Adult and community education empowering people experiencing homelessness to stay connected

20 Jul 2020
AONTAS Membership Update and Engagement Webinar 14 (featuring a contribution from Dublin Simon Community).

Beginning the webinar AONTAS CEO Niamh O’Reilly expressed her gratitude to everyone who engages with the weekly online gathering, saying that

“it’s a great place to learn, I learn so much about what’s happening on the ground, how groups are responding to COVID, about the issues that learners are having and this is absolutely beneficial for us as a membership organisation and particularly in the context of this week’s topic”.

Niamh went on to cover the news of the new Minister and Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.  She also situated the development in relation to AONTAS’ relationships with civil servants whom the organisation engages with and lobbies on behalf of its members.  Perhaps one of the main positive features of the new Department is that AONTAS has an established constructive relationship and open communication with key policy-makers many of whom have attended AONTAS events and come away with a clear understanding and respect for the role and value of adult and community.  Niamh referred to the new video produced as part of this year’s Adult Learners’ Festival annual policy day (video available to view below). “It’s up to us now as an advocacy organisation to make sure your voices are heard and that the issues of adult and community education are at the table, and I think we’re in a very good position to do that”. A good sign of things to come are Minister Harris’ comments about the importance of social cohesion, inclusion and equality, subjects raised very recently by Niamh in the Irish Times (Click Here to see the full article).   

Niamh also recapped the achievements of the Mitigating Educational Disadvantage including Community Education during the COVID-19 Crisis Working Group (MED Group) before going over some of the key areas learners across tertiary education are facing and may be confronted by in the near future as a result of the fallout from COVID-19. While there has been huge learning for AONTAS about what these issues are the experience has also had another positive outcome, which is to bring adult and community education into the fold. This has helped other stakeholders across further and higher education to see adult and community education as a vital part of the wider education ecosystem.  

Finishing her update with a call to action, AONTAS members were encouraged to participate in the social media campaign using the hashtag #ExperienceCommunityEd. Click here for more information.   

Homelessness and empowering people through education

Anna West, Client Development, and Caoimhe O’Connell, Communications, with the Dublin Simon Community gave webinar attendees an insight into the impact of COVID-19 on people experiencing homelessness. They also covered how their team and organisation has responded to the crisis and shared what has worked well for learners in overcoming the challenges presented by the Pandemic.

Dublin Simon work with learners who may have experienced homelessness in the past, are currently experiencing and those who are at risk of becoming homeless. In describing the full range of necessary services and interventions delivered Anna noted that “there can be a misconception about homeless service, that it’s just about providing emergency accommodation but it’s so much more than that. There’s the treatment services, counselling, outreach, tenancy information, client development and a lot more as well”. One of the key areas Anna’s team work on involved personal development. This involves adult education and forms a crucial dimension of supporting clients, 587 in 2019 alone. This work includes:

As one client was quoted:

I’ve found the classes very helpful, they’ve helped an awful lot in fact. There is always some activity that you can do day to day, week to week. And all the help you get. I’ve really got an awful lot out of it.”

Since the COVID-19 restrictions were introduced, however, obviously services and education provision hasn’t been able to function and be delivered as normal.  New ways of doing things, such as remote learning, activity packs and peer-led group learning online have all had varying degrees of success.  Uptake and participation hinged on learners’ being able to access resources such as mobile devices.  

Anna described the role of adult and community education in empowering people experiencing homelessness to stay linked in with each other and continue all of the positive outcomes that come with learning. She noted that “just as we’ve all adjusted to how things are at the moment, I think that learners have realised that this is still worth engaging with and still giving it a go”.  

One concern Anna raised, which is shared by AONTAS members, is for the most vulnerable learners who have been the most difficult to reach and keep engaged. Without the face-to-face interaction learners have become used to the task at hand is made more difficult for everyone. Anna noted that a positive outcome so far has been that with the changed circumstances some learners are receiving more support than before, for instance over the phone. Another positive outcome Anna highlighted in closing her input was about the huge level of support that has occurred between organisations. The collaboration and goodwill to ensure learners wellbeing has been heartening and is something AONTAS members are well aware off in each of their own local contexts too. 


Managing service to protect clients and staff

“We’re now saying ‘physical distancing’ as we want people to be social”

Dublin Simon’s Caoimhe O’Connell followed Anna by describing for webinar participants some of the main features of how the organisation had to leap into action to ensure that clients and staff safety was protected.  Emergency and contingency plans were quickly drawn up and communicated outward and internally to implement health and safety protocols to minimise any risk of spreading the Coronavirus. 

Caoimhe also described the role of an outreach programme called Safetynet which features a mobile health unit that is part of leading the organisation’s health support and COVID-19 testing of people sleeping rough on the streets of the capital. She also mentioned the Step-Up-Step-Down service which caters to the needs of those without homes and have less acute medical issues.

 Caoimhe then provided attendees with key contacts that may be useful to AONTAS members:

01 635 4884 or

01 635 4882 or

If you see someone who is sleeping rough

01 872 0185 or

01 635 4888 or

01 635 4888 or contact your local authority


In order to effectively and comprehensively feed the issues learners and members are currently facing AONTAS relies on your support and input to continue its work with, for and on behalf of the sector (Registration for the upcoming webinars is available on our Events page).

If you are an AONTAS member and can contribute to the weekly online gathering with your experience, suggestions and solutions to the common challenges facing the sector then please get in touch via email: or call 087 114 9278.