JOE O’Brien knows what it feels like to go up against the system.
He blew the whistle on what he saw as unethical practices in the public service, of which homeless people were the ultimate victims.
His story is compelling and familiar in terms of the fate of whistleblowers in this country. It also highlights that while the law can now protect those who report unethical practices, the level of protection is limited.
In 2014, O’Brien was employed as a policy officer for Crosscare, the social support agency for the Dublin archdiocese. Crosscare is involved in a range of social support activity, including attempting to find emergency service for homeless people. Most of those looking for such accommodation who come into contact with Crosscare tend to be foreign nationals.
O’Brien enjoyed his job and from his record he was good at it. As part of his work he had compiled three separate reports on policy which commented on, and were critical, of, the work of government departments. All were accepted by the departments, which engaged with Crosscare on the issues raised.
A few years ago, he and his colleagues began noticing that some of the people the agency referred for emergency accommodation to Dublin City Council’s main office were being poorly treated. The Dublin Regional Homeless Executive (DRHE), which is run by the council, was informed of this concern on a number of occasions. Yet nothing changed.
One of the major issues was that little effort was made to accommodate some foreign nationals referred by Crosscare. Instead, these people were passed on to another office, the New Communities Unit (NCU), which operates under the Department of Social Protection.
O’Brien decided to put together a report on the shortcomings in the system.
He soon discovered that in 2013, the homeless executive had stated that 4,613 people used emergency accommodation. Yet this figure did not include those referred on to the NCU, which numbered 2,756 that year. In other words, the figures for homelessness were being understated by up to 57%, or 2,756 individuals.
Under-reporting the level of homelessness has serious implications. It minimises a humanitarian problem, but it also ensures that resources sufficient to meet the actual level of homelessness are not being deployed.
“It was increasingly clear to me in the process of writing the report that people accommodated by the NCU were not being counted in the official figures,” O’Brien tells the Irish Examiner.
“I had submitted this question concerning possible gross under-reporting of homelessness as an FoI [Freedom of Information] request but this request was refused without reason and then refused on appeal without reason by the homeless executive (DRHE).”
He then appealed to the Information Commissioner. He says that as a result of that appeal, the commissioner contacted the homeless executive — as per process — and Crosscare was then contacted by the executive to “express anger and disappointment that I had submitted an appeal to the Information Commissioner”.
He says he was directed to withdraw the appeal. Crosscare would have good reason not to upset any element of Dublin City Council, as the council is its main funder.
O’Brien withdrew the appeal but completed the report, which included among its conclusions: “The lack of communication between local authorities and the NCU has resulted in people being placed in emergency homeless accommodation without being assessed for their social housing needs and allocated, if appropriate, ‘Homeless Priority’ status on the social housing list. This leads to an under-assessment of the funding and resources required to adequately deal with the homeless and housing crisis.”
That was in December 2014. After Christmas, he was called in by a senior manager and told the report would not be published. O’Brien was devastated.
“After being told that the report was not going to be published I repeatedly urged Crosscare management to reconsider,” he says. “I felt I pushed this as far as I could without getting formally reprimanded. After it became very clear that Crosscare were not going to publish the report I urged management to at least give the homeless executive a copy of the report. This was finally agreed to and a slightly altered version of the report was sent in March 2015.”
Other efforts to have it published failed. O’Brien grew increasingly frustrated. As far as he was concerned, this matter continued to ensure that resources were simply not matching the level of homelessness as per the official figures.
Eventually, he decided to go to the media. He approached the social affairs correspondent of The Irish Times with the report. At the same time, he sought legal advice to ensure he was covered under the Protective Disclosures Act, the law brought in the previous year to protect whistleblowers.
The story was published in The Irish Times on September 9 under the headline ‘Migrants housing rights highlighted in unpublished report’. The main thrust of what was written was the poor treatment of migrants at the hands of the council rather than the likely serious under-reporting of homeless figures.
Neither was there any reference to the obstruction O’Brien says he had encountered. “None of my supplied statements detailing the reasoning for my actions and DRHE’s acts of obstruction were used in the articles,” he said.
“Crosscare refused to comment on the report. While I was glad and grateful that some of the key findings of the report were now in the public domain I felt that the full story had not been told, that the DRHE were not being held to account, and that the public did not know that homelessness was being significantly under-counted in Dublin.”
There were no repercussions for him in Crosscare, as he was covered by the law. Yet, he had crossed the line known only to whistleblowers. Inside the tent, he was no longer a person who could be trusted.
Irrespective of his own position, he pursued what he saw as the real story. He approached Independent TD Maureen O’Sullivan, who asked a number of parliamentary questions on the issue. Each time, the environment minister said it was a matter for Dublin City Council.
At council level, Ciaran Cuffe of the Green Party asked a question of the chief executive, which was replied to on December 7 last.
“The document referred to is an internal and unpublished Crosscare document. The DRHE is not responsible for the production, its content or its dissemination.
“It is important to note that in August 2015, the unpublished document as referred to was given to The Irish Times and reported upon. DRHE confirmed its position that the report was considered unreliable and that no further comment would be given. The office of the CEO of Crosscare confirmed to DRHE that regretfully this action was undertaken without sanction.”
The reply resonates with the typical means of discrediting a whistleblower. The report is considered “unreliable” and was even compiled “without sanction”.
Who would get involved in such an exercise but a maverick, a malcontent, someone with a nefarious agenda? In reality, O’Brien was cleared to write the report, but was not sanctioned to leak it, something he resorted to out of extreme frustration. As for being “unreliable”, his record in writing reports speaks of somebody entirely reliable.
Neither Crosscare nor the DRHE has specified what exactly is deemed to be “unreliable” about the report.
His crime was to refuse to back down when the pressure came on.
O’Brien has since left Crosscare as it became plain to him that he wouldn’t have a future there and is now employed by another NGO. He also decided to get involved in politics, which has led him to be selected to stand in the forthcoming general election for the Green Party in Dublin Fingal.
Statements from Crosscare and DHRE
The Irish Examiner submitted a number of questions to Crosscare and the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive concerning Joe O’Brien, how he was treated, and the report he compiled.
In particular a question was asked as to whether referrals to the New Communities Unit were included in the homeless figures. None of the questions were directly addressed, but both organisations submitted statements.
Crosscare said: “This report was not intended for publication but was invited as a discussion document to raise issues with the DRHE that were of concern.
"DRHE arranged to meet with our staff to discuss the issues raised in the report and have been positive in their willingness to work with us to improve the quality of services that are on offer. This work is ongoing.”
The DRHE said: “The document referred to is an internal and unpublished Crosscare document. The DRHE is not responsible for the production, its content or its dissemination.
"In August 2015, after publication of media article on same, the DRHE confirmed its position that the report was considered unreliable.
"The office of the CEO of Crosscare confirmed to DRHE that regretfully this action was undertaken without sanction.
"It is worth noting that DRHE continues to develop policy and practice relating to this area, ie, migration and homelessness.”