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The Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers Society: Dublin's oldest charity and its plan to make it to 2040

The former headquarters is a landmark in Dublin City Centre.

8239646774_2fca23bc33_k William Murphy William Murphy

DUBLIN IS FULL of old ghost signs.

Some are revealed during building works, while others serve as permanent landmarks.

One particularly well-known and eye-catching sign can be found on a building close to Dublin Castle: The Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers’ Society, AD 1790 is written across a facade.

The building is located on Palace Street, considered one of Dublin’s shortest streets after the even shorter Canon Street was demolished in the 1960s.

Such an antiquated phrase as ‘indigent roomkeepers’ would lead you to believe this organisation shut down years ago, or at least rebranded if still in existence, but it is in operation today as Dublin’s oldest surviving charity under that original name.

The Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers’ Society is a tiny operation in comparison to other charities in Dublin. It currently has nine voluntary directors who receive no remuneration and a single part-time employee who looks after administration.

Its aim is to provide once-off financial assistant to anyone in need, with the aim being that this single boost will be key to the person’s ability to either get back on their feet or avoid serious financial trouble.

The charity moved out of its premises on Palace Street in the mid-1990s due to the potential costs in making the historic building wheelchair accessible, and members now meet once a week on Leeson Street to decide on applications for assistance.

Now, the charity is hoping to keep its finances steady, and be able to celebrate its 250th anniversary in 2040.

1797-map-of-Dublin A map of Dublin from 1797, just a few years after the society was formed. Wikimedia Commons Wikimedia Commons

Its history dates back to the late 18th century, to a city with rampant poverty, and where it was the responsibility of private individuals rather than government to attempt to alleviate this suffering.

The Society was part of this movement. A widely-cited paragraph summing up the society’s origins comes from History of the City of Dublin, by Warburton, Whitelaw & Walsh, published in 1818 (page 900), where it’s listed alongside charities such as the Strangers’ Friend Society and the Musical Fund for Decayed Musicians:

A few individuals in the middle ranks of life, inhabiting a part of the town where the population was poor and crowded, had daily opportunities of knowing that many poor creatures who were unable to dig and ashamed to beg expired of want and were often found dead in the sequestrated garrets and cellars to which they had silently returned; they resolved therefore to form a society for the purpose of searching out those solitary objects.

The book also makes reference to the charity being well-received by the public at the time, as the basic bona fides of those in need were checked (“They never gave to any object that was known to beg abroad”).

Originally based in the St Michan’s parish of Dublin, now part of Stoneybatter, volunteers handed out basic supplies to those in need. The work spread across the city, focusing on the area between the two canals until demographic changes in the 20th century – the demolition of tenements and depopulation of the city centre – lead to the charity focusing on the entire county of Dublin.

From the outset it was not a religious organisation – its founders included line drapers and fruit sellers. This was enshrined in its original name, the Charitable Society for the Relief of Room-Keepers of all Religious Persuasions in the City of Dublin.

90076307_90076307 Eamonn Farrell / Eamonn Farrell / /

Today, the charity still operates across Dublin county, but staff no longer work at the coalface. Cases are referred to the Society by social workers within other organisations. The directors then meet to decide whether funding is appropriate in each case, the average being between €300 and €600.

Long-time director and former chairman Felix Larkin, told how the charity favours cases where people have found themselves in temporary difficulty:

Perhaps because of an unpaid bill. People do rack up big arrears on ESB, gas, etc. That’s one example where if we clear it for them, they’re back on their feet again.
If that millstone is around their neck for years and years, they’ll never get out of the cycle. That is the sort of case we look for.

Larkin served as chairman of the charity from 2012 to 2016, and remained on as a director until this year when he briefly stepped into the chairman role again. He’s now back as a director and handing over the reins to Colette O’Daly.

In an in-depth interview, he described how the society also provides funding for people who are recovering from issues such as health problems, addiction, and financial difficulties and need a boost to keep the recovery on track. Larkin cited the example of someone recovering from addiction but short of the €400-500 for a Fetac course that would help them secure a job.

Another example is a student with a good track record going into final year of college, but may be struggling to pay their fees, and dropping out could ruin the progress they’ve made. Larkin contrasts this with someone struggling with their fees for first year – “That begs the question of what are you going to do your second, third, and fourth year for fees?”

Other times it’s where a number of institutions are helping with a single case, and a social worker will request the Society to contribute to a funding plan where there’s a funding shortfall – “That’s the kind of case we really like,” Larkin adds, “because it means it had been through a number of approval processes.”

It’s this kind of targeted, once-off, small-scale assistance that is the bread and butter of the Society, and while it can come across a cold approach, the charity will still try to help out in all cases in whatever way it can.

“You sometimes get ghastly cases and just simply say, ‘Well, criteria or not, we need to help this person’, even if it looks like an absolutely hopeless case,” Larkin said.

The morning spoke to him, the charity had met to examine 11 cases – three of them were people struggling to find the money for Christmas presents for their children.

“Not the sort of thing that has any useful purpose in this scale of things, given what we do or what we want to do, but Christ, you’d need a heart of stone to turn down some of them.”

We don’t approve every case, and we now have a budgeting policy, so if the money isn’t there in the week’s allocation, we can’t do it, but there is absolutely no doubt that before I joined [the Society in 2008] I would never have guessed some of the human misery that’s out there. It’s absolutely astonishing.

Financial difficulties

Like many charities, the past few years haven’t been easy. Confidence in the sector was all but wiped out in recent years due to scandals surrounding Rehab and Console, resulting in a sea-change in governance oversight.

This dominated Larkin’s work over the past few years but he says the Society was already compliant with the rules and regulations.

Boardmatch Ireland, the national corporate governance charity, was bought in to assist with strengthening the charity’s management.

Funding has also been an issue. The charity was hit by the financial crisis as a large number of its investments were in AIB and Bank of Ireland, a move which at the time was seen as a safe and sensible course of action, Larkin said.

The charity’s income for last year was €105,000: €15,000 was part of church collections, which have taken place for decades in Dublin’s inner city, €25,000 from donations and bequests, and €65,000 from investment income.

The charity is currently in a loss-making situation and is eating into the capital which provides the majority of its income. Last year it recorded a deficit of more than €98,000.

The Society is now setting strict weekly allowances for how much assistance can be provided, as well as tightening the criteria around which cases fall under its remit.

This is seen as vital for the charity’s survival.

image (3) Felix Larkin and former director Paul Deegan at the dedication of a plaque to a founder of the society. Felix Larkin Felix Larkin

One area that has been difficult but necessary to avoid - for the charity’s survival – is helping with first month’s rent and deposits for those entering private rental accommodation, as the number of cases began to rapidly rise in recent years.

“We had to stop, it would have wiped us out,” Larkin explained but stressed that assistance is still provided where essential furniture, floor covering, and white goods are needed.

A repeated issue that Larkin has come across is where the Society is asked to assist in bridging a gap created by a ‘glitch’ in how assistance for securing private accommodation currently is provided.

Larkin highlighted how the Housing Assistant Payment (HAP) leaves people who are in emergency accommodation but have secured private rental accommodation with a Catch 22: Most landlords will look for the first month’s rent and deposit in advance, but under HAP, this payment is provided in arrears.

This means although the money is there to provide the assistance, it comes at the wrong time, as many people living in emergency accommodation may not have the available funds to bridge the gap.

Larkin describes the legislative mismatch as “absolutely indefensible”:

From the State’s point of view, there is no net additional money. It is simply a timing issue. Okay, in the first year, if you changed the rules, you’d have a 13-month year, but do it, and get it over with.

In a statement, the Department of Housing defended this system:

“The HAP scheme has been structured in a way that most protects the Exchequer funding by ensuring that payment issues only on valid and complete applications. For this reason rent is paid in arrears and ensures that money is only paid in respect of time that the property has actually been occupied by the tenant.

This practice also avoids a situation where the local authority has to attempt to recover money from the landlord and simplifies the administration of the scheme. It is recognised that certain landlords seek rent in advance; however, the benefit of the HAP scheme is that it offers a security of regular monthly payment for the landlord from the [HAP management service] Shared Service Centre.

Behind the frustrations at government, Larkin shows a clear passion for the charity’s aims to better peoples’ lives through the kind of focused help that is unique to the Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers Society.

And while the pennies are being watched more than ever at the Society, the basic need to help those in need is still paramount.

“People who are in very difficult situations very often don’t need a lot to get them out of the cycle. On the surface it looks absolutely catastrophic but in practice, very little assistance will just get them over the hump and back on a vertical spiral, rather than a downward spiral.”

“There are certainly weeks when I’m in there and I just feel totally overwhelmed by the problems [we come across], and other weeks where you come away thinking you’ve done something that week.”

“There is occasionally somebody who will come back to you a year or two later, with a letter itemising for you what [the assistance] did for them and how they got back up on their feet, and obviously that’s very satisfying. I can even think of one case where somebody some years down the line actually repaid us the money. People are decent.”

The focus going forward to striking that key balance between helping those in need and keeping the charity afloat.

“We want to get to 2040,” Larkin explained, and to be able to mark 250 years of work by the Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers Society.

We’re no good to anybody if we disappear.

Details on how to donate to this charity are available here.

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