PERSONALITY: Mark McGreevy, OBE

Mark McGreevy, OBE, currently serves as Group Chief Executive at Depaul International, and is the founder of the Institute for Global Homelessness. He directs the Vincentian Family 400th Anniversary Homelessness Initiative.

An interview with Mark

How did you end up starting Depaul and what was your background before?

I started out as a teacher with a degree in theology at Westminster Choir School. At the same time I started to volunteer at The Passage, a homelessness service in Victoria , where I helped with serving food and clearing up afterwards. The whole experience made me realise I was perhaps more suited to working with homeless people rather than children and in 1988 I started as a project worker at a hostel run by the Cardinal Hume Centre. I stayed in this role for nearly 2 years until 1989, when Cardinal Hume created the Depaul Trust. I was asked to be part of the initial team to help set up the organisation.

What have been the biggest changes you’ve seen across the organisation over the past 25 years?

Back in 1990 homelessness charities were very different – they were largely run by volunteers. Volunteers were a mixed and eclectic group. Some came from religious orders, others were people who’d left business . There were no homelessness professionals as such, originally people came from lots of other different backgrounds. There was a real sense of mission as we began to work together, almost as a movement to improve the lot of the homeless. There has been a gradual professionalisation of the sector since its early days. Depaul has developed from being a London-based charity to being UK-wide and international. We continue to uphold the vision of St Vincent de Paul who, four hundred years ago, set out to help “the poorest of the poor”.

What has been your most memorable moment at Depaul?

The most memorable moment was in 1990 when Princess Diana came to open our first project. A lot of hard work went into turning an old convent building in Willesden into a hostel for young people in just 6 weeks. 25 young homeless people arrived and Princess Diana opened it with the paparazzi and TV crews attending from all over the world. It was a special occasion and the hostel, still open today, has accommodated hundreds of young people in need over the years.

What has been the most important professional achievement at Depaul?

Innovation – how we have looked at new ways to tackle old problems. Nightstop, a Depaul UK project, is an incredibly innovative way to help young people in need without institutionalising them. It offers them the chance to stay with a family when they have nowhere to go. We’ve changed the attitude of the sector and the government towards working with homeless people.

In Ireland, we challenged established perceptions and thinking by providing wet-shelters for dependent alcohol and drug users. Accepting the homeless with their addictions was ground-breaking when Depaul pioneered the first projects. It is now the accepted way of doing things.

What remain some of the biggest challenges for Depaul’s work?

Homelessness is growing globally. Across the world 1.3 billion people are living on the street or in unsuitable accommodation; 100 million have no accommodation at all. Urbanisation is increasing, 3.6 billion people live in cities and it’s estimated that by 2050 this will increase to 6.3 billion. Our challenge is in how we influence policy makers to deal with what will be a rise in homelessness globally. The next few decades will see the urbanisation of China, Latin America and Africa. Our challenge is in how we can share best practice globally.

To meet the problem of growing global homelessness head-on, Depaul in collaboration with DePaul University Chicago has set up the Institute of Global Homelessness. This resource brings together leading academics and is the first project of its kind to aim to develop a methodology to count global homelessness and provide a definition of homelessness.

Where do you think or hope Depaul will be in 25 years time?

I would like Depaul to be leading the debate on homelessness and for us to expand our services into other regions. We will continue to provide quality services that are responsive to needs on the ground.

After 25 years what keeps you motivated every day?

I’m lucky in that I get to travel around the world to see our projects on the ground but I see the real needs of individuals who have nothing, whose lives are in crisis and chaos and it brings it home how much we still need to achieve and change, for people who are homeless. I have just come back from Ukraine where there are an estimated 1 million internally displaced people because of the civil war. In Odessa we use a bus as a space where the homeless can come and get food and medical care. What is great is how staff give hope to people who have lost everything.

Mark on TED

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