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Dublin: 8 °C Monday 9 December, 2019
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Homeless and hungry: "I'm a normal person - I just have problems right now"

Cork Simon has a soup run that doesn’t just feed the homeless. In fact, you’d be surprised who visits it.

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If we don’t have a place like this? I don’t know. I don’t want to tell you what I can’t do. I keep this for me, I know what I can do.  Anyway – I not going to sit with cup and ask about change. Never ever. No. I am not like that. Maybe somebody think it’s better, but not for me.

THE WORDS ‘SOUP run’ might conjur up images of a roving meals-on-wheels service, a moveable feast for those most in need.

But at Cork Simon, the soup run is a fixed part of its services, located in its city centre-based day care centre, and it is its visitors who are the changeable element.

Every evening, from 8 – 9pm, five to six volunteers take up their posts feeding the homeless and needy at the soup run.

A radio plays as the visitors stream in, directed by a Cork Simon volunteer. They queue at the counter, and there’s a feeling of urgency about the proceedings.

For many of these people – about 90% that night are male – it could be their first full meal of the day.

fv8428 Source: ©Fran Veale

The night TheJournal.ie visits, chicken curry and mashed potatoes are on the menu. Lining the counter on the approach to where the hot meal (which is made daily in Cork Simon) is handed out are pre-made sandwiches and rolls, fruit, and loaves of donated bread.

Nearby is a fridge with cheese slices and meat. Each person takes a meal, and many of them load up on the other items of food, which they can take away with them.

Some are clearly protective of their dinner, while others try to make sure people aren’t taking more than their share.

They settle down on red leather seats, lean over the small wooden tables and, on plastic plates and with plastic cutlery, they eat their evening meal, mostly in silence.

Some are in little groups, but don’t speak much to each other. One young woman and her male partner hold hands.

Another young man in a red top and tracksuit bottoms moves slowly, slurring his words, his eyes half closed. He looks under the influence. He’s looking for medication. The staff deal with him calmly.

A man who at first glance looks like a tourist, with his puffa jacket, jeans and bumbag, inquires about getting a space in the emergency hostel.

Appearances can be deceiving. Assumptions are pointless.

This is what homelessness is; this is what needing a soup run is. It’s about each individual person’s circumstances. It’s not always men who sleep out on the streets. It’s not always people of a certain age or certain background.

The soup run, in a way, is a leveller for those in need – and it’s a service that has been needed for many years in this city, though the profile of its users has changed.

Cork Simon set up its first soup run in 1971, and it has been run by volunteers ever since.

There is a team of about 40 part-time volunteers, who work a different night each week. Twenty one full-time volunteers work across Cork Simon’s services, who come from all over the world, and Ireland, to work for 12 months for pocket money and housing.

The volunteers

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“They’ll come in and queue there and we’ll lash out the dinners,” says a cheery longtime volunteer called Brid LaPierre as she busies herself getting the kitchen ready at the start of the night.

They don’t tend to do take-away because there is such a demand (they nearly ran out of food the previous week), but if some people are not in a fit state to get into the soup run, they are usually given food to take with them.

“You get to know a lot of them coming in. Then they disappear for a while,” says Brid. “Then they might be here and and you say ‘he’s here, God I haven’t seen him in ages’. They come and go, they come and go.”

Some years ago, the soup run was located near Kent Station. “When I look back on it, it was very dangerous around there,” recalls Brid. “It was pitch dark. But there weren’t as many drugs around then though, as there are now.”

These days, she sees a lot of young people coming in. Of the men and women who visit, she says that a lot of them are lonely.

They’d come in and it would really be for the company, for the talk. Some of them come in for the chat.

People’s stories

One man, who has MUFC tattooed across the knuckles of his left hand, tells his story as he eats.

“If I had money I wouldn’t be coming here,” he says, his face friendly but showing signs of a tough life. “I’m homeless at the moment.”

He’s been sleeping out on the streets for the last three weeks, telling us he was told to leave another homeless hostel for not paying the rent.

“I had it but I threw it away, I gave it to Mr Paddy Power [meaning he spent it on gambling]. I’ve an addiction.”

He shrugs, and smiles sadly. “It’s a tough old station.”

He’d like to get a bed that night in Simon’s emergency accommodation. He likes it there, and finds the staff helpful. He can arrive in the morning and have a shower and eat some breakfast, or pick up blankets or a sleeping bag if he needs them.

He says it’s hard out on the street to find a warm and dry place to sleep.

Buddhism and depression

©fv8842 Source: ©Fran Veale

The man sitting next to him, who’s heavyset and eating quite quickly, is in different circumstances. He has depression, and needs the service because he can’t feed himself.

“I don’t want to think about it.”

He’s from Dublin, and a Buddhist. He also accessed services in Dublin, but found the religious element didn’t suit him. “There’s more competition,” is how he puts it.

He came down to Cork six years ago, and likes living in Cork. He’s also visited Cork Penny Dinners for food. “The people are very nice”.

From Poland to Ireland
“Cork is very nice”
“It’s nice when you have money”

“My English is not good,” says one soup run visitor as we sit down opposite him. He’s originally from Poland, and tells us the disintegration of his marriage and an injury led him to visit Cork Simon.

When he lived with his family in Germany, as he tells us he did, he didn’t seek out soup run services.

But here he is. He visits “not every evening… sometimes. Like, once a week.”

He first moved here six years ago, with his wife, but they have separated since.

He shrugs dejectedly.

That’s it. That’s the story. Short story.

It’s not quite the short story he makes it out to be. It’s a heartbreaking story. As he tells it, he had a local authority flat, where he lived with his wife and daughter. She asked him to move out, which seems to have been connected with his drinking.

Last Christmas, he fell and injured himself. He taps his right leg: “I have operation on my leg, I have metal inside.”

This has affected his ability to work as a tiler, though he is looking for employment.

He pauses. “Very good tiler – very good money before. And now…”

He’s trying to remain positive, but it’s clear things are very tough for him.

“Everyday I think it must be much better. Maybe next day. Maybe next day.”

“The problem with my wife and I – my heart is broken. But this is my fault.”

He says he has given up drinking, though his wife doesn’t know this. “Maybe we will get together or something,” he says hopefully, his eyes beginning to well up. “It’s alright.”

When I’m working, I’m not drinking. Two cans, max three because I think I have to go next day to the work. I have to show my wife I am a different man.

fv8401 Source: ©Fran Veale

He lived on the street for one week, and describes it as “very difficult”. Now, he has a flat, though it’s not as nice as his previous one. “I fighting now with my addiction,” he says.

Across from him sits a friend, who’s also Polish. Beneath his left eye is a large, dark purple bruise.

He has lived in Ireland since 2004, but went “somewhere else” in 2011 and returned to Cork in March of this year.

“I would like to stay now longer,” he sighs. “Maybe I don’t know how long. I was a long time before anyway.”

As he rolls a cigarette, he talks about part time job.

Just cleaning – not job what I was dreaming, but anyway. Something. And it’s not hard, very easy. Very easy. It was van driver before, not here, in Dublin, I was living in Dublin.

Right now I work in part time job; it is not enough hours to pay for everything. That is why I am broke.

He gestures to his friends. “People like me come in here. If I have the money I can make the shopping. Right now I am broke.”

He spent time in Dublin, but says Cork is more dangerous than the capital.

“Smaller. Everybody know each other. Dublin is bigger. There are places to hide somewhere. Here, I go just outside, it is not possible I don’t see somebody. Every time I go outside I meet somebody. But anyway, Cork is very nice.”

His friend interjects: “It is very nice when you have money.”

CMK17072013 Cork Simon Morning Count 012 Cork Simon staff look for people in need of food.

“I want to find job here, but permanent and full time,” continues the man with the bruised face. He’s getting more agitated, but looks hurt.

Then I don’t have to come here. It’s not pleasure for me to meet a lot of people. It’s not pleasure if they treat me like alcoholic, like a junkie. I’m normal person, just I have problems right now. It’s not pleasure. It’s necessary for me I come here, because I need to survive. I need to eat, otherwise I need to steal. I’m not going to beg. You know what I mean, what I prefer to do.

He tells us he believes he will find something better. His situation is a common one.

“It’s hard to find job without accommodation. First thing is accommodation. Without accommodation, no sense to look for work.”

If I have to speak to employers, I have to be clean, I have to be shaved, when homeless not possible to be shaved.

The two men leave to go smoke their cigarettes. It’s nearing 9pm, and the soup run is getting ready to close up.

The plastic plates are being collected, the food is all eaten, the visitors are leaving in ones and twos, sandwiches in backpacks and loaves of bread tucked under arms. Some are going back to the street, others to a house. Some might not know where they’ll be spending the night.

Not everyone wanted to be there, but it was the place they needed to be that night.

Pic: Andrew Bennett via Flickr/Creative Commons

Read all of our Homeless Ireland coverage here>

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