We spend a night on the streets with Helping Cork's Homeless

The group Helping Cork’s Homeless started two years ago this festive season, and has seen the crisis escalate across the city, affecting myriad people. Joe Leogue joins them on one particular night to see the hardships.

‘I had a guy one night ask me if I had a rope because it was his sixth night on the street and he couldn’t take any more.”

For two years now, Christina Chalmers has spent nearly every second Friday night helping those who sleep rough on the streets of Cork City. Despite all she has seen, she has an immediate reply when asked for the moment that hit her hardest.

“He asked me for a rope. I said I didn’t have one. I brought him to a doorway and bedded him down and I had to walk away from him for a moment because I broke. I didn’t want him to see that.

“I recomposed myself and I bedded him down. I crossed the road to move on to the next person and I looked across and there he was in the doorway fixing his duvet and his pillow, and it was like looking in the window of somebody’s bedroom, only this was a doorway.

The 25-year-old man finally secured a place in an emergency shelter a week later.

“But for those seven days he was out on the street, and he had already been out on the street for six days, and after those six days he couldn’t take it anymore, and he asked me for a rope,” says Christina, her voice faltering still with a mixture of incredulity and sadness.

It’s a cold Friday night in Cork City, and a group of 60 or so volunteers in high-visibility jackets are gathered around a couple of gazebos that obscure the extravagant Christmas window display facing out from Brown Thomas onto St Patrick’s St.

A small cluster of foldable chairs form a circle in front of the tents, which shelter a makeshift cafe from which hot drinks and soups are dispensed to anyone who needs it.

The chairs are there to welcome people who are used to being told to move on, a place for respite, a warm drink, and some company.

Volunteers arrive from 9pm, and while the soup kitchen tends to the needs of those who come to St Patrick’s St, groups are formed to search the streets for those who decided against coming in favour of securing a sheltered spot to sleep for the night.

Helping Cork’s Homeless began two years ago this festive season, when Christina’s sister told her she was going to distribute blankets among the homeless in Cork. She had become aware of the severity of the problem through working in one of the city’s hospitals.

Christina admits that, back then, she had her concerns for her sister’s safety, borne from the usual stigmas around the homeless.

She offered to accompany her sister, and posted their idea on a Facebook group for selling second-hand items in Cork. When 60 people — including someone who ran a catering business — turned up to meet them in Daunt Square that Saturday in December, Christina knew the potential was there to organise something in response to a growing crisis in the city.

That first night, says Christina, she ‘bedded down’ 36 people.

Bedding down is a shorthand phrase to describe the third act of the group’s activities. After the kitchen is packed up for the night, and the groups reconvene having scouted the city centre, volunteers then go to those who could not secure a place in an emergency centre.

They will provide them with a sandwich, a bottle of water, and a pack of toiletries while giving them a duvet, cardboard, and bubblewrap to sleep on.

But before all that, back on St Patrick’s St, the kitchen is still running, with a new sense of excitement.

Earlier that day the group launched ‘Lay Your Head Down’, a charity single released to raise funds to buy a bus they can convert to a mobile shelter. The single has sold well, and the launch on RedFM that morning led to Kearney’s Coaches donating a 54-seater bus to the cause.

Spirits are high as Daniel, one of the group’s regular beneficiaries, twirls a volunteer around as a PA system plays the song. Awaiting instruction, a trio in winter coats, hats, and gloves shiver in solidarity as they observe a passing party of young women in superhero fancy dress who bare their arms and legs to the freezing cold.

Meanwhile, Christina divides the large group into two — those who have helped out before, and those who have volunteered for the first time. These are then divided up into smaller teams who await dispatch.

Ann and Shane are two of the many new faces who felt compelled to help, having heard about the group on the radio that morning.

“Christmas is around the corner, it’s freezing cold, people are getting sick, and they’re afraid of their lives, God love them,” says Shane.

Ann is impressed with the setup of the kitchen. She says: “Everyone is sitting together, all the volunteers, all the homeless people. Having a cup of tea, having a chat. Everyone is being treated equally.”

The groups of seven or so are led by experienced volunteers and each are given a different route to inspect. From St Patrick’s St, they spread in every direction, inspecting nooks and crannies in the city landscape.

Fergal Dennehy is a city councillor and frequent volunteer. He leads a group on a route that takes in Oliver Plunkett St, Parnell Place, Lapps Quay, and the surrounds of City Hall, before returning to Patrick St via South Mall and the Grand Parade.

Yards from the hotel and restaurant along the boardwalk at Lapps Quay, John (not his real name) sits huddled in a small alcove in the wall of a coffee dock, overlooking the Lee. Fergal crouches down to speak to him and notices a bad injury to John’s leg.

“Jesus. That’s infected. Are you getting any antibiotics or anything to treat that?”

“There’s no pain in it, but at the same time, it’s not right, like,” replies John.

Fergal asks if he has any place in an emergency shelter, or anyone looking out for him.

“Never was. Always have to look after myself.”

Chris Harrington, a first-time volunteer, has a brief chat with John as he hands him water, a sandwich, and a new pair of socks. John peels off the soaked pair on his feet and throws them into the river. He is also offered a new hat to replace the one on his head, but he keeps a hold of it.

“It’s me beour’s,” he says, laughing.

We spend a night on the streets with Helping Cork's Homeless

He thanks the volunteers as the group moves on, but asks not to be woken if they come back later for the bedding in. The encounter comes as a shock to Chris.

“I recognised him from the school I went to,” he reveals.

“I would have seen this guy down through the years. I didn’t think things were this bad to be honest. I had never seen him sleeping rough, I had seen him busking, I would have talked to him a couple of times.

“Seeing him tonight, sleeping in a corner...” Chris pauses. “It’s a shock.

“It was quite shocking to see the treatment that he needed, that he can’t get done. For some reason he wouldn’t come back with us to the soup.

“A lot of things go through your head — why wouldn’t he come down? Could be too proud too, I don’t know.”

Chris is a builder, and has offered his company’s services to strip out and refurbish the new bus. He says he has had suppliers on to him, offering resources to help the kit-out.

Fergal says the leg injuries look nasty, and that he will follow up on it.

He says in many cases people are stuck in a vicious circle whereby they are not let into emergency shelter because of drink or drugs problem, but fall into the trap of feeding their addiction when they have nothing else to do all day.

However, Fergal says it wouldn’t be accurate to assume that everyone sleeping rough suffers from addiction problems. Emergency shelters are operating beyond capacity.

“What we are being told is that there’s a bed there for everyone that needs one, or that deserves one, but that’s not quite the truth,” he says.

“We’re also aware of homeless people who are afraid of going into the shelters for various reasons, they’ve had bad experiences in the past. Some people feel safer on the streets.

“It’s a very complex situation. We have people who may suffer drug or alcohol addiction, we work towards trying to get them into recovery, they go through the programmes, and they find themselves back on the street because there’s nowhere for them to go.

“So they’re back to familiar surroundings, they’re back to where it all started and surely in time they end up back to the way they were before.”

The accommodation crisis has also seen new homeless on the streets. Fergal recalls meeting someone sleeping rough who was gainfully employed by a prominent Cork business.

“We were wrapping up one night, it was around 4am, and we saw this guy outside the shelter. We couldn’t actually tell if he was staff or if he was homeless. We were reluctant to approach him, but we eventually did.

“For one reason or another he found himself homeless. Couldn’t get the money to put together the deposit, and he was absolutely terrified that his employers would find out that he was homeless, maybe hold it against him.

“This is what we’re dealing with. This is a guy who doesn’t have an addiction, with a job, who just can’t get that foot on the ladder. This wasn’t from a lack of effort or trying.

“This was four o’clock in the morning, he had work at eight, and he couldn’t get into the shelter because they were full. All he was looking for was to get into the recreation room so he could rest for four hours.

“He was talking about going to an internet cafe just to burn down the clock. So he would have been going to work four hours later with no sleep. We made alternative arrangements for him that night so he could get a few hours sleep before he went to work, and more to try and help him find accommodation.”

Diners enjoy a smoke outside Jacob’s on the Mall as the group continue on their rounds. A few doors down from the restaurant, the group stops to give a pack to another man. Fergal says he is from outside the city, but comes in to sleep rough.

A woman with a couple of suitcases has set up in one of the public toilets on Grand Parade. She tells Fergal that the council turned off the heating in the cubicle the previous Tuesday.

“She stays there regularly,” Fergal says as the group makes its way back to Patrick’s St.

“She’s reluctant to take anything off strangers, but Christina has built up a good rapport with her.

"She’s starting to take stuff from Christina. There are underlying difficulties there that we’re working on, it’s not a simple case of just homelessness.”

Back at Brown Thomas, the groups have reconvened and cars are packed tight with the kitchen paraphernalia.

First-timers Ann and Shane have also returned from their rounds along Sullivan’s Quay, out past the Mercy University Hospital and back to base. One of their group has gone back to bring a jacket to a woman they met sleeping rough.

“It’s heartbreaking,” says Ann.

“It’s frightening to think that someone is in that situation,” adds Shane. “You can’t really put it into perspective until you are staring it in the face, until you’re talking to the person and see they’re putting on a brave face but they’re torn apart, you can see it. They’re in an awful lot of pain and they’re struggling.”

“They just wanted someone to chat to,” says Ann.

It’s 1.45am, and Aileen Cullinane is packing up the kitchen to bring the group’s bits and pieces back to a donated storage unit in Ballyvolane on Cork’s northside. She runs the Facebook page that co-ordinates the group’s efforts.

“I heard Christina on the radio one morning, she was looking for coats and hats. So I did a clear-out, threw them into a bag and came in. I think I stayed out with them until four in the morning that night. When I went home I couldn’t sleep,” she says.

Aileen and a number of others drop the kitchen equipment off at the storage unit, and load their cars with bubble-wrap, duvets, and long, narrow cardboard boxes that have been donated by florists.

They then lock up and return to the city centre to bed-in those who couldn’t secure a place in the emergency accommodation shelters.

On Lower Oliver Plunkett St, a group wait aside while a volunteer provides someone with the duvet, and helps them arrange the bubblewrap and cardboard into a temporary bed for the night.

“That’s the hardest part, I think, really, because you’re putting a human being onto the pavement and leaving them there for the night, with a dry blanket or a bit of bubblewrap for a pillow,” says Serena, who has volunteered for the past three months.

“But at the end of the day, they are sleeping out in this element and I’m going to get into my car and go home. For me that’s the hardest part. I think that’s very, very sad.”

It’s almost 3am, and back on Patrick’s St, there’s good news for a woman who was bedding down in the doorway of Brown Thomas. Someone has come down from an emergency shelter to let her know she has a bed for the night — some volunteers offer to drive her down.

We spend a night on the streets with Helping Cork's Homeless

Others won’t be so lucky, and Christina and her team continue to help those who will not have a bed tonight.

“We have a route that we do. We have three areas, and those three areas consist of six sub areas. So we’re going towards St Patrick’s Church now, then all along Penrose Wharf, down Albert St —we know of at least three people down that end.

“Then we’ll head back up towards Pope’s Quay and the other church. We’ve got a guy in a tent down by the cricket park down the Mardyke who is waiting on a sleeping bag from us. We’ve another guy in a different part of the Mardyke who we’re going to see as well.

“After that we’ll go to City Hall, there’s a lot of people around there. Kennedy Park often has a lot of people too.

“We’ve a good hour-and-a-half at least to go anyway — that’s without finding anyone else along the way who we’re not aware of. There are usually plenty down the Marina too.

“But we’ll keep going till we sort the last person who needs bedding down.

“But I get to go home, I get to put on warm clothes. The fire is lighting at home and tomorrow I’ll wake up in a warm bed.

“They get up in the morning and will start the whole thing all over again.”

For more information on Helping Cork’s Homeless, see facebook.com/HelpingCorksHomeless/

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