Evening Echo feature: ‘Helping Hands helped me turn my life around’

Outside Cork City Library on a cold Friday night, volunteers are unloading from vans and cars boxes of donated clothing and food. At a trestle table, two volunteers, wrapped-up against the cold and their breath steaming in the night air, hand out teas, coffees and sandwiches to anyone who calls up. Perhaps twenty volunteers from the ‘Helping Hands Homeless Action Group’ mill around, chatting and joking with homeless people. It’s a friendly and enthusiastic gathering, even if it verges at times on the disorderly.

‘Helping Hands Homeless Action Group’ was founded in 2016, and Fermoy man Luke Heffernan, its head, explains how it works: small groups of volunteers patrol the city by foot, following designated routes, and talk with any homeless people they meet.

The volunteers bring dignity bags – containing essentials like toiletries, tooth paste and brushes, underwear, socks – and food and hot tea. If they come upon someone needing a jacket or shoes, or a sleeping bag, each group has a walkie-talkie with which to call back to base camp. A volunteer will then drive out to them.

By the back of the Clayton Hotel, a man and woman are bedded down under sleeping bags. Volunteer James White gives them food and tea. Up the street a bit, a man is asleep in a door. By now, the street is freezing. James radios back for a sleeping bag and some warm clothing.

“We go out every second Friday night,” Heffernan says. “We’re here at the City Library, or once the Big Wheel goes up, outside the Ulster Bank. We alternate with the Christian group ‘Hope for the Homeless’, so the Friday we’re not here by the Library, they’ll be down by Brown Thomas. We’re out Tuesday nights too. There would be an overlap between the two groups, in that we would have volunteers who help with both.”

Luke Heffernan says kindness and decency are the principle motivations of all volunteers.

“Everything that we do is funded by donations, and every single person in ‘Helping Hands’ – myself included – is a volunteer.

Behind the train station, one patrol ventures into derelict, deserted warehouses. They meet no homeless people here tonight, but bottles and cans lie scattered beneath the dripping, broken roofs, and beside a derelict couch and a free-standing toilet bowl full of human waste, a rat the size of a family dog darts from an abandoned sleeping bag.

One volunteer is very happy to praise ‘Helping Hands’, and he has very good reason. He says they helped him turn his own life around.

“It was around this time last year I found myself sleeping on a bench in a field,” says Fionn (not his real name). “I had been living with my partner and our kids. Our relationship fell apart. She kicked me out and threw out my clothes. I left because I wanted to spare the kids the sight of us fighting.

“I said to myself, ‘Where the eff am I going to go?’ I had nowhere to go. I ended up sleeping on a bench eventually. I just wandered around then for a couple of days till a buddy of mine helped me get into a hostel.

“Living in a hostel was not good. It’s good to have a bed, and a roof, obviously, but I would say maybe 70% of people in the hostel were addicts. If they weren’t using drugs, they were drinking. I had addictions in the past – before I was in a relationship – and they do say if you’re in recovery you need to stay away from people who have addictions.

“Now,” he is quick to add, “the vast, vast majority of people in the hostel are very good people. They just have a bad addiction.

For Fionn, help came very quickly and unexpectedly.

“I saw the ‘Helping Hands for the Homeless’ on Facebook and I went into their old office on George’s Quay and whatever I needed, they provided. They gave me clothes, socks, underwear, shoes, deodorant, toothpaste, you know, basic stuff to make you feel like a human being.”

‘Helping Hands’ helped Fionn find a new home.

“I have such good time for them. They have no Government funding. The Government gives them nothing. It’s all up to the generosity of the public.

Luke Heffernan concurs, saying people are extremely generous and all help is very gratefully received.

“We take anything we can get. Last summer, after the Indiependence festival, ‘Helping Hands’ were delighted to get from the debris 75 pairs of Nike runners and 70 or 80 tents.”

Heffernan says ‘Helping Hands’ has now secured new premises on Hanover Street, and it is there they intend to offer trauma counselling, drug counselling and support services for the families of those in crisis.

“I don’t know if I can express to you how lucky I am,” says Fionn. “There are young fellas, auld fellas, young ones, auld ones, kids even, sleeping in fields, in tents, in doorways and whatever else. I only had to do that two or three times. That’s how lucky I am. Now I have my own place, I have somewhere to shower, somewhere to wash my clothes.”

Fionn says he and his former partner are now on better terms, and he sees his children fortnightly and sometimes more often than that. He says he is hopeful he’ll be able to have Christmas dinner with them.

“A year ago, I was on the streets. Now I’m getting my life back. I credit a lot of it, an awful lot of it, to ‘Helping Hands’ and Gillian in the Haven Café and ‘Hope for the Homeless’.”

Eileen Gleeson of the Dublin Region Homelessness Executive recently said long-term homelessness results from years of “bad behaviour” and could not be solved by volunteers.

“[W]hen somebody becomes homeless it doesn’t happen overnight, it takes years of bad behaviour probably, or behaviour that isn’t the behaviour of you and me.”

She said volunteer groups which gave only food and clothing to the long-term homeless were allowing them “to continue with the chaotic lifestyle they have”, highlighting the need for other interventions.

“Yeah, I heard all that,” says Fionn, when asked about Gleeson’s comments. “Listen, homelessness can happen to anyone. And it can happen in days. Back then, a year ago, when my relationship fell apart, I was clean. I wasn’t using or drinking when my life fell apart. Honestly, homelessness can happen to anyone.”

As for volunteers allegedly not helping the homeless, Fionn is emphatic.

“Of course volunteers are helping. Look, if you’re sleeping in the doorway of the Savoy, you’ll be sleeping there either way. Get rid of volunteers and the homeless person will still sleep in a doorway regardless. The only difference is without the volunteers, they’ll sleep hungry.”

Asked what advice he would offer anyone in homelessness, or on the cusp of homelessness, Fionn seems taken aback. He begins hesitantly to offer advice to those in relationships, and then decides against it. He then starts to talk about staying clean before deciding he is no-one to offer advice to anyone.

“Look, if you’re someone facing homelessness, I honestly wouldn’t know what to say to you. Except maybe ‘Can I help you?’”

‘We need more housing if we are to get to grips with this’ 

Cork Simon Community provides emergency beds for an average of 53 people per night, every night of the year. The start of November saw the opening of their winter night shelter, which will offer an additional 15 places per night in Cork Simon’s Anderson’s Quay day centre.

Speaking at the launch of Cork Simon’s annual report last month, Cork Simon director Dermot Kavanagh said the winter night shelter is one of a range of initiatives it is undertaking with the support of Cork City Council.

“It’s not by any means a place to call home but it will at least offer people warmth, shelter and some breathing space from life on the streets. What we really need is homes.”

In the past year, Cork Simon has provided housing to 28 new people, which was “a most welcome start” for those people, Kavanagh said.

“But we clearly need much more housing if we are to get a grip on the crisis.” Kavanagh said that Cork Simon plans to increase its own housing stock to 100 units by 2019. Cork Simon has also started an empty houses campaign, urging people with empty residential properties to consider selling or renting those properties to the charity, which would could acquire them so with the aid of Government funding.

The average length of stay in Simon’s emergency service has increased by 38% over four years. In 2013, the average length of stay was 38 nights. In 2017 the average stay is 54.

“The longer-term impact of the homeless crisis is beginning to show with people stuck in emergency accommodation for much longer periods of time because they simply have nowhere else to go,” Kavanagh said. “The number of people long-term homeless increased for the third successive year.”

Addressing recent controversial comments by Eileen Gleeson of the Dublin Region Homelessness Executive that homelessness is caused by “years of bad behaviour”, Kavanagh said he was “very shocked” and would hate if the impression of “deserving and undeserving categories of homelessness” was given.

“Everybody is absolutely deserving. A right to a home is fundamental to having a level playing field in society. You haven’t a hope of making your way in life if you haven’t the basics of a place to live in.”

The Cork Simon winter night shelter will remain in operation until the end of March.

corksimon.ie Cork Simon Emergency Shelter, Anderson’s Quay, Cork. 021 4278728

If you feel like living, do give a Christmas box…

In 2011, Cork Penny Dinners served approximately 100 meals a week. In 2017, they are serving roughly 2,000 meals a week. Founded in Famine times, Penny Dinners has a simple policy: no-one is ever turned away. Anyone calling in is offered a meal. “There’s an open door and a warm welcome. We never judge. We serve.”

Christmas is always a busy time in Penny Dinners’ Little Hanover Street premises, and this year promises to be as busy as ever. This Christmas, the good people in Penny Dinners are appealing for donations of ‘Christmas Boxes’. They make suggestions of ‘Men’s Christmas Boxes’, ‘Women’s Christmas Boxes’ and ‘Children’s Christmas Boxes’.

For men’s Christmas Boxes, Penny Dinners suggest practical things like socks, underwear, hats, gloves, scarves, toothpaste, razors, combs and moisturizers.

For women’s Christmas Boxes, similar items are required, with an added appeal for toiletries, hairbrushes and warm clothes.

The same suggestions apply for gift boxes for kids, except with one request. If you’re kind enough to think of homeless children this Christmas, please remember to specify on the box the age of the children for whom you’re catering.

If you’re putting together a Christmas Box of any sort, please bear in mind that a book or two might go a long way in amongst the other gifts. If you’re putting together a Christmas box for children, please remember kids nowadays love stories and magic every bit as much as we did. A few books and comics would mean the world to a small person.

Donations of tents, sleeping bags and flashlights are always very welcome.

Cork Penny Dinners are also appealing for donations of non-perishable foods, tinned foods, kitchen cleaning products, toilet paper, kitchen rolls, refuse sacks and tin foil. All donations are very gratefully received at 4 Little Hanover Street, Cork. Donations can also be dropped at Cinderella’s Closet in the North Point Business Park, or to Marie at Douglas Post.

€1 from each Irish Examiner/Evening Echo “Times Gone By” 2018 Calendar sold will go to Cork Penny Dinners.

Christmas Dinner of turkey and ham and vegetarian options will be available in Cork Penny Dinners to anyone who needs a dinner this Christmas Day. Staff from the River Lee Hotel and Penny Dinners volunteers will work hard – and be there before dawn – to put those dinners on the tables and to make this Christmas special.

Originally published in the Evening Echo on Friday 22 December 2017.

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