Homeless people being failed by system which 'lacks compassion'

Trust co-founder says life for most vulnerable people is harder than it was in the past

Wed, Nov 13, 2013, 21:32

Homeless people who are provided accommodation are often ending up back on the streets due to poor supports and a sense of isolation from the wider community, the director of a charity for homeless people has warned.

Alice Leahy, the co-founder of Trust, an inner-city support centre for homeless people, said too often vulnerable people were seen only as problems to be resolved through a “tick-box” culture.

She an alarming absence of compassion and human contact across health and social services was adding to isolation of homeless people.

“We meet increasing numbers of people who were re-settled in totally unsuitable accommodation, and then find themselves homeless again, an experience that often makes them feel even greater failures and more isolated,” she said.

“It is disturbing to see how undervalued human contact and genuine caring for others has become in so many areas of life, not least in healthcare,” she said.

Homeless policies nowadays promote a “housing first” approach, on the basis that the longer a person stays in emergency accommodation, the more likely they are to remain on the street.

But Ms Leahy said the lack of alternative accommodation options meant that some vulnerable people were ending up in prison.

“Ironically we have got rid of the County Homes, the orphanages and even the psychiatric hospitals, leaving only the prison as the last refuge for many of those who are vulnerable and cannot cope and whose difficulties are only criminalised because there is no where else to send them .”

She was speaking at a conference on the need for compassion in healthcare services.

Ms Leahy, who co-founded Trust almost 40 years ago, said in some respects life for homeless people had become more difficult than it was before.

“Looking at a report I did in 1976 makes depressing reading because it illustrates how little has changed for people apart from closure of small hospitals and changing landscape,” she said.

“From what we see on a daily basis it would appear that the most difficult people were ironically better cared for then. People now are living longer lives, all now seen as a problem rather than a valuable asset.”

She said instead of services which meet the need of individuals, too often vulnerable people with complex needs were being asked to fit into one-size-fits-all supports.

“The people we meet are perceived by the wider society as being different and difficult; and indeed many are. They suffer from the effects of isolation, neglect and health problems, exacerbated by what are often described as chaotic lifestyles.”

She said little will change until those in positions of power are prepared to “sit with people in their misery and poverty, feel their pain, smell the smell of human misery” rather than accepting at face value the statistics presented in “neat boxes with grandiose titles”.