‘Our ultimate objective was to eliminate homelessness’
Peter McVerry is marking three decades of fighting deprivation in Dublin
It started out as a rebel priest in a three-bed flat in Ballymun providing help for young homeless.
Thirty years on, so much and so little has changed.
Today the Peter McVerry Trust employs more than 100 staff, owns 90 apartments and provides a range of supports for more than 1,500 young homeless people.
But the homeless problem remains as intractable as ever. The numbers sleeping on the street or living in temporary accommodation is up to four times greater than it was then.
To mark the trust’s 30th anniversary, Fr McVerry, along with clients who accessed the organisation’s homeless services, gathered at a reception in Áras an Uachtaráin at the invitation of President Michael D Higgins.
Mr Higgins said he was “deeply worried” at the rising numbers of people experiencing homelessness or at risk of losing their homes.
“Those figures add up to a great deal of misery, deprivation and very many people who are denied the safety of a place they can call home,” he said.
But the President also described yesterday’s reception as a celebration of the organisation’s work and a tribute to the energy and enthusiasm of its staff and volunteers.
Fr McVerry, however, admitted to having mixed feelings.
“A celebration? Yes. An awful lot has happened in 30 years. But our ultimate objective was to eliminate homelessness. So, if we had been successful, we wouldn’t be here today.”
Over the past three decades some things have changed for the better, said Fr McVerry.
There are higher-quality services available for vulnerable people, and the State’s response to under-18s has improved vastly in three decades.
But he said people on the street today felt more “stuck” in homelessness than they ever did, despite improvements in supports.
“Thirty years ago, I think homelessness was seen by most people as unfortunate circumstances that someone had fallen into,” he said.
“Nowadays, many people see it as someone’s own fault. Society is more judgmental and exclusionary for those who don’t fit the norm.”
The story of Fr McVerry’s front-line work and the development of the large-scale charity that bears his name seems, to the outside at least, full of contradictions.
He works out of a dark basement at 26 Sherrard Street in Dublin’s north inner city, which doubles as a drop-in centre for lost young men ravaged by homelessness, drugs or a catastrophic loss of self-esteem.
Yet, the Peter McVerry Trust has a turnover of €9 million and raises much of its funds from the great and not-so-good of the corporate world.
He is still as trenchant a critic as ever of social injustice and Government complicity in maintaining inequality.
Yet, the trust is heavily dependent on public money from health authorities, local government and others who often end up the target of his criticism.
“Some organisations have gone quiet because of their dependence on public funding,” Fr McVerry said.
“I have never felt under any pressure to tone down what I’m saying from the trust – and I wouldn’t. I get so angry at the way homeless people are ignored and treated . . . I say what I feel and I’ll continue to do that.”
For the past eight years, the man steering the development of the trust has been Pat Doyle.
He joined the organisation as part of a drive to improve its corporate governance and management team, key factors in attracting State funding.
The trust has expanded rapidly to meet ever-growing demand. It plans to grow further still, increasing the number of apartments for tenants from 90 to 300 in coming years.
While there are many homeless services operating in Ireland, Mr Doyle said, the trust stood apart in that it offered an “open door to the young and the most vulnerable”.
It is now moving towards a “housing first” policy, aimed at getting homeless people out of emergency beds as soon as possible. The idea is that a home can have a stabilising effect on a vulnerable person. But it doesn’t always work out as intended.
“One lad had a party in his apartment on the first night and got arrested. He had half a dozen people in there the next night. They stripped it. We got it back in bits,” Mr Doyle said.
“But, his mother fundraised for us, and we’ve got over it. But this young lad needed a second chance. He’s now moved into his own apartment again, drug-free, and is applying for access to visit his children on Saturdays. We want to do that on a wider scale.”
Billy Shelley (31) has also benefitted from the trust’s work. He ended up homeless as a teenager and ricocheted from hostel to hostel across town for years. Now he has his own place and is getting his life back together.
“I had my own problems. People closed the door on me, but Peter always kept the door open. He’d listen to what I’d have to say, try to help you out. There was always a bit of compassion there,” Mr Shelley said.
He’s since gone through a range of programmes: detox for drug addiction, support services and aftercare. “I’ve been able to progress my life. I’m in recovery now. I have my own apartment,” he added.
“Being in the Áras today, and meeting the President, is something I never thought I’d do... I’ve applied for college, hoping to study youth and community . . . I’m finding that recovery is contagious – it rubs off on other people. Give people a chance, and they’ll take it.”