The streets of Cork are mostly empty now, except for the homeless people who still have nowhere to go. For the first time in a century-and-a-half, the doors of Cork Penny Dinners are closed, but the charity is still helping everyone it can.

By Donal O’Keeffe

On the deserted streets of Cork on Sunday afternoon, it feels as though the human tide has gone suddenly out and – apart from the odd civilian out for a bit of face-masked socially-distanced exercise – the only people left are those lost souls who have nowhere else to go. The Grand Parade has a haunted, apocalyptic look now there’s barely anyone around, and with so few vehicles about, the loudest noise is that of the pedestrian lights, their beeping echoing along the street.

At Finn’s Corner, where Washington Street meets the Grand Parade, a homeless man is lying awkwardly on the ground. Three Gardaí stand around the older man, for all the world as though they really are guarding him. Their van is parked outside the Centra up toward Daunt Square.

The Guards, a woman and two men, impossibly young and all wearing blue surgical gloves, are chatting with the man, and they’re showing him kindness, good humour, and great respect. He seems as comfortable as they can make him, although he’s missing a shoe and sock. Two cardboard coffee cups sit on the pavement beside him.

One of the Gardaí tells me the man has a medical condition, and he suffers from a physical disability. The Garda says they’re waiting for an ambulance and they’ll mind him till it gets here. As we talk, a paramedic pulls up on his green-and-yellow-marked motorcycle, and tends to the man on the ground.

I thank the Gardaí for their time and their hard work, because it’s both the least and the only thing I can do, and I head away.

On Cornmarket Street, outside Paddy Powers, a big man is lying down, two full bottles of something red beside him. His name is Jamesie, and he’s from Limerick. I tell him I’ll change his name in my report, to protect his identity, but he says he wants everyone to know his name. He’ll be 44 this year “If the Lord spares me” and he’s been homeless “Twenty-five year”.

Jamesie’s friend approaches, a younger man, and he refuses to tell me his name. I tell him I don’t need to know, and he says I can call him Paul. ‘Paul’ is very angry, and I ask him to allow me to back off, because as I tell him, “I don’t want to give you anything”. 

At this, Jamesie sits up and offers me his hand. When I tell him, reluctantly, that I can’t shake his hand, Jamesie looks at me like he has the full measure of me. That’s okay, he says, sure no man ever wants to shake hands with the homeless.

When I protest that it’s because of this bloody coronavirus, he snarls that he hopes he gets it himself. “I want to f*cking die”.

Paul agrees and says he wants to die, too. Both men say that the coronavirus pandemic is ‘bullshit’. Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin are . . .  – well, you can fill that blank in yourself.

Jamesie says that he wishes he had a place to stay, but when he goes to a shelter, “The first thing they do is say no, and the second thing they do is call the Guards”. When I ask where he sleeps, Jamesie motions across the road, toward the raised flowerboxes outside the Cornstore, closed now, thanks to coronavirus. “Over there,” he says.

“Women are being raped on the streets of Cork City,” Jamesie tells me, tears in his eyes, “And men are being raped too, only the Guards don’t give a shit because we’re homeless. They say we are N.F.A. and they don’t give a shit.”

“No fixed address,” Paul says. “No fixed abode,” Jamesie corrects him.

They list off the names of homeless people who have died on the streets of Cork, and they mention recent, high-profile murders of homeless people. “And our luck will run out too,” Paul says.

Three hours later, on Cornmarket Street, the doorway of Paddy Powers is deserted. It’s 7pm, New Time. On the ground are Jamesie’s bottles, both empty now. The labels say “Nobleman Full Cream Fortified British Wine 15%”. I walk over to the pretty, raised flowerboxes outside the Cornstore, behind which Jamesie said he sleeps.

Sure enough, there are benches behind the boxes. A youngish man stirs beneath a sleeping bag, and I apologise for disturbing him. He says not at all, he’s happy to talk. On the table beside his makeshift bed are three full bottles of Nobleman.

‘Daniel’ is 30. He says he’s not long out of Mountjoy (‘robbery and the like’) and when I note that’s not a Cork accent, he says he’s from Tipperary, but his kids are in Waterford. He says his girlfriend kicked him out over his drinking. He says he’s barred from the shelters. He’s a very articulate man, and very pleasant, and he says he has pancreatic ulcers, although the hospital wasn’t able to find anything wrong with him. He tells me he hasn’t been able to hold down food for a week. He indicates the bloodstained pile of dried vomit beneath his bench. I look uneasily at the bottles of Nobleman.

“15%,” he smiles. “That’ll keep the cold away of a night.”

Down the street a bit, across from Lidl, where they sell Nobleman for €5.49 a bottle, Jamesie and Paul are sitting on a bench with a third man. Two very small children sit beside the third man, and they’re all crammed together as the men pass between them a large bottle of vodka. I salute them, and Jamesie roars back “Hello, my brother”.

Perhaps social distancing is a luxury only to be enjoyed by those of us rich enough to be able to imagine a future.

Not far away, on Little Hanover Street, the doors of Cork Penny Dinners are closed for the first time in 150 years. The charity, which dates back to Famine times and has always offered a sanctuary for those in need of food or just a place to sit and rest, is now supplying take-away meals only.

“Our people are very vulnerable and our place is very small, so we just couldn’t take the risk,” Catriona Twomey told me. “But we are still here, and we’re still looking after people.”

Cork Penny Dinners has seen a quadrupling in demand for its services these past weeks, and volunteers are going out nightly with hot food for rough sleepers.

“Our message to anyone who needs help is very simple,” Catriona says. “Don’t ever be short for food. There’s no shame at all in reaching out. We never judge anyone, and we are here for you.”

Cork Penny Dinners cannot at the moment receive donations of clothes and nursery items, but the charity is appealing for donations of tinned food. Money donations, however small, can be made by PayPal on the Penny Dinners website. The contact number is 021 4275604.