Why We Need to Stop Giving Our Money to Big Homeless Charities
In this article I provide the reasons why we need to stop putting our money into homeless charities, what needs to happen instead and how we as individuals can help.
Although I write these words from across the Atlantic, I hope they still hold significant importance to those who read them back in Ireland.
I haven’t watched much of what is going on back at home but the one thing that I keep seeing is the number of people getting involved in trying to help those experiencing homelessness. It’s now been two years since Pizza Sunday Club was founded and I was particularly delighted to see the Gaelic Voices for Change group recently being set up. Coming from a strong GAA background myself, I believe the communal strength of the GAA will have a huge influence on tackling issues such as homelessness. However, I feel obligated to inform people on how best they can help those experiencing homelessness and I must start by telling people that it is NOT by giving to the big homeless charities. I plan to explain why this is the case and I will talk about what solutions will work and have worked in other cities across the globe.
Background — An Invisible Dream
Back in March 2016 I came up with an idea which I believed could help get more people experiencing homelessness into homes. My idea was to create a website to share the stories of people on the streets and in emergency accommodation. Members of the public could visit the website and watch these stories. They could then choose which person or family they wanted to donate money to and 100% of their donated money would go towards a rental deposit for a home for that person (roughly €1200 at the time). Any other expenses associated with the website would be covered by corporate sponsorship.
I wanted people to be able to give to those experiencing homelessness and know exactly where their money was going. I also wanted people’s money to go towards a long-term solution for that person which would help lift them out of homelessness. Once a person secured a home, money could be donated to provide any necessary aftercare supports they may need to get back on their feet. The idea was called Invisible Angels and it was based on the Housing First solution.
When I began my project, I really knew nothing about homelessness and I naively presumed that all the homeless charities were out there doing their best to end homelessness. I believed that with enough money, they would be able to do that. I thought that with some help from those in the homeless sector and with grants and support from programs such as Social Entrepreneurs Ireland I could make my idea into a reality. But after working relentlessly on it for eight months and seeing how everything really worked in the homeless sector, I quickly realised that nobody in the sector actually wanted my idea to succeed.
No Help from the Charities
I met with numerous people working in homeless charities but none of them wanted to help me. Dublin Simon said it conflicted with their interests as their money was to be spent on services for everyone and not to be given towards individuals. I tried to link in with Approved Housing Bodies such as Respond! Housing to see if they could find available houses for me should I gather the money for someone’s deposit. Again, they were unable to help me as they had to allocate housing in accordance with the social housing waiting list. I understood that this was fair and that the only way to get houses for people was to link in with private landlords. However this also proved a dead-end as the majority of landlords didn’t want to engage in the new HAP (Housing Assistance Payment) scheme which many people experiencing homelessness would need to avail of, as many landlords saw the tax-clearance certificates that needed to be provided as a major inconvenience.
I spoke about my idea at the premiere for Peter McVerry’s documentary in the Savoy in front of a crowded audience. Based on the reaction of the audience, most of them seemed to really like the idea. The CEO of Peter McVerry Trust, Pat Doyle, spoke next. He began by completely ignoring everything I had just said and instead he started talking about how the government needed to do more to help solve the issue. He had almost completely gone off topic until Fr. Peter McVerry himself interrupted him and said he thought that it was a great idea. Pat Doyle’s blatant refusal to even acknowledge my idea got me thinking. Why was he so dismissive of the idea from the offset? If he thought it was a bad idea he could have explained his reasons but instead he avoided talking about it altogether. Pat Doyle’s sole job as CEO is to make money for Peter McVerry Trust. Maybe he was afraid my idea would take donations away from his charity?
Before the premiere began Pat talked about how it took them a long time to convince Peter to change the name of his charity from the Arrupe Society to Peter McVerry Trust. This change was made in 2005 when a new CEO and Board of Directors were appointed and it seemed to be against Peter’s wishes. From what I could gather, Peter also now seemed to have minimum involvement in the actual day-to-day running of the charity. He spent most of his time with people at his old office off Gardiner street. Peter had a good reputation for working in the sector for over 30 years and maybe the directors of Peter McVerry Trust thought that by using his good name they could build trust and find it easier to get money from people.
“Social” Entrepreneurs Ireland
Myself and my good friend Martin Connolly applied to Social Entrepreneurs Ireland with the Invisible Angels idea. We applied to their Elevator Programme which offered money and support to six social ideas to help them get off the ground. We believed it to be the perfect fit for our project and we managed to make it to the final round interview where there were only 12 projects left, half of which would be selected for funding. We came into the final round interview full of promise and hope based on the hugely positive reaction from the judges from the Bootcamp round we had attended a month prior. However, once the final round interview began, myself and Martin quickly realised that something had changed. Upon entering the room I got the initial impression that one judge in particular, a partner in KPMG, didn’t like us. Maybe it was because of our casual attire. We didn’t wear suits as we aren’t businessmen. We wore our normal clothes along with the hats we always wore as that’s who we were. We didn’t care what judgements they may make about us as individuals because this wasn’t about us. It was about an idea that we thought deserved the chance to be tried. We couldn’t do it alone and we needed their help but unfortunately I felt they did judge us before they judged the idea.
Martin spoke very passionately about how wrong things were being done in the homeless sector at the moment and it was obvious some of the judges didn’t like hearing that. They didn’t like his blunt honesty. They didn’t want to risk investing in a project that might actually disrupt and change things in the sector. They would have preferred one that was nice and easy and one which played within the existing rules of the homeless industry (as it’s often referred to). They also wanted a project that made money whereas ours didn’t (my fault for presuming social projects were about social impact rather than making money). I later found out that the ability to make a constant revenue stream is actually one of the requirements Social Entrepreneurs Ireland judges projects on. The potential impact you could have on society seems to be a distant second. Homelessness is such a major issue and we were the only project there that was trying to tackle it.
Yes, our project probably wasn’t as far along as the judges would’ve wanted. Yes, it would have been difficult and messy to get it up and working. Yes, we still didn’t have all the connections and partnerships in place that we needed to make the idea a reality but that’s why we needed them. They did have the connections we needed. They did have the huge media reach we were looking for. They did have the funds we needed to build the website.
How the Homeless Charities’ Money is Really Spent
Government funds to the DCC
I’ve met with the head lecturer of Social Policy and Homelessness in Trinity. He showed me figures which opened up my eyes to how much money was actually being given to Dublin City Council (DCC) to help tackle homelessness. Last year the government gave €100 million to Dublin City Council to allocate to homeless charities in Dublin alone (1) . The charities in Dublin collectively raise about another €100 million through donations (2). So that’s around €200 million going into homelessness every year in Dublin. If homeless charities were specifically designed to eradicate homelessness surely they would look into building homes with this money? Imagine how many homes could be built with €200 million.
Dublin City Council already owns acres of land in the city so they wouldn’t even have to pay for the land, just the build. Instead of doing this Dublin City Council dishes out the €100 million among numerous charities to pay for ridiculously expensive emergency accommodation. Back in 2014, each bed in emergency accommodation in Dublin cost approximately €28,000 a year (3). That’s over €2300 a month. This means that each emergency bed is more expensive than the highest rental accommodation prices in Dublin, which peak at just over €2000 a month in the Stillorgan area (4). Then these charities pay for expense fundraising campaigns to bleed more money out of the public (Focus Ireland spent over €2 million on raising funds in 2016 (5)).
Ok, so let’s presume that the charities really do need all of this €200 million to fund these emergency beds and other services. Surely if this was the case, the DCC could ask the government for an extra €100 million next year just for house builds. This would mean that they wouldn’t need any money going into emergency accommodation the following years as people would be housed.
Disgraceful Emergency Accommodation
From my time with Pizza Sunday Club I’ve met and talked with hundreds of people experiencing homelessness and listened to their stories, from families with young children to old men over 80 years of age. I’ve heard countless reports of the uninhabitable emergency accommodation in the city. Many find it safer to sleep on the streets rather than risk having the shoes robbed off their feet in their sleep or a needle held to their neck in one of the open dorm rooms. This is the emergency accommodation that our donated money is going towards! Hostels full of drugs where people are in shared dorms with no privacy or safety. We need to open up clean hostels in the city which are run properly to keep people safe.
Other Charity Expenditure
The other expenses that our donated money covers is the support services provided by these charities, from doctors to nurses to rehabilitation programs to drug prescriptions. While these may seem like worthwhile activities their costs are enormous for each individual and their results are much less effective than when someone has the security of their own home to recover in. How can somebody be expected to attend rehabilitation meetings when their immediate worries are where they are going to get food and shelter from for the night? How are people supposed to recover from health problems when they have to face freezing cold winter temperatures each night? How are those on the streets supposed to attend job interviews when they don’t even have a place to shower and put on nice clothes? The fact that these services are ineffective suits the charities. It means they will need to be used over and over again, which results in a constant income stream for the charities in terms of government funding and HSE grants.
Just Like Any Other Business
The truth is, it does not matter how much money we funnel into our homeless charities because they will never eradicate homelessness. They are not designed to end it. They are designed to sustain it and make money from it. They have created a revolving door between their services and the streets. At the end of the day our homeless charities are like any other business. They have CEOs, managers, employees, marketing campaigns, branding initiatives. If homelessness became eradicated in the morning the homeless “industry” would collapse. All of these charities would go out of business. All their employees would lose their jobs. Why would any company work to put themselves out of business?
Most of the CEOs get a nice salary too. The CEO of Focus Ireland, Ashley Balbirnie earns €115,000 a year (6). So when you do your charity sleep out or charity run and give your €20, or whatever it may be, do you think it will actually make a difference going into this bottomless pit of millions that is sustaining these businesses we call charities? I’m sorry to say that it won’t. Let’s say you have managed to arrange for 5,750 people to attend a charity 5k run and they each pay €20 each then at least you will have covered Ashley Balbirnie’s salary for the year! There are various different practices when it comes to charities defining what percentage of their money goes on charitable work as opposed to governance. This has led a lot of charities to now include staff costs under their “charitable work” (7).
The Real Solution
Full Scale Housing First
The city of Medicine Hat in Alberta, Canada has completely eradicated homelessness by implementing a full scale Housing First solution. Anyone that doesn’t have a home gets a home and they receive aftercare support once they are in the home.The only way our existing charities can solve homelessness is if they combine and implement a full scale Housing First solution like this.
Combining the big charities would also cut out the need for employing expensive CEOs as charities would no longer need to compete for funds against one another. It would cut out the need for much of the advertising expenses too. They would also be more efficient and cost effective by pooling their resources. There are currently 23 homeless charities in Dublin alone (3) and many provide the majority of the same, if not the exact same services. Have you ever wondered why there are so many homeless charities? Surely one central charity would be better?
You may say Peter McVerry Trust and Focus Ireland already have a Housing First team. This team consists of about 20 people and they have just announced two social housing projects, one for 18 apartments on Townsend St and another six purposely built units somewhere else. Yes, this all sounds great until you realise there are over 100,000 people on the social housing list. The 24 houses they plan to build will barely make a dent in that figure. This piece of news is to keep us happy in thinking that they are working hard on the issue so we should lay off them a bit.
If they really wanted homes for everyone the charities would stop working for profit against one another and they would work closely with government to buy up and rebuild all the empty housing units across the country. They would mass allocate people and families to houses and then they would use their money on providing aftercare support services in these new homes. The Housing First system they introduced in Medicine Hat has also proven to actually save the taxpayer money as costs in terms of crime, healthcare and child welfare services start to decline.
The big charities have all the money they already need to run their existing businesses and we should stop giving money to them until they decide to stop competing against one another and focus on implementing the solution outlined above. Giving your own hard earned money to them now isn’t going to change anything.
Small, innovative projects
Right now all we can do is give our time and money to innovative projects that help people in the interim. We need to put money into setting up social cafes (such as Social Bite) — cafes that employ people experiencing homelessness, giving them a fair chance to get back on their feet. Cafes that also allows customers to pay it forward for someone else to have a meal on them. In Portland, I visited Sisters of the Road Cafe. They work hard to encourage re-inclusion and provide people with a nourishing meal in a safe, dignified space. The atmosphere in there was amazing and even as a complete stranger asking lots of questions, I felt very welcomed. They informed me of a place called Right 2 Dream Too. It was an old car park that was given to the people by the local authority. Since it was given to them, those experiencing homelessness have come together to develop the site into a safe place for anyone looking for shelter. They have worked together to build large shelters where people can sleep. They have created a community where people look after the site, doing security shifts and handling donations of food, clothes and sleeping bags. Anyone who works enough can be voted in by the rest of the group and they get their own small cabin to stay in on site. We need to invest in projects similar to these that empower people to help themselves.
At Pizza Sunday Club we recently stopped asking our members for money as we didn’t want to be put under pressure to become another charity. We believe people giving their time to come down and talk with others is more important than their money. However, with the bit of money we do still have left, we plan to support any smart, cost-effective projects such as these.
While the main people responsible for solving the homelessness crisis are still our government, it is important to be aware that giving money to these big homeless charities won’t help the situation either.
I hope you now have a better understanding of how things work within our homeless sector. I’m sure there are plenty of things I still haven’t covered but I encourage you to do your own research and come to your own conclusions. I hope you question things more before you blindly give to a certain charity. Check how they are really spending their money and is it going to make a difference? I can only account for my own experiences from what I’ve researched and from what I’ve seen over the past two years. It’s up to you to question the rest.