A European Exchange: People in Poverty – Partners in Europe

This meeting had taken place during a European Exchange gathering in Dublin in June 2003 that brought together people facing poverty, social exclusion and homelessness in Belgium, Scotland and Ireland, and people who support them. Organised by ATD Fourth World(i), together with a dozen other community and voluntary groups, the three-day event in June saw people who suffer poverty and disadvantage positioned centre stage in a discussion on the future of Europe. They came together as actors in the fight against poverty: actors whose experience, daily efforts and thinking make them privileged witnesses to what still needs to be done to provide each person and each family with the means to live a life of security and dignity.

Some people in Ireland have done very well out of the Celtic Tiger, but there are a lot of people who have been left out. You go down to the ‘dining house’ in Church Street and you see hundreds going in there. You go around the streets of Dublin and you see people sleeping rough, you see kids sleeping rough and you see families in bed-and-breakfast walking the streets in the day time with their young children.

I should like to outline the background to and preparation of this European Exchange and what I believe emerged that can inspire and guide all our efforts in working for the eradication of poverty and for justice and peace in the world.


Since its founding in a shanty town in the outskirts of Paris, by the late Fr. Joseph Wresinski(ii) in the 1950s, ATD Fourth World has brought together people experiencing poverty around the world with people from other backgrounds. This enables people in poverty to express the unacceptable impact of poverty and social exclusion on their lives but also to draw out their understanding of how people’s fundamental rights can be better protected and promoted. Joseph Wresinski believed that the only way to a just and peaceful society was in enlisting the intelligence and experience of the poorest in our midst.

On a European level, in conjunction with the Social and Economic Committee of the European Union, ATD Fourth World has organised bi-annual encounters since 1989 between Europeans living in poverty and people with responsibilities for determining the European Union’s structures and programmes. The involvement of Irish community groups in these meetings over the years has helped bring experiences here to the notice of a European audience and has helped further links between people in poverty here in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe.

Several encounters between community groups in Ireland and members of the homeless group at the Central Station in Brussels over the past two years have been the catalyst for the recent European Exchange in Dublin. This brought together 60 people over three days, of whom 35 were from vulnerable and marginalised groups in Ireland, Belgium and Scotland. The Irish participants included people from the inner city housing estates in Dublin, members of the Traveller community in West Cork, the Midlands and the Dublin area, and members of the homeless community in Dublin. As well as the delegation from Brussels, we welcomed to Dublin three members of the Glasgow-Braendam Link group, a self-help and support group of families living in poverty in central Scotland who have the common experience of a respite stay at the Braendam Family House in Stirling.

The Aims of the Exchange

This European Exchange was one of a number of European meetings proposed by ATD Fourth World over the
summer, in Luxembourg,
the Netherlands, Poland and Ireland, each one seeking to create or further links across Europe between people in poverty, and those who support them.

The first aim of the Dublin meeting was to provide an opportunity and a further space for a number people living in poverty in different European countries to meet and share their experiences of combating poverty on a day-to-day basis, to offer participants a collective experience of thinking together with people who are not in poverty but who have a long-term commitment to people and communities who are.

Secondly, by holding the meeting here, we wished to provide people with an opportunity to discover at first hand some of the efforts being made to improve conditions in some of the Dublin communities where people and families have a long history of disadvantage and struggle.

Thirdly, we hoped the event would make a small contribution to the current debate on the future of Europe and to the on-going consultation process on the next phase of the European strategy to fight poverty and social exclusion, to which many community and voluntary groups in Ireland are very committed.

The Preparation

Several guidelines helped focus the preparations over several months that preceded the meeting: that for each group or delegation, the preparation would be a collective one and that the delegates would include people who have little or no experience of such an encounter; that people would come to the meeting prepared to convey not only the suffering and injustices of their and other people’s daily lives but also the efforts they are making individually and collectively to try and change things. In our experience, this explicit recognition that people in extreme poverty and exclusion are doing all they can, daily, to change their situation, meet their needs, and to have recognised their right to be treated with respect is a key to the participation in a meeting of people living in very difficult and often humiliating situations.

Throughout the months of preparation, several other imperatives emerged. People constantly sought reassurance that they would be respected by the others and that their experiences and contribution valued. The question being asked by members of the Belgian group was: “Will people listen to me?” Many of the participants would be speaking in front of other people for the first time; they demanded that we create a listening atmosphere in which people’s confidence and sense of self-worth could be collectively supported and sustained.

Ever present also was the challenge for us all to ensure the full participation of people with reading and writing skills. During the preparation and during the meeting itself, we could not assume that people could exchange information through the written word. Telephone conversations, face-to-face exchanges, photographs, videos, picture collages, and music and singing all became part of the currency of communication. Each group was encouraged to write what they most wanted to say, but also to bring with them as much material as possible to support what they wanted to communicate. We had arranged to welcome much of this material onto the walls of the main meeting room.

A member of the homeless community in Dublin offered us a beautiful example of this. Together with other members of the homeless hostel, and with the help of his daughter who could write, the names of all the shelters, hostels and bed-and-breakfast addresses that had been part of their family history were written out on a large colourful scroll. During the meeting, standing in front of the scroll, he was able to bring coherently and vividly to life some of the other residents and some of the incidents that had particularly marked their lives.

The programme of visits to community groups was included in the programme at an early stage as a response to people’s thirst to learn from other people’s experiences, and to go out to look and discover “on the ground”. For many of the participants, going and meeting people in these communities, being part of their environment, recognising common features and elements in people’s situations was to provide stimulating and memorable opportunity for them to meet, look, talk and learn.

The greatest challenge in the preparation of this meeting was, understandably, the involvement of people who face the greatest difficulties in life. An illustration of this was the preparation with the homeless community in Dublin. The lack of a place to get together, and even the lack of private space for people to reflect on their own, made it very difficult for people to collect their thoughts. The presence and participation during the three days of the European Exchange, of a determined homeless couple was a significant victory.

What emerged during this European Exchange?

What issues, questions and imperatives emerged from this preparation and from the meeting itself? I touch here on some of them, knowing that many of the experiences, concerns and aspirations expressed by participants would need to be communicated with far more nuance, and much more insistence, than is possible here.

Firstly, throughout the three days we spoke in terms of Human Rights. During the preparation meetings, the participants with the most difficult lives said repeatedly that people have a right to be treated with dignity: “We are human beings!” They were thinking about the way some of their homeless friends had died in the street. Their input gave a particular tone to the meeting, one very much focussed on the right of everybody, whoever they are and whatever their situation, to be treated with respect both in life and in death. The Belgian delegation spoke about the right to contribute to society: “Tell them begging is not what we want, we want work” one of the homeless group had yelled at one of the participants before he left for Dublin. And people spoke at length about the right of children to have their family protected and respected.

The group as a whole stressed how unacceptable it is that people’s fundamental rights are still not respected in Europe. We were reminded that this question of respect for the human person should be the foundation stone of all our laws and programmes, and all our campaigns to eradicate poverty and social exclusion.“It’s not just rights we have to defend, it’s the human being who are denied them!”

The protection of the family and the vital role of the family unit in fighting poverty was one of the main issues to emerge from the various conversations, discussions and visits. The role of the family as a basis of security and a continuity against the insecurity and discontinuity imposed by poverty and homelessness was brought into stark focus by a young woman who had spent several years as a child in temporary accommodation.

“I know more about family than about being homeless. We were in B&B with all my family, but my Da couldn’t stay with us. We had to leave the place everyday at 9 o’clock, whether it was raining or snowing. We see Da in the park and he’d build a fire for us in the park. I like to keep my family together because in the end that’s all you have in life. I think a family should be able to stay together. As a family you are strong and if you do get separated, you try to keep the contact going.”

Someone currently living in hostel accommodation in Dublin added:

“Families come to a stage when they need help now, right now, but they are kept waiting for help or for housing for years and years. When the help comes, it’s too late. They have been evicted and the children are put into care. It’s much harder then to get things going again”.

In different ways, parents at the meeting, and several younger people too, said that what parents struggle to do, often with so little support, and the humiliations they bear in the face of people who so often do not recognise these efforts, are all in the name of their children’s future: that the children’s future remains the touchstone and driving force in their lives. Several participants stressed that we have to better understand the powerlessness of parents in situations of extreme poverty, and bring acknowledgement of and support for parents’ aspirations and efforts to bring up their children, often against enormous odds.

The vital role in their lives of proper education and training opportunities was drawn out by the younger participants. Several whose experience of school had been marked by discrimination and early exclusion from the education system appealed for a serious commitment to be made towards the most vulnerable children and young people. One of the young people, a youth worker with young Travellers on the western outskirts of Dublin, explained:
“So many [young people] drop out of school after their confirmation, like I did. That’s because of discrimination and because they’re not given the right opportunities and encouragement. They end up with no education. When you can’t read or write, it affects every bit of your life. I’m trying to encourage the young people I’m with to get back to education”.

A young woman, from a very rundown and marginalised community in the centre of Ireland, was powerful in voicing her commitment to the children and youth of her area, and her struggle to help them have what she called “the chances I never had.”

Parents from a community in Dublin spoke of their concerns for so many children excluded from school, and the lack of dialogue with and understanding by the school authorities. They described their efforts to build a community that would sustain the most vulnerable among the young people and to engage in a real partnership with the school and education authorities.

During the preparation of this European Exchange, people referred time and again to the difficulty of making contact with those in their communities who are the most vulnerable and who are the hardest to reach. At the meeting, people were invited to share how people attempt this. The commitment and inventiveness needed was illustrated by the following example from Brussels.

“You need someone who can be a link,” Marc explained. “After one of the meetings in the Central Station, Michel came to me wanting me to help him trace a friend of his, a homeless man. So I went with him. He was able to show me a world I would never have imagined: all the underground parking places where people sleep rough. Michel provided the link to a world I would never ever have realised was there.”

In his evaluation, one participant summed it up in these words: “The main thing I pick up from this [meeting] is outreach, to go out and meet people where they are and to continue to do that, never to give up.”

Other Outcomes

Probably the most evident fruit of this encounter proved to be the strength, hope and sense of a commitment renewed that participants from different regions and countries gained from coming together.

“It’s good to see other people and to know they are going through the same as you are. It gives you a bit of hope; it makes you a little happier. You’re not just on your own, there is always someone somewhere going through the same or even worse than you are.”

One of the participants learned during the meeting that a homeless person in Poland had been permanently housed, after a wait of fifteen years, “God, I’m going back to the hostel taking with me a lot of hope after hearing about that woman in Poland getting a place at last.”

The three days of conversations and exchanges were constantly punctuated with appeals for people in poverty to be respected, listened to and understood, to be valued as partners in discussions and decisions concerning themselves, their families and communities and the wider society.

In different ways, people highlighted the importance of being taken seriously by others, and of being able to share their experiences and understanding:

“Here people listen to you, so you have the confidence to speak up.”

“When you walked into the room, it was like walking into your own living room, into your own family, and that was remarkable because of the people we were from different countries and counties. Yet everyone was more or less the same as one big family because we have the same problems and we also have the same fight and same battle.”

A member of the delegation that was welcomed at the European Parliament building said: “Politicians on their own do not have the solutions. People like that need our help. In fact we need each other to find the way forward”.

“What we have inside us is a lifetime of experience. We understand poverty because we live it. But we never get consulted. When the politicians and professionals get it wrong, the most vulnerable are the worst affected and that pushes us even further away. We want those who decide and make the laws to come down a level to us and we should move up a level to them. This way, we’ll meet in the middle.”

In adopting a common strategy at the European summit in Nice in 2000, one of the principal objectives agreed on was the participation of the populations most concerned by poverty and social exclusion in establishing, monitoring and evaluating national and European programmes and policies. The participants at this Exchange rightfully call into question the credibility of this European strategy and its effectiveness in involving people not just in poverty but also in extreme poverty, and the organisations representing them. To date little progress has been made in establishing how the conditions necessary for this participation are to be developed.

Together with other organisations representing people in long-term “consistent” poverty, this three-day meeting reminded us that the process of consultation and participation has to be taken much further, but that this cannot happen by magic. People living in poverty ask that their
aspirations to be real partners be believed. They ask for understanding of and support for their concern to include people even worse off than themselves. And they need places and spaces to be created where they can feel secure and respected and can engage in a dialogue with people from other backgrounds and with responsibilities in the wider community.

This challenge was put simply by one of the Scottish representatives. “Who is willing to really listen to us and take account of what we say and live and think?”

Pushing open the Door to Partnership

For almost 15 years, community and voluntary groups in Ireland and in a number of other European countries have remained committed to the gaining of a seat around the national and European discussion table for people and communities faced with poverty and social exclusion. There have been considerable successes and not a small number of setbacks. With these voluntary and community organisations, with other interested groups and with the appropriate national and European bodies, ATD Fourth World will continue doing what it can to contribute to this process of partnership with people in poverty, particularly those in extreme poverty.
Father Joseph Wresinski put it succinctly: “With urgency, we have to introduce into society people in the greatest poverty … their thinking about contemporary life, about democracy and about Human Rights.”
At a European level, this will be our aim in preparing with the European Economic and Social Committee, and with community and voluntary groups around Europe, the eighth bi-annual encounter between Europeans living in poverty and representatives of the principal European bodies. During the year of enlargement of the European Union, this will take place in Warsaw in February 2004, and will include people in poverty and organisations that support them from Western, Central and Oriental Europe.

Other opportunities are there too. In June 2004, the third European meeting of people experiencing poverty, launched initially by the Belgian Government, will take place under the Irish presidency of the European Union. It is a chance for Irish community and voluntary groups to work with the Irish government in developing the conditions that will allow people in poverty and extreme poverty to contribute their experience, intelligence and know-how towards shaping the social, economic and cultural priorities and programmes here in Ireland and across Europe.

A member of the Belgian groups concluded the European Exchange by addressing this appeal to people living in poverty in Europe. “We’ve got to go and meet others who are going through the same situations as ourselves. Even if we don’t speak the same language, we can still see that we live the same life. It’s not just about talking; it’s what you experience together. When we go and meet others elsewhere and talk to them, we feel much stronger when we get back to our own countries. We can support others better, we can talk about going to Ireland and meeting some Irish people and learning from them, and how good that was. We can see poverty is not just about the homeless in the Central Station. It’s it much broader. People working together can change things. If we all struggle together, things will change.”

And a representative of the Combat Poverty Agency in Ireland underlined the challenge: “In my work, our remit is to influence policy and include people in a vision of Europe. The way to do that is by having places like this where we can dialogue and we can meet each other as people, and we take back what we learn to our different worlds, whether it is in our family or in our work, or our community centres or whatever. I will take back that if we’re really going to do that in Europe, then we must continue to support a space for this kind of dialogue. That is not just about ‘Oh I just want to get this for my community!’ We want to get this for all people, in Europe and beyond in the world.”


(i) ATD stands for Aide à Toute Détresse (literally “Help in Total distress”), the original name chosen by the community in the emergency housing camp in France where the Movement started. The same community added “Fourth World” when they learned of the existence of the “Fourth Estate” at the time of the French revolution.

(ii) Father Joseph Wresinski (1917-1988) grew up in poverty in Anger in France. He started life as an apprentice baker and became involved in workers’ movements. He was ordained a priest in 1946 and joined the worker-priest movements. In 1956 he was sent by his bishop to camp for homeless families in Noisy-le-Grand near Paris. There, with families living in almost total deprivation, he founded the International Movement ATD Fourth World. He was joined by men and women from a variety of spiritual, social and cultural backgrounds who struggled side by side with the families of the camp and who formed ATD Fourth World’s voluntariat, or volunteer core. He authored the report Grande pauvreté et précarité économique et sociale (Chronic Poverty and Lack of Basic Security) which was commissioned and adopted by the Economic and Social Council of France, of which he was a member. This report paved the way for substantial work undertaken by the UN Commission for Human rights, the European Union and the Council of Europe. It also led to the law against social exclusion that was adopted by France in July 1988. In 1987, Fr. Wresinski launched the International Day for the Eradication of poverty (17th October), later recognised by the UN General Assembly. He wrote widely and his books include “The Poor are the Church” and “Blessed are you the Poor” which are available through ATD Fourth World in Dublin.

Stuart Williams joined ATD Fourth World in 1971 He and his wife Isabelle have been present in Ireland for four years.