Thursday 19 September 2019

Small ideas can give homeless a big break

Politicians must pay more than lip service to the big issue highlighted by death on a doorstep, writes Dr Maurice Gueret

Dr Maurice Gueret

It was a week of contrast in our capital city. Over at Dublin airport, little Leona the rescued loggerhead turtle was being readied for her new life in the Canary Islands.

The plane's hold would be too cold for a safe journey, so she was issued with her own boarding pass and seats for Las Palmas. Carers coated her skin in Vaseline to make sure she didn't dehydrate on the four-hour flight. Aer Lingus cleared three rows in the passenger cabin for Leona's box and her entourage. The state broadcaster was at the airport to record the flight of the turtle for posterity.

Across the city, on Molesworth Street, a homeless man lay dying on a doorstep. One kindly passerby took the trouble to check on his condition and found he was quite blue. He died in view of our national parliament. He might have died anywhere. Homeless people do. Their average life expectancy is decades lower than loggerhead turtles. The blame game began. Out came the opposition, the senators, the mayor, the councillors, the punters and the columnists. Such outrage hadn't been heard in the city since the Garth Brooks concerts were cancelled in high summer.

Joe Duffy summed up the spectacle succinctly on Liveline. He said it resembled a circular firing squad, everyone was shooting each other with blame. A meeting of bigwigs in the church, state and homeless industry circles was called for. There were clamours for extra money to be handed over for services. A minister promised a warm bed for every homeless person by Christmas. The nation could go back under their blankets.

I know a little about the homeless situation in Dublin. For some years, I was honoured to be a trustee and then chairman of a small charity called Trust. Louis Copeland, the master-tailor, is now in the chair. Trust is located in the basement of the Iveagh Hostel in Dublin. The service began about 40 years ago with a group of concerned people led by an inspirational nurse from Baggot Street hospital. Her name is Alice Leahy. Alice is still in charge.

The service runs on a shoestring. It doesn't accept state funding, nor does it have any fundraising wing. Deliberately. Friends and supporters quietly look after Trust. In return, Trust supports many of the most vulnerable citizens of our city. It opens early each morning and warmly embraces those who need that warm embrace. There are no forms and no questionnaires. There might be a wound that needs dressing, a bath that needs taking, clothes or shoes that need replacing, a slice of buttered brack with tea, or a referral to a hospital or family doctor.

Trust are the outsiders of the homeless services. And they look after the outsiders of our city. Alice has for many decades been the conscience of our city. She constantly challenges the status quo and lazy thinking in homlessness.

For many years now, nurse Alice has been crying out for the installation of very basic washing facilities in our inner city. Men and women who sleep rough in the capital have to rely on canals and charity for the human need to bathe and wash.

With assistance from young civic-minded architects, Alice went to Leinster House and City Hall and submitted wonderful plans to the very same councillors and ministers that were hopping up and down about homelessness this week. Eight years ago, she highlighted the urgency of this measure, suggesting that it might prevent people becoming long-term homeless by making it easier to overcome temporary difficulties.

Public showers would help out people in emergency accommodation, newly arrived visitors or backpackers to our city as they find their feet and people living in overcrowded accommodation with poor washing facilities. Public facilities would help isolated elderly people who are afraid to bathe at home in case they fall and are not found. A very serious and thoughtful proposal for glowing cubes, advertising drums and shower shelters was made to those who have the power to change. Potential sites all around the city were identified. Alice's call was politely listened to, and then ignored.

A friend was speaking to me about homelessness this week. He said there are a lot of people having summits, and talking about root causes, and paying general lip service to the big issue. But they accomplish little, and there are rarely any benefits for the daily lives of men and women on our doorsteps. He suggests that when everybody has failed to solve the big problem, the small ideas might prove much more interesting. And you know what? He is dead right. Just as the little things, like Vaseline, matter to turtles. Little things can matter to people too.

Dr Maurice Guéret is author of 'The Doctor's Case'

www.drmauricegueret.com

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