The volunteers of Fermoy Tuesday Night Homeless Run are making a real difference for Cork’s homeless community, says Donal O’Keeffe.

I headed down to Brown Thomas on Cork’s Patrick Street last Tuesday night, just after 7pm, to meet volunteers from the Fermoy Tuesday Night Homeless Run.

Across the pavement, behind the bus-stops, I could see maybe 10 volunteers handing out hot food and care packages from the backs of four parked cars, to a crowd of over 20 people. The front of BT was cordoned off, as two men used a man-lift to hang Christmas decorations.

To laughter from all around, one woman in the crowd shouted at the men “Here, lads, it’s not even f*cking Halloween yet!”

Some of the people in the crowd seemed quite intoxicated, some drinking from cans of beer. One of the volunteers told me there can be nights are like these.

“It’s like everyone goes mad at the same time or something,” he told me. He said there’s a rumour of a bad batch of heroin doing the rounds.

At the edge of the crowd, Anne Dowling, a volunteer from Fermoy, introduced me to Stephen, a volunteer who is himself homeless, and living in a shelter. Stephen told me addiction troubles led to his homelessness, but “luckily I’ve never had to sleep on the side of the street,” he said.

“I just stumbled upon these folks two or three years ago. They told me what they were doing, and I asked if I could help. I’ve never missed a Tuesday night since.

“These people are the salt of the earth. Rain, hail, sleet or snow, they’re here every Tuesday night without fail. They go out of their way to help people, and it’s completely voluntary. We set up at 7, and we’re here till 9. Sometimes everything is gone by 8. 

“You can see the number of people in the crowd here, and the age profile. The age profile is getting lower and lower every week. We’re dealing with kids as young as 14 some nights.”

As Stephen and I spoke, a bald man in his 30s, wearing a leather coat, approached us. He had on a lead a large, very healthy-looking Doberman, and he asked in an English accent if we could get him a meal. Stephen suggested he just go over to the volunteers, but the man replied that he didn’t want to go into the crowd, as he feared getting into a fight with some of the other people there.

Stephen obliged him, bringing back a bowl of hot stew and a tub of cocktail sausages for the dog.

“These are good people,” the Englishman told me, sucking on the glowing, raggedy butt of possibly a roll-up. “Life is really rough on the streets, you know, and there’s a lot of bad people about, but these are good people.”

Over by the window of Brown Thomas, a very young man sat cross-legged, his head slumping ever lower, almost in his lap. Anne Dowling headed over to crouch beside him on the pavement, gently trying to revive him. Eventually, she brought him a cup of hot chocolate and that seemed to do the trick. Ten minutes later, the young man was up and gone.

“There’s always a big demand for hot chocolate with loads of sugar,” one volunteer told me. I asked if that was because the sugar would help a person stay warm. They replied: “It might help you stay warm, but the sugar also helps you keep the buzz going if you’ve taken something”.

An older man wheeled around the edges of the crowd, roaring abuse at everyone and anyone. He walked with a buckled, twisted gait, drinking Guinness from a can, and cursing and shouting at everyone in his path.

“Some nights everyone is just out of it,” Stephen told me. “Did you see that story in the papers recently about that Polish poitín that was doing the rounds? A tenner for a bottle of booze 90% proof? We knew about that at the start of the year. We had two regulars here who ended up dead as a result of drinking that illegal hooch.”

By one of the cars, I met Caitlin Cody, from Fermoy. Caitlin’s mother, Noreen, helped to start this volunteer group three years ago. Noreen wasn’t there on the night, having had an accident and suffered a broken arm. Noreen’s absence was noted by many of the regulars.

Caitlin told me she is so far “the only girl” taking part in a planned 12-hour sleep-out in Fermoy on Friday, October 25. The plan is that volunteers will not have food or water as they sleep out on Fermoy’s streets, and will depend only on the kindness of strangers. Anyone wishing to donate food or clothing for the homeless run would be welcomed on the night by volunteers.

Always needed are paper cups, chocolate, Hot Cups, Pot Noodles, socks, toiletries, gloves, hats, scarves, sleeping bags, water-proof clothing and coats.

“We come here every Tuesday evening,” Caitlin told me, “but we have the luxury of going home, so the least we can do, for just one night, is to stay out.”

Caitlin said the fund-raising aspect of the sleep-out is only secondary, and raising awareness is much more important.

As I talked with Caitlin, a young woman, tiny and very thin, approached me, asking if she could talk with me. We walked over to Brown Thomas’ door, for a bit of privacy. The cordon was gone, the Christmas decorations all in place.

She was in tears, and shaking. She said she was in fear of her life, and was sick of being beaten up. She said she hates being homeless. I offered to get her some food, but she said she had no appetite. After some argument, I persuaded her to have a hot chocolate (“Loads of chocolate, and three spoons of sugar, please”). I got her a chocolate at the cars, and Anne threw in some little marshmallows.

In the doorway of Brown Thomas, the young woman sipped her hot chocolate and told me her mother and aunt had died on the streets, and I soon established that I had known her aunt, and had interviewed her before she died.

The young woman looked up at me, tears streaming down her face, and said she would die on the streets too if she didn’t get a bed for the night. She said she had been kicked out of the homeless shelter in which she was staying, because she was in arrears by €55.

She asked if I had any money. I gave her a tenner, telling her truthfully that was all I had on me. I told her I’d get her some food for later, and I went to the volunteers’ cars. I looked back to the door of Brown Thomas, and she was gone.

Just after 8.30pm, with all the food and care packages gone, the volunteers packed up, and headed home for Fermoy.

They’ll be back next Tuesday night.

Fermoy Tuesday Night Homeless Run is on Facebook, where you’ll find a link to the GoFundMe page for their Fermoy 12-hour Sleep-Out.