Farm Ireland

Friday 24 November 2017

Charity fights to give hope to Ireland's rural homeless

Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

Homelessness is not just an urban phenomenon. That is the message Tony O'Riordan will be looking to get across at the Ploughing Championships in Ratheniska.

O'Riordan is CEO of the Midlands Simon, a branch of the organisation with one of the most rural catchment areas, covering Laois, Offaly, Westmeath and Longford.

He is a man who thinks and acts outside the box in his constant battle to convince funders, agencies and the public that rural homelessness is also a serious problem.

"Becoming homeless is the result of a range of factors that are present everywhere. If you are isolated, if you have a history of deprivation, have a poor social and family network, have mental health issues and/or an addiction problem you are in danger of finding yourself without a roof over your head.

"You don't have to live in a city to have these problems," Mr O'Riordan explains.

On a daily basis, Midlands Simon deals with 100 people who struggle to have somewhere to call home. While Tony agrees that the homeless from rural areas will gravitate towards the towns, nevertheless the big problem with rural homelessness is its dispersed nature.

"This dispersal is a problem for the person who is homeless, or in danger of homelessness, and is miles from any support or treatment. It is a problem for those of us trying to reach them and provide consistent support, especially when our resources are being drastically cut," he says.

"I envy my urban counterparts who are within walking distance of their clients and all the services," he admits.

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Under his stewardship Midlands Simon has pioneered a radical approach to tackling homelessness, an approach that challenges the traditional hostel model and seeks to place and sustain people in their own houses as a first step, not as a final step in a continuum.

Ironically, this approach, known as the 'Housing First' model has been championed in downtown New York and later this month Midlands Simon and Athlone IT will host a major conference to promote the approach.

The keynote speaker at the gathering is the architect of the Housing First model, Dr Sam Tsemberis, a clinical-community psychologist and CEO of Pathways to Housing, an organisation he founded in New York in 1992.

Of the 100 people Midlands Simon works with every day, only 12 are in hostels.

"We have six hostel beds in Tullamore and six in Athlone, but the majority are in houses and getting consistent and focused support from our settlement workers, nurses or trained volunteers," Tony says.


"In the more traditional model homeless people were placed in hostels until they were 'deemed ready' for their own houses.

"In our view, people are always ready to live independent lives in their own homes, they are not ready for communal living. Hostels are there for emergencies. It is easy to fall into the trap of letting the emergency solution become the norm."

He describes the approach of Midlands Simon as "dogged".

"We are dogged in our commitment to progression; we consistently support, encourage and enable people to move into their own space and become independent," Tony says.

"We don't have a one-size-fits-all solution, but we work with our clients to develop a solution to fit their individual situation and needs."

In this regard, Midlands Simon owns a number of houses throughout the region where it provides homes for its clients. It also leases houses that are sub-let to clients. But housing is only a part of the service that includes a wide range of other supports.

O'Riordan says this approach "is not cheap but it is cost effective" and takes a massive voluntary fundraising effort to sustain. In the US, this approach has a proven 88pc success rate and the Federal Government supports it with significant funding.

According to O'Riordan, the latest Irish Government policy document on homelessness favours Housing First, but he says the State is going in the opposite direction in relation to funding.

"The Department of the Environment has cut us (funding) by 12.5pc and the HSE by 3.8pc – we are being crucified," he maintains.

"One of our clients told us recently that he will only get the services he needs if he can get himself a long prison sentence.

"That will cost the state €80,000 a year. If they only meet us half way we can deliver a comprehensive service that will enable that man to transform his life at a cost of just over €3,000 a year, it's a no-brainer."

The conference, 'Housing First; ending homelessness in rural Ireland?' takes place at Athlone IT on September 30 and will be opened by Jan O'Sullivan, Minister for Housing and Planning.

Irish Independent

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