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Dublin: 4 °C Sunday 24 March, 2019
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'There's anger on the streets': The volunteers handing out food and fitting dentures at the GPO

O’Connell Street is a hive of activity each Friday evening as groups provide services for those in need.

Kevin Shanahan, a dental technician who fits dentures for the homeless
Kevin Shanahan, a dental technician who fits dentures for the homeless
Image: Hayley Halpin/TheJournal.ie

EARLIER THIS MONTH, new official figures revealed that the number of people sleeping rough in Dublin increased to 156. 

According to the latest Rough Sleeper Count – carried out twice a year by 100 volunteers – the figures were up 110 from the spring count but down 15% on the last winter count of 184. 

Despite there being a drop in the rough sleeper count since last winter, the number of people living in emergency accommodation has continued to rise over the past 12 months and as of November stands at 9,968. 

And with these figures in mind, volunteers working on the frontline in Dublin have said the situation has gotten increasingly worse since last Christmas. 

Kevin Shanahan, a dental technician, assesses people outside the GPO every Friday and makes dentures for them. 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie earlier this month as he fitted a denture on a busy O’Connell Street, Shanahan said that it has “definitely gotten busier” for volunteers over the past year. 

“It’s getting harder because you can sense a little bit more anger on the street, people are a bit more impatient. People are sick of what’s happening, basically,” he said. 

shanahan Kevin Shanahan working on a client outside the GPO on a Friday night Source: Hayley Halpin/TheJournal.ie

On a busy night, Shanahan sees between 20-25 people – and he puts in 15-20 hours of work each week at his lab in Leixlip. 

During a person’s first meeting with Shanahan, they will get an impression done. Depending on how many teeth are needed, he asks them to return between a week or four weeks later for the denture fitting. 

“I have had people crying, they look in the mirror and they can’t believe the difference it makes on their face. It gives people back their confidence,” Shanahan said. 

“The first thing you see in people is their eyes and their smile. If they don’t have a smile you find a lot of people are walking around [with their hand over their face], simply because they’re embarrassed,” he said. 

What I’m doing is giving them the chance to actually walk up to someone, put a smile on their face and feel a little bit more confident in themselves. It makes a massive difference.

TheJournal.ie also spoke to Shanahan in December 2017: 

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

‘They can’t afford to feed their family’

Working alongside other groups of volunteers outside the GPO every Friday night, Shanahan said he has seen a shift in the number of families turning up seeking help. 

“One thing I have noticed is that more and more you’ll have families who come down who have accommodation, but the rent is so high they can’t afford to feed their family,” he said. 

“So, they’re coming down to get a little food parcel, a meal. In this day and age that’s insane.” 

Alongside Shanahan’s workstation, the Muslim Sisters of Éire had an ad-hoc stall set up and were providing supplies and food to those in need. 

Usually, a group from Newry Helping the Homeless, along with a team of volunteer barbers and hairdressers work alongside Shanahan and the Muslim Sisters. However, they weren’t around on this given night. 

Amongst those queuing at the stalls were numerous families, some with young children and buggies. 

48377579_2034078710014089_8065272592690315264_o The Muslim Sisters of Éire volunteering outside the GPO Source: Muslim Sisters of Éire

Speaking to TheJournal.ie chairperson of Muslim Sisters Lorraine O’Connor echoed the words of Shanahan. 

“There’s been a huge shift in families … families are walking the streets, from morning to evening, they’re walking the streets,” O’Connor said. 

“A lot of these people are on social welfare and the cost of eating out every single day is just eating up what they have,” she said. 

So, they’re looking for any kind of surplus food or ambience food or non-perishable food that they can take home and use during the week without having to go out and buy shopping again.

After receiving their goods, some families, along with single men and women stood around chatting as they ate their meal, while others filled their bags with supplies they had been given. 

‘The city is in a crisis’ 

Reflecting on her experience on the frontline of the homeless crisis over the past year, O’Connor took a moment to look back on when she first started volunteering. 

“I’m going to bring you back to 2012, that’s when we started from my house making sandwiches and going out on a Friday night. Back then, you’d have about two flasks and about 50 sandwiches and that was a lot, you’d come back with some,” she said. 

The increase in demand between 2012 and now “is just drastic”, O’Connor said. 

“The city is going into a crisis … it’s not going into a crisis, it’s in a crisis,” she said. 

We don’t celebrate Christmas, but we’re recognising the strain on people and we’re supporting and sending out hampers.

“It’s great that people know us but some think that because you’re a Muslim organisation … some people think they can’t reach out. No, we’re here to help everybody. The religion doesn’t come into this at all,” she said. 

‘Nothing is being tackled’ 

During their conversations with TheJournal.ie, both O’Connor and Shanahan expressed a sense of frustration and anger towards the government and the progress, or lack of, being made with regards to the housing and homeless crisis. 

As noted above, emergency accommodation figures for October show that there are now collectively 9,724 people living in homeless accommodation across Ireland. 

At the time, Minister Eoghan Murphy claimed that the overall increase in people in emergency accommodation on the month previous can be explained by “new beds being provided to help take people from rough sleeping and into our supported services”. 

“While it is, of course, better to see people in emergency accommodation rather than out on the streets, we continue to see an increase in the number of adults seeking help. This underlines the importance of the continued rollout of Housing First, as well as additional supports for single homelessness,” he said. 

It was announced in November that the Dublin Region Homeless Executive will make 333 extra beds available this winter as it aims to meet a rise in demand for its services during cold weather. 

Despite the rollout of extra beds and initiatives such as Housing First, which aims to give homeless people a home first, and to provide care plans and support after, both Shanahan and O’Connor claimed not enough is being done by the government to tackle the crisis. 

“Nothing is being tackled, nothing is being dealt with, you know?” Shanahan said. 

“The government can set up all the task forces they want, they can set up all the committees they want, but basically, all they are is talk shops,” he said. 

O’Connor said that government officials need to come out on the streets and see the “real situation”. 

“I have no faith at all in the government. I think they need to come down here any night. There are other soup runs too and they do amazing work,” she said. 

The government need to come down and see this and look at the real, real situation on the frontline, hands on.

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