Different types of homelessness need different types of solutions

Homelessness cannot be treated like an illness ... and people cannot be treated like machines, writes Alison O’Connor
Different types of homelessness need different types of solutions

WENTY years ago almost to the day I wrote an article about a woman who was doing amazing work with homeless people. Roll on two decades and she continues to do so.

In that first article I wrote of how Alice Leahy had immaculately manicured fingernails, painted a deep pink. The habit remains. She may spend her mornings dressing ulcers or tending to the sore and battered feet of homeless people but Alice wouldn’t see that as a reason to dress down.

As far as she is concerned the people she has dealt with for the past four decades — Trust celebrates 40 years of existence this year — are as deserving, if not more so, of the respect of her being smartly turned out.

I sat beside Alice at a dinner recently, the proceeds of which were going to Trust. I was reminded then of what an impressive woman Alice is, what a remarkable enthusiasm she has retained despite the difficulty of the work she does, and also of her great sense of humour. She does a strong line in irreverence.

She doesn’t have a spiel down pat about how deserving the homeless are, and how Trust is in desperate need of funds. That is not Alice. On that first occasion we spoke she told me that homelessness is not just a state, but also a state of mind. What’s changed in the intervening 20 year?

“Nothing and everything,” she responds. “The problems are still the same. There is so much money on stream now, jobs have been created, agencies set up, lots of promises made about solving homelessness, but what is not factored in are the complexities involved.

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“It has to be realised that some people will always be homeless, regardless of what targets have been set or what money has been allocated… I was once young and thought that homelessness could be solved in six months.”

She wonders at the hoops, the “stage managing” as she calls it, that homeless people are put through in order to get a bed now. Equally she says people now are hyper aware of their rights and there is a sense of entitlement that was not there in the past.

Alice, originally from Co Tipperary, believes she is not doing her job if she does not point out to people that they too have responsibilities, and that for some people too much assistance can end up enabling rather than helping them.

It is important to differentiate here between what we have known as traditional homelessness, and the newer economic homelessness caused by rising rents and lack of housing supply, both of which need different solutions.

The people Alice set out originally to help are those who were always outsiders in society, maybe they never had opportunities growing up, or they had a particular psychological make up. “You do wonder which came first, the pain of life, or the addiction.”

As an example of the kind of thing Trust, which is a small operation, does, Alice mentions two mornings from a week in 2015 when 54 people attended, five of them women — 29 people had showers, 25 sets of clothes were given out. As Alice says we all know the value of feeling and looking well; often a first step to greater things.

Those people came originally from 13 countries, as close as from Dublin and as far away as the USA and Mauritius. They had slept the previous night in Temple Bar, Baggot St, Talbot St, Pearse St Garda Station, a train station, squats, B&Bs, internet cafes, sofa surfing. Some came from flats, unable to cope, others from the new emergency beds and hostels across the city. There were those who were afraid to say where they had stayed.

Each morning, Alice and her hardworking team, offer hospitality and nursing care. Feet are treated, dressings done, advice given, phone calls made and received. She explains that while they are not a food centre, hospitality and friendship form a major part of their work and their holistic approach, and everyone is offered something.

Unusually for the times that were in it when Trust was established in 1975 it was and remains non denominational and does not receive government funding. In the beginning most of the people who came had been in institutions like Letterfrack and Daingean, and had subsequently ended up in prison or a psychiatric ward.

I think part of what keeps Alice going and how she avoids burnout is that she never stops questioning what it is she is doing, and challenging how society treats those in our midst who are most vulnerable. She will also say what is on her mind if she feels it needs to be said.

She makes the point, for instance, that people who are homeless in Dublin tell her that Ireland is the best place to be homeless as there are lots of services, including food centres, hostels and understanding public servants.

Homelessness cannot be treated like an illness with an easy cure, and people cannot be treated like machines without rights and responsibilities, implying, as current official policy appears to suggest, says Alice, that they can be reprogrammed and put back into society.

“We recognise that everyone who is homeless is different. People are complex and have varying needs. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Equally there are some questions to which there are no answers.”

She tells of one man who was in recently who was boasting that he had earned €1,000 begging. She recalls another young woman who they were dealing with and they felt they needed to challenge her. She was sleeping on Grafton St, in touch with around nine different services, had a child in care, and had been offered around six different accommodations.

“It was not helping her to say her homelessness was the fault of the State or to have her making people feel guilty by begging. We challenged her. She didn’t come back for a while and then she did and got accommodation. But then the heavy rain came, which is prime begging season, and she was back on the street.”

In my journalistic experience when someone tells you a story like that they will often say immediately afterwards that it was off the record, for fear of it creating a bad impression or affecting fund raising. But not Alice. All that concerned her was that I would not identify the woman.

Through the 40 years Alice has obviously dealt with a lot of politicians and she has an interesting take on Environment Minister Alan Kelly, a man who attracts a lot of attention, not all of it favourable. But Alice is a fan.

“I have found him very upfront. He came and spent a morning with us. A lot of politicians will look past you, or pat you on the back, like you are some kind of simple woman doing good work.

“He will challenge you and ask questions. At the latest meeting [on homelessness] there wasn’t as much negativity. He had managed to get people to look at the wider issues. I think there is great honesty about him. He is very different from other politicians I have met,” said Alice.

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