Working with Homeless People
This post was originally published in french by the magazine Relations, published by Centre justice et foi, a jesuit mission.
My life totally changed on September 11th. On September 11th 1974, that is. On that day, I went with two other Jesuits to live in a flat in a run-down tenement building in the most deprived area in Ireland, the inner city of Dublin.
Why did we go there? We weren’t at all sure – it just seemed like a good idea at the time. In those years, the middle of the 1970s, the Jesuits were trying to rediscover their mission, and that new understanding was being expressed in the phrase “the service of the faith and the promotion of justice”.
It became clear, very quickly, that working with young people was a priority. They were all leaving school, at the very latest, by the age of 12, hanging around the streets all day long, their unemployed parents couldn’t give them any money, so they were doing a little robbing. And by the time they reached 16 or 17, they were doing a lot of robbing and going to jail.
So we opened a youth club, a craft centre, some employment schemes. Then I came across a 9 year old kid sleeping on the street, so we got a house and took in a few kids. A few kids became a lot of kids, so we had to open more and more houses. Then the drug problem hit Dublin and we had to open drug treatment services.
So from that 9 year old kid, we now run a drop-in centre for homeless people, 16 hostels, 250 apartments, a detox centre, a drug stabilisation programme, with over 1,200 homeless people staying with us each night.
Some homeless people have had horrific childhoods, experiencing abuse, violence and extreme neglect. Kids who have witnessed their siblings brutally murdered; kids who have been thrown out of home and told they are not wanted; kids whose parents introduced them to drugs or sent them out to rob, or into prostitution, to pay for their parents’ addiction.
These kids are taking drugs to forget their childhood memories, and suppress the feelings associated with those memories – and drugs work! Drug use is only a symptom of much deeper problems which have to be addressed through counselling, therapy and lots of support, if they are to come off drugs.
Working with young homeless people has totally and radically changed me. They have challenged my values, some of my prejudices, my understanding of God, my understanding of the Gospels and the mission of Jesus.
One young homeless man said to me, “The very thought that there might be a God depresses me.” I came to understand what he was saying. He felt he was a bad person, he had broken all the commandments (and a few more I hadn’t even heard of!) and believed that God could not possibly love him and would condemn him when he dies.
But I knew this person and he had grown up in a horrific home, with abuse and violence a daily occurrence over many years. And I am thinking, “if there is a God, this person must have a special place in God’s heart, and when they die, God must have a special welcome for him, because of what he has suffered as a child.”
I grew up being told that God would judge us on our observance of God’s law, but, for me now, the God of the Law and the God of compassion are incompatible.
They have taught me never to judge anyone, because we don’t know what has gone on in anyone’s life or childhood. If I were to judge or condemn them, I am actually judging and condemning myself, because I know that if I had grown up in their circumstances, I would be exactly the same myself.
And if they had grown up in my circumstances, they would be the priest coming up to visit me in prison. They have made me grateful for all that I have received in life. My prayer to God now is simply “thanks.” There is nothing else to say to God.
They have made me angry. Anger is a very positive emotion; you cannot love someone who is suffering unnecessarily without being angry at what is causing that suffering. Ireland is the 14th wealthiest country in the world, the fastest growing economy in the EU and yet we have a record number of homeless people, families and children.
This brings me on a collision course with government policy but advocacy for homeless people is a major part of my work now.
And they have taught me what the hardest part of homelessness is. I visited one homeless man in hospital, who had tried to commit suicide. He said: “Peter, I can’t go on living like this.” I asked him what he meant. He said, “I can’t go on living, knowing that nobody cares.”
The hardest part of being homeless is to know that you are of no value to anyone else, you are unwanted; you have lost your self-respect and your dignity. So our work with homeless people is essentially trying to restore their dignity and self-respect.
To do that, we have to provide hostels and apartments of a high standard, because what you offer to homeless people sends a message to them, “This is how we value you, this is what we believe you are worth.”
I have learnt so much from homeless people. If I have given them anything, they have given me far more.