A home of solace and opportunity

For many homeless people, being given a roof over their heads is only the start of the solution


The dense cluster of tangled branches turning in on themselves inside a weeping ash tree is an arresting sight in the grounds of a residential complex in Dublin’s south inner city.

This knotted timber at the heart of a tree renowned for its cascading elegance is the legacy of a lack of regular pruning. But for Declan Dunne, it evokes the lives of the people who live here, ranging in age from just a few weeks to 87 years.

Dunne is the chief executive of Sophia, a voluntary housing agency that has 50 apartments on this site in Cork Street and nearly 250 units in all, in a variety of projects around the country, of which the newest – in Tubbercurry, Co Sligo – was opened by President Michael D Higgins last week.

The organisation takes a holistic approach, based on the belief that, for many homeless people, being given a roof over their heads is only the start of a solution.

“It is about that and it is not about that,” says Dunne. Having worked with Ballymun Regeneration for 10 years before coming to Sophia two years ago, he believes the missing piece in so many troubled lives is the solid foundation of a secure and caring family.

“The whole impact of grinding poverty is profound,” he acknowledges. But in 10 years as chairman of a large boys’ school in Ballymun, he saw that while the majority of the 360-plus pupils got on with life, about 16 or 17 were in great difficulty.

In those cases, “what was going on for the mam and dad was so extreme, the impact on the children was pretty horrendous”.

With neurological science now able to prove that, even in the womb, a baby picks up on a mother’s stress and anxiety, it’s easy to see how family dysfunction is cyclical. More than 50 per cent of the people in Sophia have been in State care – so, by definition, they have been deprived of the birth-family support that so many of us take for granted.

“Some foundation gets put down when we are very young,” says Dunne. Without that foundation, along with, perhaps, the experience of childhood abuse or harm, people carry what he thinks of as “a cold stone in the gut”.

“It is a horrible feeling and it is a terribly insecure feeling, so you want to self-medicate – alcohol, drugs, whatever is going – to take that away.”

He believes in the concept of good enough parents and most people have, or are themselves, parents who can provide a decent foundation on which the next generation’s lives are built. “We are dealing with people where that’s not there.” As a result, they live in chaos and crisis; in a permanent mode of fight or flight. “I feel really strongly that homelessness is only one symptomatic issue of the same core issue, which is the proper social, emotional development of babies and children.”

Dunne observes how costly State services in the areas of justice, addiction, homelessness, school attendance and mental health are all dealing with different facets of the same people – the 10-15 per cent of the Irish population who are in significant difficulty. “My own suspicion is that it is to do with family functioning in early childhood.”

The approach of Sophia, founded in 1999 by Sr Jean Quinn of the Daughters of Wisdom – and taking its name from the Greek for wisdom – has always been to ask what happened in the early years of people who cross its threshold.

A ‘safe space’

There’s a feeling of one big extended family about the place. The comfortable housing is built to a high standard in both a converted Huguenot building and a purpose-built block. Balconies overlook a green space and the Victorian redbrick convent building vacated by the Sisters of Mercy, which Sophia now uses for its head offices.

The 118 children who live here personify the idea of a fresh start. A Nurturing Centre not only provides preschool and afterschool care but also runs parenting courses. Some parents may have little or no firsthand experience of loving, positive parenting to draw on to raise their own children.

Childcare supervisor Jacinta Corcoran recalls how one young mother explained how she felt really awkward reading a story to her child because no one had ever read her a story at home.

Small children act out in play what is going on in their lives, so childcare staff have an ongoing insight into their welfare. There are times, Corcoran says, when they have to make reports to the child-protection services but they will always explain to the parent why they have to do that; unless they fear that informing the parent might put the child at further risk.

However, the supervision and support that Sophia staff provide can be the difference between a child being taken into care and being able to stay with their family.

While independent living is fostered, there are communal spaces where people can socialise. Five-star chef Trevor Kearns presides over a coffee shop, where all food is cooked from scratch, and older children can get together in a dedicated teen room.

An eye-catching Wisdom Centre, which is hired out for small conferences, is another facility that brings in people from the wider community. Practitioners such as yoga teachers, baby-massage specialists and counsellors can use rooms here for a modest fee, in return for offering their services free to people who live on the site.

The increase in whole families losing their homes has been a defining feature of the homelessness crisis in recent years.

Elsewhere in Dublin, Sophia provides some emergency apartments for uprooted families while they search for a new home, but it doesn’t see its core role as helping unfortunate but competent individuals who are priced out of the private rental sector.

“It is not that we don’t care about people having access to affordable housing, but this is a bit different,” says Dunne.

The €2.2-billion investment in social housing announced in Budget 2015 is a significant, long-term step towards reducing the dependency on private rented accommodation that has built up due to the cutbacks in building of local authority houses.

In 2011, in the face of the rising tide of homelessness in the Dublin area, the four local authorities combined to form the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, which runs a Central Placement Service with a 24-hour helpline. People are referred to appropriate services, with Sophia being asked to take those with more complex needs because it has a high level of staff and qualified social-care workers.

“What we are experiencing here is people who have mental health difficulties – they’d have marriage difficulties, chronic, chaotic family situations and are pretty much out of control – being given a last chance.” But the support offered is conditional on a willingness of people to work on themselves.

“We don’t actually think we make any changes in people’s lives – we support them to be agents in their own life. But they have to be ready to do that,” he says. “Essentially we are speaking up for people and connecting them [to services].”

Care workers consult with people for three or four weeks before they come in: finding out their needs but also outlining the boundaries Sophia expects residents to keep.

“What I learnt from Ballymun is that a lot of discomfort children feel [stems from] lack of boundaries,” says Dunne. “I know that’s not a popular thing, possibly, to say, but it is actually true for all of us.”

He draws an analogy from his own parenting experiences. When his son was 15, “if he didn’t come in at 9pm, we didn’t say, ‘That’s grand’. It was like, ‘It will be 8pm tomorrow night.’ Not because we’re cruel, but because we care.”

In the same way, Sophia has rules and expectations for its tenants, who pay 15 per cent of their income in rent. They’re helped to develop practical skills such as budgeting, home management, self-care and cooking. Of course people deviate from their intended path. They are given opportunities to get back on track but, in extreme circumstances, will be asked to leave if their behaviour is putting other residents at risk.

“We fail miserably with about 15 per cent of people,” he says candidly. “But we see some or significant improvements with 85 per cent.”

Considering how heavily the odds in life have been stacked against its tenants, that’s a pretty impressive return. For more information see sophia.ie swayman@irishtimes.com

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