Fr Peter McVerry: A saint? If he is, he’s an angry one
‘There are 15,000 people homeless. And much worse is coming down the road’
Peter McVerry photographed by Nick Bradshaw
Fr Peter McVerry arrives for our interview exactly on time, with his Jack Russell, Jack, in tow, and immediately apologises for being late.
I tell him he’s not late, and then realise he’s referring to his request to put our meeting time back by an hour because he had to say Mass.
McVerry has become such a familiar figure on our TV screens – attending homeless protests, often with the nervy little dog, Jack, at his ankles – that you forget he’s also a priest in active ministry. “I am,” he says. “I say Mass every Sunday, at Wheatfield prison. I do a lot of baptisms for homeless people, and a lot of funerals. Far too many funerals.”
We meet in the Peter McVerry Trust’s new offices on Berkeley Street in Dublin 7, overhead the youth cafe. It’s a bright, busy and warm space, with lime green chairs and embroidered Ikea scatter cushions. Two young people are slouched at a table, chatting. Someone is busy at one of the desktop computers. Volunteers are milling around, helping with IT issues, making offers of tea. There are counselling sessions under way in the private rooms downstairs, so we file upstairs to McVerry’s minuscule, newly refurbished office.
“Don’t pet the dog,” he warns, as Jack hops into a plush bed under McVerry’s desk.
I’d been living in Dublin for so many years, and I never knew that people lived in these conditions. I’d no idea
A wiry young man follows us up. He’d like a word with Fr McVerry, he says. A complicated negotiation ensues. It seems he has to go over to the other side of town to fill in a form, and wants money for something to eat. “You can eat here,” McVerry tells him, taking coins out of his own pocket, “but I’ll give you the bus fare.” He counts it out exactly.
The man, a boy really, settles for that. He insists on pulling an extra chair into McVerry’s office, which is devoid of personal momentos, settling them with a flourish. “He’s a saint,” he says of McVerry. “A living saint.”
McVerry may well be a saint but, if so, he is an angry one.
He has been dealing with the homeless problem since the 1970s, when he arrived in Dublin as a young Jesuit priest. He grew up in comfortable, middle class surroundings in Newry, the son and nephew of a doctor, whose brothers all grew up to be doctors too.
Until he landed in Summerhill, in Dublin’s north inner city, he believed, like many middle class people do, that everyone enjoyed more or less the same advantages they did: a home, a comfortable bed, a warm coat, parents who love them. Educated in Clongowes and then UCD, nothing in his life up to that point had prepared him for the poverty he encountered in the inner city.
He subsequently said those six years totally transformed him. “I’d been living in Dublin for so many years, and I never knew that people lived in these conditions. I’d no idea. That gives me a sympathy for middle class people who maybe are not agitated about homelessness and poverty. Because, like me, they are totally unaware of the reality of it.”
One of those he came across was a nine-year-old boy who was sleeping on the streets. “This kid lived with alcoholic parents. They had no electricity in the house, and they spent every night in the pub. They’d often come back at one o’clock in the morning and have an almighty row, so this boy decided, at nine, that once it gets dark, I’m out of here.”
McVerry, who got his notion of service to others from his GP father, thought right, we’d better do something.
In 1979, he opened the first hostel for homeless children, before homeless children were even a concept in Irish society, in a three-bed flat in Ballymun with funding allocated by then minister for health Charlie Haughey. “The proposal was on his desk, and he was coming under political pressure to do something about inner city crime, so he told the health board to do it, even though they said they couldn’t see the need for it.”
He took in six boys into that first flat, and instantly became a cook, housekeeper, financial manager, electrician. “We didn’t even think of them as homeless. We thought of it as a place for children whose home situations were unsatisfactory. There was no homelessness, really. There were about 1,000 homeless men, but generally they were people with an alcohol problem.”
Forty years later, homeless children are a grimly familiar concept, and the problem is worse than his most dire imaginings. As recently as six years ago, when he warned publicly of an imminent “tsunami of homelessness”, he was laughed at. I was “ridiculed, told there was no evidence, and accused of scare-mongering. The figure I used was 5,000 homeless people.”
He shakes his head at the memory and gives a short, dry laugh. “Today, by my estimate, there are 15,000 people homeless. And a much worse catastrophe, it seems to me, is coming down the road unless we take radical action.”
Unlike in the past, “the majority of people becoming homeless have only one problem – they lose their private rented accommodation and they don’t have the money to pay for alternative accommodation. They lose it, either because the rent has gone to a level they can no longer afford, or the landlord says they’re selling the house, or they want to do major renovations. Because there is so little social housing available, they end up falling between the cracks.”
The other main reason is marriage breakdown. “We dealt with one man in his 60s, who had worked all his life, reared his children and lived with his wife. He lost his job in the recession and, subsequently, his relationship with his wife broke down. He left the family home and he was sitting on a park bench at 10.30 at night, with nowhere to go. He’d worked, reared his kids, everything. Not a bother on him. And he ended up homeless.”
He stresses the ordinariness of the lives of those who end up homeless. It could happen to almost any of us, he says. “A lot of people learned that during the Celtic Tiger. They had it all: lovely house, good job, nice bank balance, nice car, sometimes two cars, nice holidays. You lose your job, you lose it all. ”
It is in the days before the budget when we meet. Later, chief executive of the Peter McVerry Trust, Pat Doyle, will say he is “delighted” by the focus on housing, particularly the €60 million for emergency accommodation projects.
But McVerry is preoccupied with fears of another homeless catastrophe. “Trying to solve the problem of homelessness without stopping people becoming homeless is like trying to empty a bath with the taps full on,” he says.
He is most worried about the “43,000 mortgages in arrears of more than two years, and many of them, most of them, are unresolvable”. Many of those people could end up homeless “unless the government expands the mortgage to rent scheme and makes it obligatory on the banks to stop repossessing them’. He wants it made illegal to evict people into homelessness for the next three years.
If he was to describe how we ended up here – as a relatively underpopulated, reasonably wealthy country, with plenty of unoccupied homes – to a six-year-old child, he’d say simply: “We stopped building social houses.”
He doesn’t blame politicians for a lack of humanity, but he thinks there’s a lack of passion about solving the problem. “I can sympathise with people who see it as a political problem, and not a human problem, because they don’t have direct experience. Leo Varadkar and Eoghan Murphy should come down and spend a month in this drop-in centre, and then it would become a human problem for them. Homelessness to me is John and Mary and Joe. Homelessness to politicians is a political problem, the same as building a new road in Foxrock.”
What really riles him “is that the Government keeps saying our policies are working. They introduced them in July two years ago, and every single month since then, the number of homeless people has reached a new record level; rents have reached a new record level; the price of housing has gone up. Fine Gael has to take responsibility for this. When they came into office in 2011, there was no such thing as homeless families.”
I wonder what stops him despairing or becoming cynical. He looks as though the idea never occurred to him. “If you can’t stand the heat, get of the kitchen,” he says.
But he’s angry. He’s angry at the Government for, as he sees it, letting this happen, and frustrated by attempts to conceal the true extent of the problem. “The figures are useless; they are totally massaged. The official figure is 9,500, but that doesn’t include 1,600 people who have inexplicably been removed from the homeless figures, or people sleeping in tents or cars, or people who are sofa surfing. And now they’re talking about removing families in hubs from the figures.”
In addition to the 15,000 he believes reflects the true number, there are “at least half a million people whose housing situation is causing them great distress – families in overcrowded households; people in good jobs, who are paying maybe 50 per cent of their income on rent, and worried sick that it’s going to go up to a level they can no longer afford; people in arrears, living in fear of the letter coming in through the door.”
Where homelessness continues to get worse with no end in sight, it is morally justifiable to break into an empty building to highlight the issue
He takes heart from recent protests, including the #RaisetheRoof protests, which saw an estimated 15,000 people take to the streets.
McVerry has said publicly he supports the occupation by protestors of empty buildings. “I do. And when people say, ‘but you’re supporting breaking the law’, I say, ‘I am.’ I believe in the context of homelessness today, where the problem continues to get worse with no end in sight, it is morally justifiable to break into an empty building to highlight the issue. Provided they don’t use any violence, and provided they don’t do any damage to the building, I would fully support them. It’s a symbolic way of raising awareness about the absurdity, the obscenity of having empty buildings with nobody living in them, while families have no homes.”
He believes change will come from the ground up, but stops short of feeling optimistic about the prospect. “An optimist believes things are going to get better because they see the little green shoots that give them that indication. A person who hopes is a person who believes things are going to get better, even when they can’t see any reason for believing it. I am hopeful, but I’m not optimistic.”
The problem, as he sees it, is not a lack of compassion from the public, but a rise in individualism and a lack of solidarity. “Solidarity means there’s no ‘them’ and ‘us’. People end up homeless because their path in life has gone in a totally different direction to the one they expected, often through no fault of their own. And most of us are very lucky our path in life has gone in another direction, usually through little credit to ourselves. Solidarity means we see other people as ourselves, and their problems become our problems.”
He believes the Catholic Church has a role to play in promoting solidarity, but it needs reform. “I’d be in favour of baptism being postponed until a child is old enough to make up their own mind,” he says, by way of example.
He’s also in favour of women priests and celibacy being made optional, though he adds: “I couldn’t do what I’m doing if I had a family, not in the way that I’m doing it. I can be available 24/7. I can live in Ballymun – if I had a family and kids, I may not choose to live there.”
He is a “great fan” of Pope Francis, who’s doing “the best he can, as fast as he can, in trying to turn this big ship around”.
Before Francis, the church had become obsessed with “laws and rules and regulations”. “It was a heartless church, it was a judgmental church, it was a church which condemned people. A lot of people were switched off. I was switched off. He’s made it a church that’s compassionate.”
Does he think Pope Francis has gone far enough to embrace LGBT people? “His most famous comment is who am I to judge, and that says so much,” he says.
The official position that gay people are “intrinsically disordered” is “insulting, offensive, and doesn’t respond to the reality of sexuality. To imply that people have chosen it, and that it’s sinful is, to my mind, an unacceptable theology of sexuality.”
Despite his generally liberal views, there are some respects in which he feels the pendulum has swung too far. He was opposed to the Repeal referendum. “While I’m sympathetic to abortion in certain circumstances, particularly if the life or health of the mother is at risk, or if there are fatal foetal abnormalities, the idea of unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks, I can’t support. For me, it’s a potential human life, and that potential should not be extinguished.”
From that first flat in Ballymun, the Peter McVerry Trust has grown to 20 hostels, accommodating 1,000 people every night; 250 apartments; 350 full-time staff, including a full-time chief executive. McVerry never set out to create an organisational behemoth, and the idea of having to deal with all that admin and HR would fill him with absolute dread. Instead, he says, he was just solving the next problem, and then the next one.
The stories that have affected him most over the years always involve children. “There was one young child whose mother was a heroin user; he had to go into town every morning to buy her heroin, and then bring it home and help her inject it. Not surprisingly, he ended up on heroin too.”
Some people do turn their lives around. Maybe they would have done it anyway, but we’re happy to have made a contribution
He talks about an 11-year-old boy “sent out by his alcoholic parents into prostitution. So there are some very sad stories. And then, on the other hand, some great successes. We have five or six people who were homeless drug users, and are now working with us. We have people who became electricians, bricklayers, gym instructors, life coaches, drug counsellors. That’s the wonderful part of it. Some people do turn their lives around. Maybe they would have done it anyway, but we’re happy to have made a contribution.
“The most important thing for a homeless person is to know that there is somebody who cares about them and who’s willing to support them, because they don’t get that very often.” He stays in touch with some of the children he came across in the 1970s. I ask about the nine-year-old boy who inspired him to set up the first hostel. “I still see him. In fact, that was him downstairs, in the counselling room we couldn’t use.”
Was he a father figure to some of the boys he helped over the years? “We never use that term because, of course, they have their own fathers, no matter how good or bad they may have been. But they do say ‘you’re the father I never had’.”
How does that make him feel? “That makes me sad.”
With his progressive views and his frustrations with the church, if he was coming of age today, does he think he would still become a priest? “I don’t know. There are huge pressures on young people today, huge pressure with regard to sexuality.”
He thinks for a moment. “I became a Jesuit at 18 and, today, the Jesuits wouldn’t take me at 18, they’d tell me to go out and get some experience in the world. I think that’s a good thing. If I had been asked to do that, would I have joined the Jesuits? I don’t know. But I’m glad that I joined. Yes, there is a price to be paid, but the benefits of working with homeless people – that makes the price worthwhile.”
Has anyone ever pitched the idea of a president Peter McVerry, I ask, as he gets up – rather reluctantly – to have his photograph taken. “Ah look, it’s been suggested, but I always treat it like a joke. I say, ‘Listen, what would the unionists in Northern Ireland make of Irish unity if the President of Ireland was a Jesuit priest?’ And that’s usually the end of it. I’d hate to be in that role, where you have to be polite, you have to wear a suit, you have to be nice to people.”
I tell him I think he’s probably quite nice to people. He laughs. “Sometimes.”