Patsy McGarry: Growth in charities and homeless crisis

Time for State to consider creating much needed and appropriate institutional care

“The number of addicts and people with psychiatric issues sleeping rough on our streets seems larger.” Photograph: The Irish Times

In November 1988 I wrote in the Irish Press about Marese, a homeless woman who lived in a cardboard box across from the Dáil. "There's a lady in a box opposite Leinster House. She has been living there for two years," it went. She slept every night on the top steps of the entrance to Kildare House.

"She sleeps in another box sometimes" and "during the day she stores the box-in-use to one side of the entrance to 19 Molesworth Street, around the corner". It was close to where Jonathan Corrie was found dead on December 1st, 2014.

The Marese story prompted the now familiar pre-Christmas furore over homelessness in the city, which then dies as the old year melds into the new.

Marese slept at Kildare House because of the Garda presence at Leinster House across the road. She had been robbed and harassed by drunks in Kildare Place, nearby where she had been sleeping rough for eight years.


She was in her 50s then. Her problem was alcohol. Jonathan Corrie’s was drugs. He died of a multi-drug overdose, as the Coroner’s Court was told in Dublin last month.

No one seems to know what became of Marese.

Cardboard box

A year previously, in December 1987, I wrote in the

Irish Press

on homeless children in Dublin. “It was well after midnight at the main entrance to Liberty Hall in Dublin. There were three of them, boys aged between 10 and 13. They lay fast asleep inside a large cardboard box, hoods on heads, bodies wrapped around one another. Their feet stuck out through the bottom, protruding on to the footpath. The temperature that night was minus two degrees Celsius.”

In that article I quoted Fr Peter McVerry. "The politicians do not care enough," he said. Sr Stanislaus Kennedy wondered how it was possible for the politicians to find money overnight for Loughan House and Spike Island (then detention centres for young offenders) while at the same time allowing the HOPE hostel for homeless boys to close due to lack of funds.

Since when, and annually, it has been "déja vous all over again" every December. Need this be so?

A major concern for people involved with the homelessness issue in the late 1980s was the high incidence of patients discharged from psychiatric hospitals among those sleeping on the streets and in our prisons. It was a side-effect of the programme for psychiatric community care which saw the phasing out of larger psychiatric institutions.

In March 1988, a spokesman for Dublin Simon told me for another Irish Press article that many such psychiatric patients were then sleeping rough in Dublin, while up to 20 others lived in conditions "unfit for animals" at two houses in the north inner city.

All that has changed since is that the number of addicts and people with psychiatric issues sleeping rough on our streets seems larger. Was the old way not better? Was it not better to house and treat such people in an institutional setting, ideally small in scale, than have them live out “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” lives on our streets?

Alice Leahy is founder of Trust, one of the longest-running homeless agencies in Dublin. Set up in 1975, it has sought little State support and deals with the roughest of rough sleepers.

Many of the people sleeping rough were “severely ill and in need of asylum. We’re not dealing with that at all now,” she said recently. “Experience has taught us that many of them end up in prison for their own safety. There’s very little common sense in how we deal with people like that.”

Common sense would also seem to dictate that monies currently being spent on our many overlapping homeless charities, with their expensive managements, would be far better utilised in creating appropriate institutional care and recovery settings for those addicts/psychiatrically ill currently sleeping rough on our streets or in our prisons.

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent