As homelessness reaches crisis point, spare a thought for the frontline workers who toil through Christmas helping those less fortunate, writes Brendan Mills
AS Christmas approaches, we all begin to look forward to unwinding from work and getting some well-deserved downtime away from the daily pressures of the office.
But there is one group of workers though that won’t enjoy much time off over this holiday season.
The homelessness emergency shows no sign of abating, least of all over the Winter.
We recently saw the Clonakilty-based Novas Initiatives, which deals directly with homelessness in West Cork, reporting a 36% increase in demand on services.
The Cork Simon Community, in its latest annual report, said it supported 318 people sleeping rough in the first ten months of the year alone.
This represents a 24% increase on the same time in 2014. It has never been clearer that there is consistent, mounting pressure on over-stretched resources within the homeless sector.
What I have witnessed first-hand in Cork is homeless sector staff grappling to remain hopeful and optimistic as they work tirelessly to try and help in any way they can.
They have reported feeling overwhelmed as they try to overcome an insurmountable challenge. Managers in the sector have explained the frustration of their organisation helping one family or one person accessing the service, only to immediately meet a new crisis and someone else desperate to take the vacated place.
One manager spoke of this feeling like a never-ending conveyor belt of distressed people waiting to access their service. I have had senior leaders speak of how they are personally affected and their deep concern about how this is affecting younger and less experienced staff working on the ground.
The need for them to be supported in their work, with additional training and resources, is very evident.
Over the past two years Ag Eisteacht delivered training to 150 frontline workers in the homeless sector. Our ‘Brief Encounters’ programme supports staff to build their professional capacity and skills to be able to respond to service users, particularly those in distress. A critical element of the training focuses on the need for staff to develop personal coping strategies and inner resilience for themselves, if they are to remain effective for their clients.
Novas Initiatives reported that the largest single issue leading directly to homelessness in West Cork was mental health (41%.) Nationally, the main reason reported by service users for their homelessness is family or relationship problems, or domestic violence, which accounts for 48.9% of the total. In its September report, Homelessness – An Unhealthy State, the Partnership for Health Equity revealed that one in three homeless service users, of the 601 who had participated in the study, had attempted suicide. These added challenges can take a severe toll on frontline staff in the sector, who are themselves experiencing high levels of stress as they try to cope with the demand on services.
Despite the fact that we have had a number of reports into the link between mental health issues and homelessness, there has been no recent report into the impact on the mental health and overall well-being of frontline staff who deal with service users on a daily basis.
The latest research available to us was carried out in 2009, when 16 homeless sector workers in Dublin were interviewed for a Dublin-Australian study.
There needs to be further focused research on what supports are required for staff to remain resilient, motivated and healthy within this very challenging sector. There has been no focused research on this in Ireland and, in light of the Novas Initiatives report, I think there is clear need for such a study.
So as the Christmas festivities gather pace and the wind down from work begins, remember those on the frontlines of the homelessness crisis who will continue to go above and beyond over the holiday season, in spite of limited supports and resources.
Brendan Mills worked as a Garda for 30 years in the Cork area and sat on the Cork Homeless Forum for 11 years. He is now coordinator of the Homeless Initiative with the registered Cork-based charity, Ag Eisteacht. Since 2001 Ag Eisteacht has provided accredited, evidence-based training courses for frontline staff to support them in their work.