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Dublin: 5 °C Friday 17 January, 2020

Here's how learning to cook has helped people move out of homelessness

Cork Simon Community has just begun its latest culinary operations course in Cork.

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So many of the lads, when they get a job they will work harder than anyone because they know what it’s like to hit rock bottom.

THE WAY OUT of homelessness for some people in Cork has been through the kitchen.

A Culinary Operations course run by Cork Simon Community has seen spectacular results – it has a 92% success rate in getting people employed and on the road out of homelessness.

After starting off in 2013 with one course, the third tranche of courses has just begun, with all the former participants moving on to a Level 4 FETAC qualification – with the potential to move on even further.

The course involves homeless people linked in with Cork Simon learning under the tutelage of chef Don Bullman from Clancy’s Restaurant, in a professional kitchen in the pub An Spailpín Fánach.

How it all started 

Cork Simon’s Employment and Training programme has been running since May 2010, working with people to identify the gaps in their education and training, and then how to address them.

Its FETAC Level 3 Culinary class began in September 2013, and due to demand and positive outcomes, it secured funding for a second class in February 2014  – it’s now onto its third class.

Of the 19 students who finished the September 2013 and February 2014 courses, 12 are in employment and one has returned to full-time education.

They students train in a professional kitchen, wearing full kitchen uniforms that are sponsored by a local supplier.

Now they’ve added a FETAC level 4 class in Catering Support, and its eight students began their training this month.

The long-term goal is that some students will progress on to Level 5, which is diploma level, at the College of Commerce, and that some will progress from Level 4 directly to Level 7, which is a degree level course and run as a day-release progamme through CIT.

Where it all begins

Fiona Hagensen, the Employment and Training Coordinator, is the person responsible for the integrated training programme at Cork Simon.

“So many people when they think of homeless services and homeless people, they don’t think of programmes like this – they think of shelters and high support houses,” says Fiona. “They don’t think of the success stories. There’s such a negative stereotype that’s out there.”

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One issue that she sees over and over again is with the Habitual Residents Condition (HRC).

“If you have come here for work or were working illegally but have no centre of interest in Ireland or Cork, then you are not eligible for Social Welfare payments or housing. If you fall into homeless services in that bracket, your only route out of homelessness is through employment.”

The HRC was implemented in 2009, she explains, saying that it was more of an “international” issue, but is now a national one. “If you were to move to Cork in the morning and trying to set yourself up to transfer Jobseekers Allowance from Dublin to Cork, you are no longer able to do that unless you can prove Cork is your centre of interest.”

She says this is a big issue for people, as the clients she deals with have complex needs and often don’t want to go back to their home county. This may be because treatment is only available somewhere else, or because they want to avoid triggers.

She has seen people who “would have been entrenched in homelessness longterm if it hadn’t been for the education training and opportunities we give them”. These opportunities include English classes, manual handling courses and Safepass courses.

“It’s a programme that meets people where they’re at – for some people that’s an hour or two a week,” says Fiona.

For others, I have them literally across a five-day week doing a multitude of employment and training programmes, working on interview skills, tailoring CVs for various positions.

A group of volunteers carry out mock job interviews. “It’s very holistic and person-centred,”

Proof of address is one of the biggest things she tackles. “I have gotten people jobs but not been able to get them paid because of not enough proof of address to get a bank account.”

What do employers say?

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Fiona says the response from employers has been “hugely positive”. She works with 19 companies, one of which has taken on 36 people over the years.

“I’ve never made a pitch to a company and left with nothing,” she says. “I’m not saying everything has been a success, but we’ve never lost a relationship with an employer.”

Last week, she even had a company approach her about jobs for the first time.

The people she works with have overcome huge life challenges, and Fiona says this means they appreciate the chances they get. “If you get an opportunity of employment, you are going to hold on to it ten fold.”

But her work is limited by the fact she is one woman doing a huge amount of work.

“If we had resources, if we had more staffing and if we had more time we could get so many more people out of homeless services through this department,” she says, adding she loves the job she does. “I cannot keep up with the level of demand.”

“I went from homeless to employed”

John Murphy (not his real name) has been homeless on and off for about 6.5 years. “There was death in my family – my mother and family passed away and I kind of went off the rails.”

Now in his late 40s, he has been able to turn his life around, he says, thanks to help from Fiona at Cork Simon.

Fiona helped him write his CVs and get work experience, and this week he had a job interview.

“I’ve got my own little place, and keep myself right and keep myself going.”

The first night I came to Cork, outreach workers spotted me. I was in bits. They booked me into a B&B. I went sleeping out rough. I had a chat with the guy in the B&B, he said there was a room coming up. If you have an address in Cork you can get social welfare payments. Ever since then things have been going fabulous. It’s down to Fiona and the staff [at Cork Simon].

Regarding what Fiona does, it’s unbelievable because she just doesn’t give up, she keeps on pushing and if she sees that you’re willing to push yourself she’ll even go the extra mile. To me if there were more like her there would be an awful lot more done.

He believes that around the country, people who are homeless should be given a payment through a homeless service to help them get back on their feet.

“At the end of the day I’m putting the work in myself. But I don’t mind that. I wouldn’t have had that chance only Fiona pushed when she seen I was willing. It’s given me a great boost – I haven’t had that in a long time.”

The tutor

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Don Bullman started off as a volunteer for Cork Simon. When he was asked by Cork Education and Training Board (ETB) if he would train people in Simon’s services, he “jumped” at the chance.

He was helped by his friends at an Spailpín Fánach and Lisa Mary Coppinger uniforms.

John O’Connor, the owner of An Spailpín Fánach, who gives his kitchen to be used by the course, says: “I thought it was a very good idea – it’s helping people who were down on their luck. A lot of people have benefited from it.”

Then Bullman rang around his cheffing friends, asking “lads, will ye take these lads on as a work experience?”. “Any chef I knew, I rang them up.” He also took people on in his own restaurant.

Last year’s team are moving on to the next level with him, despite sometimes living in circumstances the privileged of us would find hard to imagine.

“These people will turn up in the class with a sleeping bag, coming straight in off the street,” says Bullman. He has helped people find accommodation, he says, by contacting landlords he knows and helping them ‘cut some slack’.

Now people are turning to him and saying: “I’ll take someone [to work for me] in June from you.”

He says the attendance record at the classes is “phenomenal”. “They just don’t miss it – they’re waiting for the day.”

He has even helped out when people were overwhelmed by their circumstances and started drinking again or didn’t turn up for the class. Thankfully, that appears to be the exception rather than the rule.

Outside this course I started taking in [homeless] guys as kitchen porters, chefs, barmen, waitresses. Other places said: ‘Jesus, I hear Clancy’s are taking on the homeless’. I went to my boss and said: ‘it’s not going to affect anyone. I’m standing over all these people’.

Some of his former pupils have gone on to work in four-star hotels. “It’s amazing,” he says. Even if they don’t stick with cheffing, some move on to independent living, find a job in another sector or return to education.

“I do it because I love doing it myself,” says Bullman of his work. “I reap the rewards for their success.” There’s no better feeling than walking through town and seeing one of the lads with a shopping bag – it’s better than a sleeping bag”.

“It’s one success story one after the other. Not one person from last year isn’t there from last year. They’re all back, they do their Level 4 plus keep their jobs.”

This year 147 different people completed 289 certified training courses with Cork Simon, and received certificates at the Cork Simon Annual Awards Ceremony in September. With education and training under their belt, they’re moving from life on the streets to an independent life with a job of their own.

Read: Homeless and hungry: “I’m a normal person – I just have problems right now”>

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