Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s promise to help homeless victims of rape and sexual violence is significant. Those to whom he made that pledge say he is a man of his word.
Last Saturday afternoon in Cork Penny Dinners, Taoiseach Micheál Martin met with Penny Dinners co-ordinator Catriona Twomey and Mary Crilly, founder of the Sexual Violence Centre, Cork. Also attending the meeting, albeit virtually, was Lavinia Kerwick.
I’ve written before about Lavinia. In 1992 she became the first Irish rape survivor to waive their right to anonymity, and her campaigning led to the introduction of victim impact statements in Irish courts, and the granting to the Director of Public Prosecutions the power to appeal the leniency of sentences.
Earlier this year, Lavinia read in this column a report about homeless people being sexually assaulted and raped on the streets of Cork. Penny Dinners co-ordinator Catriona Twomey had related how she had saved a homeless woman from being raped, and how she had also witnessed a sexual assault on another homeless woman.
In both incidents, the attackers were homeless men known to their victims, but Catriona had stressed that “the vast majority of homeless men are fabulous people, and in fact many homeless men have themselves been sexually assaulted.”
On reading that article, Lavinia felt she had to do something. As I later reported in the Irish Examiner, she called on Taoiseach Micheál Martin to meet with Catriona and Cork Sexual Violence Centre founder Mary Crilly.
Three months later, the Taoiseach sat at the first table inside the door of Penny Dinners and listened attentively as Catriona and Mary spoke quietly but forcefully as they made their case for a shelter for homeless victims of sexual assault. On the laptop, with a dodgy audio connection, was Lavinia Kerwick.
Lavinia made strong contributions, with the Taoiseach repeatedly expressing his agreement, but with Micheál Martin, Catriona Twomey and Mary Crilly all being soft-spoken, she couldn’t quite hear much of the subsequent discussion.
Later, when the Sexual Violence Centre Cork tweeted a lovely photo of the meeting, entitled “Three women on a mission”, Lavinia replied “Thank you so much for asking me. Sorry about the sound. But hopefully it’s just the start.”
They responded succinctly: “The sound wasn’t great, but the message was clear and well-received. We must do better for victims of rape and sexual violence, including homeless victims.”
I interviewed the Taoiseach afterward, and he described the meeting as “very positive”, promising to help to establish a scheme offering refuge to homeless victims of sexual assault, with follow-on medical and counselling services, and assistance to access to long-term, sustainable accommodation.
“I want to thank Catriona and Mary and Lavinia for identifying a clear need in terms of homeless people being raped and assaulted on our streets, with no effective follow-on services available to them,” he said.
“I know there is the assault unit in the South Infirmary – which I helped establish with Mary Crilly many, many years ago – but there needs to be follow-on support and refuge for women and men in that situation.”
I asked if he could commit to a timeline.
“I don’t exactly have a timeline, but I will be engaging with Catriona and Mary, and they’re going to forward some ideas to me and immediately I’ll be getting in touch with the authorities, but obviously it’s going to take some time in terms of identifying a building, for example, and then working out the management of that.
“There’s a bit of work to be done.”
Mr Martin said he felt there would be a role for the Homeless Forum and other statutory bodies in addressing this issue.
“I think this is important, and it’s something we should do, and it will need, obviously, local authorities, HSE and the homeless services in general, to become involved in helping to provide a solution.
“It needs a bespoke solution to deal with this and I’m going to reflect on that and see how we can move it forward.”
The Taoiseach expressed the hope that this scheme might be piloted in Cork, and that other areas might follow suit: “The first sexual assault unit started in Cork when I was Minister for Health. That worked well, and it was very quickly replicated across the country.”
Afterward, on the phone, Lavinia said she had been happy with the meeting, and that the Taoiseach had seemed very interested in supporting the proposal.
“He listened carefully to everything that was said, and I hope he will support Catriona and Mary, and that he will offer homeless rape survivors the support, dignity, and respect that is their right as human beings.”
Mary Crilly, who founded the Sexual Violence Centre – formerly the Cork Rape Crisis Centre – in 1983, told me the Taoiseach had acknowledged that homeless women had been ignored and forgotten in the debate about homelessness.
“I have yet to meet a homeless woman who hasn’t been raped. They tend to say ‘I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been raped’,” she said.
“What we are hoping to see as a result of today’s meeting is a refuge for women and men who have been homeless and have been raped or sexually assaulted.”
Penny Dinners co-ordinator Catriona Twomey described the meeting as very positive, saying the Taoiseach had liked their proposal and had committed to working on it with them.
“We believe that this meeting with Micheál today will see a positive outcome. We need to get the message out that what we want is to provide to homeless survivors of rape and sexual assault a safe place they can call home until they can eventually get their home for life.”
As he was leaving Cork Penny Dinners, Mary Crilly said that she has known the Taoiseach a long time and, as far as she’s concerned, he’s always been a man of his word.
Similarly, Catriona Twomey said that her own experience of working with him, over many years, gave her confidence that he would not let them down.
Last Saturday, Micheál Martin met with three remarkable women, women who have each in their way made Ireland a better place, and they appealed to him to help some of the country’s most vulnerable people. It’s to the Taoiseach’s great credit that he listened to them.
Now he needs to follow through.