“I have found that it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folks that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” – Sometimes attributed to JRR Tolkien, but written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson
The rain took the sparkle off Cork’s Patrick Street last Tuesday evening, for all the lights outside Brown Thomas. But volunteers from the group Fermoy Tuesday Night Homeless Run brought the spirit of Christmas to the streets of ‘The Real Capital’.
It was after seven and cars were parked on the pavement, facing Brown Thomas. People stood around the cars, as volunteers set up two long trestle tables. As soon as it was established that BT was closed for the night, the tables were lifted and carried across the pavement, and set up across the shop’s imposing main doorway.
A crowd quickly gathered around the tables, which bore a selection of food and beverages: sandwiches, mineral water, hot beef stroganoff and rice, crisps, rice crispie buns, and a delicious hot, home-made stew of sausages, onions and potatoes.
The dozen or so volunteers could not have been kinder or friendlier to the people who queued up for food. The volunteers were part of the group Fermoy Tuesday Night Homeless Run. I spoke with Noreen Cody from Fermoy. Noreen helped to set up this group, almost two years ago. She says the support the group gets from individuals and businesses from the towns and villages between Fermoy and Cork has been extraordinary. She says Father Acquin Casey (formerly of Fermoy parish) was a great supporter, and he gave the group first one room, and then two rooms, for storage in the Little Company of Mary (better known in Fermoy as ‘the Blue Nuns’) building.
Noreen told me you can always tell the new people calling to them. The new people queue up for food as soon as they arrive. The more experienced people head first to the parked cars. Volunteers hand out from the boots of those cars bedding, sleeping bags, coats, hats, gloves, toiletries and other items essential to life on the streets.
I spoke with a frighteningly young-looking couple who are homeless in Cork. They had nowhere to stay, and the young woman (who told me she was 24 but who looked a decade younger) told me she had been walking all day in the rain. She told me that, once Cork Penny Dinners over on Little Hanover Street closes after lunch, there is no place to sit down.
Noreen encouraged her to eat some stew, and then she spoke with the young woman’s partner, a young man who was carrying in a wet paper bag an obviously damp duvet. Noreen brought him over to the parked cars, and they returned soon with the young man sporting a brand-new thermal cap and carrying a pair of ground mats and sleeping bags. Both were given thermal gloves and toiletries, and Noreen gave the young woman a beautiful knitted, white scarf.
Getting on the phone to Ber McMahon of the group Homeless Help and Support Cork, Noreen then sourced a tent for them.
In just one evening, volunteers helped more than 50 people who might otherwise have gone without help.
This time last year, Eileen Gleeson of the Dublin Homeless Executive, caused controversy by suggesting that volunteers are not helping the homeless crisis. At the time, I spoke with a volunteer at another Patrick Street soup kitchen. He had previously been homeless himself.
“Get rid of volunteers and the homeless person will still sleep in a doorway,” he told me. “The only difference is that without volunteers, they’ll sleep hungry.”
ONE PAY-CHEQUE FROM HOMELESSNESS
Fine Gael came to power in 2011, inheriting an unholy mess from Fianna Fail. On Census Night 2011, 3,808 people were either sleeping rough or in emergency accommodation. We now have – officially at least – 9,724 people homeless. Sinn Fein claimed last week that the true figure is closer to 13,000. Mike Allen, head of advocacy at Focus Ireland, says it is certainly well above 10,000.
In Cork Simon, they tell me they meet on their soup runs, people who pay their bills and don’t have enough money for food, people who are one pay-cheque from homelessness.
Over in Cork Penny Dinners recently, their co-ordinator Catriona Twomey, told me that in 2011, they served approximately 100 meals a week. In 2018, they have served over 2,000 meals a week.
There was a time when the only people volunteers met at soup kitchens and trestle tables, were homeless people. Not anymore.
These days, in our post-crash, post-bailout, post-austerity Ireland of the uneven recovery and the gig economy, volunteers are as likely to meet people on minimum wage, or someone struggling to meet the rent or the mortgage.
Local volunteers are making a real difference to the lives of some very vulnerable people. That they do this all year around is a real Christmas bonus. They need our help. None of us knows when we might need some help ourselves.
The year is nearly done, and soon we will be heading back into the light. This is a time for kindness, a time for putting aside old hurts, and a time for remembering those who are not with us.
Thank you as ever for reading.
Fermoy Tuesday Night Homeless Run is on Facebook, and its volunteers are always delighted to receive donations. Food is always welcome, as are non-perishable goods, especially of toiletries, hats, scarves, gloves, sleeping bags, ground mats and tents. Torches and batteries are always welcome, as are mobile phone powerpacks. Books never go astray, and kids’ comics might go a long way.