Vincent Browne chaired a public discussion which took place on Tuesday 20th March in the Church of the Assumption, Tullamore at 7.30pm. The event was the result of a new approach to Traveller accommodation by Offaly Traveller Movement. “We decided to bring together the four churches in Offaly with some local activists who support Travellers” said Emma Gilchreest, OTM’s Managing Director. “We started this work in September 2017 and really it was to ensure the local churches were aware of the issues, particularly accommodation, that face the Traveller community here in Offaly. As it turns out they were not aware of the extent of the issue, the fact that there are over 100 Travellers on the side of the road here in Offaly and monies that are available not being drawn down to build Traveller specific accommodation, to be honest they were shocked at this information. We began meeting together on a regular basis to see what we could do and we decided that we would hold a public discussion about homelessness in general in the hopes that the Traveller specific issues would reach a new audience.”
Besides OTM staff the other members of the group were local community activists from Tullamore and Birr; Molly Buckley and Salters Sterling and representatives from the four churches in Offaly; Fr Shane Crombie from the Catholic Church, Rev Isaac Delamere from the Church of Ireland, Rev William Hayes from the Presbyterian Church and Rev Clodagh Yambasu from the Methodist Church. The organising committee worked with the support of the Offaly County Council. Hundreds of people gathered at the day chapel in the church to see Vincent Browne and the panel discuss the rural homelessness which is both complex and multifaceted. The panel on the night all gave valuable inputs and were challenged with questions from the audience, it was a lively debate. The panel were Pat Doyle, Brigid Quilligan, Tony O’Riordan and Oonagh McCardle.
Pat Doyle has been the CEO of Peter McVerry Trust, the national housing and homeless charity, since 2005. Pat is the current President of the Irish Council for Social Housing and is the Irish representative on the administrative council of FEANTSA, the European network of national homeless organisations. Pat has almost 30 years’ experience in the voluntary and community sector working with some of Ireland’s most vulnerable citizens. His input was the national picture and Vincent pressed him on finding finances in Ireland to address this. Brigid Quilligan, the second panelist is a well-known and respected Traveller rights advocate who played a key role in the campaign to secure official state recognition of Traveller ethnicity. Brigid received an Honorary Doctorate from University College Cork last year, the first member of the Irish Traveller community to receive such an honour. From Limerick, and the eldest of 11 children, Ms Quilligan is a former Director of the Irish Traveller Movement and is currently the Managing Director of the Kerry Travellers Development Project. Brigid spoke passionately about Travellers, the discrimination they face and the differences in homelessness in the Traveller context. She spoke with conviction about the monies that are available for Traveller housing that are not drawn down by Offaly County Council and other councils. Vincent, in his true style was irate about the Traveller discrimination issue and how is goes unchallenged by those in authority, comparing it to the situation in Burma. The third panelist was Tony O Riordan, he has 25 years’ experience of working in the community sector and in 2004 he was appointed as Chief Executive Officer of the Midlands Simon Community with responsibility for the development and management of services to respond to homelessness in Midlands Counties of Laois, Longford Offaly and Westmeath. Tony has always advocated for a move away from the costly and ineffective shelter and hostel model of responding to homelessness and instead advocated for a Housing First model which aims to support people to have a home for life and not just a bed for night in a hostel or shelter. Tony gave a very insightful look into the lack of funding to the Midlands and Offaly in particular where only 6 beds are available and the staff in the Midlands Simon have to turn people away every night. The last panellist was Oonagh McCardle, Dr McArdle is a lecturer at the Department of Applied Social Studies, NUI Maynooth where she teaches on professional programmes in community and youth work. She worked for many years as a community worker, focusing on addressing racism and violence against women and maintains an active involvement in promoting and supporting human rights through community development practice, including as vice-chair of the European Community Development Network. She posed many philosophical and thought-provoking questions on the night such as what sort of society do we want to live in? Tom Shanahan, Director for Housing for Offaly County Council was also present on the night and he painted an honest and detailed picture of the current situation in Offaly and the statistics collected on homelessness by Offaly County Council which do not include groups of homeless like the Travellers on the side of road for which there are over 100. The event was lively and interactive and had a great mixture of people in attendance. The committee also commissioned a very powerful short video which was put together by Tyran Lovett depicting the situation of homelessness in Offaly through imagery. “This can’t stop here” says OTM managing Director Emma, “we must try as a society in Offaly to address some if not all of the issues that were raised”.