Champion of the less fortunate

South-East Correspondent Neans McSweeney profiles the award-winning Brother Columbanus.

HE may be over 80 years old, but Waterford’s champion for the homeless, Brother Columbanus Deegan, is as active in the community as ever.

The giant among the less fortunate and voice of reason in many difficult situations is truly a walking saint. And the wisdom he has gleaned over his 81 years shines through in the work he and others do across Waterford city.

On any given day, he can find, meet and chat with any of Waterford city’s homeless. He knows each by name and knows their individual needs.

There is no more fitting tribute for such a man than to honour him with the Tower Hotel Waterford Excellence Award for January.

The coveted award has gone to the Dublin native and Breadline, an organisation he helped found which works with the homeless who sleep rough in Waterford.

The World War II veteran and peace and justice campaigner heads up the organisation, which concentrates in particular on providing support and services to the homeless people who do not avail of hostel accommodation in the city.

“Not everyone wants a home,” he said.

“Sometimes these people have fallen through the cracks. And despite the help and efforts of groups such as the health board, the corporation (city council) and St Vincent De Paul, all of which do phenomenal work here in Waterford, some people just choose to sleep rough.

“Its not a huge issue in Waterford. But these people are still knocking around. We don’t judge them or try to house them. We simply bring them warm clothing or food and make life a bit more comfortable for them. If they need help, they know they can come to us. We use the softly, softly approach with them and it works,” he said.

He urged the public not to judge the homeless and assume they are drop-outs.

“I would ask people to be aware that these homeless people are there and not to condemn them out of hand. I’m a great admirer of the health board and the corporation. They bend over backwards to help them, along with other groups such as Focus and Respond.

“But for some, living like this is just something they choose to do. And it’s their right to have such a choice.”

The organisation does have a collection around Christmas but doesn’t really look for much funding. Its overheads are not massive and it gets tremendous support from the business community in Waterford, as well as its generous public.

Among the others who play a key role in Breadline are Brother Columbanus’ colleagues, Sammy Cleere, Nicky Power and Pat Duggan.

Presenting the Tower Hotel Award for January to the group, Deirdre Houlihan, sales manager south-east, Tower Hotel Group, said the organisation does tremendous work for men and women who live in very challenging circumstances.

“For all the great wealth and prosperity generated in Ireland over the last 10 years, there are still clearly a considerable minority of people who haven’t enjoyed their share in this economic success and organisations like Breadline deserve great credit for their work with marginalised groups.

“While all voluntary and charitable work is worthy of praise and recognition, Breadline are involved in particularly unglamorous work and offer vital support to people who live with many very serious personal problems; people that are too often shunned and avoided by the wider community.

“I know that the ever-energetic Brother Columbanus also did tremendous work in Waterford in the lead-in to Ireland’s hosting of the Special Olympics World Games in June 2003 and he has devoted his entire life to good causes in a real example of living Christianity.

“He and his colleagues at Breadline are providing a safety net without which these unfortunate people would be even worse off and slip off society’s radar completely.”

The Tower Hotel Waterford Excellence Awards recognise excellence and achievement in six categories: Politics and Public Affairs; Business; Sport; Education; Arts, Culture & the Media and the Voluntary & Community sector.

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