You'd be fairly hard pressed to find a person in Cork who hasn't heard of Edel House – a city centre facility for women and children who are experiencing homelessness.
By all accounts, the shelter is the public face of Good Shepherd Cork and can widely be regarded as the organisation's most high profile service.
But, while Edel House is undeniably an integral service, and one which thousands of women and children have needed to rely on for emergency accommodation over the years, it would be under ten times as much strain as it currently is if not for the work of Good Shepherd Cork's Support and Advocacy team.
The staff working in this sector essentially meet and build up relationships with women experiencing homelessness who are staying in either Edel House, in a B&B or hotel, in their supported housing like High Street or Baile an Aoire or in the Riverview facility for teenage girls who are out of home. Or women and teenagers who are studying at Bruac - Good Shepherd Cork's Education and Development hub.
In a lot of respects, it is the Support and Advocacy team which links all of the Good Shepherd Cork services together, ensuring a continuum of care across many different aspects of homelessness.
But the support doesn't end once a woman moves on from homelessness, or from Edel House, or Riverview, or Bruac.
In fact, the link with the Support and Advocacy workers becomes more important than ever – they are also vital lifelines for women who have left homelessness behind them. They are constantly there, on the other end of the phone, should a woman feel like she is entering a crisis which could potentially end up with her re-entering emergency accommodation.
So, what exactly does the team do on a daily basis?
The short answer is: everything and anything it can to keep women in their homes.
No two people are the same, and so no two people's homelessness situation or story is the same. Some woman may have experienced homelessness as children and are now caught in a seemingly never-ending cycle of emergency accommodation. Others might be struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction, or mental health issues.
Still others may not have a family home to rely on as a safety net – perhaps through family breakdown, or bereavement, or the fact that they are not from Ireland in the first place – and may have simply fallen victim to the indiscriminate housing crisis currently sweeping the country.
So those working for Good Shepherd Cork's Support and Advocacy team will often find themselves searching Daft.ie for accommodation for people, or helping them fill out forms to access supports like Housing Assistance Payment, for example.
The might find themselves referring people to addiction supports, or to mental health services. They may mediate between tenants and landlords to solve issues before it gets to the point of eviction. Sometimes, they may just find themselves chatting to individuals in coffee shops – maybe they only need a friendly face and some reassurance.
“A lot of the support is around tenancy sustainment. If you had somebody moving to a new area, for example, it could be helping them link in with relevant services - doctors, schools for the kids, find out what's in the area. Some people have issues with budgeting or issues with money management. It could be helping them with stuff around that,” explained Linda Mulcahy, manager of the Support and Advocacy team.
“For us, the work is very broad. In Edel House, for example, most people who go there, there's normally a lot of chaos going on for them. It's not just a house that is the only problem for a lot of people. You're dealing with addiction, mental health, domestic violence... and a lot of families would be involved in child protection services as well, so we would link in with the child protection social work team and attend meetings with clients, advocate for them, and attend court with them.” While a lot of the support is one-to-one, the team does also organise gatherings throughout the year.
“Every week we'd have a coffee morning which is a social, kind of informal thing. We'd also sometimes run cooking groups for women in the afternoon. We have a DVD night once a month where people come here in the evening and we run a swim and gym group. The women alternate between going swimming one week and going to the gym the next,” said Linda.
“In the past we've run walking groups. Some women would walk the mini marathon in the summer to raise funds for the service. Then also once or twice a year we organise a trip away for the women. They really love that. For a lot of people, you see, they don't have anywhere to go out to, they don't have people to meet. The majority of our clients are on welfare payments so they wouldn't have much access to funds either.” Isolation, it seems, is a huge issue. A client could have grown up in the city, for example, but when a house pops up it could be located in West Cork. Suddenly the person affected, while they now have a house, they do not have the support structure they had when living in the city because they do not know the people or the community or the services around them.
“The informal events where we're cooking or watching a movie, it's not a huge cost but those things the women really appreciate,” said Linda.
“The service as a whole, it's not time limited. We have at least 30 clients who have been working with us for longer than six years. Some of those might just come to the groups though, they might not require a lot of individual support, but it still helps them – knowing we're here for them, and that the door is always open.” Support and Advocacy is a service run by Good Shepherd Cork which is a registered charity that works with women and children who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness. It provides a continuum of care from emergency accommodation to long term supported housing, support and advocacy, and education and development.
Donations and fundraising are essential to their ability to provide these services. If you would like to support them, you can donate online at www.goodshepherdcork.ie/make-a-donation.
Good Shepherd Cork's Support and Advocacy team currently works with up to 100 clients every single month.
Linda Mulcahy, manager of Good Shepherd Cork's Support and Advocacy service, said numbers have been steadily increasing in recent years as a direct result of the ongoing housing and homelessness crisis.
“I'm with the team about 15 years now and we used to be based in the Bruac centre on the north side of Cork. When we were there, most of our clients were around the north side. They lived locally. You could pop in the car and be over to someone in 15 min or less,” she said.
“Now you could be travelling an hour and a half to meet somebody. Definitely, people now have to move further and further out to get accommodation. For a lot of people that can make it hard for them to come in and access groups we have going on because they're so far away.” She said finding homes for people is harder than it has ever been.
“The difficulty in people finding accommodation is a huge problem. People are stuck in Edel House for longer and that has a huge impact on them,” she said.
“People used to be in and out of Edel House fairly quickly before, whereas now they are having to stay in there for weeks or months. And we're seeing a lot of people who are in there just because their landlord decided to sell the property. That's happening increasingly now, whereas before most people going to Edel House would have had some other underlying issue such as addiction or domestic violence whereas now there is a percentage of people going in there who could manage in the community but they just have been asked to leave. And they're often people with big families and that's even harder then to find accommodation for them.” She said the job is a tough one, and can be incredibly emotional.
“We worked with a mother who was doing fine in the community but the landlord just decided to give her notice. She had four children. Every time you'd meet her, she would just be sobbing. Literally from the moment she would get up she was trying to find accommodation,” said Linda.
“She had a baby and a son who was in secondary school and trying to manage all of that in one room in Edel House... the son would be trying to do his homework and the baby's trying to sleep, then you're trying to do the cooking and everything... I think when people are trying to stay in emergency accommodation for any lengthy period of time, it does really affect their mental health.”
Apart from Edel House, which houses single women and women with children, and Riverview, which houses teenage girls, Good Shepherd Cork also offered supported accommodation in apartments and houses.
Take, for example, a mother with three children who have recently been made homeless. One of her children is a male, aged 16. Since Edel House has a strict policy in that it doesn't house male children over the age of 13, the family cannot go there.
In that situation, Good Shepherd Cork would try and put the family in supported housing in either their South City apartments or in its Baile an Aoire housing complex.
While the South City facility tends to house more emergency cases, however, the Baile an Aoire estate tends to house people who are almost ready to live independently.
In many respects, it bridges the gap between the institutionalisation of homelessness and the daunting freedom of independent living.
A beautiful estate on the north side of Cork, individuals are housed in small, but homely, units. They link in with their Support and Advocacy workers, and they are able to access the communal hub located in the centre of the estate.
“If they don't know how to cook, they can get dinner at the centre,” explained Siobhan Hayes, who works at Baile an Aoire.
“We also have different things on from time to time. There have been a few cookery classes to kind of help people who wouldn't be used to cooking or looking after themselves. Then there were craft classes and there's a bingo night. Then there are social nights every so often. We had a great one there recently. There was a guy playing the guitar and a good crowd came to it.” Siobhan said some people need more support than others, but all are on the journey towards independent living.
“We have a very mixed group and they have all different needs. They're coming from very different backgrounds. The ultimate aim is to equip people with the skills to live independently. But it's important that they don't move out until they're ready.” ENDS