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How community living is bringing the homeless in from the cold

A former homeless addict explains how his experience with the charity Stepping Stone worked for him.

"Addiction can bring anyone to their knees. That's when I needed the help."

THE GOVERNMENT HAS some big promises regardless ending homelessness, vowing to eradicate it by 2016.

In a recent interview with TheJournal.ie, the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, Jan O’Sullivan, said that seeing this through would require a lot more than putting a roof over peoples’ heads.

This is something that charity organisation Stepping Stone has known for the last 40 years. Speaking to TheJournal.ie, current CEO and one-time estate agent, Louisa Santoro, said that homelessness has always been about more than simple economics.

“It’s always been about housing with the provisioning of support,” she said. And that is what Stepping Stone does, day in, day out.

It wasn’t long before the former estate agent wanted to combine the skills that paid her with the desire to help that drove her.

“I wanted to find a way to use those skills and join them together,” she said.

There is still a separation. We look at housing as something that is over there and homelessness as something that is over here.

Stepping Stone aims to bridge this gap by placing people into existing, well-established, communities, and, once there, by helping them to reintegrate and become part of that community.

Convinced that Ireland, and its government, still has a long way to go to remove the stigma from homelessness, Santoro is also convinced that what the non-HSE funded charity does is “not revolutionary.”

“To integrate someone, to improve their skills, is of vital importance,” she said. “The separation can hurt. Homeless accommodation can be hugely different from living within a community.”

We talk a great game about integration in Ireland but we don’t do much to achieve it.

‘John’

One such person who knows this only too well is John.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie before his college day starts, the last two years with Stepping Stone have made a huge difference to his life.

Born in Dublin, he struggled with addiction from the age of 18 to 35, and while he was never homeless, it was never far away.

“I always had a couch or something to sleep on, but I was at risk of homelessness,” he said. John believes that a lot more people are at risk of this than people, or government, want to admit to.

Homelessness is a term that needs to be defined clearly. There’s a lot of people who I’d call homeless and they aren’t on the streets. They are living in poverty in their own homes.
They [government] don’t count the people on friend’s couches. To have all those empty properties… I know it’s not as simple as that, but there’s a lot more that could be done by government.

Coming to the end of a stint in supported housing, John was still waiting on follow-on accommodation, despite having been on the housing list for eight years.

It was at this point that Dublin City Council put him in contact with Stepping Stone. Always independent, John was initially reluctant to engage with the charity’s volunteers or ‘befrienders’.

“I’d worked until I was 32,” he said. “I was reluctant initially, thinking ‘why do I need this?’”

After two years, however, John can see the difference they’ve made. “The whole experience has been very positive,” he tells me, remembering the times when he needed that helping hand.

‘Addiction can bring anyone to their knees.’

“When I was in Stepping Stone, I had a couple of little blips,” he said.

Addiction can bring anyone to their knees. That’s when I needed the help.

“Things that would normally be simple would become like mountains and would lead to anxiety,” he said. Trish (who works at Stepping Stone) helped John to get over the hump.

“One week it’d the fine, the next week I’d procrastinate,” he said of the college forms that needed to be filled in.

“It was good to have a constant,” he added. “Since Christmas, I’ve had less and less contact [with Trish], but I know she’s always there.”

I can’t stress how much of a change the last two years have made.
Sometimes you’re just doing your normal day-to-day, and then you’d reflect. Two years in a long time, and it’s been one of the most transforming things in my life.

I’m not ashamed of it, but I need to be prudent about it.

On the subject of sharing his past with the new people in his life, John knows that there are pros and cons to it.

“I don’t mind letting people know. It is a part of me,” he said. “I’m not ashamed of it, but I need to be prudent about it.”

A lot of people wouldn’t have experience with homeless people, and others that do would have a negative view. You never know who your next employer is going to be. It’s about being prudent more than being ashamed.

On government’s goal of 2016, Santora remains unsure:

I think its absolutely achievable but I don’t think they’re doing nearly enough. There remains this huge difference between homeless people and housing.
We still treat homeless people as being different to us.

In her interview with TheJournal.ie, O’Sullivan said that although the date was ambitious, a failure to achieve it would be a poor reflection on who we are as a people.

I don’t think any civilised society should have people in the kind of numbers we have at the moment that out on the streets, particularly in our capital city where it’s a real problem.

The next three years will tell.

Read: Minister for housing says ex-residents of Priory Hall are ‘in a dreadful situation’ >

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About the author:

Paul Hyland

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