Homeless People Often Complain About the Freephone. But Not to Those Who Run It.

Paul Mulcahy became homeless two years ago when his marriage ended, he says.

At first, the former firefighter, a tall man in his 50s, paid to stay in tourist hostels. But soon he couldn’t afford that any longer, he says.

Mulcahy spent about a year relying on calling the Dublin Region Homeless Executive’s (DRHE’s) freephone service to get a bed in emergency accommodation each night, he says.

He would like to give feedback about the service. He would have liked to complain at the time. But there was no way to do that.

“There is no complaints procedure for us whatsoever,” he says, sitting at a table in the Capuchin Day Centre on Bow Street on Monday morning.

The bed-allocation system through the freephone was unfair, as it didn’t take account of the needs of someone who was working as he was at the time, part-time in a bar, he said. But he didn’t think complaining was an option.

“You just have to accept what you get,” he says. “You are afraid to complain because you will be punished.” A person who complained, he feared, would be less likely to get a bed the next time they called.

There is, in fact, a complaints procedure on the Dublin Region Homeless Executive’s website. But the DRHE didn’t receive any complaints about the freephone service in 2016, according to a response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Yet homeless people often complain about the freephone system to journalists, and to advocates for the homeless. So why is no one complaining to the DRHE?

Freephone Feedback

At the start of 2018, with minimal fanfare, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive launched the first ever mandatory standards for homeless services in Ireland.

The Quality Assessment and Improvement Workbook must be used by all homeless services, including statutory services, says Elaine Butler, who is the project manager for the National Quality Standards project in the DRHE.

“It would apply to statutory and non-statutory services equally,” she says, “and [it] was trialled in statutory services also.” In other words, to both government-run and NGO-run services.

The workbook lists eight key themes. The first is “person-centred services”, which places an emphasis on “service-user involvement” in improving homeless services.

In other words, people who are homeless should be able to contribute ideas on how the service is run, and how that service should adapt to their needs.

“A culture of service-user involvement is evident in practice and the service-users’ needs and views are sought and responded to at all levels of planning and delivery,” it says.

On top of that, “service users’ complaints and concerns are listened to and acted upon in a timely, supportive and effective manner”, it says.

Butler couldn’t account for how feedback from those who are homeless is collated for the DRHE’s own services, such as the freephone. “The service-user group for the freephone is a very, very brief intervention,” she said.

“There is consultation with, for example, heads of services who may be engaging with people who have used the freephone and service-user perspective is brought through that,” she says.

If someone has a complaint, they can make that complaint very easily though, she says.

“They can state their case directly to the freephone. They can make a complaint to the freephone, they can talk to any advocate, involved in their care and that advocate then can discuss that with [the Central Placement Service],” she says.

All calls are recorded, so complaints about the freephone service can be acted on very easily, she says.

She doesn’t know why the DRHE received no complaints about the freephone service in 2016. But DRHE has changed the freephone system after feedback from those who are homeless, she said.

They altered it in 2016 so that those managing the helpline call the homeless person back, which means they don’t have to wait on the line.

Homeless people often have to ring back at several different times throughout the day, but that’s so that when somebody doesn’t turn up to take their bed, it can reallocated later in the evening.

The point of the helpline is to try to make sure all the beds are used, she says.

“Would If We Could”

Some homeless people say they do want to complain about the freephone. Sometimes, they want to appeal decisions made by the DRHE, too. But many said they don’t think there’s a way for them to do this.

Thomas Tuite says he tried to make a complaint about the freephone service on 1 April 2016. The date sticks in his mind because it was April Fool’s Day.

For roughly two weeks before that, he had rung the freephone every day and was told there were no beds, he recalls.

Then, on 1 April, he was told that he had a “rolling bed” in the Bru Hostel on Thomas Street in the south inner city, and that that bed had been there for the past two weeks.

He had been sleeping rough because of misinformation, he says. When he got to the hostel, he tried to make a complaint to staff there about the freephone.

Staff told him that that service has nothing to do with them, he says. “I wanted to take it further.”

Thomas Barry says he wants to complain about the freephone not calling him back. He called the freephone four times in one day and nobody phoned him back, he says.

He wants to complain about how difficult it is to access homeless accommodation in Dublin too, he says.

He grew up in foster care in Dublin and moved to the United Kingdom about 18 years ago, he says. He recently came back to Dublin to try to find his sister, and wants to stay.

He and his English girlfriend, Kristine Butcher, are living in a tent at the moment because they haven’t managed to access emergency beds, he says.

His passport was stolen a while back, which he reported in England, he says. But without a photo ID, the DRHE won’t register him as homeless, he says.

In the United Kingdom, they use your previous address history to verify that you are who you say you are, says Butcher.

Barry says Dublin City Council should have his records. “I handed back a property to them 18 years ago,” he says. It was a council flat in Ballymun.

He has a letter confirming that he is sleeping rough in Dublin from the Housing First Team in Focus Ireland, who try to help rough sleepers. He has a birth certificate and has got passport photos done.

“Focus Ireland gave me them,” he says. “But anyone can get photos. That is not photo ID.”

In the last 10 days, he has been to the DRHE offices in Parkgate Hall three times to try to register as homeless, he says. But they won’t see him without an ID.

He hasn’t been offered any opportunity to appeal the decision, he says.

Call Backs

Homeless people report loads of issues with the system of bed allocation through the freephone service, says Brian McLoughlin from Inner City Helping Homeless. He calls regularly for others late at night.

It’s a frustrating system even for him, he says. “Not to mind someone who is trying to get out of a doorway and may have mental-health problems.”

Sometimes, it schedules the call-back straight away, he says. But at other times, it doesn’t work and you get the call back while you are still on the line and so you can’t answer it.

“It is the most frustrating call-back system in the world,” he says.

McLoughlin has witnessed homeless people trying to talk to the recorded information, he says, thinking that it is a person. “It is completely flawed. I can only imagine what it is like for people with mental-health issues.”

He put in an official complaint about the service in 2017, he says.

On that occasion, he felt that somebody was being admonished for declining a bed, even though the freephone operators were unable to offer his girlfriend accommodation too; he had chosen to stay out that night with his girlfriend.

Some homeless people have mental-health problems, and sometimes their phone is lost or stolen on the street. They often don’t have access to charging points, and some, like Mulcahy, are trying to hold down jobs.

Butler, the project manager, says the DRHE has no intention of changing that system, unless someone comes up with a better way for them to reallocate empty beds.

“Any available bed is used,” she says. “Other cities don’t have the bed occupancy rates that we do.”

“If beds were allocated at the start of the day, you could end up with hundreds of empty beds which could be used,” she says. In December 2016, the DRHE said that 270 beds in total are allocated on the freephone each day.

People have come from Europe, the United Kingdom, America and Australia to learn about the freephone service, she says. “As an example of bed-management that they are looking to implement.”

Anti-homelessness campaigner Fr Peter McVerry says that someone should really collate the views of homeless people who use the one-night-only accommodation that is allocated through the freephone service.

“What I would love is for somebody to fund a customer-satisfaction survey amongst homeless people using emergency hostels,” says Fr McVerry. “It would be devastating.”

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Author:

Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a freelance journalist. You can reach her at laoiseneylon@gmail.com.

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