Challenging misconceptions about homelessness

indepth1Some of you may be aware of the man with a cat who can be seen near the Berkeley library. His name is John McLean. The cat is called Trinny because he is Trinity College’s mascot but John says “he is really mine”, as it is he who minds and feeds him. John took Trinny into his care on the request of a friend after the cat was abused.

John takes great pride in Trinny, telling us as much about the cat’s life as about his own. Before coming down from Belfast, he worked in the Royal Belfast Institution as a maths and sports teacher. He then worked and lived in Wynn’s Hotel, Abbey Street, for years. He put on shows and got the audience involved, but when the clientele changed, he couldn’t stay.

He now stays in a hostel at night which he considers his home, where he has his own room, but he can always be found on Trinity campus during the day. There are always fights and arguments in the hostel, he says. It has a no pet policy, but Trinny waits for him every morning at the library steps, even in the rain. He seems content where he is. “I quite like it,” he says, although he would rather a “nice hotel” if he had his way.

College is very much John’s spot in Dublin. He “wouldn’t fancy it” if another homeless person joined him. He considers himself a bit above the rest, those who are “using”. He knows many of the students and staff of Trinity well, some even visit him with their pets. College has become a safe haven for John, where he is liked and respected for his friendly and chatty nature.

Crisis worsening

Dublin’s homelessness crisis is escalating, with figures steadily increasing over the years. As of November 2014, there were 168 people sleeping rough in Dublin, a 20% increase from last year, while over 1,500 sleep in emergency hostels. Six new people become homeless every day, and Focus Ireland now supports 45 new families per month.

A lot of these people have never been homeless before and had never imagined that they would ever become homeless. It can affect anyone, whether you’re educated, addiction free or working.

“At 6am, a passer by stopped, called work saying he would be delayed, and brought the man back to his apartment, where he dried his clothes, allowed him use his facilities, and gave him warm food and drink.”

In May 2014, the government announced plans to eradicate homelessness by 2016, approving plans to refurbish 2,700 housing units from local authority stock and NAMA properties. But these efforts are limited and have been accompanied by a sudden increase in property values, meaning that financially stable families, some of whom have already been devastated by the economic crash, are priced out of the property market and forced onto the streets. The Department of Social Welfare rent allowance is also fixed, failing to reflect the rising cost of living.


We hold many misconceptions about those without a place to stay at night, but these people are members of our society just the same as we are. We are not aware of the diversity of the group, Father Peter McVerry, the founder of the Peter McVerry Trust, a homelessness charity, points out to me. We cannot categorise them. There are families and skilled tradespeople, as well as one particular man who recently embarked on a PhD in Computer Science, who are without a home.

One thing that is clear is that nobody chooses to be homeless. It is a situation that can happen to anyone, for any number of reasons. Some people are homeless due to drug use; others take drugs to deal with it. Some came to Ireland in search of a better life. Others had always been self supporting, but are faced with financial difficulties.

Emergency hostels provide beds for one night and other medium-term hostels house people for longer. Some have a drug free policy, but others are not as strict. If all hostels threw out drug users, they would have nowhere to go. This of course means that many do not avail of the hostel services due to bad experiences. Fights, violence and non-compatibility of residents are some of the many problems in dormitories. It is not uncommon to wake in the morning to find that personal belongings have been stolen.

One man recently told me how he spent the night in the pouring rain on Grafton Street, freezing and soaked through by the morning. At 6am, a passer-by stopped, called work saying he would be delayed, and brought the man back to his apartment, where he dried his clothes, allowed him use his facilities, and gave him warm food and drink. This was the most compassion he had experienced in the months since becoming homeless.

One of the emotional issues faced by the homeless is dignity. Peter McVerry emphasises the need for everyone to have their own personal space, to be able to lock the door at night, know that you are at peace, and to rise in the morning knowing that you and your belongings are safe. It suggests a lot about how we value the members of our society, if we give them old rooms with peeling paint or place them in dangerous dormitories. It sends a message that they have no value and worth, further lowering their self esteem.

A man once asked Peter why a person such as himself would bother “with the likes of us”. Dormitories are a disaster, which is why all of the hostels in his trust are comprised of single rooms, some with en suites.

Available services

In Haven House, a temporary accommodation site in Dublin 7, the aim is to empower the 59 residents. They are encouraged to attend support groups and go back to education, but always at their own pace. There is a variety of support groups including addiction support, self-esteem, settlement, mindfulness and managing difficult conversations, which help to set the residents up for independant living.

They have a case-management approach where, upon arrival, the client is assessed and a care plan drawn up. Different staff members are assigned to deal with the many different issues that can be ongoing at any one time. The staff are present 24/7 and the House is based on good solid relationships between everyone. The resident works with their key worker and support team to deal with whatever particular difficulty they want to deal with at that time, while being encouraged to face their most pressing issues, which they eventually do due to the approach taken by Crosscare.

“She had a difficult relationship with her father and was put out of the house after her mother’s death, spending years between night-only services.”

Donna McGee, deputy project leader, says that the aim is to instil a sense of self worth and value, achieved by relatively small acts: equality of staff and residents, building strong and trusting relationships, offering residents a cup of tea when offering a visitor one, and helping residents reach their full potential. These small acts are a big deal to someone who has never had the luxury of such care, and are pivotal to their empowerment.

For one resident, Mary, it is the first home she has had in years. She had a difficult relationship with her father and was put out of the house after her mother’s death, spending years between night-only services. She hadn’t previously used drugs or alcohol, but on becoming homeless she fell into using snow blow, crack and crystal meth as a source of support.

She eventually came to Haven House, which she now considers her home. She has excellent relationships with the staff. She emphasised the importance of her key worker with whom, among other things, she goes Christmas shopping, and who she meets for coffee, something she would never have done before.

In doing simple things like this, she is shown a different and better way of life, which serves as motivation for her to continue towards her goal of independent living. Her key worker helps her consider various treatment options and has been a crucial support to her since she came to Haven House. She helps her to socialise and teaches her life skills. She speaks very highly of Haven House, telling me how she loves walking back up the hill to the doors, having a place to call home, and having a safe place to live.

Crosscare have a similar approach to Peter McVerry. Their belief is that every person is created in the image and likeness of God, and their core values are love, respect and excellence. Their residence in Smithfield is of a very high standard, beautifully designed and immaculately clean. There was a sense of community, camaraderie and respect among the residents and staff.

The accommodation is a mixture of high quality houses and apartments each with numerous single or twin rooms, some of which are ensuite, a tastefully decorated shared kitchen and a living area.

Patrick tells me about his time in a dormitory he shared with 20 others before arriving at Crosscare. He had never been homeless before. He lost his home due to rising rents. In the hostel, he had no personal space. Every morning, he was kicked out and left to wander the streets aimlessly all day, turning to alcohol in order to cope.

This had severe negative implications on his mental health, leading to a nervous breakdown, resulting in time being spent in hospital. For Patrick, Crosscare is a “rock to me”. He is dealing with his alcohol problem and serious mental health issues, has made friends and built a community around him, and now attends college within the Phibsboro National Learning Network.

Once settled, the residents are quick to get involved in the programmes and volunteering. Victoria came with her son from Lithuania in 2001 after a difficult breakup with her husband. They lived for seven years in a council flat in a dangerous area, and when her request to move to a safer area was denied, she left and came to Crosscare.

With the help of Crosscare, she has dealt with the alcohol problem linked to the breakup, and can now enjoy a social drink with friends. She joined the Community College, which is a central part of the work done by Crosscare, and takes classes in crocheting. The College is run on a system of peer-learning, and nobody knows the status of anybody else, thus enhancing the objective of achieving equality among everyone. Clients can learn to read or write, giving them basic skills to help find employment.

What is impressive about Victoria is the active and keen contribution she makes to Haven House. She volunteers at the Crosscare Cafe and has been so successful that she has joined the CE scheme, a three-year course where she is paid a small sum to work in the cafe while being trained as a catering assistant. This course will enable Victoria to live independently in the future.

Over the summer, she grew a variety of vegetables on site which were then used in the kitchen. She strives for independence, not relying on the catering available at the hostel, preferring to buy and cook her own food. She has a lively social life, and is thriving in the safe and supportive environment of Crosscare. She feels extremely lucky to be where she is.

Sarah was placed in a B&B after she became homeless due to drug use, spending two years there. On arrival the room was dirty and unfit for human habitation. It was also an empty shell: there was no television, kettle, or fridge, nothing to make it homely. Having been thrown out, she spent last year on the streets, which she says was a truly terrifying experience.

She later spent time in other services elsewhere, and ended up using snowblow, which is highly addictive and causes extreme paranoia. It is unclear what is actually in the drug, making it even more dangerous and difficult to treat. She was beaten up and robbed of her suitcase of clothes and pictures of her two children, who are in the custody of her mother. Sarah now lives in Haven House and is tackling her addictions with the support of her key worker.


Social interaction is one of the key reasons that Teach Mhuire do soup runs around the city every night, to show that people care. Patrick said that it is so important to acknowledge homeless people, to help ease the loneliness of sitting on a street all day, being ignored by thousands. It doesn’t cost us a thought to spend a few minutes speaking to someone.

Everyone can make a small contribution to this cause, either by volunteering, fundraising or by simply speaking to people. When we see someone begging, our immediate reaction is often to look away, or to ignore the person. Other people say we shouldn’t give money, that it is better to give a sandwich or a drink. But, interestingly, McVerry said that giving someone food is the worst thing you can do, because in doing that you are deciding what they need, and making a judgment about what they are going to spend the money on.

It is an insult to someone’s dignity to make a decision for them, when they can make that decision themselves. Even worse is throwing a few coins into a cup and shuffling on before they can even look at you or thank you. It is far more beneficial to stop and say hello, to actually interact with the person and ask what they need. In doing this, you are giving the person a choice, and more often than not, the most important aspect of the interaction is the fact that the social interaction happened at all.

At the end of my visit to Haven House, Sarah proudly gives me a tour of the residence. There is a television room where they all socialise together, a pool table, and a large paved garden area with benches and flowers. Upstairs, there is a high standard exercise room which is open all day. Across the hall, there is the relaxation room where mindfulness classes are held. Perhaps the most poignant feature of all was a collage on the wall of photos of people who moved on from Haven House into their own home. It serves as a reminder of attainable success for current residents, and a source of hope.

The names of the Crosscare residents have been changed to protect their confidentiality.

Photo of John McLean by Pavel Rozman.

Bláithín Sheil

Bláithín Sheil is a final year Law and French student. After a year abroad in Strasbourg, she feels more French than Irish. Loves to run. She is the Deputy Comment Editor of Trinity News.