The recession has swollen the numbers of homeless in our cities. Sue Leonard talks to those who offer help and support throughout the year
STRIVING for the perfect Christmas is stressful. As we frantically cook, shop, and rush it’s easy to forget our luck. Lucky to have a family to cook for; lucky to have a home.

We’re so accustomed to seeing the homeless — crouched in doorways, shivering against the cold — that we rush past them.

Over in TRUST, it’s business as normal around Bride Street at Christmas. Director Alice Leahy and her team are providing showers to the regulars in the bright, wooden-floored centre.

“We provide 350 showers a week,” says Leahy. “A shower could take two hours because you have to deal with lice, with skin complaints, and, most of all, with neglected feet.” They may be given a new set of clothes, and, possibly, a food parcel. They can have their medical needs dealt with, or their drug regimes explained. They are helped to access their rights and other services.

Many attend each day, for a cup of tea, a biscuit. They love spending a few hours in the warm, in a place where the giving of time is valuable. Alice refers to the homeless as ‘outsiders,’ because her regulars don’t fit the societal norm.

“People need shelter,” she says, “and a lot of agencies provide accommodation. But some people who are given flats can’t cope. They may not be able to relate to people.”

All are catered for at TRUST. Tom lives in a hostel and attends a psychiatric clinic. He pops in regularly, and sits quietly, nursing a cup of coffee as he listens to Lyric FM. Josef is always polite. He shakes hands when he arrives and leaves, and says the welcome at TRUST makes it more precious to him than the place he once called home.

There are the drunks of early morning, including those who have replaced meths with an addiction to the hand sanitiser used in hospitals. There are the addicts, trying for a few hours of sleep; there are the angry and there are the despairing. Perhaps worse, there are those who have sunk into apathy and resignation.

“We see that too often,” says Leahy. “Dull, dead eyes have replaced the once-bright ones, when dreams of a better future existed.” It’s worse at Christmas, she says. “They get angry. They don’t like what’s going on and sometimes they withdraw.” Leahy is overwhelmed by the generosity of Irish people. TRUST doesn’t take money from government; they don’t fund-raise, yet clothes, food, and supplies constantly pour in to the centre.

“We give out hats and socks, tea, coffee and soup, brown bread and fruit, all the year round. Christmas is a bit special,” she says. “Then we give out the Christmas cake and the mince pies that people have sent in.”

At Bow Street’s Capuchin day centre, Brother Kevin Crowley says Christmas is lonely for the homeless: “It’s hard, always, being homeless, but at Christmas, if someone is separated from their families, or broken up from their families, it’s an especially difficult time.

“Two years ago on Christmas Eve, I remember this guy was sitting in the corner with tears streaming from his eyes. I said, ‘What is the problem?’ He said, ‘Do you hear that song?’ It’s Nice to be Home for Christmas was playing on the radio. I said, ‘Yes. It’s beautiful.’ And he said, ‘It is. But once I had a beautiful home, a beautiful wife and a beautiful family. And now I have none of those things. I’m homeless at Christmas’.”

Brother Kevin has been serving meals to the homeless since 1969. The situation, he says, has never been as bad as this year. “We’re serving 500 dinners a day, and we have 200 people in for breakfast. We give out food parcels every week. Up to three or four years ago, maybe 300 people would queue up. Last Wednesday, there were 1,240 people,” he says.

Some were the new poor. “The profile of people in need has changed in recent years,” says Brother Kevin. “We now see people who have lost their jobs and are on the verge of losing their houses. They have huge anxiety of what they face in the future. There are more Irish people these days and they’re embarrassed because they have to come to places like this for their food.

“Our expenses have gone up to €1.4m, and we’re still getting €450,000 from the Government. Were it not for the amazing generosity of the people, there is no way we would be able to continue helping people in need.”

TRUST and the Capuchin day centre are both shut on Christmas Day. But that’s when The Order of The Knights of St Columbanus step in. They’ll provide dinner for 500 in the Royal Dublin Society for the homeless, the poor, and anyone else with little food or money. Another 1,200 meals are sent as takeaways for those too sick or incapacitated to leave their homes.

The order has been providing this service since 1915. But in the past couple of years the profile of the needy has changed. “There are more Irish now,” says the chairman, Adrian King. “A high percentage would be homeless people, but last year it was so sad seeing who came. There were those whose pensions and funds had gone; there were Irish families. It’s a different profile entirely.”

There will be a full Christmas dinner; they’ll be entertainment, and there’ll be visits from Dublin’s lord mayor, and the Archbishop of Dublin. The guests, picked up and dropped in prearranged areas in Dublin, will not go home empty-handed. “Their take-away bags will contain sandwiches; drinks, crisps, toiletries, anything we can source,” says King.

Focus Ireland will be busy, too, making Christmas as happy for those using their services as they possibly can.

“Christmas is a time of great sadness for somebody out of home,” says Sr Stanislaus Kennedy, co-founder and lifetime president of the organisation. “We provide Christmas dinner for them in three different locations and we try to help them celebrate as best we can.”

Sr Stan is saddened by the new Irish poor — and because so many women and children are now affected by homelessness — a shocking one in seven of the homeless is a child.

“The recession is so traumatic for families,” she says. “When they were used to two cars, two phones, two of everything and now they have nothing, where do they turn?”

The other side of Christmas, for Focus Ireland, is to make their message known. It’s a time for fundraising and highlighting the need for volunteers. “What we give, we receive,” says Sr Stan. “If we can allow the homeless to give to us and to touch into our broken side, then they change us. And once we are changed, we are changed forever. That is the gift of the poor.”

Aimee Concannon, 15, loved filling shoe boxes with gifts for Africa. But last year, she missed the essential deadline. She was upset. Until, going for a drum lesson in Temple Bar, she noticed all the homeless sleeping rough in the cold. That gave her an idea.

“I filled shoe boxes with hats gloves and scarves; with toothbrushes and paste, plasters, throat lozenges and Vaseline. And with playing cards, cards and stamps,” she says. “I filled ten shoe boxes, I wrapped them, and on Christmas Eve, my friend Georgia and I distributed them to the homeless. It was amazing. They were so emotional and appreciative. One of them started crying. They couldn’t believe they were getting something. It was sad how shocked they were.”

This year, Aimee has expanded her scheme. She’s asked for sponsorship and has vouchers from food and coffee shops. She has vouchers for Butler’s chocolates too. “People have been so generous. I’m hoping to fill 20 shoe boxes this year; maybe even 25. I’m so happy I can help people,” she says.

Ciaran Boylan, a sixth-year student at Belvedere College in Dublin, can’t wait for the run-up to Christmas. But it’s not about partying or present-buying. He’ll be spending the days, and nights, of December 22 and 23 sleeping out in O’Connell Street near the GPO.

He’ll be there on Christmas Eve too; only stopping at around six in the evening, when he’ll go to the school for mass.

One hundred and eighty boys from fifth and sixth year apply for the sleep out each year, but only 30 are chosen.

“I applied last year,” says Ciaran, who has, anyway, been involved for the past two or three years. “My brother was on the sleep-out. I was out around the city, collecting money for the charities. Everyone in school wants to help. We all have feelings about the homeless.

“Belvedere is not in a good area of Dublin. Seeing the homeless around is unavoidable. We build up bonds with homeless guys around the city. We’re aware of all the factors that come into play.

“People are homeless for various different reasons. Some are down on their luck, for family, or financial reasons. Some have had enough of life. It’s not just about houses. Some of them use the shelters. Others find them too dangerous. They’d rather sleep in a doorway,” he says.

This year, Ciaran is in charge of the PR.

“Miss Ireland is coming along to support us,” he says, “and Ger Brennan, who was on the GAA team that won the All Ireland. He was a past pupil, he won a scholarship and was here as a teacher. He’s coming down to collect for us. Other past pupils are sleeping out in College Green. There are guys who left one or two years ago, and guys who left 10 or 15 years ago.”

At Belvedere, it’s not just a case of helping at Christmas. “The Vincent de Paul is a big thing in our school. We do a soup run with them every Wednesday. We give out soup and sandwiches, but the greatest thing is to give people your time.

“By listening to them, and finding out how they feel, we gain an awful lot from it. Some of them lift your spirit. There’s one guy, Dave, in Dawson Street. It could be raining, you could be in bad form. You sit with him, and in 20 seconds you’d be crying laughing. He’s a great sense of humour,” Ciaran says.

Doe he resent giving up all that time, just before Christmas? “What we get from chatting to the guys is the best present you can imagine. Their appreciation is better than any iPod or bike. We’re seeing the real world,” he says. Ciaran is trying not to emulate a boy, who, three years ago, went home after the sleep-out and straight to bed. “When he woke up, and went down for Christmas dinner, there was nothing there. His mum said he slept for 18 hours. He’d missed out on Christmas Day completely.”

By Sue Leonard