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'I owe this place my life': Inside Dublin's only charity offering free hot Sunday dinners to the homeless

TheJournal.ie spent a morning last week at Merchant’s Quay Ireland’s Sunday service.

shutterstock_1262127748 File photo Source: Shutterstock/Srdjan Randjelovic

“IF IT WASN’T for the staff here I probably would be dead.” 

James* became homeless in July 2017 at the age of 39 following the breakdown of a relationship.

“It was her house, she was the main tenant from the council. She told me I had to move out,” he told TheJournal.ie. 

From there, James moved into a hostel in Dundalk for a month, but he soon found himself on the streets of Dublin. 

He began availing of the services at Merchants Quay Ireland (MQI). However, last year, he fell into a period of heavy drinking. 

He said: 

I was drinking very heavily. When I say drinking very heavily, I was drinking literally 24/7. I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t sleeping, just drinking.

One night during his weeks of heavy drinking, James attempted to take his own life. However, a garda found him and he was taken to the Mater Hospital.

The following day, James returned to MQI and linked in with its mental health team.

James now attends MQI on a daily basis to avail of its services. He regularly makes use of the charity’s night beds. 

“I owe them my life because if [MQI] wasn’t here I probably wouldn’t be here,” he said. 

James spoke to TheJournal.ie this week as the homeless emergency accommodation figures for February were released, which show that there are now a combined total of 10,264 people homeless and living in emergency accommodation in Ireland, a significant rise of 277 people from January.

Merchants Quay Ireland

Merchants Quay Ireland (MQI) is an outreach and support service for homeless people and drug users in Ireland. Its day centre is located on the quays in the south inner city.

MQI provides homeless outreach and drug rehabilitation services at every level of addiction. Its day centre provides food, medical and counselling support for at-risk and homeless people.

In recent years, MQI extended its day service into the evening, offering evening meals, crisis support, information and assistance to homeless people and rough sleepers between 5.30pm and 8.30pm. 

MQI’s Night Café also provides yoga mats for up to 65 people to sleep on each night who have not been able to source a place to stay. In 2017, MQI’s Night Café provided emergency shelter for 1,913 individuals. 

IMG_5747 (1) The MQI day centre Source: Hayley Halpin via TheJournal.ie

TheJournal.ie has previously visited Merchants Quay’s Night Café and Merchants Quay’s day service to chat to staff and service users about how the services are ran.

MQI also runs a dinner service on Sundays. This is the only place in Dublin for people who are homeless to get a free hot meal on a Sunday.

The Sunday service, which costs over €200,000 a year to run, also provides an opportunity for MQI staff to engage with individuals and support them with crisis help and referrals. 

In recent weeks, the charity has claimed that the Sunday service receives insufficient State funding and that the demand for the service keeps growing. 

“Because it’s such a vital service, because there isn’t a service like this in the whole of the city, as an organisation we feel like we have to safeguard it,” MQI head of fundraising and communications Carol Casey told TheJournal.ie. 

“It’s hugely important and without voluntary funding it wouldn’t exist, it’s as simple as that.” 

Sunday morning visit 

With that, TheJournal.ie spent some time at MQI’s Sunday service last week. 

By 10.45am, there was already a large group of clients waiting to attend the service, which opens every Sunday at 11am. 

The front door of the building used to be where service users came into the building to attend the day centre, but last year that was moved around to the side of the building, to alleviate long queues from the quays. 

As we entered through the front door, staff members were seen working away at the main reception. 

From there and along a corridor, we entered the common area. This is where the drop-in day centre is held during the week. It’s also where the Sunday dinner service is run. 

IMG_8706 Staff and volunteers serving a Sunday roast dinner to people queuing up Source: Hayley Halpin via TheJournal.ie

At this stage, it was just minutes after 11am and all the circular tables in the room were already full with clients sitting, chatting and eating their meals.

Other service users were lined up at the food counter, where two staff members served them hot roast dinners. 

The mid-week day service at MQI offers a variety of facilities and services for people. 

Showers, a doctor, hot meals, a dentist, a nurse, a needle exchange, various therapy and counselling classes are all on offer. 

A stripped down version of these services are available on Sundays – hot meals, showers, the availability of fresh clothes and, if needed in crisis situations, one-to-one consultations with case workers. 

Andrew Rooney, MQI’s communication officer, and Casey walked us through the Sunday service. 

“What strikes me about the Sunday service is that it’s so busy. You’ve got a big queue there of people [outside] but there’s crowd control going on. There’s only 50 allowed in at a time,” Casey said. 

An MQI case worker, Shane Hogan, added that service users are generally allowed to stay for around 30 minutes, due to how busy the service is. 

Hogan told TheJournal.ie that the clientele attending the Sunday service ranges from people aged 18 up to people in their 70s, sometimes. 

The charity has recently raised concerns that staff are now seeing people who have accommodation but cannot afford to cook in their own homes. 

“Homeless clients who wouldn’t be able to access their hostels during the day would be coming in for their dinner,” Hogan said. 

“Then you’d have the older clients who might have their own homes but mightn’t have the greatest cooking facilities or the accommodation they’re in mightn’t have cooking facilities,” he said. 

Casey and Hogan gave examples of clients have their own accommodation but can’t afford to buy food. 

Casey said: 

One of the clients was talking to the fundraising team a couple of weeks ago and she just said I can’t afford electricity. She had a flask with her and she was taking hot water home.

Hogan added that he often sees clients filling up bottles of milk to take home with them. 

Social aspect

As mentioned above, MQI is the only place that people can avail of a free hot meal on Sundays in Dublin. However, during our visit, it became evident that this isn’t the only reason droves of people head to the service. 

For many, Sunday can be a particularly long and lonely day. 

“The social aspect can be undervalued. People are lonely, it’s a very isolating situation to be homeless in the city and for rough sleepers particularly, they can go an entire day and nobody will say hello to them,” Casey said. 

“Then, they come in here and they’re welcomed by staff because we make it our business to know people’s names and to reach out to them and make them feel at home,” she said. 

There’s something nice about sitting at a table with a couple of people, with a knife and fork and plate. It’s just basic dignity. It’s not the same as being handed a bowl of soup and a sandwich. 

James, the service user mentioned earlier, told TheJournal.ie that the Sunday service “means a lot” to him. 

“A lot of people are carrying bags seven days of the week. There’s not a lot of places open on a Sunday, so it’s good to be able to get that weight off your shoulders, literally,” he said. 

“Sunday is one of the longest days when you’re in a homeless situation.

It’s good to be able to come in and sit down, chat with other people and get a hot meal. Just being able to mix with other people and the staff here, they’re fantastic.

MQI’s Sunday service is run by a team of both staff members and volunteers.

Will Kavanagh began volunteering every other Sunday at MQI’s kitchen two years ago. 

“I wanted to do something. It was at the time [homelessness] was in the papers, it was so obvious. Do you just make your monthly donation of x amount and that’s it or do you try do something different? I said no, I’d try volunteer,” Kavanagh told TheJournal.ie, as we sat in an office room on the ground floor. 

Commenting on what sort of an atmosphere is in the service on Sundays, he added: “People know each other, there’s nearly a community feel to it. Loads of people here know each other and they group together.” 

As noted above, MQI has recently claimed that the Sunday service receives insufficient State funding and that the demand for the service keeps growing. 

Since he began volunteering at MQI, Kavanagh said he hasn’t seen the numbers attending the Sunday service diminish. 

“I certainly haven’t seen it diminish. I haven’t seen an improvement. It’s awful really, isn’t it? But I’m doing my bit, everybody else has to do their bit,” he said. 

During his chat with TheJournal.ie, Hogan reflected on what would happen to service users if the charity couldn’t sustain funding for the Sunday service. 

“They’d have nowhere else to go. If you’ve got no money or if you’re in your own accommodation and the funds are kind of tight, you might not have the money to pay for the food, so where are you going to eat, where are you going to go?” he said.

homeless 777_90530856 Tents belonging to homeless people lined up on the banks of the royal canal in Dublin Source: Sam Boal via RollingNews.ie

As noted above, homeless emergency accommodation figures for February show that there are now a combined total of 10,264 people homeless and living in emergency accommodation in Ireland, a significant rise of 277 people from January.

The numbers taken over the course of one week in February show that there were 6,480 adults and 3,784 homeless children living in emergency accommodation in the State. 

This is an increase of 117 adults and 160 children living in emergency accommodation. 

The number of homeless families living in emergency accommodation rose by 93 last month. 

The overall increase brings the combined total to 10,264, breaking the symbolic figure of 10,000 people. 

With thousands of people homeless in Ireland, many of those are located outside of Dublin. As well as its Dublin centre, the charity has long-term rehabilitation and detox centres in Carlow and provides numerous other services.

MQI launched its 2017 annual report last September (this is the latest annual report available). It outlined that in 2017, MQI helped 10,417 people with needs spanning homelessness, addiction and mental health. 

The charity again saw a huge increase in the number of healthcare interventions it provided in 2017, with the total almost doubling in two years. 

It provided 8,224 healthcare interventions last year, up 8% compared with 2016. Meanwhile, 419 people were supported by its mental health team, a 33% increase on 2016. 

James represents just one of those 10,417 helped in 2017. 

He avails of MQI’s services seven days a week. When asked what he would do on a Sunday if MQI wasn’t open for its dinner service, he took a long pause. 

“…To be honest, I don’t know. I could never imagine it not being open on Sundays, you know?”

Since teaming up with MQI’s mental health team a year ago, James has made significant progress. 

“I’m doing good,” he told TheJournal.ie. 

I owe this place a lot, a hell of a lot, my life, actually. In my eyes, I owe them my life.

“Like I said, I owe [MQI] my life because if they weren’t here, I probably wouldn’t be here.”

If you need to talk, please contact:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s) 

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of Merchant’s Quay Ireland service-users. For more information on Merchants Quay Ireland, visit www.mqi.ie. Donations to the charity can be made here.

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