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Dublin: 18°C Tuesday 28 June 2022

"The hardest part is telling them there's no bed for the night" - A day in the life of the homeless of Cork

We follow two services in Cork city providing food, warmth and shelter to the homeless 365 days in the year.

Catriona Twomey head volunteer at the Cork Penny Dinners.
Catriona Twomey head volunteer at the Cork Penny Dinners.
Image: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

TWO YEARS AGO, TheJournal.ie published an extensive study of homelessness in Ireland. Since then the issue has gained traction and is of huge national concern.

This week, we are examining homelessness beyond the capital. What is the situation around the whole of Ireland? And what is being done to improve it?

JOHN STANDS IN the centre of the Penny Dinners soup kitchen in Cork city on a rainy midweek morning and keeps an eye on what’s going on.

People come in off the wet street outside to have a hot meal. They greet each other and walk about the room with ease.

They collect their food from a hatch and sit at one of a row of tables with brightly coloured tablecloths to tuck into their feed. No payment is necessary.

It’s 11am. The Penny Dinners – which operates like a small, self-service restaurant – is at its busiest at this hour and the room is full of the din of conversation and there is the air of a relaxed chaos.

John helps out with the volunteers milling about the place. He collects dirty plates, makes sure napkins and cutlery are all stocked and any other odd jobs that need doing.

One man asks can he use the toilet and John lets him through.

“But I don’t want you getting up to any funny business in there, alright?” he says as the man disappears into the back.

“A lot of these lads would be shooting up and using drugs everyday,” says John.

Me – I wouldn’t touch the stuff. I like the aul’ drink, that’s it.

John is homeless. Originally from Dublin, he’s been living in Cork for the past 10 years. He’s slept rough and in squats and watched his partner die before his eyes in this city.

Cork5 Tables at the Cork Penny Dinners (complete with Halloween decorations). Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

These days John is an alcoholic and living at the homeless hostel on Anderson’s Quay run by the Cork Simon Community. John has a long-term bed there, but he said the hostel is overcrowded.

“You just get on with it,” he says.

I volunteer here every day and do my bit to help out and that’s it.

Feeding the vulnerable since Famine times

The Penny Dinners soup kitchen is situated on Little Hanover Street on the island in the centre of Cork city.

It has been providing hot meals for people in need since the 1840s – Famine times – but the need for its services continues.

Above the rows of tables, hung on the wall between Halloween decorations and posters there’s a black and white picture of men in hats and suits sitting at tables eating.

Cork7 A table set up at the Cork Penny Dinners. Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

“That’s this exact room in the 1930s – the same place,” says Catriona Twomey, the head volunteer at the Penny Dinners. The registered charity is staffed entirely by volunteers.

The Penny Dinners is where people come in the mornings for some food, a cup of tea, some extra clothes if they need them or even just for a chat.

Many are homeless, although a significant number are not.

Catriona is the beating heart of the Penny Dinners. She directs the movements of the 12 or so volunteers; interacts with the service users and listens to their requests.

She signs forms, accepts donations, answers calls, sorts through food stocks and keeps the place moving – all, it seems, simultaneously.

This morning she is run off her feet with various requests. One man needs a new pair of shoes; another one needs a kettle for his flat. There are transition-year students who need their volunteer work forms signed and there are donations to be accepted.

A young man – barely 18 years of age – stumbles passed on his way through the room. Catriona looks at him.

“I saw you downing that drink outside and you know you shouldn’t be – I worry about you, you know that?” she says.

The young man mumbles an apology and stumbles off.

“He used to be such a lovely lad,” Catriona says after he’s gone.

“He used to volunteer here a few years ago and we loved him. Look at him now,” she says, and shakes her head.

Cork6 Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie


Dublin is the focal point of homelessness services and contains by far the highest number of homeless people in the country.

For this reason much of the resources (and media attention) gets focused there. However, homelessness is an ever-present and growing issue in various other urban centres and towns across the country.

Cork city is no exception. Homeless services are divided into nine regions around the country.

Cork city falls into the South West region (along with Cork county and Kerry).

Latest figures from the Housing Department show that in a week in October of this year there were 240 homeless adults living in emergency accommodation in Cork.

This figure has gone up and down over the past two years. However, anecdotal evidence from volunteers and workers on the ground imply that the problem is always getting worse.

Catriona has been volunteering full-time with the Penny Dinners for the past 11 years. She says she’s never seen the problem so bad.

“All the services are strapped,” she says. “Everywhere is strapped.”

People are trying their hardest but there’s just not enough of everything.

Cork8 Volunteers at the Cork Penny Dinners. Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

Into the afternoon 

Penny Dinners stops serving at about 1pm most days and winds up. The people eat their food and leave – many with bags and parcels full of bread or cheese or other essentials to help them survive the rest of the day.

The volunteers clear the last remaining plates, wipe the place clean and prepare the food for the next day.

The people spread out into Cork city: some will go to squats, others to their emergency accommodation, others again to the streets, or many to their homes.

The rain continues to fall as they head out into the grey afternoon.

“We’re here for the morning time to look after them,” say Catriona, as the last of the stragglers leave.

“In the afternoon, it’s the pitiful part because they don’t know where to go or what to do.

Then in the evening they can go to Simon for a meal as well.

The evening soup run

The rain falls all throughout the day on Cork city and into the late evening.

Cork4 A laneway in Cork city Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

It eases up as darkness falls, and by 6.45pm the downpour is just a misty drizzle between the glow of the streetlights.

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About this time people start to line up outside a door on Anderson’s Street, waiting to get inside.

The Cork Simon soup run is located at the back of the emergency shelter where John Rooney lives, but is only available for rough sleepers or people not staying at the hostel – people who may have no other contact with services other than this nightly meal.

Volunteers prepare food and give out food in a fitted out kitchen next to a number of seats and tables.

Cork3 Volunteers preparing food at the Simon Soup Run. Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

The atmosphere is less hectic than at the Penny Dinners of morning and lunchtime. By night people are cold and hungry, and eager just to sit down and tuck into some food.

The full-time workers here know most people who come in by name, and as people enter from the streets and get their hot meal, trained workers move among the crowd, checking up and interacting with people.

“Most people who come in so far we would know,” says Eoghan O’Callaghan, the night services manager with Cork Simon.

Cork2 The table and chairs at the Cork Simon Soup Run. Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

Eoghan says that the soup run provides food and warmth for a while for people in need, but it also functions as a point of contact for people who may not interact with others at any other point in their day.

“A lot of people come here and they like to sit in the same spot and see the same face and have a chat,” he says.

It’s a lonely existence so people like to come off the streets – it’s just a place to come to catch up and see a friendly face.

Eoghan says that the hardest part of his job is telling people that there’s no space for them at the Simon hostel when they ask for a bed for the night.

Sophie Johnston, the communication coordinator with the Cork Simon, explains that the occupancy rate for the emergency shelter is currently at 114%.


The accommodation was originally designed to house 44 people, but Cork Simon now take in 50 every night in response to increased demand.

“It’s very tough for the people working to have to turn people away,” says Sophie.

But obviously it’s a lot tougher for those who find themselves having to sleep rough on the streets.

Cork Simon does a rough sleeper count every week, with the service team coming across an average of about 17 people sleeping rough per night in August.

This is up from 11 the same time last year.

An official count earlier this year on Census Night found eight people sleeping rough in Cork city.

“There are sufficient beds available for anyone who finds themselves without accommodation on any given night of the year in the city,” a spokesperson for Cork City Council told TheJournal.ie. 

Eoghan has been working with the service for two years, and in his experience he says things are getting worse.

“I’ve been here two years and I’ve seen it getting worse,” he says.

“A much younger crowd are coming in now with lots of different issues. Right now people are getting a bit more desperate, it’s starting to get cold and people are looking for shelter.”

At about 8pm, most people have eaten and food stops being served. The volunteers take up the dirty plates and start to close down the kitchen for another night.

People begin to leave the warmth of the Simon centre. They thank the volunteers, grab their belongings, and venture back out into the cold November night.

Our #Homeless Ireland 2016 series continues all of this week on TheJournal.ie.

Read: ‘The most loving girl’: Tributes paid at funeral of homeless woman in Limerick

Read: Housing crisis: Number of homeless families in Dublin exceeds 1,000 mark

About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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