IT is eight o’clock on a cold Tuesday night in Cork, and a young woman makes her way shyly to the long trestle tables set up across the doorway of Brown Thomas. On Patrick Street, the Christmas lights sparkle bright over wet streets and pavements.
A small crowd has formed since the tables were set up an hour ago, and volunteers warmly greet people who might otherwise go cold and hungry tonight. There’s a selection of food and beverages on offer on the tables: 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 volunteers greet their regulars by their first names, and all seem genuinely delighted to see each other. The volunteers have parked their cars on the pavement outside a high-end department store, and most of the regulars go to the cars before heading to the trestle tables. From the car boots, volunteers distribute bedding, sleeping bags and outdoor clothing. The regulars tend to prioritise the car boots.
The young woman, who gives her name as Louise, says she is 24. She looks a decade younger. She is pale and thin and says she last ate at noon, at Cork Penny Dinners. She says the people in Penny Dinners are lifesavers, and she speaks highly of co-ordinator Catriona Twomey, but she says once Penny Dinners closes for the day, there’s nowhere to go.
“I’ve been walking all day in the rain. I haven’t eaten since then, but what’s worse is there’s nowhere to sit down, and no place to take shelter in,” she says.
She claims if she sits down, she’ll be accused of begging. Louise says she has been homeless for a month — this time. She was in care during her childhood and says she has been homeless in the past.
Louise is one of many affected. Cork Simon report ever-increasing numbers relying on their soup run and emergency shelters in recent months, while data collated by Cork City Council show that more than 30 people are counted as rough sleepers in the city.
One of the volunteers, Noreen Cody from Fermoy, asks Louise if she would eat some hot food.
Louise says she would love some. Noreen serves her up a bowl of piping-hot stew and later insists that Louise has a second helping. Noreen helped set up this group of volunteers, Fermoy Tuesday Night Homeless Run, almost two years ago.
A tall young man joins Louise. He is 23, and Louise introduces him as Gary, her partner of six months. He says he has been homeless for over two years, and he says he is a new man since he met Louise.
“She’s my princess,” he says.
Gary is carrying a duvet in a paper bag. It is visibly damp. Noreen asks him if he’d like a clean, dry, sleeping bag. He says he’d be very grateful, and Noreen brings him over to one of the cars.
“One night, about two in the morning, one of the volunteers here gave me — out of their own pocket — €140 for a B&B. That’s not a volunteer. That’s a saint,” Louise confides.
Noreen comes back with Gary, who’s sporting brand-new thermal cap and is carrying a pair of ground mats and sleeping bags. Noreen has thermal gloves for both of them, and toiletries, and gives Louise a beautiful knitted, white scarf, to Louise’s delight. “Lads, do ye have a tent?” asks Noreen.
Gary says they used to have one until someone burnt it. Now they move around the city, always on the look-out for a place to shelter. He says it can be really dangerous sleeping rough. He knows someone who was in a tent when it was set alight.
Noreen says another group will be around at nine, and they may have a tent for them. She asks them to stay put for a minute and steps away to make a phone call.
“She is so sound,” whispers Louise.
Noreen soon returns and tells them she phoned Ber McMahon of the group Homeless Help and Support Cork, and Ber has sourced a tent for them. At the trestle table, Catherine Redmond from Glanmire says she has been volunteering since September, and she looks at Louise and Gary with kindness.
“God love them,” she says.
“That could be any one of us. There but for the grace of God goes you or me.”
A middle-aged man wanders up and asks if they have the stripey, minty sweets. Anne Bartley, a volunteer from Fermoy, asks if he means humbugs. He says, slightly haughtily, that he means the stripey, minty sweets. Noreen asks him, not unkindly, where he is living. He looks a bit affronted and says he’s living at home.
“It’s a sweetshop you want, love,” Noreen tells him.
He shrugs and heads off, presumably home.
Noreen says that Father Acquin Casey – formerly of Fermoy – was a huge supporter of the volunteer group and gave them access to two rooms in what is known in Fermoy as “The Blue Nuns”, where they might store donations.
Noreen says they have volunteers from Fermoy and surrounding villages and townlands, and they regularly accept donations from businesses and supermarkets in the towns and villages between Fermoy and Cork.
A man in his mid-twenties comes up to the group and introduces himself as Damien.
He’s dressed impeccably in casual gear – “every stitch on us came from these brilliant, lovely people” – and he’s been clean of drugs for 12 months. Damien’s partner – who gives her name as Claudia – has been clean for 16 months.
Damien and Claudia are living in a tent. Damien says that rats ‘the size of small dogs’ are an issue in the area.
But, Damien and Claudia have something to announce to the volunteers. They have been offered first refusal on an apartment by Cork City Council.
“First refusal?” he says with a laugh. “We’ll take the hand off them!”
The volunteers are all thrilled for them, and Noreen has tears in her eyes. “You’re coming to the housewarming!” Damien tells her, and it’s clear that no is not an option. She asks will they have a bowl of stew for the road.
“You know me too well, me darling,” he says, grabbing her for a huge hug, before he and Claudia tuck into the grub.
Claudia says living in a tent means things “normal” people take for granted become unattainable luxuries, things like showering, brushing your teeth, or charging your phone. She says she’s had a recurring nightmare that they would miss out on an offer of a home because her phone was out of charge.
Claudia says that having a proper home means they will be able to have better access to their kids, and she promises Noreen that, once she’s settled in, she wants to volunteer, “to give something back”.
Noreen tells her gently there will be plenty time for that, that their top priority will have to be getting set up in their new home for a happy Christmas.