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by Tom Kenny

In October 1979, two psychology students, Margaret Brehony and Kathy O’Grady teamed up with a philosophy student, Conall Mac Riocard and formed a group of volunteers. They started a twice weekly soup run to people who were sleeping rough in Galway. They made the soup and sandwiches at home and then they would do the run. They only met one person on their first night, but gradually, the numbers increased. They found that the experience of squeezing into a car, then picking one’s way over rubble, broken glass or perhaps rats, to a man lying in a corner, probably open to the sky, gave them an inescapable motivation to work towards the goal of a night shelter in Galway.

At the time, one of their clients slept in a pigsty opposite the Presentation Primary School, some in a railway siding near Lough Atalia, some in skips, in the bathing shelters on the prom, in a rat-infested cottage on Frenchman’s Lane, in cardboard boxes, one young man slept in a disused telephone box that had fallen down at Ballyloughane Beach and was suffering from pneumonia when they found him. In another case, they had to climb over an eight-foot fence in dark undergrowth behind the Claddagh Palace.

That was the genesis of Galway Simon Community.

They initially called themselves CHAD, the Committee for Homeless and Destitute, but in March, 1980, they were affiliated to Simon Communities of Ireland. They set up a workshop for the clients in Munster Avenue, seen in our photograph, where they could do woodwork etc. Unfortunately, one of them had a slight accident and hurt his hand, so the Insurance Company refused to cover them and the facility was closed down.

On Friday, April 24th, 1981, Simon occupied a disused house next door to Leisureland that was owned by the Corporation. They announced their intention to open it as an emergency night shelter pointing out that it was a last resort in the absence of the relevant local authorities providing any shelter for the homeless. The next day, as you can see from our photograph, nine security men, on the instructions of the manager of Leisureland, forcibly entered the house, boarded up the windows and doors and refused to allow any food or drink to be sent in to the six members of Simon who were there at the time. Other Simon members, including some homeless, kept vigil outside and distributed some 2,000 leaflets explaining the situation.

The Mayor, Bridie O’Flaherty and Councillor Michael D. Higgins visited the house in an attempt to break the deadlock. On Sunday, the 26th of April, the City manager, together with the Mayor, pledged that both immediate and long-term efforts to house those sleeping rough would be made. On receiving this information, Simon decided to vacate the house. The occupation generated extensive local and national media coverage with television, radio and all the national papers carrying the story. The reaction in Galway was almost universally sympathetic and led to an increase in offers of help and volunteers.

In August of that year, The Department of the Environment gave the thumbs down for a hostel in Galway. In October, the city councillors voted unanimously instructing the city manager to prepare a Middle Street building for use as a night shelter. His response was that the Corporation had no role in providing shelter of any kind, either temporary or permanent.  "“This is solely a matter for the Western Health Board”. At Christmas 1981, Galway Simon set up a temporary shelter in the Fairgreen and in 1983, its first purpose shelter, Fairgreen House opened on the site.

In the 2000s the authorities were beginning to behave far more responsibly towards funding and the voluntary sector were achieving more and more credibility. Last year Galway Simon supported 810 households including 225 families with 476 children. They are focussed on preventing homelessness, providing housing with supports and Health and Wellbeing services. They provide specialist services to young people aged 18-24, and to women with families. They provide GP and nursing, mental health support, addiction/substance misuse counselling and occupational therapy support services to people in homeless services across Galway City and the region.

Tomorrow night, Galway Simon’s biggest fundraiser of the year takes place. Individuals, families, schools, companies and clubs across Galway, Mayo and Roscommon are giving up their bed for one night with one purpose, to change the lives of those facing homelessness in the region. All of the monies collected will go towards their Homelessness Prevention Services. If you would like to donate visit sleepoutforsmon.ie or phone 091 381828. Alternatively, you can donate via their bank account the name of which is Simon Community, Galway. The BIK is AIBKIE2D and the IBAN is IE95AIBK93709665683185.

Please, Be Generous.

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