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Dublin: 14 °C Sunday 21 April, 2019
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Everyone was equal, we left our egos at the door: Why I volunteered at Apollo House

Hazel Larkin tells her personal experience of what supporting residents meant to them – and to her.

Hazel Katherine Larkin

IT’S BEEN a week since Apollo House was vacated.

While not wishing to pretend that I was a key person in the chain of people who made Apollo House work, I was there. I was on the inside. I saw how things worked; and – believe me – they worked.  It was not, as some would contend, a bunch of clueless do-gooders who had ideas surpassed by their capabilities.

From the moment I pulled up at the gate for my first shift, I was left in no doubt that this was a well-oiled machine. Unless security had your name at the gate, you weren’t allowed onto the premises. Once in the building, everyone needed to sign in, no matter who they were.

Volunteers were assigned to different teams – depending on their interests, expertise, education and skills – and each team was easily identifiable by the colour of the hi-vis vests they wore. I was on the Support Team (blue vests!) and each shift started with a handover meeting, after which tasks were designated.

For the most part, we just needed to be there, to be friendly, and warm and loving towards the residents. We sat and chatted with them. If there was a pressing need, we addressed that to the best of our abilities. If practical help was necessary, we did what we could. In the course of the two and a half weeks I was in and out of Apollo House I – like everyone else there - undertook a variety of tasks.

90437669_90437669 Residents watch TV in a common room in Apollo House before they vacated the building a week ago. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews

I took people to the bank to open accounts; went on outreach runs – bringing food, clothes, toiletries, and sleeping bags to those on the streets; I took residents ‘shopping’ to the fifth floor, where donations were kept. I did bathroom and bedroom checks – to help ensure that everyone in the house was safe, and that there was no alcohol, drugs or drug paraphernalia; I cooked.

Most of all, most importantly of all, I spoke with the residents, learnt about – and from – them. They told me of their hopes, fears, expectations, desires, histories, and how grateful they were to actually be in Apollo House.

Apollo House was the first real home many of the 84 residents who moved through her had known for months – or even years. It was a place where they could leave their belongings and know they were safe. It was a place where they could shower (thanks to the plumbers who provided and fitted showers free of charge the second day of the ‘occupation’); where they could wash and dry their clothes (thanks to the donated appliances); where they were fed healthy, delicious meals and snacks (thanks to the donation of a fully-fitted kitchen, copious amounts of food, and the work of professional chefs).

One of the best things about Apollo House was the camaraderie, the fellowship, the unity we felt. We left our egos at the door, and went in with willing hearts and hands to do what we could for the residents, and for the wider community of homeless people in Dublin. Everyone was equal regardless of their status, designation, or reason for being in the House.

90437677_90437677 Stores of donations from members of the public inside Apollo House. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

First and foremost, it was a home for the residents. It was a place where they were treated with respect and dignity. The ground rules of Apollo House were designed by the residents themselves. One of those rules was that no drink or drugs were to be brought in, and only one resident was asked to leave for breaking that rule.

There are nay-sayers who scoff at the efforts of those who were involved in Apollo House and say that – because the court order was obeyed – the takeover was not a success. Who defines success?

I think the 84 people who moved into accommodation would call it a success. I think the people who had the Department of Social Protection accept Apollo House as an address for the purposes of receiving benefits, would call it a success.

Other success stories include the man I first encountered on the streets during an outreach run on 26 December. The next time I saw him was two days later – as he sat at a table and ate a hot meal; a new resident of Apollo House. He’d been living on the streets for nine months after losing first his job, and then his accommodation. In Apollo House, he found a home again. He felt safe for the first time in nearly a year.

Then there was the young man who – having been moved to more permanent accommodation – came back the following day to do a soup run. He was no longer homeless, he declared, so he wanted to help those who were. And let’s not forget the Apollo Baby – the child born to one of the residents (although in a hospital, not in Apollo House itself) in the week between Christmas and New Year.

90437675_90437675 Residents and volunteers gather in Apollo House. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews

Apollo House was a personal success story for me, too. I loved seeing the residents’ health improve – resulting from a combination of good food, reduced stress, safety, a wellness programme operated on the premises, and medical care being available 24/7. People came asking, some sheepishly, if they could revisit the fifth floor for more clothes because they’d put on weight, and the ones they had no longer fit.

I left the building knowing I’d made firm friends with more than 20 people. While we left Apollo House on the 12th, we did so knowing we’d started something. We haven’t finished.

Hazel Katherine Larkin is a mum, doula, social psychologist, human rights lawyer, writer and activist. Her book on trauma and survival, Gullible Travels: A memoir, is here.

“Not one person left behind” – there’s a cheerful defiance about Apollo House this evening>

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Hazel Katherine Larkin

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