Fight­ing for a home

The Si­mon Com­mu­nity’s new gym is a safe place for home­less men and women to im­prove their phys­i­cal and men­tal health – and even to turn their lives around

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Sylvia Thomp­son

Home­less­ness isn’t solely about not hav­ing a roof over your head at night. It is also about try­ing to live every day with­out the rou­tines many of us take for granted. Th­ese in­clude cook­ing for your­self and ex­er­cis­ing in­doors. Try get­ting a gym mem­ber­ship with­out a home ad­dress and you’ll quickly see how dif­fi­cult it will be.

So, when the Si­mon Com­mu­nity opened its new gym in a re­fur­bished ware­house in Dublin city cen­tre, it im­me­di­ately be­came a safe place for home­less men and women to come to fo­cus on their phys­i­cal – and men­tal – fit­ness.

“My whole re­cov­ery is around this gym. I train here every day and I do the fun runs, foot­ball train­ing and swim­ming too,” says Tara McNeill.

Af­ter years of home­less­ness, McNeill got a house last year but she comes to the gym every day, fol­low­ing ses­sions in the Si­mon Com­mu­nity re­cov­ery pro­gramme. “I started box­ing in the gym. It took a while to get used to but it worked for me men­tally and phys­i­cally. I’d be lost with­out it all,” she adds.

This week, McNeill is in Nor­way rep­re­sent­ing Ire­land on the women’s foot­ball team at the Home­less World Cup. When we met, she could barely con­tain her ex­cite­ment for hav­ing been picked for the team. “It all hap­pened through this gym. Some­times, you think there is no hope, but there is hope; but it takes just one per­son to be­lieve in you for things to go right,” she says. The Si­mon Com­mu­nity gym, which has all the equip­ment of a com­mer­cial gym – a tread­mill, cross-trainer, rower, spin bikes, weights bench, free weights, box­ing bags, skip­ping ropes and bal­ance balls – re­places a smaller one which was part of the ad­dic­tion treat­ment ser­vices at Ush­ers Is­land near the River Lif­fey. It is run by Niall Murtagh, the Si­mon Com­mu­nity’s health and well­be­ing ser­vices coach, and full-time vol­un­teer Johney Martin, who also gives box­ing classes.

Pro­vid­ing a free gym for home­less peo­ple re­quires think­ing out­side the box. When you visit, you re­alise the ex­tra­or­di­nary ben­e­fits that it brings. And while it’s easy to fo­cus on the pain and trauma etched on the faces of the peo­ple work­ing out on the equip­ment, ac­cess to phys­i­cal ex­er­cise, nu­tri­tional ad­vice and re­lax­ation classes throws a life­line to home­less peo­ple that can ac­tu­ally save their lives.

Martin Reilly has been com­ing to the gym for some time. “I run on the tread­mill. I’m more into car­dio­vas­cu­lar ex­er­cise and light weights to tone up my body. I be­lieve a healthy body pro­motes a healthy mind and keeps bad thoughts away,” he says. “If you’re feel­ing down or an­gry, you can turn it off in the gym. You wouldn’t be able to swing a lol­lipop af­ter­wards. It tires you out so much.”

Reilly is keen to talk a lit­tle about his life so far. “I’m an ad­dict and I’ve lost a lot of time in my life but I’m hop­ing to be­gin a detox pro­gramme soon. I’ll be a fa­ther again too and my 22-year-old daugh­ter is also hav­ing a baby soon, so th­ese ba­bies will give me a sec­ond chance and I can show them the pho­to­graphs in this ar­ti­cle – to tell them that you can turn your life around,” he says.

Murtagh says that for home­less peo­ple to come to the gym, they have to over­come bar­ri­ers such as not hav­ing gym gear and not want­ing to ex­pose their bod­ies.

“Peo­ple say ‘I can’t train be­cause I don’t have the clothes or the run­ners’ but we link up with the Si­mon Com­mu­nity shops who send down run­ners and train­ing gear every week.” It’s all about build­ing up their con­fi­dence. Peo­ple also come here to avoid the bore­dom and to get off the streets,” says Murtagh.

Gen­er­ally speak­ing, train­ers push their gym clients to train harder but it’s the op­po­site at the Si­mon Com­mu­nity gym. “A lot of our work is to hold peo­ple back from over-train­ing,” adds Murtagh .

Johney Martin says that much more goes on than sim­ply coach­ing. “We’re not just train­ers. Most ex­er­cise coaches wouldn’t be able to deal with peo­ple who have been home­less, stuck in ad­dic­tion and iso­lated for many years. There’s a friendly at­mos­phere here and we’re very sup­port­ive and gen­tle with peo­ple who come in af­ter hav­ing a bad day,” he says.

Murtagh adds that at the ini­tial as­sess­ments, peo­ple of­ten have in­juries from fights or from sleep­ing rough. “We say that no mat­ter what in­juries or ill­nesses they have, we will work with them.”

The Si­mon Com­mu­nity Health and Well­be­ing ser­vices is the only one of its kind in Ire­land. The staff and vol­un­teers work across the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s hous­ing and treat­ment ser­vices, help­ing peo­ple who have ex­pe­ri­enced home­less­ness.

As well as of­fer­ing free gym, box­ing and fit­ness ses­sions, Murtagh pro­motes good self-care, nu­tri­tion and re­lax­ation classes and one-to-one ses­sions in mind­ful­ness, tai chi, med­i­ta­tion and move­ment and reiki are on of­fer to those in­ter­ested.

Since their new gym opened this sum­mer, the Si­mon Com­mu­nity has started to in­vite re­fer­rals from other home­less and ad­dic­tion ser­vices too. What they need now is a big phil­an­thropic do­na­tion so that they can in­stall show­ers and chang­ing fa­cil­i­ties for the gym users.

Mem­bers of the Si­mon Com­mu­nity gym will par­take in the Ru­na­muck Chal­lenge in the Cool­car­ri­gan Es­tate, Naas, Co Kil­dare, on Satur­day, Septem­ber 23rd, as a fundraiser for the gym. The Si­mon Home Run will take place on Satur­day, Oc­to­ber 7th, in the Phoenix Park. See dub­si­mon.ie

Some­times you think there is no hope, but there is hope; but it takes just one per­son to be­lieve in you for things to go right

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: ALAN BETSON

Fit for life: Vol­un­teer trainer Johney Martin with Martin Reilly (and, on the cover, Tara McNeill); left, Niall Murtagh with Danny Mad­den at the Si­mon Com­mu­nity gym.

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