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'Unofficial money lenders' targeting people in queues at soup runs

A number of people who work or volunteer in the homelessness sector have raised concerns about the “worrying trend”.

Image: Shutterstock/Elizaveta Elesina

PEOPLE WORKING IN the homelessness services sector have raised concerns about so-called “unofficial money lenders” targeting people as they queue in soup runs.

A number of people who work or volunteer in the sector say the practice has emerged in recent months.

Louisa Santoro, CEO of the Mendicity Institution which supports homeless people in Dublin, told The Journal that several service users have raised the “worrying trend” with Mendicity in the last two to three months.

She noted that, due to the nature of soup runs and outdoor food services for people in need, anyone can observe and approach individuals in the queue.

“Money lenders are targeting some services, they hang around soup runs at nighttime where they have a captive audience. They approach people and offer to loan them €50, but the person will owe them €70 the next week – that’s 40% interest,” she said.

While this may seem like a relatively small amount of money to many people, Santoro said it can be a lot to a homeless person or someone who is struggling to buy food. And the amount of money owed doubles in a couple of weeks.

“If you have no money, literally no coins in your pocket, €50 is a lot of money. A number of people using our service have borrowed money they can’t pay back.

“They’re then fearful of returning [to the soup run] or don’t feel free to move around town. Some people have asked if they can borrow money from us to pay back the lenders.”

Santoro noted that Mendicity will always advise people to not borrow from money lenders due to the high level of interest and debt cycle it creates. However, she acknowledged that some people see no other option.

“No matter how badly off you may be, borrowing money from one of these lenders is not the answer. That’s not an economy you want to get involved in.

“I know that’s easy for me to say sitting in my office. Some people have to make ugly choices – if you’re queuing at a table on a windy night to get a hot meal, you’re not in a position where you have lots of great choices and opportunities.”

Glenda Harrington, who runs the Friends Helping Friends soup run that operates in Dublin city three nights a week, has also noticed the trend in recent months.

“It’s relatively new but common enough. I’ve noticed it in the last two to three months. Some people drive by the queue and then hang around the soup run.

“Lads approach people saying they’ll lend them money if they need it. Some people do take the money.”

Harrington also advises service users to not borrow money from loan sharks but noted: “People are really struggling so it’s absolutely tempting.

“Then they are worried about what will happen if they don’t have the money to repay the next week. Once you get stuck on that merry-go-round, it’s very hard to get off.”

Harrington told The Journal she has previously asked people to not approach those in the queue but, due to its public setting, this can’t really be controlled.

In an attempt to stop people from borrowing cash in this way, she and other volunteers have organised parcels of essential items like nappies and sanitary products to be delivered to those in need.

Food poverty

Santoro told The Journal that people in the homelessness sector want to stop this money-lending trend from becoming more widespread. She said that while soup runs provide those in need with an essential service, a wide range of people join the various queues every night.

“If you have 200 people in a queue for food it’s not possible to give them all the one-to-one advice they may need. The person with the least level of need could be in the same queue as the person with the most level of need.

“They’re all under one umbrella, there is no distinction and that’s not an ideal way to serve people. Different people need different responses based on their needs. Nothing is ‘one size fits all’.”

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Santoro noted that while soup runs address the immediate food needs of people, a wider conversation is needed about “addressing food poverty itself”.

She said the renewed focus on homelessness services in Dublin in the wake of the Inner City Helping Homeless (ICHH) controversy should be used as an opportunity to improve service provision.

“We all need to make sure we’re operating to the highest possible standard,” she added.

Between 150 to 200 people engage with Mendicity every week. As well as food and day services, the charity helps people who are struggling to find accommodation or work.

Dublin’s homelessness authority last month said it plans to seek greater regulation of organisations providing services for homeless people in the capital as soon as possible in the wake of the ICHH controversy.

Dublin City Council’s deputy chief executive Brendan Kenny, who has responsibility for the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive (DRHE) in his role, previously told The Journal he doesn’t want “over-regulation” to lead to certain groups disbanding but added: “At the moment there’s nothing and that’s not good enough.”

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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