Search the word "homeless" in Google images and the photographs soon spread across your screen will be, for the most part, wrong.
The familiar tropes are quickly laid out: older men crouched on pavements begging with paper-cups; tents erected in city parks; people bedded down in dark doorways in blue sleeping-bags. While these images of the sharp end of homelessness – rough-sleeping – are true, they do not represent the complex experiences of the vast majority of people who lose their homes. More than that, says one charity, the images are a disservice to the vast majority of these people.
"If people perceive homelessness to be just rough-sleeping, then the response is just to build shelters," says Louise Bayliss, campaigns co-ordinator with Focus Ireland. "Homelessness is much more complex than that. It is about being without a home, yes, but the reasons and solutions are much more than more and more homeless shelters."
The most recent data from the Department of Housing shows during the week of August 23rd-29th there were 5,930 adults and children in emergency accommodation in Dublin. The last rough-sleeper count, conducted between April 19th and April 25th, found 125 “unique individuals” sleeping on the capital’s streets. Meanwhile, year after year, the main solution offered to the homelessness crisis is more emergency beds.
In a move Focus Ireland hopes will reframe the conversation, to challenge the simple stereotypes and champion real solutions, it has recruited five formerly homeless people to provide expertise, from lived-experiences, on homelessness.
The Lived Experience Ambassador Programme (Leap) is thought to be the first initiative in Ireland where a charity is bringing its service users into the heart of policy-making, research, advocacy and campaigning. It brings Focus Ireland back to its original “vision and values”, says founder Sr Stanislaus Kennedy.
“It is so important that we listen to what our homeless have to say, because so much of what we see and hear is just about, ‘the homeless’, ‘the homeless’, ‘the homeless’ – that’s a form of othering that silences homeless people, and is damaging,” she says.
The Irish Times has met four of the Leap ambassadors. They have just completed 10 weeks’ of training and workshops in areas including communications, equality, housing policy and social media.
Sinead Gibney, chief commissioner at the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, led a workshop on systemic discrimination against certain groups, such as lone parents and Travellers, in housing.
In another, documentary producer and writer Geoff Power worked with each to tell their own stories.
None of the four slept rough on the streets but all speak of the profoundly destabilising impact not having a home has had on their lives. Each describes exhausting and often painful journeys out of homelessness – journeys they may not have completed without intensive, professional supports.
‘I didn’t go through this for pain for nothing’
When Kelly-Anne Byrne (36), mother of five, was taken into emergency foster care aged four months, both her legs were broken. She was “always very unhappy” as a child, “with a lot of desperation to be wanted”. When she became pregnant aged 16 she had to leave her foster home.
Following the birth of her son she was placed in a homeless hostel on Dublin's North Circular Road. "I felt so alone. I wasn't allowed stay there during the day, so had to leave and walk the streets. It was okay if [the weather] was fine but otherwise the two of us went to McDonald's and sat there all day. I was there until I was 18."
She went on to have three more children and she, her partner and children lived in 11 private-rented homes over the next eight years. Though the relationship was not healthy she found it impossible to leave – believing she “needed him to live”.
About six months after having twins one of the babies died in a cot death. “I went downhill. I did a lot of self-harm. Emotional pain is so hard – you can’t touch it, you can’t fix it. Physical pain – you can see it, you can put a plaster on it, feel like you’re healing it in some form.”
Around that time they were given a notice-to-quit and the relationship ended. She was 26.
"I had to pack all our things. I got the kids. The boys were five and six and my baby was six months. I got the car and we went over to the council in Blanchardstown. I remember waiting on the bench for over an hour, and a guy came over and said we had to make our way in to a hotel in town.
“I sat in the room, thinking, ‘Oh my God, my life. All I have is my children and I have to be there for them and show them love’. They were asking me questions and were terrified. I was terrified. I don’t know how I got through it. The boys were so young. They were after losing their sister, they witnessed losing their sister.
“My baby had to sleep in her buggy. There was no cot. There was just little kettle and a few biscuits.”
Within days, a Focus Ireland key worker got them into more suitable emergency accommodation, nearer home. Still very vulnerable, drinking alone at night and feeling she “couldn’t live” with all that was going on in her head, she took a massive overdose.
The children were taken into emergency care. After a week in hospital she realised she “had do something really big… I needed to change this pathway for me and my children”. She made “the hardest decision”, putting her children into voluntary foster care for almost a year so she could enter residential detoxification and rehabilitation. Following eight months of after-care her children returned to her.
“And then we got our offer of a home in 2016, in north Co Dublin. We started living. We all cherish it, because we know about going without it, without the stability of a home.” She has since had a daughter, now five.
“I am so sorry for what they went through, but you know what? It has made us so close. We can talk about stuff, the bond we have. They have what I never had: a mother, a constant. I hope they’ll never feel the loneliness I felt. I can say to them, ‘I am so sorry’.”
About the Leap project, she says she has always been trying to make sense of her life.
“To be able to use my voice, to be a light-bearer to create positive change, is a huge thing. To think where I came from, where I was rejected as a baby, as a child, had no-one believing in me, to now where I believe in myself and an organisation like Focus Ireland believes in me. I feel so privileged. I didn’t just go through all this for pain for nothing.”
‘I am going to prove this man wrong’
Paul Geoghegan (48), a project leader with another charity, grew up in Ballymun, Dublin. Describing his family as "hardworking, respectable" he "got caught up in drinking, smoking weed". During the 1990s rave-scene he began taking ecstasy and smoking heroin.
“I was in a relationship from my early 20s, and we had a son. We were both still using, but functioning. Our son was born with a disability – he’s wheelchair-bound with cerebral palsy, and we have a daughter. I worked doing a lot of security, but the addiction progressed and life got chaotic.”
The couple voluntarily surrendered the children into the care of Paul’s family. “That was my way out of the relationship but my addiction spiralled. I got involved in the headshop stuff. That stuff brought me to my knees.”
In 2010 he was admitted to the psychiatric unit of James Connolly Memorial Hospital, Dublin where he was told an ulcer on his leg, there several years, could necessitate partial amputation due to potential sepsis.
“I would have been near 37 at that stage. I decided there things needed to change. What use would I be to my son in his wheelchair, if I lost a leg?”
He asked his GP about coming off the methadone. “He kind of laughed, said, ‘You’re a lifer’. I suppose he didn’t know what I had just been through, but it was a kick up the ass … I decided, ‘I am going to prove this man wrong’.
“It took over two years to come off the street stuff and then the methadone. I was doing everything right, for a while, but then I started substituting with alcohol. I thought I wasn’t doing any harm, a few cans, but I couldn’t reel it in.”
He was expelled from his recovery programme, but with effort got onto a residential detox programme in Co Dublin. After, he went into a post-detox rehabilitation in the HSE-run Keltoi centre in the Phoenix Park, and then two years of aftercare.
On leaving Keltoi in 2012 he registered as homeless and was placed in Peter McVerry Trust accommodation for six months. At the end, facing sleeping rough, he insisted he would not make himself destitute. Private rented housing was sourced "and then eventually with the help of Focus Ireland" he was offered a one-bedroom apartment by Dublin City Council in 2014.
He had begun volunteering with a soup-run and later in emergency accommodation services, which led to his current career.
“Delighted” to be involved in Leap he is frustrated with the management of services for people in addiction. “Detox centres are still shut because of Covid; treatment services are reduced. They are looking after one problem but the other one, homelessness and addiction are building up. There’s many in recovery after relapsing during Covid. Many after becoming homeless who were in recovery … They are being thrown back into the fire.
“I hope by sharing my story I can help one or two people to know there is hope. It’s about putting your hand out and asking for help. The help is there but it’s about the consistency and follow-up and having the right services.”
‘I thought I would die’
Scott Buckley (27) was in residential care from age seven because his mother was ill. After her death, when he was 14, he went to live with his older brother and partner, Michelle. Even before he lost his mother, he had developed debilitating psoriasis and a sense of his “brain never settling”.
His brother died when Scott was 16, and he stayed with Michelle until he was 18, though developed panic attacks “so bad I thought I would die”.
“That was really tough. I got social anxiety, depression. I was always stressed. I was so used to being stressed I didn’t know what a relaxed mind was.”
His social worker introduced him to a care-leavers’ accommodation, Chéad Chéim, run by Focus Ireland. “I was there two years and was moved down to the road to a building with less supports. I was a little bit lonely but it was nice.”
He moved to supported housing in Drumcondra for a year, after which he got private-rented accommodation, but the lease was not renewed after the first year.
“I ended up couch surfing. In 2018, eventually, after Focus Ireland helping me, the council sent me out a letter telling me I had a one-bedroom apartment… I didn’t realise until I moved in how good it was to have a place. It was a weight off my mind and helped me begin to relax.”
He completed Focus Ireland's Preparation for Education, Training and Employment course, and went on to work in the Trinity Science Gallery as a guide before securing work in Penney's in 2018.
Through Leap, he hopes to show how crucial housing has been to his physical and emotional wellbeing. “Without the supports I got I would not have the life I have. I don’t know where I’d be.”
‘It is the first place I ever felt was home’
Also a care-leaver Stephanie Clarke (25) resisted the label "homeless" as long as she could.
At 18 she went to aftercare accommodation and at 19 to a private rented house-share in Citywest in Dublin. She had to leave and “in desperation took a place that was too expensive, dirty and damp”, and left there shortly after moving in.
"I stayed in tourist hostels for a few weeks because I just did not want to go into the homeless hostels. In the end I had no other choice. I was staying in hostels in Harcourt Street, Thomas Street. I felt like I did not belong there. I was doing that for eight or nine months."
She was placed in a small studio in supported accommodation but there was “anti-social behaviour” among neighbours who were noisy. “I was very depressed. There were days I could not get out of bed. I hated going home.”
After two years she was allowed to apply for a transfer and was prioritised on the grounds of her care history, mental ill-health and social exclusion. Just before lockdown she moved into her quiet, one-bedroom apartment.
“It is the first place I ever felt was home. I want to tell my story to help people going through something similar. It’s nice to be able to talk for young people like me who don’t do drugs and end up homeless, and to say there is a way out. I am trying to build up my confidence. When I started this I was very quiet but I am finding I can do it.”
‘It is much more difficult now to be homeless’
Reflecting on how Leap chimes with the aspirations she had in those early days of Focus Ireland, or Focus Point as it was, Sr Stan says what struck her in 1985 was not just the physical suffering of the homeless “but the awful way they were treated – the way they were looked down, how people talked down to them, ignored them, shouted at them and how their whole sense of dignity and self-worth was eroded. It really spurred me on, to work not for them but with them.”
There were far fewer homelessness services then. “There are more supports now, yes, but the situation is worse because of Government reneging on promises to build social housing. People are staying homeless longer and the longer they are homeless the more difficult it is to come out of it.
“It is much more difficult now to be homeless. The system is much more complicated and there is a danger of organisations becoming more bureaucratic.
“That is why the participation of customers and tenants, like our Leap ambassadors, is critically important if we are to remain in touch with the reality.
“People who experienced homelessness and the blocks and blockages that were in their way, they can communicate that reality better than any of us can.”
The Leap programme, launched on October 9th, is sponsored by Bord Gáis.