New project to combat homelessness kickstarted in Cork

A new think tank headed up by a UCC academic has engaged with Cork Penny Dinners to come up with new solutions to Ireland's homelessness crisis. Roisin Burke spoke with Dr Fiona Chambers about the project.
New project to combat homelessness kickstarted in Cork
People enjoying a hot lunch at Cork Penny Dinners. Academics met with five service users who experience homelessness to learn about their own personal situations. Picture Dan Linehan

A band of academics are combining their resources and thinking power in an effort to solve the issue of homelessness in Ireland.

Head of the School of Education at University College Cork, Dr Fiona Chambers is one of two academics spearheading Project WickED that hopes to find a solution to the growing issue of homelessness that is affecting people in every county and country in the world.

Dr Chambers along with Maynooth lecturer Trevor Vaugh are experts in design thinking, which is a technique used across a range of different disciplines to solve problems.

“We wanted to start up something that would be a social innovation. We wanted to try tackling something that is really difficult, which the homeless crisis is, and say right, could we put our expertise to work there,” Dr Chambers said.

The lecturer said that she and Trevor put a call out to a few people who they thought might be interested in helping and soon they were inundated with assistance.

“We had a range of different people from all different walks of life, all rolling up their sleeves, with lots of different types of expertise, saying ‘okay let's look at this differently.’” 

At this point, Dr Chambers reached out to Catriona Twomey of Cork Penny Dinners to see if she would like to be involved in the project, which she said she would.

“I met with Catriona and saw what was going on in there, She was very willing to work with us and wanted to help design a project.” 

Fiona and Trevor then organised a think tank that hoped to get to the heart of the issue.

Hosted in Cork Penny Dinners, a group of academics and well-meaning individuals met with five homeless people who spoke about the intricacies of their own personal situations and gave insights into the problem of homelessness.

Dr Fiona Chambers is one of two academics spearheading Project WickED that hopes to find a solution to the growing issue of homelessness.
Dr Fiona Chambers is one of two academics spearheading Project WickED that hopes to find a solution to the growing issue of homelessness.

Dr Chambers said: “We wanted to speak to homeless people to get a sense of what their lives are like. To get an insight into what life is really like."

“They said the only positive in their lives was Penny Dinners. They talked about the boredom, the loneliness and the tediousness of walking the streets.

“Some had suffered from addiction or stopped drinking or taking drugs and were thinking about it all the time. They talked about how easy it is to get heroin. They talked about security issues on the street, They spoke about being constantly worried about themselves and their property and that the threat of rape and robbery is constant.” 

Dr Chambers said the saddest story on the day was a man talking about his brother who died on the quays, who froze to death.

For many who attended the think tank, such as Cork City Council Head of Housing Brian Geaney and Senator Jerry Buttimer, it was the first time they had ever sat with homeless people and got to hear actually what this is like.

From the informal evening, the group learned a number of things. “What they said was, it is not the house. The home isn’t going to solve it for them. They have to have everything built around it, otherwise they are not going to be able to manage it,” Dr Chambers said.

They said that you can’t just give them the key to the front door of a place and assume they are going to be alright.

Fiona said that one of the things they started to realise was that education had a part to play in kickstarting a catalyst of change.

“Some of the major insights we had were we really feel that there is a number of services keeping people alive, safe and loved and cared for, but there is something else that needs to happen to help these people out of this and we believe that it is education of some sort that is needed.

“Meaningful education, that qualifies them with something working with industry to try and find them something that enables them to get back on their feet.” 

Another big thing that the group realised is that you need to work with the safeguards of community that already exist and are used by homeless individuals.

“The other major thing we see is in communities such as Penny Dinners, dismantling things doesn’t work.

“There is a community here that cares about each other and supports each other, we should be using that as a catalyst to see what else we can add to it to get them on their feet and it will become something different other than something for homeless people.

“That's something that we need to figure out.” 

Fiona said that from the think tank, the group have realised that homelessness is not the whole issue.

“It is not what we think, we have already found that out. Like if we have millions in the morning to build all these houses, that is not going to solve what we are dealing with here.

"It is messier, it is bigger and we see the headlines every day of the week, it is not what people think.” 

The Cork academic said they can approach the problem differently and hopefully can achieve greater results.

“In a design thinking process, the first step is empathy, compassion bit where you find out what is going on from that then you are able to see what are the insights that you have and we spend ages trying to figure out what is the problem here.

“Typically in other ways of trying to tackle things people jump straight to solutions, that is always our natural thing to do but in design thinking we always spend time making damn sure we have the problem straight in our head, what are we trying to fix here and once we have that clear, then it is a more clear cut route to trying to solve the issue.

Dr Chambers, who has been with UCC for the past 12 years, said she is very confident that this project will make progress with the issue of homelessness.

“We do have a very firm plan and we have a track record of being very successful in terms of other initiatives that we run.

“This one is just more public and more emotive and it has been going on for far too long and we want to work in partnership with whoever is out there, the door is open.” 

Fiona said that she was encouraged by the number of individuals coming forward to offer help.

“Loads of people are coming forward and it is very interesting to see the snowball effect of people who want to give a hand, people with different expertise and skill sets.”

For Fiona and Trevor, the plan is to put together some proposals within a 12 month period, take them to Government and begin with small projects with a modest budget.

“For me, it is getting it right and doing it steadily and get a mandate from the Government. Persuade them there is a different way of tackling this, there is a different way of going about it which they don’t use.

“This is very qualitative, experiential and you need pretty experienced people to listen and to get the right message. To be clued into what people are saying and to get the right story.” 

The project group is meeting with Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government Damien English at the end of the month.

“On the day we are going to be designing between four and six solutions, to the different things we are seeing and then we very quickly analyse that and move on to the next thing.

It is all data based, nothing is based on hunches.” Dr Chambers said her project has a global potential and has attracted international interest, even at this early stage.

“This does have traction outside Ireland, but we are looking at Ireland first. The problem of homeless is all over Europe as well, our colleagues in Germany and Austria, they have the same stuff going on.

“We want things that are sustainable, that fit in any context, that they are not context driven and something that can travel and is not resource heavy, so uses existing networks, but maybe in a different way.

“It is something I feel very strongly about, and the college supports, we feel it is important to enhance the community that is around us and we connect into.”

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