‘We've had mothers asking for lunches for their children’: Volunteer highlights harsh realities for Cork city's homeless

A volunteer helping Cork’s homeless community speaks to John Bohane about the work of the Street Café group, which serves hot food and drinks on a Thursday night in the city centre
‘We've had mothers asking for lunches for their children’: Volunteer highlights harsh realities for Cork city's homeless

Street Café, a small group of civic minded volunteers was established in September 2018 as there was a shortfall in helping the homeless in Cork city on a Thursday night.

“WE have never missed a Thursday since we started in 2018. We are there whether it is Christmas Day or wet. Homeless are homeless every day. We are out 52 weeks of the year,” said Serina Cogan, of Street Café, a group of civic-minded volunteers who help the homeless in Cork City.

Street Café was established in September 2018 to make up the shortfall in numbers of volunteers helping the homeless in Cork City on a Thursday night. Ms Cogan said that 20 people are involved with Street Café.

“There are probably about six main people,” Ms Cogan said. “We call ourselves the drivers. We are the guys who organise the food and bring it all in on a Thursday night, organise the storage unit and everything. We probably have about 14 extra volunteers, who turn up on the night to help.

“The two drivers will bring everything home to wash and we bring it back to the unit. The driver duty is twice a month.”

They never have more than eight people volunteering on a night.

“We have three on the café, which is serving hot food, teas, and coffees,” Ms Cogan said. “We have two on the toiletries and then we have two helping outside the table for the toiletries and the café. They also talk to the homeless as well. Sometimes, we find that they are lonely and especially with the older men, they come down for the chat.”

The Street Café volunteer said she wanted to give back to people less fortunate in society. “I started off by donating clothes and food, as I have known people who have been homeless over the years, and it is not nice,” Ms Cogan said.

“I had time on my hands, and it was something I wanted to do. I went into Christina Chambers, who had a group called Helping the Homeless. I went in on a Friday night on my own to join that group and I enjoyed helping. I always wanted to give back a little.

“The Thursday night group are generally from the Carrigaline and Crosshaven area. We have helpers then from Youghal and Midleton. Most of us are moms. 80% of our volunteers are pre-school teachers. It is a lovely group, and it is kept small deliberately.

Street Café, a small group of civic minded volunteers was established in September 2018 as there was a shortfall in helping the homeless in Cork city on a Thursday night.
Street Café, a small group of civic minded volunteers was established in September 2018 as there was a shortfall in helping the homeless in Cork city on a Thursday night.

“Everyone is equal and everyone has a say. We are not saints. We are all normal people. We have the time and if you have the time and can give back, you should. We have no idea to stop. The people who are with me are all happy to keep going, as long as we can help,” she said.

The preparation, ahead of the distribution of the hot food, teas, coffees and toiletries every Thursday night, stars on the Monday.

“On Monday, we post on our Facebook page what we need for that week, in terms of food, water, fizzy drinks, a hot meal, sandwiches, cakes, and the public just private message us,” Ms Cogan said. “We are then answering replies on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, before we collect the donations on Thursdays.

“We have one man who gives us a hot, delicious vegan stew 50 weeks of the year. We have a lady who gives us 40 portions of lasagne and garlic bread twice a month. People are so kind. Only for the donations, we don’t get anything else. Family and friends are also brilliant. We don’t ask for cash. All we ask for is food, runners, tents, sleeping bags, and duvets.”

Prior to the pandemic, the team used to walk the streets of the city, but they are now based on Patrick’s St.

“On Thursday, we load up two cars with everything,” Ms Cogan said. “We used to do a walk about before Covid. We set up the toiletries out of one car, and the café, which is the hot food, teas, and coffee, out of the other car. We tend not to do a lot of clothes, as our storage area is quite damp. We set up about 7.50pm and, depending on the food, we could be there until 10pm. We set up outside Murray’s or Superdry on Patrick’s St.

“They are very grateful. You have to be very careful how you word things. The guys aren’t always sober and clean from drugs. You must be very mindful. We have the craic and banter with them, but some days you get the vibe they are not in a good mood, so you don’t have the craic with them. We are doing it a long time and we have a very good feel for who comes to our table.”

NEW FACES

Ms Cogan said they have seen an ‘awful lot’ of new faces in recent weeks and, prior to the schools closing for summer, they dealt with a lot of mothers seeking food for their children’s lunches.

“We generally see the same faces every week. We see people from the age of 16 up to 80. However, in the last few weeks there have been an awful lot of new faces. At a minimum, the numbers would always be around 20 and it can go up to around 50, especially in certain times of the year. We tend to see a lot of foreign people around October and November: That is when our numbers are high.

“At the moment, we would have around 30 or 40 people. We could feed up to 60 to 80 people, as they might take away dinners for their partners in bedsits who can’t come down because they are minding the kids or bringing it back to their friends in the bedsit.

“I found a lot of women coming before the summer who were asking for something for their kids’ lunches. An awful lot of these ladies looking for food for their children have been in bedsits for over three years. They are embarrassed.

“We always say to people that, ‘We are here to help. Take what you need’. There is no problem and no judgement. It could be me next week or this time next year. You just don’t know what is going to happen,” Ms Cogan said. “There is no judgement and a lot of empathy.”

The new people they are meeting are struggling with the increased cost of living. “The new people are not that young. Numbers have increased because the cost of living is too much for people. A few of them have said they have lost their jobs.

“They have a house, but they can’t afford to buy extras, so they are coming down for crisps, chocolate, or sandwiches for the kids. These people are not homeless, but on the breadline. Everything is getting so expensive, petrol and food, but wages are the same.”

“There have been plenty of ‘success stories’ over the years, which makes it all worthwhile,” Ms Cogan said. “Most of them would come back and tell us they have got a job or are going to college and have an apartment. A guy gave us €20 recently to buy something for the people. He said we had helped him when he had nothing, and he wanted to help someone else out.

“I always say to people, ‘You could be the only person they could speak to today, so be kind’,” said Ms Cogan.

“Recently, a man came up to me and said ‘thanks’ because I remembered his name. He said, ‘You have no idea what that means to me’. It was a simple thing to me, but he was nearly crying and was blown away by it. Sometimes, it is not necessarily what you can give, it is sometimes just about providing the company.”

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