Father Peter McVerry was born in Belfast and grew up in Newry, County Down. After being educated at Clongowes Wood College and UCD he studied to become a priest and was ordained in 1975. During these years he came face to face with the problem of homelessness in Dublin. He set up a trust to help struggling young people and first worked in Ballymun and the north inner city. In 1983, he founded a charity to tackle homelessness called The Arrupe Society, but it was subsequently renamed the Peter McVerry Trust. It began in a three-bedroom flat in Ballymun.
The trust grew from one flat to include eleven homeless hostels, over 100 apartments, a residential drug detox centre and two drug stabilisation services. In 1979, he opened a hostel for young homeless boys aged between 12 and 16. He focused on those deemed too difficult to deal with by other agencies. In November of this year he was awarded an honorary degree by Trinity. I got the opportunity to converse with him recently in one of the McVerry Trust cafés, and I first asked him about his life and how it felt to be honoured by College.
“Whatever we have achieved with homeless people has been the work of a whole team of people, all our staff, our volunteers, our management, and they are the ones who really should be getting the award rather than me. So in that sense I feel a little bit embarrassed that I’m singled out. They’re doing all the work and I’m singled out to get an award. However, I appreciate it very much. For me, it means that homeless people are worthy of being acknowledged, and that in our efforts to try and give homeless people what is a fundamental human right, namely a home, Trinity are considering that an important contribution to Irish society. I am very grateful for the award, it means a lot to me and all those working with homeless people.”
I then asked McVerry what inspired him to start working with the homeless in Ireland, and what has the experience been like.
“It started back in the 1970s when I was working in the inner city of Dublin. The issue we were dealing with then was young people leaving school by the age of 12 at the very latest. They were hanging around the streets all day long. Their parents were generally unemployed and couldn’t give them any money, so they started to commit crime. Then by the age of 16 they were doing an awful lot of robbing and going to prison. Due to this we began opening services for young people. We opened a youth club, a craft centre where they were able to make crafts and sell them to make money, and we also had some employment schemes running.”
McVerry then told me that the biggest catalyst for him to further his work was coming across a child who was nine years old sleeping rough on the street. This prompted him to provide an additional service for children and open up a small hostel. He told me his decision to devote his life to homelessness was not a premeditated one: “I never had any big plan or intention to spend my life working with homeless people. One thing just led to another and we ended up running 14 hostels, three drug centres, one 150 apartments, a drop in centre and the youth café which we are talking in now. I never planned anything in my life. I only look one year ahead at a time.”
He moved on to elaborate the dangers of emergency accommodation. “You will often be sharing a room with people who are active drug users, people who are very intimidating, and you could wake up to find all your possessions are gone. You might be assaulted, threatened, or wake up in the middle of the night to see someone in the next bed injecting heroin. They are pretty awful places. If someone becomes homeless today they are really facing into a nightmare. The reality is that unlike in the past people see very little opportunity to escape homelessness. In the past you could be homeless for maybe six months or a year and then you got a little private rental flat and if you were able to hold onto that you could escape from homelessness. Today there is no escape. The two normal escapes, one into private rental accommodation, is closed off and you can’t get in because there is so little of it and it’s expensive. The other exit is into social housing, again which you can’t get into because there is so little of it. Homelessness today is accompanied by hopelessness which is a total change from the past. People today see no way out and some of the people coming to me are seriously depressed, some are even suicidal, and to me that is a perfectly rational response to the situation which they find themselves in.”
Although McVerry’s line of work is extremely demanding and involves him coming across many cases of despair, he told me the thing that motivates him the most is seeing how people react when they overcome their homelessness and the other problems it entails.
“It’s fantastic. We have about 150 apartments at the moment and we hope to have about 200 just after Christmas. To see the smile on someone’s face when you bring them in and show them an apartment, give them the key, and tell them this is yours for however long you want it gives you great job satisfaction. You see people overcoming their drug problems, moving on to college and doing a variety of courses, and that is fantastic. You feel you have made a small contribution to someone’s life and while it may have only been a little contribution, in some cases it transforms their lives.”
Finally I ask McVerry what students in Trinity and students generally can do to help aid against homelessness.
“Homelessness is a political issue. It can only be solved politically and therefore I think we need a strong public voice demanding to end homelessness. Certainly students in Trinity would have more voice and more opportunities to express that than many other people. I would love to see the student body in Trinity being political and demanding that the problem of homelessness be addressed much more rapidly than it has been. Secondly, one of the reasons why there isn’t much concern over homelessness is because people’s perception of homeless people is that they are drug users or they are alcoholics or they are people with mental health problems.
“While that may have been true a few years ago it certainly is not true now. We need to change our attitudes and I think the only way we can change our attitudes is by encountering and meeting homeless people. If you see someone who is homeless go up and talk to them, even if it’s only for two minutes. Go up and have a chat. That does two things. One, it shows the homeless person that you respect them and treat them like a human being – if you are begging on the street most people just walk past you. Over time you become aware that homeless people are just the same as the rest of us only their path in life has gone in a very direction, usually because of no fault of their own.”