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The Nationalist

1st May 2004

by Tom Corr

Plans to privatise services to homeless condemned

Award winner speaks out

Plans to privatise services to people who are homeless were strongly attacked by Tipperary Person of the Year, Alice Leahy.

She highlighted the dangers of relying on private companies to provide services to the homeless by pointing to the lonely and tragic death in a London Westminster hostel recently where a man remained undiscovered for over 24 hours.

The Director and Co-founder of Trust warned that we were on the “slippery slope” with plans to go down the same road here. You could not deal with the homeless like a business, she cautioned.

The outspoken Fethard native was addressing the Tipperary Association Dublin dinner last Friday, where she was presented with the Tipperary Person of the Year Award. The Hall of Fame Award was given to legendary Tipperary hurler Jimmy Doyle for his considerable contribution to the sport over many years.

Accepting the award, the tireless campaigner on behalf of the homeless said the tragic death of 34 year old Sam Keenan, highlighted by the London Simon Community, was a warning of the kind of dangers we risked as a society if we allowed the provision of critical social and health services to be decided by market forces.

“Privatisation may be well and good in certain business sectors but when the profits of a private company may be the deciding factor in the quality of the service that will be provided to society's most vulnerable, we just cry stop.”

“This trend represents a fundamental betrayal of any notion that we seek to be a caring and inclusive community because the quality of accommodation is being determined by the profit margin required to sustain private sector involvement she warned the large gathering in Moran's Red Cow Hotel, Dublin.

President of the Tipperary Association Dublin Jarlath Daly presented Alice with a specially commissioned sculpture featuring two hands around an eternal flame symbolising the two aspects of Alice's work with Trust — One hand representing efforts to help people recover their dignity and the other restoring their health.

A sculptor by profession, Jarlath Daly who also created that piece said: “From a rural background Alice has become almost a legend amongst the most excluded of Dublin's homeless. For over thirty years she has worked in the front line providing medical and social services to the most marginalised since she founded Trust in the mid seventies. Her efforts through the Trust education and awareness initiatives have also allowed more people in all parts of Ireland to understand what it means to be excluded which hopefully augurs well for a better more caring Ireland in future."

Alice Leahy claimed we must decide the kind of Ireland we want and not simply allow ourselves be taken over by notions that private companies running key social and health services is the best way to go.

She continued: “We are at a very fundamental cross road in Ireland in the way we treat the most vulnerable. Are we going to go down the road of allowing the level of profit involved decide the quality of care we offer the most disadvantaged? Have years of unparalleled prosperity made us so insensitive to the needs of the outsiders in our midst that we will turn our backs and pretend we do not see the real dangers inherent in the way public policy appears to be drifting?”

She believed the fundamental issue was the way the managers of this state's social services treat the people they are meant to serve. The street homeless or “rough sleepers” as they were sometimes described, were not seen as people but statistics that must be made to conform with the specifications of the latest strategy document.

The growth in the use of “performance indicators” for example had meant that only homeless people capable of fitting in and apparently capable of being successful have any hope in this system. Many of the people we meet everyday were outsiders who were often so intimated and alienated by the pressures of modern living - with an aversion to form filling - that they did now even appear in the official statistics.

Alice Leahy had this challenge for Irish society: “We can change things. There is hope for the future. But only if we start treating people as people and not resorting to private companies but instead reforming the unfriendly nature of the management structures running our social and health services.”

She claimed that front line care workers for example were not being listened to. The managers and those responsible could find out what was really going on if they listened to their own people. We did not need privatisation but a people centred management philosophy in our social and health services which then would be capable of treating the people it was meant to serve as people and not mere statistics to be moulded to suit the next strategy statement especially in the homeless area where she worked.

More privatisation would make an already insensitive and intolerant bureaucracy even more hostile in the eyes of many of most vulnerable it was meant to serve, she warned.

For many years voluntary and private charities had filled the void where the State failed to live up to its responsibilities. In many cases these organisations became prophetic voices in showing the way and campaigning for a more inclusive society. However, with the growing commercialisation of the social services these voices were being silenced as they became even more dependent on state support as the Government sought to increase rather than decrease the load of the voluntary sector. However, if we allowed ourselves to become a party to this culture of privatisation through the funding mechanisms that were in place we were only ensuring that those who are outsiders today would be even worse off in the years to come, Alice Leahy said.



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