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File photo of a man being served food at a soup run Shutterstock/wjarek
soup runs

Dublin's homelessness authority to crack down on 'unofficial' services after ICHH scandal

However, volunteers say hundreds of people could go without food if certain services are shut down.

DUBLIN’S HOMELESSNESS AUTHORITY is to seek greater regulation of organisations providing services for homeless people in the capital as soon as possible in the wake of the Inner City Helping Homeless (ICHH) controversy, according to Dublin City Council’s deputy chief executive.

Brendan Kenny, who has responsibility for the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive (DRHE) in his role, said that due to the high number of informal homeless organisations set up in recent years there is “currently no vetting, no controls, on many people who are actually interacting directly with homeless people”.

Kenny said he doesn’t want “over-regulation” to lead to certain groups disbanding but added: “At the moment there’s nothing and that’s not good enough.”

In a statement released on Tuesday, the DRHE said it is “strongly of the view that greater regulation, vetting, and scrutiny is required for organisations/charities that set themselves up as service providers for homeless persons, including the provision of on-street food services”.

“Several such organisations not funded by the DRHE have come into existence in recent years and the DRHE and our partner agencies will be endeavouring in the coming months to bring the necessary expanded scrutiny and regulation to all such organisations.”

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris last week said there will be a review of garda vetting procedures for the homelessness sector.

The DRHE did not fund ICHH, which is a registered charity, but said it believed the charity should be wound down.

Investigations are continuing into allegations of sexual assault against Anthony Flynn, the late founder of ICHH. The 34-year-old Dublin councillor was found dead in tragic circumstances at his home in East Wall in August.

An internal report for ICHH, released last week, detailed four serious allegations made against Flynn.

Kenny said the allegations made against Flynn highlight how important it is to ensure those working with homeless people are vetted and held to account.

“The idea that an organisation can just spring up without any accountability at all and provide services to the most vulnerable people in the city doesn’t make sense. There needs to be some regulation,” Kenny told The Journal.

Flynn himself was garda vetted and had social care qualifications.

Kenny said a report commissioned by Dublin City Council into the impact of unvetted charities is near completion and will provide further insight on the matter.

When asked about the issue in the Dáil yesterday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin noted that ICHH operated “outside of the scope of mainstream homeless services provided by local authorities and voluntary NGOs, which are subject to a range of oversight arrangements and standards”.

“We have to be alert now to new groups appearing overnight to deal with homelessness issues more generally. And that’s been an ongoing issue.”

Martin added that all people operating in the homeless sector should be properly vetted.

‘Not good enough’

Kenny told The Journal that the DRHE is “very conscious there is a homelessness crisis, even though there’s enough beds for everybody and have been for the last year, there is an issue there”.

“And if there are people who want to provide a service in the city, we don’t want to throw all that out either. But we’re saying there needs to be better regulations, more vetting and more scrutiny.

“We don’t want a situation where there is over-regulation, that would just drive these people away altogether, we don’t want that either. But at the moment there’s nothing and that’s not good enough,” he said.

A number of smaller organisations and soup runs, however, fear that increased regulation will do just that: shut them down and result in hundreds of people going hungry every week.

“It would absolutely affect us,” Glenda Harrington, who runs the Friends Helping Friends soup run that operates in Dublin city three nights a week, told The Journal.

Harrington said she had no issue with being garda vetted – she already is for work – and implemented greater food safety measures, but she has no interest in becoming an official charity.

“You’d need a board of directors and an accountant and all that. We’re a small team of volunteers who want to help homeless people. We’ve no interest in becoming a charity or a business.”

Harrington said a number of the volunteers who help run services like Friends Helping Friends were once homeless themselves and may struggle to get garda clearance.

“I would have a concern about that because a lot of the soup run volunteers are in recovery so they may have been on drugs, got clean, got their lives together and are out feeding homeless people to give them that little glimmer of hope to say, ‘I was where you are, and it’s possible to get clean and get your life together’.

“So a lot of them probably wouldn’t get garda clearance because from when they were on drugs in their previous life they have criminal convictions. So I don’t know how that would work. I would hate for people who are in recovery that are doing such a good job to be penalised like that.”

It should be noted that having a criminal conviction does not automatically preclude a person from being garda vetted successfully, it would depend on the individual case and related circumstances.

Harrington said she is “100% open” to meeting with DRHE to discuss the best way to move forward, but fears the end goal is to close down unofficial soup runs.

“They want to shut us down, we’re an embarrassment to them. Clearly we’re needed, judging by the length of the queues that are there, we’re out three nights a week so the services that they’re providing are not working basically.

“All of us volunteers take time out of our days of our lives to do what we’re doing. And we wouldn’t if we weren’t needed so badly. We’re not going anywhere. I’m feeding 300 people a night and so is [the Homeless Street Café]. I put on an extra night, I’m doing three nights a week, so we’re clearly needed.

“We don’t want to be a charity. We don’t want to be like ICHH or any of the other ones, they are all businesses and charities with full-time staff. We’re volunteers, we just want to feed the people who need us and go home.”

Friends Helping Friends was one of a number of soup runs inspected by the HSE over the summer. They were told that areas of non-compliance must be rectified before 27 July.

Harrington said she is committed to ensuring the food service she provides meets the necessary standards.

Since the HSE inspection she implemented extra safety and hygiene measures – such as ensuring food is kept at a certain temperature, displaying an allergen list, and making sure all volunteers wear gloves and hair nets – to ensure compliance.

She said she and Denise Carroll from the Homeless Street Café, another of the soup runs inspected in the summer, are due to take part in health and safety training arranged by the HSE next month.  

Assaults in hostels

Kenny said the large number of pop-up soup runs mean some people are less likely to engage with the larger charities funded by the DRHE and in turn, less likely to engage with their support services.

The DRHE views sleeping in a homeless hostel, rather than on the street, as a “much safer” option. However, he acknowledged that some homeless people don’t want to stay in a hostel – for a variety of reasons.

“We fully understand that but we’re strongly of the view that a hostel bed is absolutely more safer and more hygienic than sleeping in a sleeping bag on the side or a street or in a tent. We know there are some people that just won’t go to a hostel – it may be that they have mental health issues.

“We are also aware that some people would prefer to stay in a tent in order to stay involved in drugs and be taking drugs because they may not be able to do it in the hostel.”

Kenny added that while hostels provide shelter and food, they “wouldn’t be the nicest place to sleep” but are still “far safer” than being on the street.

“There’s a duplication of services and you’d wonder if it is helping the situation in any way,” Kenny said.

Harrington said many of the homeless people she meets tell her they fear sleeping in a hostel because of drug use within the hostels and, in some cases, they have been physically or sexually assaulted.

“They’re not safe. There’s drug use, there’s sexual assault. There are loads of reasons as to why people (don’t want to stay in hostels),” she told us.

“The official line is that hostels are safe but homeless people well tell you a completely different story, the hostels are often not safe.”

Tourists and fights

Kenny also noted that sometimes tourists or those who are not homeless queue up to get food from the soup runs. He said fights also break out sometimes.

“We’ve come across situations of tourists maybe going up to a food van and getting food, and maybe other people that are not in need of services. And the reality is that anybody that’s sleeping in a hostel, food is provided for them so there is not a shortage of food in the hostel services.

“[Soup runs] do attract a lot of people. I know there are times when large numbers of vulnerable people congregate and you end up with disputes and fights as well.”

Harrington said she “never experienced a tourist or somebody not in need to stand in my queue”.

“It’s degrading enough to stand in a queue for a bowl of food, you’re not just going to do it for the laugh – that’s a ridiculous statement. As for fights breaking out? Yeah that does happen and it has happened. It’s frustration - when they’re standing in the queue, they’re worried the food is going to go, they’re worried they’re going to get to the top and there’ll be nothing left.”

However, she said any altercation she has witnessed is quickly resolved and she has never needed to call the gardaí.

“The homeless people have so much respect for us for what we do. If a fight starts, I’d ‘lads give over, you’re gonna get me shut down’ and they say sorry and stop. We’ve never had an incident where we had to call the guards or anything like that, they’re actually quite respectful to us.”

‘Utterly useless’

This week David Hall, the former chair of ICHH, said the controversy in recent weeks has highlighted how “utterly useless” Ireland’s charity regulatory system is. He said “change is needed to weed out bad players and protect good charities”.

In response to this, a spokesperson for the Charities Regulator told The Journal the organisation “has been in regular contact with Inner City Helping Homeless (ICHH) since 30 July 2021, when the Regulator informed ICHH that it had received serious concerns in relation to services provided by the charity”.

They added: “The serious matters that have arisen at ICHH have highlighted the significant responsibilities that all registered charities have when providing services to vulnerable persons.

“While issues of safeguarding are beyond the remit of the Charities Regulator, we nevertheless recognise the importance and necessity for any registered charity or prospective charity that deals with children or vulnerable adults to be fully informed in respect of all applicable safeguarding requirements.”

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