Homeless charity faces uncertain future following death of co-founder

Among homeless organisations ICHH chief Anthony Flynn was a controversial figure

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Both inside and outside the Our Lady of Lourdes church on Seán McDermott Street, members of Dublin’s north inner city community lined out in numbers to mark the the funeral of Anthony Flynn in late August.

The funeral Mass heard stories of the 34-year-old giving the clothes off his back to rough sleepers, while out walking the streets with the homeless charity he set up, Inner City Helping Homeless (ICHH).

Independent councillor Christy Burke, delivering the eulogy, spoke about one occasion on which Flynn “took his shoes off” to give them to a homeless man lying on a cardboard box.

Those stories of a dedicated community activist, and tireless worker for the homeless, stand in contrast now to allegations that Flynn had sexually assaulted a number of men through his work with the homeless charity.

The allegations had begun to circulate before his death. Flynn grew up on Dorset Street, and previously worked as a barman in Lloyd’s, his family’s pub on Amiens Street, in Dublin’s north inner city.

As co-founder and later chief executive of ICHH he rose to prominence as a voice frequently heard on radio condemning the homelessness crisis, and the effects it has on those affected by it.

He was elected to Dublin City Council (DCC) as an Independent in 2019, frequently clashing with council management and the Government over housing policy.

ICHH was founded in late 2013, in response to the growing number of rough sleepers on the streets of Dublin, starting out with a soup run and evolving into an office on Amiens Street that gave out clothes, sleeping bags and food.

It offered help to those on the streets on how to get housing, too. Within a few years ICHH became a fixture on the landscape of the homelessness crisis, with 200 volunteers and three full-time staff.

Run with less than €40,000 in funds in 2014, it grew into an organisation that had nearly €900,000 in income last year, and a surplus of more than €360,000. Throughout, its ‘brand’ depended heavily on Flynn.

Boundaries

One senior figure in a large homeless charity said ICHH took a “heart-on-the-sleeve” approach. While it was driven by well-meaning volunteers, its leave-no-one-behind ethos had downsides when it came to setting boundaries. In cases where families were struggling to find emergency accommodation, sleeping in the charity’s office was often the fallback.

In hindsight there had been a blurring of boundaries between those the charity was seeking to help and the volunteers and staff, one ICHH source said.

In May of this year, two men came forward to gardaí to allege they had been sexually assaulted by Flynn, sparking a criminal investigation.

The charity did not learn of the ongoing investigation until early August, at which point Flynn was suspended.

In the days afterwards media reports surfaced stating ICHH had suspended an employee, with separate reports that gardaí were investigating a Dublin politician over sexual assault allegations.

Despite Flynn not being named, he was quickly linked to the allegations on social media, and the following week was found dead in tragic circumstances in his home.

Following his death two further men came forward to allege they had been sexually assaulted by the ICHH founder.

It is understood three of the four alleged assaults related to incidents this year, with one alleged to have taken place in 2020. In several of the cases the men had been taken to Flynn’s home at night by taxi.

An internal report by David Hall, former chairman of ICHH, stated Flynn had secured accommodation through the charity for two of the alleged victims.

Flynn is alleged to have texted one of the men seeking sex, while the man was homeless and being accommodated by ICHH. Another alleged victim, who had turned to Flynn for help while facing eviction, was later allegedly sexually assaulted by him, the report said.

The days after Flynn’s death on August 18th saw an outpouring of grief from the local community, which sought to rally around one of their own. A vigil was held outside the charity’s office, with several hundred people gathering to let off balloons and Chinese lanterns into the air.

There was also anger directed at Hall over the handling of Flynn’s suspension. In the days after Flynn’s death, Hall was advised by gardaí to avoid returning to the office or the inner city, due to the threats, which ultimately led him to step down as chairman.

Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon said recent weeks had “been probably one of the most difficult and emotive times in the inner city that I can remember”.

Many people had given huge amounts of time and trust to the charity, “that has been shattered,” he told The Irish Times. Gannon said there had to be an acknowledgement the allegations detailed people being “hurt in a most cruel, exploitative manner”.

The Dublin Central TD was one of three people nominated as new directors for the charity’s board, who later all withdrew from consideration. He added the services provided by ICHH were “absolutely essential” and the need for them would not disappear if the charity was wound up.

A stream of resignations from its board have left the charity with just one remaining director.

Barrister Remy Farrell had been commissioned to investigate how the matter was handled, with that work ongoing but at an early stage. Now the charity intends to apply for the High Court to appoint an inspector to investigate its affairs and produce a report on its future.

Controversial figure

Among the more established homeless organisations, Flynn was a controversial figure.

While the enthusiasm of ICHH volunteers to brave cold nights to provide food or sleeping bags to the homeless was lauded, some raised concerns about a lack of structure.

Others in the sector, as well as DCC officials, harboured grievances about ICHH’s approach, believing that rough sleepers should be urged to to engage with services, rather than helped with sleeping bags or sandwiches.

There was a boom in the number of volunteer groups seeking to help the homeless after the death of homeless man Jonathan Currie, who was found dead in a doorway near Leinster House in late 2014.

Pat Doyle, chief executive of Peter McVerry Trust, said back then there was less funding for homeless organisations, but services now are “vastly different”.

“The landscape has changed since then, there is no such thing as night-only shelters any more,” he said.

Doyle said groups set up to provide food or supplies to rough sleepers should be “monitored, regulated and licensed” by local authorities. “Why do we think that it’s safe to let people rock up and start handing out food or working with the most vulnerable,” he said.

“I think whether you are a volunteer or paid staff, who is working with vulnerable people, you need to be trained, fully vetted, fully screened,” he added.

Brendan Kenny, DCC assistant chief executive and head of housing, said the local authority wanted to regulate homeless groups, favouring a “permit system” that would offer greater accountability.

The Dublin Region Homeless Executive, the State’s homeless agency in Dublin, called for ICHH to be wound up “as quickly as possible”. The charity had “no future”, even if renamed or restructured, Mr Kenny said.

While homeless authorities are concerned there may be more alleged victims yet to come forward, a Garda spokeswoman said at present gardaí were “not investigating any fresh complaints”.

Others in the homelessness sector said they suspected ICHH would become caught up in controversy of some nature, given its rapid expansion: “[But] I never thought it would be this bad,” one senior homeless charity executive said.

Before the allegations against Flynn, ICHH had been seen by some as being on “the first rungs” of the ladder, beginning to move from a less experienced volunteer-led group towards a larger, professional charity.

Peter McVerry had started out in a similar fashion, professionalising his services only from the early 2000s onwards, before now being at the helm of a highly professional organisation.

One of the strengths of ICHH had been it ability to punch well above its weight in fundraising, drawing a sizable income from donations, largely on back of the PR profile generated by Flynn.

It had partnerships with several large companies, such as the Luas operator Transdev. Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin, who did not wish to comment, donated the royalties from his book on the housing crisis to the charity.

However, because its income came predominantly from donations, it was not subject to external oversight or audit requirements that come attached to State funding.

Day centre

Before the allegations broke into the public, ICHH had been in the advanced stages of planning to open a day centre, which would provide food, showers and washing-machine facilities for the homeless.

A premises on Parnell Square had been selected, and the charity intended to seek some funding for the project from the council, sources said. The plans were shelved when the current controversy emerged.

Flynn had also started internal discussions earlier this year about ICHH potentially providing some targeted LGBT+ homeless services. It is understood he was examining several grants the charity could apply for, to fund work supporting young LGBT+ people. Looking back, some in the charity now express unease over these proposals, in light of the allegations.

For those Flynn helped, the sexual assault allegations are difficult to tally with their memory of someone who “fought everybody’s case”.

When Josh Daly, his partner Jade O’Connor and their four children, were homeless and turned up on the steps of ICHH’s office Flynn helped them secure accommodation.

“He did an awful lot for us, he never left us with nowhere to go,” Daly said, recalling Flynn as a “genuine” man, who would “bend over backwards” to help people.

Within the charity several senior figures believe it has little hope of surviving the scandal, and its services should be taken over by other providers.

The controversy has left many struggling to reconcile their recollections of Flynn’s “passion” to tackle homelessness, alongside questions now about whether this work had been a cover for alleged abuse.