Care to my mind is about concern, about defending a person’s most basic right and we should be careful when using words like “caring community” unless we respect everyone’s rights as the mark of a truly caring society is one that respects everyone in equal measure.

I reflect often on the words of Pastor Martin Niemoellen in 1945 – “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and Trade Unionists. I was neither so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out and when they came for me there was no one left to speak for me”.

A Christmas morning a few years ago I happened to catch Eurovision Mass from Circus Pinter Top in Paris. Apart from the charm and artistry of Parisians I was struck by a few quotes from the Pastor: “Encounters with people move us” and I am sure our isolation in offices at times does something to us too and he further said “It is the blind application of the law which makes us inhuman”. I suggest much of what is presented we accept blindly and perhaps knowing the cost of speaking out we remain silent and of course that silence helps to build the walls that make outsiders of the most vulnerable and also those brave enough to speak out.

Why? As a society we profess we are committed to human rights and guaranteeing everyone’s rights is supposed to be important. However, as I can see everyday with the people I work for their rights are not respected and on a day to day basis, as I have already described, they are humiliated and must endure the almost casual denial of their human rights as I hope you will have appreciated from the cases I have quoted today. However, we do not describe the poor treatment of the voiceless and the most vulnerable in our society as human rights abuses. Of course we use words and phrases like denying their human dignity and rarely even mention their rights. Somehow their disgraceful treatment is not serious enough to be considered as a denial of their human rights.

However, Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. From what I have described today I hope you will appreciate that many of the people I meet everyday are victims of human rights abuses though many would not dream of even suggesting such is even possible in Ireland so blinded have they become by the propaganda and PR spinning emanating from the insensitive bureaucracy with such awesome power over their lives. However, by looking at the conditions and the way in which those who are marginalised in our society — from those who are homeless on the street to elderly people unable to care for themselves — and by asking are their human rights being protected and respected we can bring about radical change.

For thirty years TRUST has been involved in advocacy work – trying to be a voice for the voiceless – as well as providing health and social services. Today through the development of human rights based approaches – which can be developed into a potential management philosophy in the health, social and homeless services – we have the potential to transform the way the most vulnerable are treated. However, it is vital that everyone becomes involved and it is not seen as a legalistic formula of how to deal with people but as the right way to treat people and each other. The example I used of the official stopping a vulnerable homeless man’s disability cheque without any sense of his rights in that situation is a classic example of how and why human rights education must be extended to all officials in the services and it should not just be seen as an exclusively legal or academic exercise.

If we want a caring and respectful bureaucracy managing our health, social and homeless services that places respect for the dignity of every individual at the very centre of its operations we now know how to achieve that in a manageable and measurable way by adopting human rights based management approaches.

Some years ago I met in the RCSI Phil Barker, former Professor of Psychiatric Nursing, who runs workshops on the premise that “Knowledge can only be gained through experience”. I once wrote to him for permission to use a quote and he replied: “Alice, people don’t remember what you say or what you do. They will remember how you made them feel” – this excellent advice comes to mind daily.

Oscar Wilde also said something that is probably more true of today’s Ireland as our values have become much more materialistic:
“we know the price of everything and the value of nothing”.

Only by “wasting time with people” will society ensure there are no outsiders and that all can participate fully in the transformation of what is increasingly seen by many as a State loosing its way.

Time is a priceless product and in our rush to develop services or copy other nations we find it increasingly difficult to accept this fact, because of this inability we miss out on the values that make for good citizenship and inclusitivity. In our rush to be seen as a great nation are we forgetting we are an Island race with a long chequered history and a treasured culture and huge talent. We should now have the confidence to reflect on some of the wisdom from the past from rural and urban communities – not confining the debate to academic circles and visiting experts – we should not be afraid to pose awkward questions. I share the views expressed by John Boorman, the acclaimed 73 year old film director whose film “The Tigers Tail” released this week was interesting – “the dynamics and prosperity are invigorating” though he was rightly concerned about the “social and emotional consequences”.

Everyone in their own way needs to consider where they stand and what kind of community they want. The power to change things is in our hands.

RTE’s Pat Kenny launches book With Trust in Place – Writing from the Outside

“In this book we show that people who are different enrich us all, with some of them becoming incredibly successful. In other words, as a society, when we value the outsider we all benefit.”
Alice Leahy

PAT KENNY LAUNCHES ‘WITH TRUST IN PLACE – Writing from the outside’ Edited & Compiled by ALICE LEAHY.

RTE’s PAT KENNY launched With Trust in Place: Writing from the Outside, at a special function in Dublin’s City Hall attended by over four hundred guests including Dublin City Manager John Fitzgerald and most of the contributors to the book – as well as a wide cross section of people representing all strands of Irish life on Tuesday, 14th October 2003. Dublin City Council made the venue available free of charge and a friend of TRUST sponsored the reception.

With Trust in Place: Writing from the Outside a unique and compelling collection of writing on the theme of ‘the outsider’, edited by Trust Director and Co-founder, Alice Leahy, published by Townhouse and including contributions by Maeve Binchy, Christy Moore, Con Houlihan, Gene Kerrigan, Justice Michael Moriarty, Anita Reeves and many more was launched by Pat Kenny in Dublin’s City Hall this evening (Tuesday, Oct. 14th 2003).

Alice Leahy has brought together a remarkable and hugely diverse range of contributions, from a number of well-known and not so well known figures in Irish society, including one man, a poet, who is homeless. Alice and her colleagues at Trust work hands on in the front line, providing human contact and health care to those who have become homeless, the most marginalised in Irish society. Alice considers that hands on approach to be Trust’s greatest strength, believing that “it gives us the motivation to continue to challenge the bureaucracy that is stifling the initiative of others in front line care who try the put people first.”

As Alice says, “My work over the years on the margins of Irish society would not have been possible without the support of people in many walks of life. This is highlighted by the diversity of people who generously gave of their time to produce some thought provoking and in some cases provocative pieces for this book – a book we hope may help us to be a little more understanding of those who are different.”

Contributors include: Maeve Binchy, Christy Moore, Con Houlihan, Justice Michael Moriarty, Anita Reeves, Gene Kerrigan, Gerard Byrne (perhaps best known as Malachy from Fair City), Bishop Willie Walsh, Prof. David MacConnell, Rev. Gordon Linney, Seamus Dooley, Nora Owen, Senator Mary O’Rourke and Padraig O’Morain.

Alice Leahy is a nurse, writer, commentator and broadcaster, who has consistently pursued the theme of the outsider to help create greater understanding of the need to recognise, understand and celebrate those who are different. With Trust in Place: Writing from the Outside is her second book. Her first, Not Just a Bed for the Night, co-written with Anne Dempsey, was published in 1995.

With Trust in Place: Writing from the Outside is now on sale at €12-99 in all book shops and royalties from the sale of the book go to TRUST.

With Trust in Place – Writing from the Outside

New book on the outsider Edited and Compiled by ALICE LEAHY to be published in October.

“In this book we show that people who are different enrich us all, with some of them becoming incredibly successful. In other words, as a society, when we value the outsider we all benefit.”
Alice Leahy

With Trust in Place: Writing from the Outside is a unique and compelling collection of writing on the theme of ‘the outsider’, edited by Trust Director and Co-founder, Alice Leahy and including contributions by Maeve Binchy, Christy Moore, Con Houlihan, Gene Kerrigan, Justice Michael Moriarty, Anita Reeves and many more…

Alice Leahy has brought together a remarkable and hugely diverse range of contributions, from a number of well-known and not so well known figures in Irish society, including one man, a poet, who is homeless. Alice and her colleagues at Trust work hands on in the front line, providing human contact and health care to those who have become homeless, the most marginalised in Irish society. Alice considers that hands on approach to be Trust’s greatest strength, believing that “it gives us the motivation to continue to challenge the bureaucracy that is stifling the initiative of others in front line care who try the put people first.”

As Alice says, “My work over the years on the margins of Irish society would not have been possible without the support of people in many walks of life. This is highlighted by the diversity of people who generously gave of their time to produce some thought provoking and in some cases provocative pieces for this book – a book we hope may help us to be a little more understanding of those who are different.”

Contributors include: Maeve Binchy, Christy Moore, Con Houlihan, Justice Michael Moriarty, Anita Reeves, Gene Kerrigan, Gerard Byrne (perhaps best known as Malachy from Fair City), Bishop Willie Walsh, Prof. David MacConnell, Archdeacon Gordon Linney, Seamus Dooley, Nora Owen, Senator Mary O’Rourke and Padraig O’Morain.

Alice Leahy is a nurse, writer, commentator and broadcaster, who has consistently pursued the theme of the outsider to help create greater understanding of the need to recognise, understand and celebrate those who are different. With Trust in Place: Writing from the Outside is her second book. Her first, Not Just a Bed for the Night, co-written with Anne Dempsey, was published in 1995.

With Trust in Place: Writing from the Outside
Published by TownHouse Dublin | 1-86059-189-2 | €12.99 | 14 October 2003

Irish Soul in Dialogue: Interview with Alice Leahy

by Stephen J. Costello

Alice Leahy is a nurse and co-founder of Trust, which was set up in 1975 to provide medical and related services for homeless people. Up to thirty men and women call each day on Alice Leahy and her team in the Iveagh Hostel in Dublin’s Liberties. They range in years from 18 to 80. I learned so much from my chat with Alice Leahy about homelessness — for example, I was told, to my surprise, that there are no free hostels in Dublin. The philosophy of Trust is based on two principles: the recognition of every person’s autonomy and the respect owed to them as unique human beings; and the need to restore the dignity of people whom society has labelled deficient, deviant or undesirable. The success of Trust in supplying not only much-needed services but a hearing ear and helping hand is due, in large measure, to this exceptional and quietly determined lady who works silently with those who are suffering and sidelined by mainstream society.

SJC: You are the Director of Trust, which is a non-political and non-denominational voluntary body that provides medical and social services for homeless people. How did you become involved with Trust? Was it connected to your work as a nurse?

AL: Yes and no. When I came to Dublin to train as a nurse, you had very little time off. I felt that, in the time off I had, I wanted to get to know the city and, particularly when I worked as a midwife in the Rotunda, I came across families living in extreme poverty who were, nonetheless, contented or, at least, appeared to be contented human beings. I then did voluntary work with Voluntary Services International in the city and a group of us were involved in visiting the elderly and mothers and children and setting up a youth group in Benburb Street. I worked as a night sister and I was invited to go to London to set up an intensive care unit (the first of its kind), but I felt I didn’t have the time to do the voluntary work I was doing; and while I see the importance and the role of technology in medicine, I also missed the hands-on work, which I think is vital.

I decided to give up being a nursing sister and went to work in Simon. I remember the consultant setting up an appointment for me to see a psychiatrist — and he really meant it, because I had given up a good job! I got to know the founder of Simon, who was a wonderful man. Simon was in existence a few years then but the building was appalling, though there was a tremendous sense of community. I worked there for a number of months and it was very tough. After it, I felt you either never wanted to see a homeless person again or you wanted to do something about it, so I went to England to do some private nursing to make some money, because I had no money and when I was there (and I now look back in hindsight and see a pattern). A number of things happened. One night, a woman who was very battered and bruised and physically unattractive, was ill, and there was a young attractive doctor there in the hospital we brought her to, I think one of the most attractive men I had ever seen in my life. He was beautiful, and he threw his arms around her because he knew her. When I came back to Dublin, he wrote to me and said that, if I were interested in pursuing this, he would be very interested in becoming involved with me. At this time, I had applied for a job in India and the letter went astray — I wasn’t meant to be there.

A doctor and I visited the Simon shelter once a week and a job came up in the national Simon office. I applied for it, as Assistant National Director, and I used that time to do a report on the medical problems of homeless people. That was in 1974. The questionnaires went to all the hostels and ideas came back from GPs, voluntary bodies and from people who were homeless themselves. But the main part of our work was visiting the Simon shelter once a week with a doctor and a nurse team. There were people with appalling medical problems, people who had experienced terrible violence; but there was a great sense of hope amid all the hopelessness. There were a lot of professional people who wanted to help as well, but they felt they couldn’t cope with the chaos and yet their skills were needed. So I wrote this report and presented it to the Health Board and they employed me as a nurse. I don’t agree with wanting to change people unless they want to change. That’s up to them.

David Magee was a psychotherapist who, as a medical student, had worked in Simon, and he started to work with me in a voluntary capacity. We had no base and at that time, a young woman, Anne Rush, discovered that she was dying of cancer. She did a soup run for Simon and one of the people she befriended was Kitty, who was well known on the streets of Dublin. She was a very happy woman who walked around the streets of Dublin with loads of plastic bags and used to go in to all the different hospitals where she was known. She did her washing in the toilets and we were all told that those bags belonged to that woman who comes in at night. She would stay in the hallway of one of the hospitals. That was her way of living. She would pass my flat and look in to make sure I was there and all right. So Anne was dying of cancer and she decided that some money was to go to helping people who were homeless. So a group of us got together, from the Vincent de Paul Society, etc., and there was a wonderful solicitor, Eoin Mulholland. We used the facilities in the old Vincent de Paul headquarters and we met there one night a week. We drew up a business plan; we decided to set up a private charitable trust and that together we would provide a service for people who couldn’t avail of services. The Health Board gave us the use of the old health centre in Lord Edward Street. It was an appalling building, but was very well known to the people of Dublin and it was a place where the poor went to get free milk and money. Our deeds of trust were drawn up and it was set up as a small-scale medical and social service for people who were homeless.

What to call the agency was a dilemma; Anne herself came up with the name “Trust”. I think that’s no accident, because if we don’t trust ourselves and others, we are going no place in our world. We worked very hard, going around town on bicycles, visiting people who were sleeping rough, and we linked in with all sorts of services. Fred Donohoe, who worked in the Health Board at the time, was very open to accommodating us. We were involving people in their own health care. We didn’t see health care as being only about medicine. Professor James McCormick was our Chairman. We decided we would never keep personal records of people’s lives, believing that people’s privacy is their privacy. We have no right to be extracting information from them. Some people had lives they didn’t want to talk about. They wanted to forget about them. Then, after a year, David said he was going off to do psychiatry, so we advertised and employed a doctor for a number of years. We also felt that we needed better premises — we needed showers, for instance. We then got the basement of the Iveagh Hostel and we have been there since 1980.

We strongly feel that homeless people shouldn’t be discriminated against, that they should be using the normal services, and that frees us up to work with the more difficult people. So we decided we wouldn’t employ a doctor any more. We employed a man who had been in prison for many years. He was wonderful, and great with people who were struggling with their lives. He could also relate to people who were homeless. I remember a young fella coming in one day with the keys of a BMW — he had been robbing cars all over the place — and Paddy said to him: “Come on, cop yourself one, prison is no joy. Do you realise that this isn’t going to do you any good?” It worked and he did listen to him because he felt this man knew — he was there.

Now, to where we are now. Over the years, a lot more money has become available and our health services have a lot more personnel. When we started, nobody was going around hostels; in fact it was very hard to gain access, but now you have outreach and re-settlement workers, and so on. Our work got busier, so we cut back and expanded into other areas, to concentrate on our own centre. Paddy retired because of ill health and so we wanted to get somebody who could treat people just as other human beings — we got Patrick. Also at this time our trustees felt that we should be putting our experience to good use and there was a need to get a little involved in education. We looked for another nurse to work with me. We now describe ourselves as a befriending social and health service. We would see befriending people who come in as being much more important than putting on the bandages, because if we get to know people, over time, they will tell you their problems and if there’s something you can do to help them. That’s very much how we work now. Our day-to-day work hasn’t changed. Our philosophy hasn’t changed, except that we are doing other things as well. We would constantly be frustrated at the way many services are going and our society is going. There is no place for a different voice. The little people are being pushed aside and silenced. Also, if you work with people who are outsiders, you are likely to be seen as an outsider yourself. I think there is a great poverty of vision out there.

SJC: A poverty of the imagination.

AL: A poverty of the imagination, and there’s no sense of how we are all in there together. People are working so hard and compiling statistics and sorting things out and not stopping to ask where we all are in the scheme of things.

SJC: I always think that these endless scores of statistics and sociological research don’t translate into practical solutions.

AL: This is very frightening in our area of work. I could spend the whole day in meetings, but I’m not going to meetings unless we’re discussing people.

SJC: If people are homeless, one would think that the provision of housing would be the simple solution but, in reality, the solution is more subtle and complex, as many people who are homeless have rejected the community and the conventional values of society and have spent some time in prison or mental hospitals. What brings them to the brink? Why do people become homeless?

AL: I suppose there are no easy answers to that. I think it’s all too simple to say that it’s a housing problem. If it’s a housing problem, why wasn’t it solved long ago? I think there’s a terrible emptiness in people’s lives. I mean, who would want to be locked away in four walls and going to a local community meeting and nothing happening. There’s something cruel about locking people away and that’s what happening at the minute. There is a major housing problem and people can’t afford mortgages, but that’s very different from what we’re saying. A lot of people end up in prison who shouldn’t end up in prison and people end up in psychiatric hospitals who shouldn’t be in psychiatric hospitals. I think there’s a tremendous danger that we’re medicalising and criminalising poverty. Thirty years ago, there would be groups of us huddled in a corner and discussing what Laing said or what Ivor Browne or Noel Browne were saying and doing. There was real debate going on. But now there are people with no training or experience deciding whether someone is mentally ill. Recently, this happened at a meeting when we were discussing a woman who has great difficulty getting her money and surviving. She’s had a terrible life. But she won’t queue to get her money and somebody said she must be mentally ill. That’s frightening and frightening things are happening out there which no one is questioning or challenging. In a way, it’s the subtle use of terminology and power and medicine.

SJC: The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan describes psychiatrists’ discourse as being the discourse of the master.

AL: That’s right, and we all listen and you can’t challenge them. One way of rubbishing people, especially women, is to say they’re too emotional. I would say that if more professionals were more emotional, we would have far better services. We are fooling ourselves. If you go to a doctor, he’s no good unless he gives you a pill. I don’t agree with that at all. This is what’s happening to a lot of people who are poor and going around like zombies on massive dosages of medication. People in the professions will privately agree with you but none of them will rock the boat because they feel they won’t get promotion. The time has come when they need to ask themselves why they’re in those jobs. We forget that people who are poor or whatever keep a lot of people in jobs.

SJC: And Ivor Browne told me that many psychiatrists kow-tow to big pharmacological companies because of the huge profits involved.

AL: That’s right.

SJC: Would you say that in some cases they unconsciously want to remain homeless, for whatever reasons, that even as they sit on the street corner exposed to the elements and to other people’s contempt, loathing and aggression, they experience, nonetheless, some jouissance (i.e. pleasure in pain), that there’s something in it for them?

AL: I suppose I would like to say that we never know what’s going on in another person’s head. We’re lucky if we know what’s going on in our own heads! We all get recognition some way and maybe the only way somebody can get recognition is by being out there.

SJC: It’s almost a protest against society or the “symbolic order”, as Lacan would put it.

AL: That’s right. We would meet people who will not claim social welfare, even when they’re entitled to it. There would be that sense that “I am going to go out there and shame the state”. Another thing that comes in is the whole notion of sin, guilt. People would feel that they have to suffer to get to the next life. We meet people who feel a lot of guilt that hasn’t been explored so they don’t know what they’re guilty of. It’s all about the human condition and what we see out there is the extreme of that condition that challenges something in us. That’s why a lot of people are so afraid to get involved with people who are so broken, because when you do you have to look inside yourself.

SJC: We hear talk of the housing crisis but what is the solution to the homeless crisis?

AL: I think there are some things for which there are no solutions and very often the solution is one we’re trying to impose. Sometimes those people are happier than us, that’s their way of coping with the world, and it’s very hard to understand that in this day and age. I think the housing crisis should be solved. There are massive tracts of land all over the city and country and there is no reason why there shouldn’t be a massive public housing programme with all the money we have. We have no free shelters in Dublin. I think people think that homeless people get everything for nothing. In fact, some homeless people won’t take a penny for anything. And sometimes people think that all homeless people are beggars. Sometimes the biggest beggars may be the agencies collecting on their behalf.

SJC: Like the government holding out the begging bowl to Europe.

AL: Yes. I have problems with the whole European thing because I think it’s impacting on our services here; it’s all about performance indicators and endless reports.

SJC: That’s the culture now.

AL: Yes. We do a report every month for our trustees but what’s in our report is
x number of new people sleeping out, the number of people we met, people like yourself, the numbers with showers. The reason we do that is because it costs something for someone to have something as basic as a shower. You can’t put a cost on community care, though. Homelessness is a term we can use to . . . what is a home anyway?

SJC: Freud uses a term, “unheimlich” (unhomely or uncanny) to describe a sate of being in which we feel that we are alienated from ourselves, that we are not at home in ourselves or our world.

AL: We’re not.

SJC: The home is the mother’s breast and we’re trying to get back to that.

AL: That’s right.

SJC: So psychologically, we are all homeless. It’s a psychical state.

AL: I would agree with that interesting insight. And I really value this discussion we’re having now, which just would not take place in the area of work I am currently involved in. It’s important to spend time to reflect on the issues you’re raising. There is a space for this type of question. Part of what our essay competition is about is to encourage this type of questioning, questions I try to raise myself.

SJC: The name “Trust” is interesting. Francis Fukuyama wrote a book entitled Trust, in which he argued that trust is the central and cardinal ethical virtue.

AL: Well, I think it is too.

SJC: The philosophy of Trust centres not just on important medical, nursing and social services, but also upon the restoration of worth and dignity to those the world would seem to despise or disown. How do you do this?

AL: Everyone is important and nursing helps in a way in that, very often, people are put off by dirt. To be a part of the culture we are living in is to be beautiful and squeaky clean, but we don’t realise that others are battered and bruised. What strikes me sometimes is that when someone comes into us and looks in the mirror and smiles, that’s so important — someone smiling who normally never smiles. I would see nursing as touching and helping people and healing their wounds. There isn’t a value put on this work anymore. We place a value on success and that influences how we see people. But we don’t see the wounds, we see the person behind them. People are afraid of difference and we see all types of people in our work, but there’s always a gentleness in them, which maybe we don’t allow them to have. But part of treating people as equals is to say: “Look, this behaviour isn’t acceptable.” It’s not preaching. It’s not saying: “You have been hard done by.” We say to them that people might be frightened of your behaviour. We have no fancy courses on anger management.

SJC: You work at the coal face and every morning from 7.30 in the basement of the Iveagh Hostel in the Liberties, you see up to 30 men and women between the ages of 18 and 80 who are sleeping rough on our city streets or who need various kinds of attention. You wash and comb and clothe them and dress their wounds. How do you cope with such difficult and demanding work?

AL: And getting to know them. How do I cope? We make sure that we have time for each other. We have a number of rules for ourselves, like if you make a mistake, just say it and that’s the end of it. We don’t play one off against the other. If someone is hassled, we discuss it and that’s the end of it. So we don’t hold any grudges. We are very open with each other. We also work very well together. We all muck in and do what has to be done. It’s also important to have time off. We try to have a day, once a month, when we’re all out of the place together, a day away. And once every two months, Gerry and I always make sure we have lunch out. We support each other. What keeps us going is realising, not that you can change the world, but that you can make life a bit better. If people want to change, they’ll change themselves. We would be very clear that we wouldn’t get involved in projects and going to useless meetings just for the sake of it, trying to please the powers that be. We would be very focused on what we’re doing and seeing the value in it and you see the value in it by looking at the people coming in. They’re the main source of encouragement.

SJC: As you speak, the image that comes into my mind is the image of Christ battered and bruised and Scripture says that he was an object to despise, an object of scorn from which men looked away. It’s a failure of vision. Iris Murdoch’s whole moral philosophy centres on this. She says that we don’t really see people as they are. We see from our personal perspective. It’s a projection.

AL: Exactly, we do. When it comes to people who are very noticeably different, people just can’t cope.

SJC: Many homeless people come from psychiatric hospitals, from drug and alcohol treatment programmes, from orphanages or the army, from industrial schools or borstals, from hostels or jails. Many end up in crime or drugs or prostitution. Have you any statistics on this?

AL: No, and we resist the pressure to compile statistics. There’s a wonderful saying: it’s like a drunken man leaning against a lamppost — it’s for support rather than illumination! Our services are judged in terms of statistics. If you had a hundred people passing through your door and out the other door, with no eye contact even, that would be seen as a successful service, but if you had a service where ten people came in and spent time and then left feeling happier, that would not be a successful service — but that’s how we measure success. They’re necessary to get money but that raises another issue, because some agencies can’t say no to money. Does more and more money mean that services are any better? I don’t think so.

SJC: Yes, it’s like watching tennis on television. During the Wimbledon season, endless streams of statistics come up on the TV screen about the match and it’s a distraction to actually enjoying the game.

AL: That’s right. It becomes boring.

SJC: We talked earlier about 18-year-olds coming to you; but what if they’re younger, 12 or 13 or 14?

AL: We would strongly feel that if young people came to us, we would link them in to the statutory services. There should be more community care services, especially for children who are at risk. We would see a number of women and men who are in prostitution, but we don’t dwell on that. We see the total person. They are primarily human beings. Labels are convenient. They are convenient because you can refer someone on. It’s an easy way of dismissing people.

SJC: It’s like psychiatric labels, which is just part of the master’s discourse.

AL: It’s like the word “client”. The other day, someone said to me: “We have a client here.” And I said: “A man or a woman?”

SJC: A lot of people may not know (I certainly didn’t) that there are no free hostels in Dublin, that a hostel bed can cost from a few pounds a night to £50 a week. How do they get that money if they can’t avail of social welfare, as they are what’s referred to as having “no fixed abode”?

AL: We’re lucky to the degree that people can still get money here if they have no fixed abode, generally. The general public thinks that there are masses of free shelters in Dublin. There are no free hostels. Some people book in a week in advance and it’s a bit cheaper, but if you like to have a drink or gamble or a smoke, you are going to have very little money left over. The hostels need money to survive but I think it’s very important for the general public to know that there are no free shelters. People can end up on the streets for any reason. The general public thinks that these people are scroungers. They’re not scroungers. Many of the people we meet would have worked very hard in poorly paid jobs. In order to avail of grants, there is pressure to take on more successful cases. Because of this, many agencies have lost the freedom to speak out on behalf of those who are most needy, and that’s dangerous.

SJC: Is there any difference between homeless people and beggars? We briefly touched on this topic earlier.

AL: I don’t like the term “beggar”. People who are begging are people. There are people who are homeless who do not beg and there are some people who beg who are not homeless. That’s discriminating against people who are genuinely homeless. How do you define a beggar? Is it Bertie, going over with his begging bowl to Europe? Is it some of the powerful lobby groups? We can use the term in whatever way suits us. And agencies that make appeals at Christmas time: who’s the beggar and who’s not?

SJC: Should we give money to people who beg on the streets or not?

AL: I think it’s very arrogant for someone in power to say, “Don’t give money because they have money themselves.” It takes a lot of courage to get out there and beg. I would say to people to find out what services are available. Very often, giving money means that you can avoid eye contact. Sometimes it’s an easy way out. It’s harder to stop and speak to the person, because you have to exercise your brain. I heard someone say that we should give the money, not to the person, but the agency. But what guarantee is there that if you give the money to the agency that the person will be helped? There’s no real debate on these issues.

SJC: I remember a priest in a pulpit saying: “Don’t give money to the beggars in the porch. It will only encourage them to come back.”

AL: And the Church sometimes takes up two collections during Mass. There are very few public support systems out there for people who want to give up their drug addiction or drink. The question is: why did they get into drugs in the first place? It’s very easy to stand up and make a political statement.

SJC: I remember Charles Melman, who is a French Lacanian psychoanalyst, saying to us once about drug addicts: “Why would they want to give up their drugs? What are you going to give them instead of their pleasure: reality?”

AL: We find that with alcoholics too. But these questions aren’t being asked.

SJC: One man, Freddie, lived in the hostel, was physically disabled, loved the horses and sport, was very attached to the church on Francis Street where he cleaned the wax off the candlesticks, generous with what little he had. When he heard that the Sligo Rovers football team was in trouble, he sent them a £50 donation. After his death, you found mention of him in a book on Sligo Rovers — his was the only donation received. You must hear hundreds of heart-wrenching stories such as this one?

AL: We do, but then Freddie wouldn’t have seen himself as a victim. That was a few years ago, but life doesn’t change for people. The other morning we went into work and an elderly man living in the Iveagh (I don’t know him at all) had a glass jam jar with £2.60 in pennies he had saved for us. He left us a beautiful note apologising that it was such a small amount. We don’t allow people to give. That was better than winning a million in the Lotto.

SJC: There is still a lot of stigma attached to the homeless and some people say that there is plenty of work now available in our thriving economy and that these people are simply lazy. What would you say to that viewpoint?

AL: People who say that they have already decided that all these human beings who are homeless are lazy but if they could look at them as people, they would probably find that there is a greater work ethic in that group than in people who are saying it. How do we define work? How do we define what’s useful? It’s so easy to brand people as lazy.

SJC: I know some people who work nine to five and many of them who appear to be working on their computers are actually writing e-mails to their friends!

AL: Yes. And is their life any less meaningful than people who are compiling statistics and attending meetings? I have frequently gone to meetings and felt that it had been a most useless afternoon. Maybe that person who is labelled homeless might have done a lot more in an afternoon. They would have time to think.

SJC: Sometimes doing one thing is enough. Mark Patrick Hederman told me in his interview that the yucca moth lives to do one thing, and if it is not carried out, the whole ecological system is put awry.

AL: Yes, that’s very important.

SJC: Presumably, in terms of our Celtic Tiger, you would be severely critical, seeing both negative and positive sides to our story of monetary success?

AL: I think it has affected everything. Even with phone calls, you get music first, then an answering machine and then you don’t get a call back. There are good things about technology — it makes the world smaller, but in our area of work, more money means streamlining services and producing more reports and having more meetings. We have left no space for people who aren’t achieving things. It’s a rarity to come across somebody who’s happy. Everybody is in a hurry. Even bicycles would mow you down. The price of houses has gone way up.

SJC: There’s also no cause, no mission in which to believe.

AL: No. There’s nothing to protest about anymore. Those of my age are almost seen as cranks if you complain. There’s no reflection anymore and no bringing together of ideas and there’s no sense of a past. It’s as if Ireland only came to light three years ago and nothing happened before that. Plans that are now being put forward for homelessness we were doing twenty-five years ago.

SJC: Are you depressed about Ireland?

AL: Oh yes, I think we are going nowhere. Something needs to happen to bring people to their senses. Our politicians are all the same nowadays. There’s no different voice. The voice of reason has been silenced. I think, though, there are still people in the media and people like you writing out there and there must be people all over the place who are feeling the same as I am feeling. Despite the psychobabble and PR taking over, there are a lot of people out there doing great work and getting on with their lives. Somehow these people have to be used, but they’re not being used in the political system. You have to be a member of a political party to be in there. Politicians have advisors around them of the same ilk, but they need more vision. We’re streamlining everything.

SJC: So do you think Ireland has lost its soul?

AL: I do. Maybe we haven’t quite lost it. I think we need to shake it up. It’s something to do with our identity. We are an island race and it’s inbred in our psyche, but we’re not secure in that. Just because we are and should be part of a bigger, global picture doesn’t mean we should lose part of our identity. We’re struggling to satisfy America and Europe but we are part of a global picture and each place has something to contribute. I’m not talking about bombs and bullets, but feeling we have a voice. We’ve been sitting here for over two hours and we haven’t used one meaningless word such as “partnership” or any of the buzz words. We are using those words to alienate thinking. It’s almost like the emperor’s clothes. I was at a meeting when they were talking about partnership, and I remember saying that this is like a Christmas cake with icing but no ingredients! People are afraid to laugh and to question and look beneath the surface. There’s a terrible sterility.

SJC: Homeless people are citizens of the state and I am reminded of the fine words of the 1916 Proclamation, that all children of the nation are to be equally cared for and cherished. Is there any political party or government that has lived up to that promise?

AL: There are good people in all political parties. I’d prefer to see a politician as a person and politician rather than in terms of the party they represent. But I think that when people join groups, they lose their own identity. In the political parties, the whip tells you what to do. I think that has a terrible effect on human beings — it has to. Look at them — they age by the day because they are losing their own identity and vision. Why do politicians feel they have to be what people want them to be and not themselves? I think we need a National Party. We need to encourage people to vote. They queue for hours in third world countries to vote but they’re not going to vote unless things change. But I have great hope myself that, for example, someone like you would feel that what I have to say is worthwhile. The kind of work I am involved in is not seen as valuable. Is it ever going to change? I think it’s time to say, “Stop giving out the money and sit and look where it’s going.”

SJC: At least once or twice, some politicians speak out, like Mary Harney and more recently, Síle de Valera.

AL: Yes. They are saying something and if we could have a reasonable debate rather than saying that it wasn’t sanctioned. We’ve become too narrow.

SJC: There is nobody of ideas left in the political parties, except perhaps John Bruton who seems to be a thinking man.

AL: He does and there’s a certain vulnerability and humanity about him. We have the same people everywhere, on the Sunday programmes, on Questions and Answers, etc. They shouldn’t be afraid of people who have a different point of view. Vision tends to come from people who aren’t part of any group, because if you are part of a group the group tends to take over.

SJC: We get what I call The Big Three — the lawyer, the politician and the journalist. We don’t get the writers, the philosophers, the psychologists, etc.

AL: You do, that’s right. It’s terrible. We were a nation of thinkers, of great playwrights, poets and politicians.

SJC: I’m more proud of Ireland’s past than its present.

AL: So am I. Present Ireland is awful.

SJC: Where does Trust stand in relation to the Simon Community and to the other charitable organisations, which also work with the homeless. Would you not be better to unite under one single umbrella?

AL: Well, we would never be into comparing one agency with another. We would see ourselves as being one agency out there, constantly asking if we should still be working the way we are and constantly we say that we should, based on what we see in our work. There’s a view that we should all come together under the one umbrella and pool the resources, but then you have a controlling influence and the individual voice is not going to be heard. There’s no guarantee that any new structure will be any better. Are you any nearer to listening to the person down at the bottom? I don’t think you are. Endless conferences and reports give the impression that everything is happening. Very often, they’re just talking shops. Now, voluntary bodies are really doing the work that statutory bodies should be doing. Is there any watchdog asking the deeper, philosophical questions?

SJC: Esperanza Productions produced a video, A Fragile City, on the work of Trust, and you launched an essay competition in secondary schools on the subject of “The Outsider”. How are these projects developing?

AL: The response was very interesting. It was amazing. It was people themselves speaking about themselves. We presented the project to the Department of Justice, because if we went to Health they would see it in terms of illness, and Environment would see it in terms of housing. In Justice, it’s seen as matter of equality and discrimination, and The Irish Times was used for the media. And Rotary will provide the prizes. We have an e-mail address. Though I’m low-tech, we are using technology to get our message across, a message that won’t change. In terms of the essay competition, the “outsider” can be anyone. It can be the philosopher or a wealthy person providing employment.

SJC: Camus wrote a book called The Outsider where someone felt such an outsider that he shot a few people. And Julia Kristeva, a philosopher and psychoanalyst, said that society’s problem with the outsider is based on the fact that we have failed to face the outsider in ourselves, that we are étrangers à nous même (“strangers to ourselves”). Would you share her opinion?

AL: I would and I think that one of the reasons that we can keep working is that there is an outsider in all of us. If you can see the outsider in yourself, you will have no difficulty about that. “The Outsider” is a poem by Micheal O’Siadhail and A Fragile City is taken from the name of his volume of poems. His poem said it all. No statistic or sociologist could or would describe that poem. He’s Chairman of the adjudicating panel for the essay competition.

SJC: Do you ever relax away from the Centre? Do you have any time for other interests, for yourself? I know you’re writing a novel.

AL: Also, I do yoga. I really believe in meditation. I read a lot. I usually am reading three or four books at the same time. I read something light and then read something on psychology or philosophy, poetry and historical novels. And I am also writing a novel, which I have been writing for a long time. I also walk. I believe reading is so important because you realise that other people have gone before you and they’re saying the same thing. It’s very supportive and encouraging because you realise that you are not alone in your thinking and that’s really important.

SJC: What type of philosophy and psychology interests you?

AL: Anything really. I go to the library. I believe in libraries. I read Laing’s books. I dip into them. I read government reports and also something light and frivolous. I love John Grisham.

SJC: In the Gospel stories, we are told that the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. How do you see your work (if you do) in the light of the Gospel and the Christian message?

AL: I believe in the Christian message, and if Christianity was practised the way it was supposed to be, the world would be a better place. I do believe in the Christian message but I do come into contact with people who claim to be Christian but what they practise in their lives isn’t Christianity. I also think Buddhism has a lot to offer, and also being in contact with the power of nature. They’re all intertwined. Others would disagree with that.

SJC: In one of the Gospel stories, Mary Magdalene wanted to pour an expensive perfume over Christ and the apostles scolded her, saying that the alabaster jar could be sold and the money given to the poor. But Christ encouraged her to do it and in turn scolded the apostles, saying, “The poor you will have always with you.” What do you make of that?

AL: That’s right. I suppose you could write volumes on that and read what you like into it but the more you look at what’s being said in the Gospels, has anything dated or has anything changed? We use Mary to talk about the sinner but there’s a powerful message in her whole role. The purpose of those stories is to get people thinking and do you have to come up with their solution? The Gospels are there to focus and challenge us and make us think.

SJC: Are you a spiritual person? What are your beliefs? I know you meditate every day for at least twenty minutes.

AL: I would consider myself a spiritual person, but the difference between religion and spirituality is extreme. I think we don’t often make that distinction but we should. I think we are all spiritual human beings and there’s a great poverty in people’s lives and a great emptiness. People are searching and we don’t place enough emphasis on spirituality. Spirituality is a much deeper thing than religion and I think there’s a great hunger out there.

SJC: What does the future hold for Trust specifically and for homeless people generally? What more is to be done?

AL: I think that every day we have to continue to work the way we are working and never lose sight of people. The future of Trust lies in the lap of the gods. I think there’s a role and a greater need now for small agencies than ever before. I think the future of Trust will depend on others who come along the way and who value the philosophy of Trust. We owe it to the people who have gone before us to make sure that the philosophy of Trust continues.

SJC: I asked you earlier had Ireland still soul, but what do you think soul is?

AL: I think soul means different things to different people as well. It’s almost about a certain vibrancy and difference and vision that makes us unique. The soul of Ireland isn’t only about Irish music or dancing but about something that makes us unique. Maybe we’re ashamed of our uniqueness. Maybe soul is about energy and spirituality and meaning. We are an island community and soul is that thing that makes us what we are. It’s about passion and we did have passion, though it’s not politically correct now to be passionate. We have stifled ourselves, stifled our vision and our soul. We are never happy with what we are. We have lost hope.

SJC: Are you happy?

AL: I am. I think life is never about one hundred per cent happiness. I wouldn’t work unless I got satisfaction. I would be constantly questioning myself. Like everyone else, I have my good days and my bad days. That’s life. It’s about balance.

SJC: I want to end by quoting from Micheal O’Siadhail’s poem, “The Outsider”, taken from the book A Fragile City.

A sheltered arch or where underground
kitchen of an inn sent
through grids of pavement grating
the warmth of the ass’s breath –
Where did last night’s Christ lie down?

Every morning for months I watched
a man I might have been
about my age and bearded too,
his face blotched crimson
with cheap wine and sleeping rough.

He walked the far side of the street
always hurrying somewhere;
a father who couldn’t praise, I wondered,
or what had blurred his star?
For months our eyes never met

though the street between us was narrow,
until that eve he crossed.
‘Some help,’ he said, but it must have been
my double’s eyes that asked
where would He lie down tomorrow?

An old outsider within me winced,
shook him off and fled;
that street between us was so narrow –
I chose the Inn and was afraid.
I’m sure I’ve never seen him since –

but tomorrow where carafes go round
a lone presence will pass
tremors through our frail togetherness;
again those eyes will ask
Where did last night’s Christ lie down?

(© 1995 Micheal O’Siadhail. Reproduced with kind permission from the collection Poems 1975–1995, Bloodaxe Books, 1999.)