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Kathy Sheridan: Beware the seductive simplicity of Apollo House

Helping homeless people is expensive, time consuming and requires real commitment

A lifelong loathing of “inspirational quotes” was briefly abandoned in 2016 in favour of this: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping’”.

That, bizarrely, came from Fred Rogers, an American famous for Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, an educational television programme for pre-schoolers.

Only 12 months ago, Fred’s quote would have triggered some ferocious eye-rolling around here. But then it turned into the worst of years in our house and few friends escaped their own woes. Across the world, we watched rough beasts slouching towards Bethlehem disguised as Messiahs, as untold numbers of innocents died or tried to flee.

Back here, thanks to Fred, it is the helpers who fill our memories of 2016; specifically, those who are paid to do a job but who crucially, infuse it with the balm of human connection. They range from Carol Browne in the Mater hospital’s A&E department – a nurse who radiates sensitivity, humour and practicality – to a bus inspector at Heuston Station. For years I’ve observed David Byrne, a Duracell bunny of cheerful quips and advice, getting the buses away on time while making the passengers central to the operation. These are the people who make life seem worth the battle.

Yet to many who get their views from social media or banner-waving politicians, the idea of finding calm and humanity in an emergency department (three different hospitals, in our case), or at a bus stop, must seem risible.

Angel or demon

That’s down to the binary approach. This decrees that every organisation, institution or public figure is either angel or demon. There are no shades of grey, never a tiny wobble of uncertainty or concern about complexity. When Apollo House was taken over by volunteers for homeless people, it was not enough to heap ostentatious praise on the occupiers; the existing service providers had to be pulled down. A case of angelic volunteers versus parasitic, homeless charities “cashing in” on the crisis.

One well-tweeted post complained that “all” of the millions, given by Government, “is being spent on huge salaries”. A typical response to concerns about the safety of people in Apollo House: “Stupid safety concerns – once people are in off the street, they’re safe.” Frontline workers know this to be patently untrue. The last emergency homeless hostel set up by Dublin City Council in 2011, resulted in people choosing to sleep on the streets rather than risk their safety inside, and culminated in the call to the Peter McVerry Trust to decommission the massive, bloodied, vomitous shambles.

“It is BECAUSE they are very well staffed by trained, highly skilled, committed people, BECAUSE of the intensive preventative work 24/7, that we are not reading about more deaths in congregated settings [hostels etc]”, says one frontline worker. That’s because this sector is like no other. Half the clients have drug or alcohol problems and another 20 per cent have serious mental health problems. A setting with around 20 -30 clients requires eight to 10 staff to keep them safe 24/7. Wouldn’t it be odd if homeless charities did not spend the vast bulk of their income on staff?

Volunteers

The problem, says the worker, is that people think that volunteers can do anything trained staff can do. “It’s the ideology that goes with the soup runs. I’ve worked with volunteers all my life and the reality is that volunteers let you down . . . The distraction threshold is lower.”

The real debate of course comes down to the public vision of what is appropriate to the sector’s needs. If money is the issue, the ultimate way to reduce staff costs, obviously, is to provide homes, not hostel beds – and with them all the vital, high-level supports for those with long-term addictions and trauma. A sector worker who has misgivings about the Apollo House set-up, believes nonetheless that “squatting needs to happen”; but it must be in houses, perhaps seven of them at a time, close enough to allow the occupants to defend each other. But would middle Ireland, so relaxed about the breaching of an ugly monolith up for demolition, be quite as comfortable with that? How far are we prepared to go with direct action ?

Do we know what we are talking about here ? Are people familiar with say, the Housing First model, originating in New York, which gives priority to the chronically homeless? If not, the “Housing First” episode of The Inquiry on the BBC World Service website is well worth a listen.

One veteran service worker reckons there is a kind of cognitive dissonance among some of the posters and commentators. “I don’t think the people who talk about ‘junkie scumbags all over town’ understand that they’re talking about the same people.”

Or understand that the many foreign nationals who sleep on Dublin’s streets rather than suffer the ignominy of returning home destitute, have their match in Irish counterparts on the streets of London tonight.

The helpers come in many guises. Look for them.