On a freezing Friday night in Cork, a homeless woman asks volunteers for pyjamas ahead of her hospitalisation.
Although none are available, she seems close to tears of happiness at the thought of hospital: warmth, comfort, a bed, and regular meals.
The woman is Kathleen O’Sullivan and she will be dead within a month.
Patrick St sparkles under Christmas lights, as well-wrapped shoppers bustle by, their breath hanging in the air.
Every doorway seems to be home to a person swaddled in a sleeping bag.
Outside Brown Thomas, a crowd has gathered by the Rotary Christmas tree.
A dozen or so volunteers in hi-vis jackets mingle with homeless people, as the Christian charity, Hope for the Homeless, sets up its tent, food stall, and metal chairs in a street-café-style circle, where people can drink tea and talk.
Gillian Horgan addresses the crowd, calling for hush.
Horgan is a member of Cobh’s Good News Christian Church, and she founded Hope for the Homeless last September.
On Saturday afternoons, at the Haven Café on Bachelor’s Quay, they offer free meals to homeless people.
“We’re Christian, but we don’t force religion on anyone. We don’t put pressure on people and we don’t force prayer on anyone.”
Another woman then leads the crowd in prayer. She struggles to be heard, as some continue to talk.
“Thank you, Jesus, for this night… Thank you for the hope we have and the light you give… Help us to show love and shine the light of God…”
At the tent, volunteers give out teas and coffees, and distribute a colourful confusion of clothing and footwear, to a disorganised crush.
Some in the queue are intoxicated, but most are sober.
The donated clothing is clean and dry, but often not what is needed.
Most urgently-required are socks, underwear, gloves, sleeping bags, jackets and hats, and most of those go early.
This night, Kathleen O’Sullivan chats with a Hope for the Homeless volunteer. They both seem delighted to see each other. Kathleen has a very kind smile and looks older than her 44 years.
A week earlier, I had met Kathleen. She told me that troubles in her life, including the death of her son, Anthony, had led to her homelessness over “a few years”. She said she had pleurisy and pneumonia.
“I won’t survive another winter on the streets,” she said, as she sheltered in a doorway at the back of the Clayton Hotel.
It was in that doorway, she said, that her aunt had died seven years ago. She couldn’t know it, but it would be in that same doorway that Kathleen would die, on Wednesday, December 6.
Cork Simon has been operating over-capacity for many months, and Cork has no night café or ‘wet’ shelter. If you are turned away from Simon — because the shelter is full, or because you are intoxicated or abusive — there is nowhere else to go.
Cork Simon provides emergency beds for an average of 53 people per night, with their winter shelter taking in 11 or 12 extra people.
Exact figures are not available for how many people are unable to avail of shelter, but I met 10 people outside Simon, late one recent Friday night, and they told me they could not get in.
Two young men wander up from Winthrop St, the taller man drinking from a plastic bottle. His friend is in a bad way, reeling and bumping into people.
He wears a puffy grey jacket, which he attempts to remove, before breaking away in a circular run.
A volunteer persuades him to sit on one of the metal chairs, and gives him a cup of tea.
A powerfully-built young man is urinating in the doorway of Vodafone, roaring “Goodbye to the tent and the old caravan, to the tinker, the gypsy, the travelling man”. After a while, he returns to drinking a can of beer.
By the Christmas tree, a man greets both the young man in the puffy jacket and his taller friend. The taller man offers his bottle. He declines, saying he can’t handle vodka. The man in the puffy jacket challenges him to a fight. The other man tells him “you’re a daycent feen. Drive on, before the Shades lift you.”
There is a crash, as the man in the puffy jacket flings a metal chair. He veers off down Winthrop St, bumping against a woman. She grabs him by the throat and pins him to the window of Brown Thomas. Volunteers rush to separate them, and Gillian phones the gardaí.
At the wrong end of the tent, where tea and coffee is distributed, Romanian homeless people gesture for shoes and jackets. When one volunteer is told they don’t understand, he replies “not my problem.”
Another volunteer says “they’d clean you out”.
Among the homeless, too, racial tensions are obvious.
One of the women says many homeless Irish resent the Romanians, because “they’ve caused a crack-down by the guards”.
Two gardaí arrive in a van, 45 minutes after Gillian called them. Gillian notes it’s a busy Friday night. The young man has lost his puffy jacket and is sitting in a bus shelter, resting his head on Gillian’s shoulder.
He seems almost at peace. Arresting him for his own safety, the gardaí are extraordinarily gentle. Guiding him into the back of the van, they hand him his puffy jacket.
Last month, Eileen Gleeson, of the Dublin Homeless Executive, caused controversy by suggesting that volunteers are not helping the homeless crisis.
One volunteer, who asks not to be named, says that although tonight’s volunteers clearly mean well, their approach seems disorganised.
Concerns are also voiced about the lack of garda-vetting of some volunteers and that some street pastors pray over people who are less than enthusiastic.
Gillian Horgan says plans are in train to have all volunteers garda-vetted for the new year. On the issue of evangelising, she reiterates her strong opposition to forcing religion on people.
One first-responder says Cork’s rough-sleeping problem is getting worse.
He says there are many new volunteers, with small groups going out seven nights a week.
However, there are too many splinter groups within the volunteer community, and greater co-ordination
and oversight is required for the service to be more effective.
Notwithstanding these shortcomings, it is clear that compassionate volunteers, like Hope for the Homeless, are all that stand between some of Cork’s homeless and a cold, hungry night on the streets.
So long as homeless people are forced to sleep rough, so long as Cork has no ‘wet’ hostel or night café, volunteers are all they have.
“Get rid of volunteers and the homeless person will still sleep in a doorway,” says a volunteer who was previously homeless.
“The only difference is that without volunteers, they’ll sleep hungry.”
One woman, currently living in a derelict car, says: “They are the best people I’ve ever met. If it wasn’t for volunteers, I wouldn’t even be alive.”
Last month, Kathleen O’Sullivan told me something similar.