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How a 15-year-old's invention is saving lives on the streets of Dublin

Former street drinkers are being hired to manufacture a sleeping bag specially designed for homeless people.

YOU MAY RECALL Emily Duffy’s Young Scientist entry this year…

Essentially a baby’s nappy that gives parents an indication when their infant may be unwell, the project struck a chord with people and picked up plenty of media coverage for the Limerick 5th year student – in newspapers, on this very website, and elsewhere.

The teenager, it seems, has a knack for coming up with simple but attention-grabbing projects. Her 2015 entry – a fireproof sleeping bag, designed specifically for the homeless – won her a commendation at the RDS event.

Emily was only 15 when she entered last year – and once again, her proposal was a favourite of reporters: the Irish Times ran a story, she also outlined the benefits of the bag to (below).

She had assessed the problems with existing sleeping bags and addressed them one by one in testing, the Desmond College student explained.

Metallic fireproof bubblewrap would provide a waterproof layer for people sleeping on rain-soaked streets. Reflective strips would improve visibility, and velcro fastenings meant the user could enter and exit the bag easily. / YouTube

The Duffily Bag

Fast-forward 12 months and Emily’s invention is already in use on the streets of Dublin.

Nicknamed ‘Duffily Bags’ by a charity that teamed up with the Limerick teenager to make them, versions have been distributed to people using the Merchant’s Quay Night Café service on the city’s quays.

They’re also being used by some people who choose to bed down in streets and parks rather than access any of the emergency accommodation centres.

IMG_0007 The Mendicity Institute Daragh Brophy Daragh Brophy

Julian Judge of the Mendicity Institute in Dublin 8 is heading up the programme that manufactures the Duffily Bags.

They’re not just producing a product of real, practical use to people who are homeless, he explained – the charity’s also providing the men tasked with making them with a route off the streets, and back into the workplace.

b2's Daragh Brophy tries out the bag... Yes, it's pretty warm and comfortable.

Former street-drinkers from Eastern Europe are employed at the workshop of the Mendo (as it’s also known) – which is located just off the quays, near Christchurch and just a few blocks from the Guinness Storehouse.

Following step-by-step instructions, they work in pairs to construct the finished product from the raw material provided (Chadwicks of Lucan provide all the material at cost-price, the folks at the Mendo asked me to stress).

The workers, generally, arrive at the charity’s base after completing the Simon Community’s detox programme. At €20, they’re paid just over the minimum wage for each two-hour session at the workshop.

jul1 Julian Judge of the Mendicity Institute Daragh Brophy Daragh Brophy

As Julian explained:

The idea is you get some pride in yourself… It’s the pride in creating something.

The charity – one of the oldest in Dublin – was casting around for a product people taking their first steps back into the workforce could produce easily. They ran into a snag almost straight away…

“Everything these days is electronic,” said Julian

So you’re stuck for a hand-crafted product that can be cheaply made by an unskilled workforce who have social issues.

They heard about Emily’s Young Scientist product, spoke to the student and her school – and got permission to start manufacturing the bag on a larger scale. / YouTube

Field-testing was carried out, with homeless people asked to try it out and give their feedback. Merchant’s Quay gave its approval, and Dublin City Council also came on board with funding, Julian explained.

Our workshop service-users identified with the product. They also gave their feedback on how it could be improved.

While the bag clearly has a practical use, as far as the organisers of the Mendicity’s programme are concerned, the primary focus is to give participants some meaningful work.

For us, 70% of the point of the project is the satisfaction it gives people.

Julian explained that he had contacted officials to see if the bags could be used at refugee centres in Ireland. Emily has also suggested they could be deployed in disaster relief situations.

IMG_0017 Easy-to-follow instructions show how the bag can be constructed from the raw materials provided. Daragh Brophy Daragh Brophy

So who’s working on the project?

Four men, all from Eastern Europe, were busily cutting out designs and taping the bag’s tabs together when visited on a freezing cold afternoon last Thursday.

As the Mendicity’s manager Charles Richards explained:

“Going back a few years, you had a lot of skilled but also a lot of unskilled people coming over in the days of the Celtic Tiger.

“They were earning good money. Suddenly it stopped. Their wives don’t want to know them, and they don’t want to go back with no money.

They start drinking, they get to the streets, they’re on the streets and they beg.

Saving lives 

Not only is a route back to work providing them with restored pride and self-esteem. In some cases it may also be saving men’s lives.

Men from similar backgrounds to the workers at the Mendicity have died from alcohol poisoning, said Richards, ”because they’re drinking bootleg liquor that’s been supplied to them”.

Five men have been through the programme so far, Richards said. Two have found work, one has found temporary work, and another is starting a job next week.

Word on the success of the programme is building, he explained – and participants are now bringing their friends along to join up.

If you get one you get his friend, and you build up a small community from there.

It’s meant as a temporary arrangement. The charity sorts out the men’s taxes – and they get support from the Polish, Lithuanian and Latvian communities in helping find further work for those taking part.

The programme, Charles insisted, is making a huge difference to their lives.

“These people have nothing – they’re the destitute ones you’ll see picking up tobacco off the streets or putting their fingers into parking meters.

There is really genuine destitution on the streets of Dublin – and the question always has been, how do you tackle it?

Read: Could this ‘Homeless Wrap’ be saving lives on the streets?

Read: In a south Dublin park, three men and a dog bed down for the night >

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