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'If you said 50 years ago there would be families living in tents because they can't afford rent, I would have laughed'

The Dublin Simon Community is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. How different was the homeless problem back in 1969?

Homeless peoples' tents on the banks of the Royal Canal in Dublin, 2017.
Homeless peoples' tents on the banks of the Royal Canal in Dublin, 2017.
Image: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

THE PROBLEMS WITH homelessness across the country are much more difficult and complex than they were 50 years ago, a founding volunteer for homeless charity the Dublin Simon Community has said. 

The charity is celebrating 50 years in operation tonight, heading back to the location where its first food run was held in 1969. 

Back then, a group of 60 Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin students decided to bring soup and sandwiches to the people sleeping rough on the streets of Dublin. 

One of these volunteers, retired RTÉ producer Larry Masterson said that homelessness in Ireland has changed hugely since the group first counted 80 rough sleepers in a head count across the city in 1969. He described this figure as “laughable” compared to 2019.

Most recent homeless figures for September show there are over 10,000 homeless people in Ireland. There are 1,756 homeless families with 3,873 homeless children, according to figures from the Department of Housing.  

Masterson attended a lecture at University College Dublin by Anton Wallich-Clifford, who founded the Simon Community in London in 1963.  

“I was extremely impressed by what he has to say and his direct action in working with homeless people,” Masterson told TheJournal.ie. “You would be conscious of it if you lived in Dublin or Cork or any of the cities, it would be visible and obvious but not to the extent they are today, it was a different type of homelessness.” 

If you had said to me back in 1969 that I could walk down the banks of the canal in Dublin, for example, and see tents with homeless families with children simply because they can’t afford to buy a house or rent, I would have laughed at you back then and said this is not going to happen.

“His vision and his direct action were an inspiration and that led to us setting up the  Simon Community here,” said Masterson of Wallich-Clifford. 

At that time, the main demographic of homeless people encountered by the group was middle-aged men who had addiction problems associated with alcohol, Masterson said. 

“We had very, very few economic homeless people,” he said. “A lot of the men had served in World War II… and many had ended up resorting to alcohol, and as a result couldn’t work and became homeless.” 

“I find it hard to believe it has come about. The problem with homelessness is just so big and so complex compared to what it was back 50 years ago.”

The charity is holding an event tonight in Trinity College Dublin with Masterson and other volunteers from across the decades discussing their experiences helping homeless people across the city. 

CEO of the Simon Community Sam McGuinness said the group is asking for the government to “break the cycle of fear and despair” for those experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity”.

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The Dublin Simon Community has contacted TheJournal.ie to say it is not currently aware of any families living in tents on the Royal Canal. 

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