The explosion in demand at Cork Penny Dinners prompted the group to issue an urgent public appeal last night for temporary premises so it can begin a €400,000 revamp of its city centre property.
“We were providing meals for between 20 to 30 people a day around 2008,” said Caitriona Twomey, one of the Penny Dinners trustees.
“But now we’re serving meals to almost 100 people every day. And it’s busier at weekends — we’re close to 900 meals a week now.
“It used to be single men mostly, some of whom were homeless, others with mental health issues, coming in to us. But now we’re seeing women and children, even families, coming through our doors.”
The recession, soaring unemployment, and sweeping cuts to various allowances have all contributed.
Penny Dinners is one of the country’s oldest independent caring organisations. It depends entirely on volunteers and donations.
It can trace its roots back to the Quaker-run Famine soup kitchens of the 1840s when the principle of paying 1p for a quart of soup and half a loaf of bread was established.
Today, Penny Dinners offers a hot midday meal and takeaway sandwiches and fruit to anyone who comes through the doors of its ageing Little Hanover St premises, seven days a week.
The building is struggling to cope with the numbers. There were almost 50 people in the dining area by noon yesterday, with up to 15 volunteers working in the cramped kitchen.
“We are in this building since the mid-1950s and it’s falling down around us,” said Ms Twomey.
“We need a bigger kitchen, we need better kitchen facilities to cope with the surge in demand, we need better seating areas and we need storage space. We have no heating system here — we’re relying on electric fires and we have one outside toilet.”
She appealed to the owners of vacant buildings nearby to offer accommodation for nine months, so the group can continue the service during the revamp.
Cllr Joe Kavanagh (FG) raised the issue at city council level but said more needed to be done to ensure Penny Dinners could continue to meet the rising demand.
“With the high rates of building vacancy in this city at the moment, we should surely be in a position to support them,” he said.
He urged city officials to explore using a nearby building which is leased to the Probation Service but is effectively vacant.