Gangs of clothing thieves steal €1m from St Vincent de Paul charity

Gangs of clothing thieves steal €1m from St Vincent de Paul charity

The Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP) has been deprived of around €1m in funding after eastern European gangs raided the charity’s secondhand clothing containers, writes Sean O’Riordan.

The charity believes the funding loss was accumulated over the past five years in Cork City and county alone.

The clothes-thieving gangs continually target around 100 clothes banks operated by SVP throughout Cork.

Evidence shows the thieves used angle grinders to cut open steel containers.

They also had keys cut to fit locks and deliberately blocked clothes’ banks by stuffing them with duvets so people were forced to leave items in plastic bags close to the containers.

There are also known cases involving children being forced into the containers to help empty them.

The situation reportedly became so serious recently in Cork that some SVP volunteers kept watch throughout the night at some clothes’ bank sites.

Brendan Dempsey, one of the charity’s senior figures in the region, said on one night volunteers followed two men who were taking the clothes. They were later questioned by gardaí on the northside of the city.

“We use the good second-hand clothes to sell in the 33 charity shops we have in the city and the county. The money helps us to aid needy families,” he said.

Clothes in very good condition are segregated by volunteers and community employment scheme workers.

Other items not suitable for resale are sent to the North where they are shredded and later sold as hand wipes or for wall insulation.

Mr Dempsey said he was aware of other charities operating clothing collections which were being similarly targetted by the gangs.

Other charities have reported gangs are going to houses and taking clothes which are put out in special bags with the charities name clearly visible on them.

“At this stage, nearly all of our clothing bins have been targeted at one time or another and it doesn’t seem to matter even if they are in built-up areas. These gangs are brazen,” said Mr Dempsey.

Paul Hughes, who manages the Irish Cancer Society’s charity shops and who is also spokesman for the Irish Charity Shops’ Association, said gangs are still robbing clothes, but not to the extent they once did.

His association estimates that in 2010/2011, gangs stole around €11m worth of clothes destined for charities.

Mr Hughes said textile prices had dropped in eastern Europe and Africa since, so the trade was now not as lucrative for gangs.

Nevertheless, he said, many gangs continue to steal bags which have been left outside houses for the Irish Cancer Society.

“They also do leaflet drops themselves saying they are collecting for charities. They are bogus charities. I had in my possession at one stage 300 different leaflets which were all bogus,” he said.

Jim Walsh, national spokesman for the SVP, said there had been a few incidents in other parts of the country, most notably in the north-east.

However, he added: “There seems to be a particular issue in Cork.”

Meanwhile, Mr Dempsey said his charity was also losing around €2,000 a month in Cork having to dispose of household waste which was being thrown into the clothing bins by unscrupulous people trying to avoid pay-by-weight refuse charges.

“Rubbish is being thrown into them regularly,” he said. “We found a dead terrier in one and kitchen waste crawling with maggots.

“We have to pay for this waste to be disposed of properly and that, like the theft of the clothing, is preventing us from being able to spend even more helping the needy.”

Fergus Finlay from Barnardos said the charity he represents did not have any problems as people took clothes directly to its shops.

The ISPCC uses clothing bins but a spokeswoman for the charity said it was not experiencing the same difficulties as SVP.

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