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*****The National Association of General Practitioners (NAGP) has chosen Mid West Simon as their Charity for 2016*****

Inaugural NAGP fundraising ball which takes place in the Strand Hotel in Limerick on September 24.

Strength in communities

This September, the National Association of General Practitioners will join forces with the Mid West Simon Community for a gala charity ball to help raise money for the homeless support organisation which does essential work for people on the margins, writes Bernie Commins

In today's Ireland, the role of the Mid West Simon Community is vast. Sadly. And so is its catchment area. Covering Limerick, Clare and north Tipperary, the charity helps thousands of people; people who are sleeping rough, homeless families, children in low income families, women experiencing domestic violence, addicts, people from marginalised communities, people coming from emergency accommodation, institutionalised care or places of detention. The list goes on.

In 2016 Mid West Simon expects to have worked directly with approximately 920 men, 790 women and 1,200 children and by the end of 2016, will have had approximately 17,500 contacts with people from all walks of life looking for support and help.

Perfect pairing

But it is the crossover between clients who are seen by Mid West Simon and some of the patients who are seen by GPs that has led to this inaugural NAGP fundraising ball which takes place in the Strand Hotel in Limerick on September 24.

NAGP vice president, Dr Yvonne Williams, says that homelessness is a serious issue in Irish society and in her Limerick-based practice, she is dealing with many families who are at risk of homelessness due to the financial crisis in which the country is still embroiled.

“Apart from the health crisis, homelessness is a major issue in society and is something that a lot of GPs are dealing with now,” said Dr Williams.

“We have families who are at risk of homelessness or who have already become homeless. I was aware of the work that Mid West Simon was doing locally, and I wanted to help them.”

This is the NAGP's way of helping a well-regarded organisation such as Simon which is supporting many of society’s least supported members while also giving something back, according to Dr Williams, but for the Mid West Simon, it is so much more than that.

“Of course the fundraising aspect of what the NAGP is doing for us is so important , but the fact that such an august national organisation as the NAGP has chosen to have a gala dinner for our benefit is a great complement to us in a number of ways,” says Jackie Bonfield, general manager of Mid West Simon Community.

“We are genuinely pleased that they have chosen to support our work. We, as are all charities, acutely aware of the concern that is being felt by the public around supporting organisations such as ours in the climate of distrust that has been generated by recent scandals. Their recognition for the work that we do is such a positive for us all who work in the Mid West Simon Community and it a particular positive for our clients too.

Jackie believes that GPs and her organisation can work more closely in certain situations. She tells GP Ireland that Mid West Simon would like to have the opportunity to make a presentation to the NAGP in advance of the fundraiser to highlight the importance of the relationship between GPs and Mid West Simon.

“We do a significant amount of work with people with addiction and mental health issues and it is very important to be able to make that link with their GPs so that they can have a better understanding of the work that we are doing.

“We would like to link in with doctors in the region in relation to trying to access methadone programmes, for detox programmes, for outlining clients' mental health and addiction issues.”

Both Mid West Simon and GPs are on the same page when it comes to the view that certain services should be provided locally. And in some cases, Jackie believes that with the support of GPs, they might be in a position to break down some of the barriers that Mid West Simon comes up against when trying to access certain services for clients in rural areas, such as methadone or community detoxification programmes.

“Right now, if someone wants to take part in a detox programme for their addiction they have to go to a residential centre, but often this isn’t necessarily the best solution. For some it would be much more beneficial if they could remain in their own homes and undergo their detoxification in their own community. That’s not possible at the moment but there’s no reason it couldn’t happen if the right support structure was in place. Perhaps with a joint effort by ourselves and the GPs we could look at something like that.”

Heroin addiction, for example, is not confined to urban areas, according to Ms Bonfield.

“The only way to deal with it is to provide these services locally,” she says, adding that it would require the support of the Health Service Executive (HSE) to make it happen.

Dual diagnosis, which is when a person has a substance abuse issue alongside a mental health illness, is another serious concern for some clients of Mid West Simon.

“In many cases there is a link between drug addiction and poor mental health and it needs to be recognised and treated. We have experienced a number of our clients being admitted to A&E with a drug overdose only to find that they have been discharged a few hours later with no supports or follow-up. There are definitely gaps in the system and perhaps working together we may be able to solve some of these important issues. ”

Fundraising need

The annual running costs for Mid West Simon are about €350,000 and approximately €200,000 needs to be fundraised each year to keep the charity ticking over.

The State has provided capital funding in the past which has enabled Mid West Simon to purchase and subsequently rent a number of properties to generate revenue to pay for core costs. The properties are rented as accommodation units to people who would otherwise be homeless. On top of that, they have two charity shops.

“So, revenue from the shops and rent generate 40 per cent of our funds and we need to fundraise for the rest,” says Ms Bonfield.

“The money that we will raise from the NAGP Gala will go specifically towards a homelessness prevention programme that we run in partnership with the Irish Mortgage Holders Organisation (IMHO). These funds will go directly towards funding the staff who work with people who are at risk of losing their home because of mortgage arrears or because of rent increases.”

This is the 'new' form of economic homelessness that patients of Dr Williams and her colleagues are experiencing.

Jackie explains: “We still have the same level of homelessness that has always been there and that would include people who are very vulnerable, who have mental health issues and addiction issues, and of course family breakdown. Those issues would have always been there and will continue to be there.

“But what we are seeing now is economic homelessness where people are losing their homes because of two reasons in particular: bank repossessions of their home due to unsustainable mortgage repayments; and the other thing is rent increases are becoming so unmanageable that many people are going into rent arrears and get evicted, or they just leave the property because they know that they can no longer pay the rent.

Other people, Jackie says, are referred to as couch surfers because they do not have the means to pay rent so they stay with friends or family in over-crowded situations or unsuitable accommodation.

“They have a roof over their heads but that’s not a home in the true sense of the word!” she says.

As well as negotiating affordable rents with landlords on behalf of clients or helping clients to find new accommodation, Mid West Simon also provides a deposit loan scheme. And a percentage of the fundraiser proceeds will go towards that also.

“We will loan a deposit to the person, so that they can secure rented accommodation. What this does is it prevents them from being locked out of the market because they can't afford a deposit – along with a month’s rent.” The loan is then repaid in small amounts over an agreed period of time.

Jackie says that in the mid west region, 1,700 people are availing of Mid West Simon's various food banks; all are either homeless, at risk of being homeless, or are couch surfers. Families at risk of losing their homes are using the food bank as a way to save money for other bills.

“It is fact, these people are taking food from the food bank to help pay for another bill, whether it is the mortgage, rent, or the electricity,” says Jackie.

“Research tells us that Ireland has the highest level of food poverty for children. It is scary to think that we are the only food bank provider in the mid west region and we do not receive any core funding from the State to provide that service which internationally, has been recognised as one of the worst in Europe.”