A life spent helping the less fortunate
"We were beautifully naive," recalls Alice Leahy of founding Trust in the 1970s.
IRISH LIVES:It’s early morning and a queue is already forming outside the old red-brick basement.
Dozens file into the centre where they can get breakfast, a shower, a change of clothes and help with practical issues such as welfare applications or medication. Others need urgent help with feet or legs needing medical attention.
They have come from all parts of the city – from hostels and squats, parks and pavements – to spend an hour or so with an organisation that opens its doors to anyone in need of a helping hand.
It could be depressing. But the brightly coloured walls and wooden floors feel warm and welcoming.
On the walls there are photographic portraits of some of the people who have used the service over the years.
You might expect Alice Leahy, the woman who co-founded Trust more than 35 years ago, to feel jaded at the never-ending procession of people in search of assistance.
But the Tipperary woman – now aged 70 – takes an interest in homeless people as if she were seeing them for the first time. There are no detailed forms to fill or invasive questions asked. Instead, there is an air of welcome and acceptance.
“If you look around, people are all under pressure. They don’t spend time with people. But if you make time, it can make one person feel better and feel like a human being.”
Born in Fethard, she grew up in a house which was lively with activity and debate.
“There was discussion, debate, craftwork, recycling – that was long before the term was coined. We would go to visit elderly people, there was nothing special about it. There was just a real sense of community.”
She later trained as a nurse. Above and beyond her duties as a ward sister, helping to set up an intensive care unit on Baggot Street, she and Dr David Magee prepared a report in the early 1970s entitled Medical Care for the Vagrant in Ireland.
It reflected an Ireland that seemed to be losing touch with its roots. For example, it highlighted how there had been no difficulty until a few years before in getting vulnerable men admitted to hospital; in the meantime, the position had become “alarming”.
This led to the establishment of Trust by Leahy and others who were concerned at how the system wasn’t catering to the needs of those who required the most help.
“We were beautifully naive,” recalls Leahy. “We thought it would all be solved within six months . . . I remember a senior official at the Department of Health saying after we started, ‘Ah, sure, they’ll come and go and they’ll be gone in a year’. But the great thing is we’ve kept that vision and enthusiasm and stuck with it.”
Expansion in services
Homelessness has changed in recent decades – and it has also stayed the same. These days many of those seeking help are from countries such as Poland, Latvia or the UK. But despite an expansion in services, she feels many still don’t fit into the system.
“This isn’t a housing issue. If it was, we would have solved it long ago. This is everything to do with people with mental health problems, alcohol or drug addiction, other problems in their lives, or maybe they just dont fit in or they lack confidence.
“These days we hear things like, ‘there’s no need for access to emergency shelters’. But these are people whose entire lives are emergencies. Of course they need support and access to shelter.”
A major bugbear, she says, is that official services remain too bureaucratic. These agencies speak of evidence-based responses, but to Leahy the focus is too often on “box-ticking” rather than meeting people’s real needs.
Trust survives on support and donations from a combination of groups and businesses, as well many individuals. It receives fresh fruit, bread and clothes. It means Leahy is fiercely independent and has been able to freely criticise governments – and sometimes the voluntary sector as well.
In a few years time Trust will celebrate its 40th anniversary. Leahy – who is married to Charlie Best, a Dublin taxi driver – turned 70 recently. But she laughs off any notion of retirement.
“You’re meant to be falling apart at the seams at this age, but I feel full of energy. My knees might give me a little bit of trouble when I get out of bed, but I keep very active. I walk at least 40 minutes a day and I do transcendental meditation. Twenty minutes in the morning, and sometimes at night as well.
“I follow all the political debates and news – and pull my hair out in the process. My own mother is still alive and well at 93 years of age and living on her own in Fethard. There must be something in my genes.”