Pope Francis’ visit to the Capuchin Day Centre on Dublin’s Church Street this summer was a special moment for Threshold, the homelessness prevention charity, according to Threshold CEO John-Mark McCafferty.
“The papal visit – the fact that the Pope went to Brother Kevin’s place, a Capuchin just round the corner from here is absolutely key because that’s how we’re founded,” he says. “We’ve very solid foundations through the Capuchins, and we’ve maintained that kind of ethos, that kind of charism, through our work which is very much values-based, social justice in action, and our advocacy work and the provision of our services.”
That Threshold is a Capuchin-founded organisation might come as a surprise to some, but looked at another way, the 40-year-old charity could be seen as a sister body to the Capuchin Day Centre, intended to catch people before they fall into homelessness and desperation.
“We were established in 1978 by Fr Donal O’Mahony, who was a Capuchin brother,” Threshold’s Fundraising Manager Cora Ó Liatháin says, with John-Mark explaining that Threshold initially operated out of the Capuchin friary on Church Street, with Fr Donal maintaining links with the charity up to his death in 2010, though his emphasis in his latter years had mainly been in peace-building.
“He himself was a really inspiring character, he would have been a contemporary of the likes of brother Kevin,” says John-Mark, adding that he was “quite an inspirational figure” and “very much a kind of faith-in-action kind of guy”.
Explaining that the organisation has developed extensively since Fr Donal’s day, Cora maps out how it currently works to tackle homelessness across Ireland.
“We literally started with one office in Church Street in Dublin but we’ve grown and our services have evolved to reflect what’s happening in the housing environment and the rental market in particular.
“At this stage we now have three offices in Dublin Cork and Galway,” she continues. “We have a national helpline that anybody around the country can ring. It’s a freephone helpline. We have outreach services in various parts of the country and really we’re responding on a national basis to people who are experiencing housing problems and people who are at risk of homelessness who are living in the rental sector.”
The scale of the homelessness issue in modern Ireland probably really can’t be downplayed, and John-Mark has warm words of welcome for ‘A Room at the Inn?’, the bishops’ new pastoral letter in response to the housing crisis. This was a constant theme for him when he was on the bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission in connection his previous role as advocacy manager for the Society of St Vincent de Paul.
“When I was on about the commission one thing I kept underlining was the need for the bishops to focus on housing as the key failing of the Irish State,” he says. “This fits in with the common good and Catholic social teaching about the provision of home and access to housing being absolutely sacrosanct for family life and for the development of people, for people to have a hearth, a place to grow, form relationships, build families, build their work lives, all of those things.”
Having a dependable home is absolutely essential if family life is to thrive, he says.
“It is the key building block, and has been fundamentally undermined, especially in the private rented sector, over the last five years in relation to affordability, and then over the last couple of years in relation to availability of those units. They’re still very very expensive, but there’s even less of them than there was, say, four or five years ago, which is the doublewhammy – and never mind the quality of the units, which is highly variable,” he says.
“So you’ve this perfect storm where people are priced out of the private rented sector, but the social housing isn’t coming onstream as quickly as needed.”
Ireland’s dysfunctional housing system, he continues, puts families under pressure as multiple generations are forced to live under one roof together, while often when people manage to move they end up moving long distances away, which can hurt both family life and community life in general.
“You’re moving out of your community, which I think is very important. People have to make decisions that bring people out of their context, their wider extended family, maybe where children have been going to school. All these things are highly disruptive,” he says, adding that “Ireland wasn’t a society that commuted very far distances until very, very recently”.
Distances and commuting can be seriously corrosive of family life, Cora agrees.
“It’s very uncertain. You need certainty when you’re raising your family and if you’re in a home and you don’t have that that’s a very uncertain situation to be in quite undermining of your family life,” she says, noting also that people who leave their home environments often want to go back.
“There’s so many people who would love to return home. I went back to the northside when I had my children to be near my family and to be near the schools that I know – so many people want to do that, but it’s just not possible,” she says.
“In my daughter’s school there are families who are driving their kids to school and they are hoping to move into the area of Raheny,” she continues. “They’re doing that drive because they want them in that school because they think they’ll hopefully end up there, but that’s a gamble. Every day they’re driving their kids to school and they’re watching the house prices in the area, and it must be really disillusioning.”
All this is going on in an environment where at least one in five – and perhaps as many as one in four – people are living in rented accommodation, with significant numbers facing the prospect of being forced to find new homes.
“It’s really disruptive for family life generally, the housing crisis, and then the most extreme form of it is family homelessness,” says John-Mark. “Families and individuals are finding themselves priced out or they’re facing a notice to quit because a landlord needs the property to move into for their own use or their families use, or they’re substantially renovating the property or they’re selling the property, never mind whether the family can afford to rent it or not in the first place. “
AirBnB is regularly cited as a culprit in this regard, cutting into housing supply, and John-Mark agrees that it’s having a huge impact on supply, adding that it’s also contributing to “the hollowing out of certain communities”. At the same time, he says, the housing market is not uniform; while Dublin is bulging at the seams, areas like Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown are seeing population decline with ‘empty nesters’ living alone in large houses built for families, and there is a lot of State land lying unused.
In this context, he says, Threshold has a unique role to play in helping renters facing difficulties.
“We are unique because while we are a national housing charity we specialise in tenants and the rented sector. That is our unique selling point. We also are the only organisation that has a national helpline that assists people to hold on to their tenancies – our national tenancy protection service. So we are absolutely Central when it comes to homelessness prevention, and as we know prevention is better than cure,” he says.
Cora agrees, saying that the old saying is something people get.
“Those words just explain in a nutshell how we’re intervening before people are in that situation,” she says. “There are so many reasons why that is the best way of approaching it. To intervene and avoid them going into homeless services, obviously it’s hugely important. It’s more cost effective in the long run than them going into homelessness services, and it’s less disruptive. It’s the preferred solution for everyone really.”
At the moment, Cora says, the organisation is preventing nine families a day from becoming homeless.
“That’s something real and tangible,” she says. “People, I think, maybe have a bit of fatigue around the housing crisis, thinking ‘Why hasn’t it been fixed now? They’re saying there’s no problem with money but it’s still happening and every year it’s getting worse and worse and it’s on the news every day.’
“But what we can do is prevent nine families today and tomorrow, so if you want to do something very real and very tangible, you could support Threshold to do that.”
The organisation’s helpline takes over 70,000 calls a year, with helpline advisors there to guide distressed callers around their problems.
“Effectively what will happen is that somebody will ring our helpline, they will speak to one of our housing advisors, they’ll explain their situation,” Cora begins, adding that callers can be in a range of emotional states. “Our housing adviser will basically talk to them try and understand what the problem is, asking them about the tenancy, asking them about their lease agreement, really trying to get the facts to basically try and figure out what’s the practical solution here, what can we do on their behalf?”
Sometimes callers will allow Threshold staff to talk to their landlords, and they can call up and try to negotiate a solution – “We don’t like to vilify all landlords – we have landlords who are donors and there is a full spectrum of landlords,” she says.
Negotiating a solution can involve callers coming in to go through paperwork with housing advisers, and cases which can be resolved will be stuck with, with vulnerable clients tending to need a series of phone calls over time.
“In terms of the main issues they would have, it could be a rent increase, so maybe if they’re on rent supplement they could apply for an additional rent supplement payment, so we’ll help them apply for that and facilitate them to pay an increase rent to the landlord which would keep them in their home,” she adds, noting too that Threshold can also help challenge illegal evictions.
“In some cases it is a case of buying them more time so they can try and find somewhere else. Obviously we all know that’s really difficult to do,” she says.
It may be difficult and far from ideal, but it still matters, John-Mark points out.
“It could be the difference between homelessness and just moving from one home to another, so that time can be very important. Obviously what we want to do is kind of be as effective as we can in terms of preventing the family from losing their home in the first place,” he says.
The organisation can also sometimes support people in dealing with the residential tenancies board or the workplace relations commission, he notes.
“Where they have a case where there’s been an injustice in relation to how a landlord has treated them, we’ll either represent them – we’ll go with them – or we’ll assist them to represent themselves,” he says.
“We very much believe in assisting people to find the solutions themselves either through our website or through maybe a brief conversation on the phone, but where they need further assistance, and especially where people are more marginalised or more vulnerable, maybe migrant groups for whom English is not their first language we will have a deeper involvement, a deeper engagement,” he says.
Often, he says, it is the children in such households that have to communicate on behalf of their parents.
Given this workload and the challenge being faced, it’s hardly surprising that Threshold is grateful for any donations, especially legacy bequests.
“We’re in the midst of a housing crisis, and at the core of that is homelessness. And we are right on the coalface preventing homelessness through our advisers, preventing family homelessness and keeping families together through our home-saving work,” says John-Mark.
Pointing out that 80% of Threshold’s staff are in frontline services, Cora says: “We do receive statutory funding and that is a big part of Threshold’s funding overall, but obviously we want to balance that with fundraising so that we can have a sustainable income base so that we can plan ahead, and plan services.”
Direct mail appeals are key to the organisation’s fundraising, she continues, with other funding coming for direct debit donations from monthly donors, from corporate supporters, and from trusts and foundations with specific interests in homelessness or housing.
“And then there’s legacies,” she says. “In terms of our legacy programme, as you’d know with legacies, sometimes you never know where they’re going to come from or when they’re going to arrive in your post, but obviously when you get a cheque in to give a legacy you’ve a very good day in fundraising.
“The legacy gifts we’ve had to date have been from a mixture of existing supporters and people that we have had no connection with that we’re aware of, just out of the blue,” she says, pointing out that a legacy gift played a key part in the purchase of Threshold’s Galway office, and that legacy donations can keep helping people for years to come.
“This is an organisation that’s been around for 40 years, and given the way the rental market is, we’re probably going to be around for another 40, so gifts like that will help future generations,” she says, pointing out that as a comparatively small organisation despite its national reach, Threshold can really gain from legacy gifts.
“Our fundraising programme last year raised about €700,000 and that included one legacy gift of €100,000,” she says. “When people are thinking about where they’re going to leave a legacy gift, they’re going to make a massive impact in Threshold.”