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Avoiding ‘founderitis’

pmcverry_01The 5-year strategic plan of the Peter McVerry Trust is the latest chapter in a remarkable story. Like the Irish School of Ecumenics (Floreat ut pereat), the goal of the Trust is to make itself redundant. That will happen when all Dubliners have a place they call home, and homelessness is no more. Peter does not expect that to happen soon, but a great deal has happened in the thirty-seven years since he, as a newly ordained Jesuit, first confronted the homeless of the north city. Five years later he opened a hostel for homeless boys; and four years after that he founded the Arrupe Society, to provide housing and support. It was still effectively a one-man show, and it could have foundered but for some inspired developments. Read more below.
The harder Peter worked, the larger and more complex grew the challenge. He was individual counsellor, the point of reference for the homeless, and the fund-raiser and advocate. The situation required a strong, passionate, multi-talented personality who could make fast decisions and motivate people to action. Peter was the man, and he brought the Arrupe Trust though tough times.

In Peter, nature seems to have broken the law of averages. Ever since he won a First Honours degree in chemistry at UCD, he has been head-hunted by the staffs of schools and other bodies, which covet his teaching gifts. He is not just uncommonly bright and healthy, but a brilliant communicator, passionate, articulate, photogenic: a visionary with a blessed sense of humour and a capacity to live with chaos. All this would count for nothing if he were not a man of prayer, choosing to live among the poorest. He brushes off admiration. I am lucky, he says, I am in the work and place that make me happy.

The sheer size and complexity of the challenge kept on growing. The charity could have succumbed to Founder’s Syndrome, where the structures and roles that launched an organisation do not adapt to new needs and ways for sharing responsibility and authority. Instead the year 2005 brought a significant change. A new Board of Directors and a dynamic young CEO were appointed to oversee the first  5-year strategic plan, devised to evaluate and develop services in line with best practice. The fund-raisers kept having to explain what Arrupe meant, so the charity changed its name to “Peter McVerry Trust”, and progressed from providing a 3-bedroom flat in Ballymun to today’s wide range of services catering for the diverse needs of young homeless people (now including girls).

There was no escaping this development. Health and safety regulations pervade every organisation, and Peter’s genius lies in other directions than ticking the bureaucratic boxes; he needs help for that. The Trust has grown, under a supportive and talented Board, to its present size, with 85 employees, a budget of €6,500,000 (more than half coming from the State), a range of hostels and apartments across the city catering for different age-groups, a training programme for its staff, and an education programme for the homeless young people.

The Trust aims to direct the young people to their homes – but they are seldom places of refuge.  They face a huge temptation to gravitate to crime and drug-abuse. Despair is an abiding menace. Peter buries on average one suicide or drug-overdoser a month, and the Trust offers the dignity of a proper grave and a respectful burial. Peter spends his weekends visiting  prisons, with the result that the Trust is often the first port of call for released prisoners.

AMDG Express salutes an extraordinary man, and the extraordinary people who work with him. There is one corner of Mountjoy Square where the Gospel is alive.