Coordinating our compassion

Incoming president Jack Natin explains that the new database is just one of the many ways VDP is taking social justice to another level

Trinity’s own St. Vincent de Paul society, or VDP, is the biggest society on campus. According to the Central Societies Committee it is also the best, having won this years awards for both Best Large Society and Best Overall Society. The size and scope of VDP means that everyone knows someone involved – whether it be volunteering in soup runs, participating in the pantomime, or organizing after school kids clubs.

VDP is well known for being packed full of members with astounding altruism and charity, to the point of making you wonder how in the hell people get this nice. My flatmate Mide is very involved in VDP – she leaves the apartment at 6 in the morning to work as an occupational therapist, runs a kids club immediately afterwards, cycles all the way home, and finds me deep into my fourth hour of eating biscuits at the kitchen table.

I don’t know how she is so nice – I joke that one day she will snap, buy a shitty sports car, and move to Las Vegas in a haze of disillusionment with the world. She laughs at this but I don’t know if she actually thinks it is funny. Being in VDP means you laugh at all jokes, especially the unfunny ones. Because you are so nice.

VDP are now taking things to a new level. This weekend they are set to launch an online database of the soup runs all around Dublin city, to allow charities to coordinate their efforts. Very often people who work in homelessness charities say you won’t starve on the streets of Dublin. This isn’t as controversial as you might think.

When out on a soup run, it is common to offer someone a sandwich and some soup, and for them to politely decline, telling you that they’ve already been asked 7 or 8 times that night. There are a plethora of soup runs in Dublin city, with parish action groups and rural charities travelling into the city armed with hi-vis vests, soup, and the best of intentions.

This is a testament to the strong charity culture in Ireland, but time and sandwiches go to waste in the crossfire. VDP hope that the new database will increase the efficiency of groups and individuals doing outreach and soup runs by preventing overlap of days and times.

The database is being launched by the Social Justice Committee of VDP. This committee was established late last year to look further into the social injustices of things like homelessness, identify the root causes of the injustice, and propose viable solutions and actions that Ireland as a nation could take to rectify the injustice.

Jack Natin, the incoming President of VDP, and outgoing member of the Social Justice Committee, explains that the motivation of this work is to bring about larger, structural change – as the society has held soup runs and addressed social injustices immediately, but have not had the opportunity to analyze social issue more closely. “There was no push for long term change, which should be what our society does,” Jack describes, “We should be pushing for our society not to need to exist.”

The committee focuses on one topic per year, and the topic of this year was homelessness, as it is an area that the society and its members already have a great amount of experience in. Along with Jack, Andy McLoughlin and Hugh Fitzgibbon headed up the committee, with three different goals of education, awareness, and push for change.

Andy McLoughlin took charge of the education section, having spent last summer compiling resources on the homelessness crisis, and using this information to hold weekly discussions. Jack explains that “Every week someone new goes away with a question that we want answered. Andy spent his summer finding different sources from which people could answer these questions – Irish Times articles, papers published by various NGOs, government papers, speeches from the Dail.” These resources were collected in a Google Drive, and used throughout the year. In the next meeting, the person who had been tasked with research question returned and presented their answer to the question as best they could.

This may be more easily said than done, as a question might be something like why did the housing crisis start. On the surface this seems to be easily answered, but the questions inevitably lead to complex discussions. Having these complicated questions is important however, maintains Jack, as “We couldn’t really defend a stance on a given topic or have a particularly good impact on a topic if we didn’t know about it ourselves.”

Then there was awareness, which was the next step in the year’s campaign, run by Hugh Fitzgibbon. Awareness-raising involved hosting events centred around the topic of homelessness, such as panel discussions. Jack clarifies the aim of this: “Well I suppose there is no point in us just knowing. Once we’ve educated ourselves, we then try to find out the best way to make other people aware of the problem, and how to solve it.”

The committee has also run a digital campaign to raise awareness called Ask Why. “Its on Facebook and Instagram, about the housing crisis,” says Jack, “It quizzes people on particular statistics to do with the housing crisis… how many houses that are vacant, how many children that are homeless, and the rates at which thats been increasing. Those rates [that] are very high haven’t been seen before in this country, certainly not in modern times.”

The last part of the project is where the soup run database comes in – push for change. The committee is determined that they “don’t just want to talk about it, we don’t just want other people to talk about it. We want something to actually happen.” This is the stage that VDP members are most involved in, in terms of putting away hours to the project.

After a period of data collection, done online, through phone calls, and by sending out teams to find and talk to soup runs in the city, the database is ready to be launched online. This took enormous effort on the part of the volunteers, with between 8 and 16 volunteers out collecting data every day of a week.

Niall Molloy, a third year computer science student contacted his department to organize the database and website building projects. In Trinity, second and third year computer science students do a module where they build some software or a website for an outside organization. VDP managed to be included in this module, making the most of the great resources and varied skills students have within the college. A team of second years worked on the project to compile the data, and Niall managed the website construction.

The work that the committee has done shows the value of well informed discussions and critical analysis of our society at large. Many of the conversations held in the social justice committee return to governmental policies, plans, and structures, such as the Rebuilding Ireland plan, and policies implemented in the recession.

The key cause of homelessness is the current housing crisis – housing prices are so high people can’t afford their rent anymore. Many of the tools and regulations designed to control rent prices, such as rent caps in high pressure zones,aren’t functioning as well as intended and failing in their intention. The social justice committee is interesting in that no one political party seems to dominate the group. Partisan politics are rarely discussed in the meetings, and are never the centre points in debates. However, they are not slow to criticize the government at large. Jack points to very simple actions that could be taken: “We need more houses or we need the government to put vacant properties back on the market.

A lot people are just holding on to properties because they know that prices will just keep on rising, and they can put it on the private rental market. Properties owned by NAMA are going to waste. There needs to be some sort of penalty on people holding on to vacant properties. The government’s plan is to build more social housing and that’s a good plan, but they haven’t been building anywhere near to where they promised. They’ve built about a third of what they had promised to reach at this stage. “

The committee also had some interesting findings on Ireland’s response to homelessness. One of the reasons that soup runs, and other responses to homelessness, are so disparate is that many of them are run by different church groups or separate parishes. Jack describes the landscape of the charity community in Ireland: “Almost every charity in Ireland was set up by some religious organization. Even the big ones to do with homelessness: Simon, St. Vincent de Pauls, Father Peter McVerry… A lot of them are religious in their foundations. This may be the reason why there are so many as opposed to one central system. Even with the soup runs, so many of them are related to a particular church group.”

Ireland is interesting, in that many of the basic provisioning and public services necessary for the most vulnerable people in society are provided by private groups of citizens, or by the charity sector. Why is this? “Certainly in recent times, you could point to the fact that we have had so much austerity since the recession. The only people who could, or were willing to, provide for people made homeless were charities,” explains Jack. He elaborates that “Single-parent benefits were cut during the recession for example, and that resulted in a lot of single-parent families becoming homeless. They represent a huge proportion of the people who have recently become homeless. In the US its similar, in terms of charities having to do a lot, where the government isn’t doing enough.”

Jack hopes that the tool of the database will make a big difference in “freeing up those human resources so that they might possibly be used in other services.” He explains that “Loads of people want to help solve homelessness but the only way they see of doing this is the soup runs.” There are other ways to help that the committee are interested in, which include both political lobbying and an in-depth outreach which will allow homeless people to build up lasting relationships with volunteers.

Jack seems to have thought a lot about the issue of political engagement and volunteering. “A lot of people want to give of their time, as opposed to getting really politically active.” he clarifies. The things that need to be lobbied on are actually very simple, he says: “There aren’t enough houses being built, and a part of that is because construction materials in Ireland are more expensive than they would be in other countries. That money has to come from somewhere, and that means increasing some sort of taxes.

There has to be some lobbying there from someone for those taxes, which is going to make some people angry and unhappy.” And Irish people, being as non-confrontational as we tend to be, would rather not make people angry and unhappy. Jack impression is that this is “why it is way easier for people to volunteer on the street than getting politically active. Because you see immediate effects, and that’s satisfying, so that is what people want to do.”

Building up lasting relationships was a key point that the committee hit upon this year, and has given them some ideas to move forward with. “One of the best things you can do for someone who is homeless is building relationships. One of the biggest reasons for people becoming homeless is relationship breakdowns, and conversely one of the big reasons for people coming out of homelessness is that they build lasting relationships,” says Jack.

He is eager to find ways to facilitate the building of these relationships. “When you are homeless,” Jack describes, “there’s so much chaos in your life, so much change constantly. Thats why housing is so important in peoples’ lives – to get some sort of permanence and then to look closer at all the other interactions. We changed our name from the soup run to the street outreach because that is what is important – letting people know that someone cares about them and how they are doing.” One idea the committee had for building a community was to establish a regular day sports centre where homeless people could spend time, exercise, and shower, and hopefully build up some lasting relationships, as opposed to a soup run where that “can happen, but possibly isn’t facilitated as much.”

It all seems to come back to community and connectivity, something that we may be losing as a society, as a result of an increased atmosphere of competition and individualization. “One of the ladies who talked to us who was homeless said that the biggest things that got her out of homelessness was that she made a friend. That friend encouraged her that there was hope and that there would be some way out,” recalls Jack. “If everyone could just take some time and start to ask anyone, or people, how they are and how they’re getting on. If everyone cared just a little bit more… It might be a local man who sleeps outside your SuperValu or something, just build a friendship with them.

It might only be half an hour of your week but it could be huge for them. We are trying to find more ways to facilitate people doing that – thinking about this day centre idea.” Members of VDP have also been regularly volunteering in hostels in order to build these relationships, and to build a sense of community. “Certainly in homelessness it’s just one of these things that is key and crucial. In terms of successfully housing someone, and making sure that they don’t become homeless again,” Jack continues. “People need a reason to feel like they are at home,  that this belongs to them. You can’t just have someone in a house and expect them to be fine. You have to look after them and make sure that they are at home.”

Members of the outgoing VDP executive are excited about the database, along with the other work completed by the Social Justice Committee. Kevin O’Leary, the outgoing Vice President of Fundraising, is enthusiastic about the direction that the project is going in: “ I think it’s very important. I also think, as a part of the Saint Vincent de Paul society, social justice is a core part of everything we do. If we are not running our own campaigns and programmes to actually fight for better social justice worldwide it kind of makes us hypocrites in our other society activities.” Tom O’Malley, outgoing President of VDP said of the committee “They are so so great. They are going to do amazing work next year as well.“