Alice Leahy: ‘Big protests are not the way to solve the homeless crisis’
Campaigner for the homeless on her memoir, poverty and books with a happy ending
Alice Leahy: “I grew up in a community where we all looked out for each other. So I decided I would like to get back to working more with people.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
There is a scene about a third of the way through Alice Leahy’s memoir when she is considering taking a course in public speaking. She asks Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole for advice as to whether she should do it or not.
“No, Alice. You could give it,” is his response.
He was right. There’s not much anyone could teach Alice Leahy (76), a social activist for almost her entire life, about how to put her message across. She has long been a tireless campaigner, advocate and voice for the homeless – she set up Trust, now known as the Alice Leahy Trust, in 1975.
The Stars Are Our Only Warmth is the title of Leahy’s memoir. It was written with the help of journalist Catherine Cleary, over a period of almost three years.
We are the last of a generation that remembers the big house
We are sitting in a Dublin hotel, talking over coffee. When I arrived, Leahy was already in conversation with two women, who had recognised her before she had even sat down, and come over to talk about the work she does. It says a lot about how highly that work is rated by ordinary members of the public that she has such recognition: working with the homeless of Dublin could never be considered to be anything in the realm of celebrity.
Leahy, now 76, grew up in Co Tipperary, near Fethard. Her father worked on the Annesgift estate; a Georgian country house, where the family had the estate cottage. “We are the last of a generation that remembers the big house and its army of workers.”
She trained as a nurse in Dublin; at the then Royal City of Dublin Hospital in Baggot Street. (The nurses’ accommodation at the time was located in the building which is now part of the Dylan Hotel, on Eastmoreland Place.) Then she went on to specialise as a midwife, training at the Rotunda.
The Irish public health service may still be lacking in many ways, but at least the role of women in running hospitals is now more democratic than the draconian-type standards of the 1960s.
“I think a lot of nursing sisters were like nuns,” she recalls. “The nurses were all women and they ran the hospitals almost like convents. They were very institutional kind of places. I had the sense that working in the hospital took up all their lives and that these women were expected to dedicate their lives to the work.”
Leahy’s social conscience was evident from young adulthood. Many of the pregnant women she came in contact with at the Rotunda had come from inner-city backgrounds where money was very short. She accompanied the district nurse – equivalent of today’s public health nurse – on her home visits to women about to give birth, or who had just left hospital after giving birth. They went to the most deprived parts of Dublin at that time, into homes where Leahy identified the smell of poverty for the first time.
“It has changed little and you recognise it instantly because it never leaves you. It is the dankness of old unheated walls, mould, and all that goes with that,” she writes.
Does the poverty she encounters now have the same kind of smell. “It does,” she says. “It is not the same type of poverty, but the smell is the same. And it’s one we are likely to encounter again down the road for years to come, with some of the housing complexes that have been built.”
In the 1970s, Leahy made the decision to leave a career in nursing and to work instead for the Dublin Simon Community. The homeless and vulnerable people it served were the people she wanted to most work with. It is probably still the least possible glamorous career anyone could choose. Why did a young woman want to take on this difficult and challenging work; a job that became a life’s work?
“I grew up in a community where we all looked out for each other. So I decided I would like to get back to working more with people. I wanted to put my nursing experience to good use, and I did,” she says.
Ever since then, she has worked in the community. From 1975, she was co-founder and director of Trust; a social and health service for homeless people. It’s a place where anyone who needs a shower, or advice on housing or medication, or a cup of tea, or simply a conversation with another person can come and find it, no questions asked. A place where people who have very little are allowed to retain their dignity.
The organisation is now named the Alice Leahy Trust, but she’s anxious to point out that “it’s not about me. It’s about the agency, and the work we do, and it will continue to function whenever I retire”.
She has no plans for retirement and is curious as why I’ve asked.
Leahy rolls her eyes when she mentions the names of some of the candidates
“Would you ask a man that?” she says, and I tell her yes, I would ask a 76-year-old man who is still working full time if he had any plans for his future working life. “I am taking it a bit easier with the hands-on work,” she says. “I have great people working with me and I am good at delegating. And I don’t believe in martyrdom.”
The day we meet is the day after nominations for the upcoming presidential election have closed. Has she ever considered running for political office? She says no, and never will – and rolls her eyes when she mentions the names of some of the candidates.
As an advocate for homeless people for several decades, there is particular authority behind what Leahy has to say on the subject of the ongoing housing crisis. She sums up powerfully the source of the problem: “The simple idea that massive social capital is created when the State provides good public housing has yet to take a real hold on public policy.”
There are some statistics to this effect in the book. In 1975, the year the Trust was set up, local authorities built nearly 9,000 homes. In 2015, the figure was 64.
“I don’t think big protests are the way to try and solve the problem,” she says. “There are huge numbers of people protesting about homelessness, but I wonder if we could channel that energy into something more positive? I would like to see students in universities and people in communities maybe having some kind of town hall debates on the subject; opening it up in an environment that isn’t aggressive; coming up with ideas.”
Leahy has strong opinions about the responsibilities of the State to provide services for vulnerable people, such as those who come through their doors. “Over the years, I have been asked to run a methadone clinic, a dental service and many other health services.” She has always refused to do so, and has her reasons.
People with serious mental health problems should be looked after by the State
“NGOs need to ask if this is right. There is a need for the voluntary sector, but I think the State are bypassing some of their responsibilities by asking voluntary services to deal with the more difficult people, especially those with mental health problems. People with serious mental health problems should be looked after by the State.”
There are many stories in her book of people who have come through their doors over the years. The one that stays most with me afterwards is the story of Marese. She was a homeless woman who slept in a cardboard box near the Dáil. She had almost nothing, except for one possession she treasured: an electric kettle that she hid at the back of the altar in the church in Clarendon Street. She brought Leahy into the church to show it to her. Whoever cleaned and took care of the church turned a blind eye to the presence of the kettle, with which Marese made hot drinks whenever she slipped in from the street on particularly wet days.
The Alice Leahy Trust, a registered charity, depends entirely on donations. There are a staggering number of registered charities in Ireland; more than 8,000. One of them was suicide counselling charity Console, which made national news headlines over a scandal involving appropriation of funds public donations for personal use and was subsequently shut down.
Does Leahy think that 8,000 charities are too many for one small country?
She is careful about her reply. “I think there is a lot of duplication. I would never run down any charity because people get involved with them for all kinds of reasons. And I do think people get very tired of being asked for money constantly, especially at Christmas. But certainly, with Console, huge damage was done to public trust.”
I ask her if she is religious? She saw Pope Francis on his recent visit to Ireland, “but only because Br Kevin rang me and invited me. I wouldn’t have gone to see him otherwise”. Pope Francis went to meet Br Kevin Crowley at the Capuchin Day Centre for Homeless People.
To relax, she does yoga, and reads
“I have faith and I do believe there is a higher power. There is a mystery to life: why are we here, what are we here for, what is the plan for us? I have faith, but I’m not religious.”
To relax, she does yoga, and reads. At the moment, she’s reading Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, and Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, An Antidote to Chaos. She also has a novel by Sheila Flanagan beside the bed. “I think it’s important to have something with a happy ending.”
“You can’t change people unless they want to change themselves,” she says at once. “And how important compassion is. Whether you are JP McManus or someone struggling to raise children in temporary accommodation, your life is important. Everyone’s life is important, no matter what their circumstances are.”
- The Stars Are Our Only Warmth, by Alice Leahy, with Catherine Cleary, is published by O’Brien Press.