Catriona Twomey: “We see so many tragedies. So many of them are preventable”

In day three of our series on homelessness, MATTHEW MOYNIHAN talks to Catriona Twomey of Cork Penny Dinners on how they have been supporting the most vulnerable in society
Catriona Twomey: “We see so many tragedies. So many of them are preventable”

Caitríona Twomey at Cork Penny Dinners.

FOR more than a century, Penny Dinners has been providing the most vulnerable members of Cork society with a daily hot meal and a vital social outlet.

Under the stewardship of Catríona Twomey, the charity has developed significantly, not only offering a daily meal to anybody who needs it, but cutting deals with food banks and suppliers to deliver food hampers to families experiencing food insecurity.

Covid-19 has complicated these challenges, and raised the economic bar under which typical service users emerge.

With the economy slowing, unemployment on the rise, and more and more individuals having to decide between paying their rent or feeding their family, the operations of Penny Dinners have had to significantly expand and adapt to cope with the health regulation restrictions and increased demand. All at a time when they’ve been needed most. They have navigated this crisis with considerable finesse.

Catriona and her vast network of volunteers, have adapted to the burdens of a pandemic.

Remaining upbeat, she paints a complicated picture of the changes to the Penny Dinners service brought about by Covid-19.

“We’ve cut back on our volunteers to allow for social distancing. We’ve also streamlined staff that had the broadest experience of working for Penny Dinners, prioritising those with a full knowledge of our operations.”

This challenge has been amplified by the fact only six service providers can be in the Penny Dinners building at any one time, expanding the strain on their frontline workers at a crucial moment of increased need.

Penny Dinners doesn’t just feed people, however. It offers an imperative social outlet to the most marginalised and often the most isolated and lonely members of our society.

Due to social distancing measures and other health restrictions, Penny Dinners has also had to create innovative methods to maintain the social glue associated with their service, whilst moving their operations to a take-out service.

“The rough sleepers around the city would see our red van coming, or the lads on the bikes, and they’d have a big smile on their faces,” she said.

Catríona finds it hard to describe the level of desolation she has seen among Cork’s homeless population during this crisis.

“They did their best, but they had no other way to survive than to huddle up somewhere. We had people who we knew were sleeping in the same place every night and we sent our staff to talk to them, bring them food, see if they were all right and to get them medical attention if it was needed”.

Penny Dinners also maintained its addiction recovery group and conducted meetings over Zoom. The Recovery Group has also been involved in directly helping rough sleepers with addiction issues, issues which were often exacerbated by the crisis.

Speaking to Catríona, one starts to more intimately understand the life-or-death situations facing the homeless population of Cork on a daily basis, and hence why services like Penny Dinners, now more than ever, need our support.

“We lost three people in three days. Just in Cork alone. When that happens, we’ve seen people being laid out, with no proper clothing. We go away in those circumstances and purchase a suit. You need dignity in life, as much as you do dignity in death. We see so many tragedies. So many of them are preventable,” she said.

Catríona’s testimony, though, is one of hope, and against this stark backdrop, she begins to talk about the necessary Government interventions to prevent these tragedies from occurring in the first place, and to better position NGOs such as Penny Dinners to positively intervene in the lives of the homeless population.

“This pandemic has woken everybody to the parts of our society that are working and the parts that aren’t.

“My message to the Government is this: ‘Everyone is watching’.”

Local councillors on the ground share Catríona’s frustration and want more to be done on a statutory basis to fundamentally change housing policy in Ireland.

Independent Cork City Cllr Ken O’Flynn agreed that everybody is watching the Government, but stated strongly that “the Government, frankly, doesn’t seem to give a damn.”

Cllr. O’Flynn pointed to the success of the Nordic model of housing, and, like Sinn Féin’s Eoin O’ Bróin, agreed that a heightening of the ‘housing first’ policy was the most effective model available.

Referring to recent clinic appointments, he spoke of a case of an elderly woman couch-surfing as a result of the fall-out of her husband passing away. This case highlights the raising of the social bar under which homelessness is now occurring.

“For this Government, if you don’t vote, you don’t count, in my opinion,” Cllr. O’Flynn said.

“We need a total rethinking of Irish housing policy if we are to tackle the injustices many currently face.”

Catriona was keen to highlight how local citizens and businesses have gotten involved to help Penny Dinners throughout the crisis. In particular, she wanted to thank the River Lee Hotel, who sent their own chefs to help out at Penny Dinners while the hotel was closed down during the initial phase of total lockdown in March.

She also was keen to thank the Apache Pizza branch in Hollyhill, who made lasagnes and pizzas for Penny Dinners to make their job easier, as they were then able to directly distribute these to the homeless people of Cork.

It seems in talking to Catríona that oftentimes, ordinary people’s sacrifices, voluntary contributions and hard work have been more transformative for the NGOs tackling Cork’s homeless crisis on the frontline than those of the State.

The ingenuity of people getting involved has been “extraordinary”, according to Catríona.

“If people didn’t come out and support us the way they do, we’d have to beg for support. Penny Dinners didn’t have to do that because local communities understood the importance of our service to vulnerable people and acted quickly to ensure we had everything we needed.”

The numerous random acts of kindness towards the staff and service users of Penny Dinners is what keeps Catríona and her team going in the dark, challenging and often frustrating hours spent dampening the flames of Cork’s homeless crisis.

Catríona is calling on the people of Cork to continue rallying around herself and her team so that they can most effectively and compassionately help the homeless population of Cork, who so often suffer in silence.

If you would like to make a donation to Cork Penny Dinners, or perhaps even volunteer, go to www.corkpennydinners.ie for more information.

You can catch up on the rest of our series on homelessness in Cork at EchoLive.ie

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