IT’S 11am and Cork Penny Dinners is packed out the door.
At each table people eat a hearty meal, with a fine dessert to follow, and the air hums with the buzz of conversation. Fresh meals are served from a hatch to the kitchen, and - all around - volunteers bustle though the clatter and the steam.
“A decade ago, we were serving maybe 100 meals a week,” says Penny Dinners co-ordinator Catriona Twomey. “And that was mostly to men who might have been said to be ‘fond of a pint’.
“Now we’re providing 2,000 meals a week, and rising, and it’s mainly to families living in poverty. Some of those families would be working families.
“And we’re still helping homeless people, and rough sleepers. We’re giving out 15 to 20 duvets and sleeping bags a night, seven nights a week.”
Cork Penny Dinners, which dates back to Famine times, has a simple policy: “No-one is ever turned away. There’s an open door and a warm welcome. We never judge. We serve.”
Catríona – in between taking calls from donors, filling in forms, and answering questions from volunteers, says: “A lot of the meals – and a lot of the parcels – we’re preparing are going to people who are holding down jobs and paying mortgages or rent, and they’d be mortified if people knew they were being fed from here.
“For that reason, we’re always very discreet. It’s none of our business why you might be here, or why we might be dropping food to your house, and there’s no shame in that, and it’s nobody else’s business why you might be here, or why anyone else might be here either.”
Down the back of the room, people sit along a pew and wait for a space to open up at a table. It’s hard to put clients – or volunteers (the two categories seem sometimes to be interchangeable) – into any particular demographic grouping.
Older men who seem at first glance to have had hard lives sit beside thin younger men with tattoos, and all enjoy friendly conversations. Young women with small kids in push-cars sit chatting with older volunteers.
As I sit there taking notes, I’m asked four times by different people – volunteers or clients – if I’m sure I won’t have a cup of tea or a bit of cake. It’s that kind of place.
People here walk a very decent line between concern and respect for a person’s dignity.
Catríona tells me growing levels of poverty are only exacerbating the homelessness crisis, putting more and more people closer to the edge. The most recent monthly homelessness figures were published on December 3 by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, causing some to note that those figures would normally be released a week earlier.
Government sources denied the delay was engineered so the figures would come out after the four by-elections on Friday November 29, and too late to affect the vote of no confidence in Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy.
The figures, which are a snapshot of one week in October, show that a record number of 10,514 people are now living in emergency accommodation.
Locally, October 2019 saw yet another record number of adults in emergency accommodation in Cork and the Southwest (Cork & Kerry).
The last calendar week in October saw a record high of 447 adults in emergency accommodation in Cork – up 3% since September 2019; and up 28% in 12 months.
It also saw a record 608 adults in emergency accommodation in the Southwest (Cork & Kerry) – the first time to breach 600; up 3% since September 2019; up almost a third - 32% in 12 months.
A record 899 men, women and children were in emergency accommodation in the Southwest – just one shy of 900; up 2% since September 2019; up 23% in 12 months.
One would not need to be a cynic to see why those figures might have been held back.
Across town from Penny Dinners, Cork Simon’s Anderson’s Quay Emergency Shelter has capacity for 47 people each night. During November, the shelter was full and often over-capacity, with an average of 49 people staying every night.
Sophie Johnston of Cork Simon says they accommodate “as many people every night as we safely can. In late 2017, Cork Simon, with support from City Council, created an additional 15 spaces in our Winter Night Light – 15 mattresses on the floor of our Day Service from 11.00pm to 7.30am every night.
“These extra beds were due to remain in place until March 2018, but the need is such we have maintained them since. During October, an average of 16 people per night stayed in our Night Light service. During November, an average of 12 people per night stayed in our Night Light service. Between the Emergency Shelter and the Night Light, an average of 61 people per night stayed in November.”
She adds: “People are staying for much longer periods of time in our emergency accommodation because they have no other option. The average length of stay at our Emergency Shelter has increased significantly in the last five years from an average of 39 nights per person in 2013 to an average of 63 nights per person in 2018. People simply cannot find a home they can afford.”
In Cork Penny Dinners, the Christmas decorations are up, and planning has been underway since August, with the work including the preparation of over 3,000 hampers for families struggling to put Christmas together in their homes.
“Christmas Day is always a very special day at Cork Penny Dinners”, Catríona says.
“The dinners are prepared and donated by Ruairí O’Connor and the staff from the River Lee Hotel. It’s a really gorgeous traditional Christmas dinner of turkey, ham, and all the trimmings.
“Vegetarian and vegan options are available too. The River Lee also supplies us with desserts to die for.”
On Christmas morning, Santa gets to Cork on the Polar Express to Kent Station around 11am, and he heads over to Little Hanover Street, for his annual visit to Penny Dinners. The big man is usually tired after his night’s work, but he always makes the time to be among his own. This year, as always, he’ll be wearing the traditional red and white of his native Cork.
“We’re looking forward to a really traditional, really lovely Christmas Day,” Catríona says.
“Our friends in the Barrack Street Brass Band will be here, of course, and our usual Christmas Day concert this year features Karen Underwood and friends, as well as our own High Hopes Choir, fresh from their triumphant appearance with Hothouse Flowers at Glór in Ennis.”
As I leave, Catríona asks that I mention how grateful everyone here is to the people of Cork for all their support and kindness. She says the decency shown by Cork people informs the ethos of Cork Penny Dinners.
“There’s no fuss and no judgement here,” Catriona says.
“We go the extra mile for people here, because we just don’t want anyone to be lonely or in trouble.”