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Dublin: 7 °C Monday 19 November, 2018
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One night out in Dublin city with five different soup runs

There are at least 16 different groups or organisations that give out food and supplies on the streets of Dublin city on a regular basis.

Photo_2018-06-22_01-11-33_PMDifferent groups of volunteers in Dublin city on Monday evening.Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

IT’S 7.30 ON a cloudy Monday evening and I’m sitting with Dougie Hobson in the meeting room of old Trinity Church building on Lower Gardiner Street.

The towering Protestant Episcopal Church was first opened in 1839 before it became a Labour Exchange for almost a century. These days, it’s used as a meeting place for the various activities of the Trinity Church Christian group.

Dougie’s telling me about the work of the Mustard Seed Soup Run, which goes out around Dublin city every Monday night giving out food and supplies to the homeless population.

Volunteers in red hi-vis jackets take to the streets with pull trolleys laden down with coffee pots, sandwiches, pot noodles, sleeping bags, clothes, wipes and other provisions to hand out.

Everyone involved with the soup run is a volunteer, giving up their time and evenings to help those less fortunate.

“We all love it and we’ve very committed and we all love the guys and girls that we look after,” Dougie tells me.

They’re absolutely lovely. Our clients – we call them our friends actually – our friends, they’re absolutely brilliant.

The Mustard Seed Soup Run (it takes its name from a biblical passage) was set up in 2006, in response to what church members saw as a growing need among homeless people on the streets of Dublin.

It’s one of at least seven soup runs that go out around Dublin city on a Monday night.

IMG_20180618_195603The Trinity building.Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

Soup runs 

After we finish talking, I thank Dougie and tell him that I will catch up with the soup run later.

I leave the towering building to pick up my bike where I left it and start cycling down towards O’Connell Street.

I’m out on a mission. For the last few years I’ve noticed an increasing number of soup runs and food stalls appearing on the streets of Dublin – handing out food and supplies to the ever-growing number of homeless people.

I want to talk to the people behind the groups, ask them why they do it, and settle a niggling question at the back of my mind: are so many soup runs really necessary?

I reach the GPO on O’Connell Street in time to see volunteers setting up tables behind the historic columns.

A crowd of people – men, mostly, but women and mothers with small children too – are forming a queue as volunteers in blue jackets bring pots of steaming food and set them up on the table.

IMG_20180618_201409A queue forms at the GPOSource: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

The sun has come out by now and it’s a bright evening as the group of at least 50 people queue for food. Irish stew, chicken curry, pasta and mince are all on the menu for dinner. One volunteer goes about the crowd with hot water offering tea and coffee.

Next to the table of food, a separate crowd gathers around two volunteers at a table of various items of clothing. People in ragged clothes sort through jeans, t-shirts, jumpers, jacket looking for something that fits.

A small child screams to its mother in its pram. At one point, a woman screams that she was pushed; a man shouts, “Do you want to go off in the ambulance?” to another. But aside from these incidents the mood is relaxed, the atmosphere friendly.

I get talking to Brian Murphy – one of the volunteers. The group is called Hope for Homeless, a fully volunteer-run organisation set up nearly two-and-a half years ago.

“We just set it up in response to the growing number of homeless people,” Brian tells me.

He says that there are different groups set up outside the GPO every single night, and Hope For Homeless are there on Mondays.

“A lot of us were in town on a regular basis and we could see more and more homeless people on the streets and it was quite obvious that there was a big issue,” he says.

We’re not changing the world or anything but it’s just something small to try and help what’s a much bigger problem.

Brian says that the people they feed are “incredibly appreciative of the service that’s being provided for them”.

“A lot of the time people that come on the soup run it’s not just a matter of food, they also want to have a chat with somebody. They don’t get an opportunity to speak to people all day long so it’s an opportunity to speak to someone and listen to someone,” he says.

I think that is hugely important. I think they’ve been ignored so much in general society it’s great to have someone that can come and even just for a couple of minutes have a chat with them.

Similar to when I went out on a soup run last year, I’m reminded once again of the words of Tony Gill – a homeless poet who lived in Dublin until his death in 2004.

In his poem Today, Tony speaks briefly about the loneliness and isolation of living on the streets:

Today I spoke to no one,
And nobody spoke to me.
Am I dead?

But does it help?

I say my goodbyes to Brian and head across the river towards Dame Street, where I know another group is setting up a food stall.

By my count, there are at least 16 different groups or organisations that give out food and supplies on the streets of Dublin city on a regular basis.

Some do it seven nights a week, others on set days. Some set up stalls, others walk around the city. Some are religiously motivated, but the majority are just grassroots community groups set up to respond to what they see as a need on the streets.

I don’t meet Dublin Simon volunteers tonight, but I know they’re out. So including them and the groups I meet, I count at least seven separate groups handing out food in Dublin on Monday evening.

Back in January, I interviewed Dr Beth Watts – a senior research fellow at Heriot Watt University and expert on homeless policy studies.

Dr Watts argues that the response of people to feed and clothe the homeless may not always be the best response when they see a need.

“If you’re interested in making the most difference, you might say there’s an obligation not just to volunteer, not just to do anything but to do the thing that helps the most,” Watts told TheJournal.ie.

She argues for something called “effective altruism” – meaning people should look towards not just giving to a good cause or wanting to help, but instead work towards an actual solution to the problem.

“The general sense you get that the only things that are required here are good intentions and maybe some innovative ideas – that this is all unquestionably good, unquestionably morally praiseworthy and unquestionably helps people who are homeless,” she said at the time.

I just think that is not sufficient.

Growing 

At the Central Bank I’m greeted by a similar sight to the GPO – a stall set up with lots of food and clothes, and volunteers doling them out to a large group of gathered people.

Again the food is being handed out and eaten, there is a pile of clothes for people to sort through, and again people seem appreciative.

IMG_20180618_210135People gathering at the Central BankSource: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

Keira Gill is moving among the volunteers and the homeless people eating the food – talking with ease to everyone and listening to the stories she’s being told.

She’s the founder of A Lending Hand, which hands out food every Monday night.

Keira set up the group with other volunteers five years ago in 2013 for the same reason everyone decides to volunteer – as a response to seeing a need on the streets.

As time passed, they saw the demand for their service grow.

“There was only about 70 people then [when we first started],” Keira tells me.

“The longer we stayed the more the demand grows. We have seen it grow from like 70 a night to like 250 a night,” she says.

Keira and A Lending Hand liaise with the other soup runs and stalls in Dublin, so that they can coordinate efforts and their approach.

I ask her the same questions – why she started, does it take its toll, are all these soup runs needed?

“It’s very much needed. It is. I know people probably look and say, ‘there’s loads of them out there doing it’, but their wouldn’t be loads of us if it wasn’t needed,” she says.

But Keira has been doing this for a long time, and she has a viewpoint that many people who hand out food and clothes to homeless people have – which is the desire to do more.

A student of sociology and social policy at Trinity College Dublin, Keira sees a need to effect real, lasting change from a community level.

“We’re trying to build a grassroots movement so that we will have more of an impact than just a soup run,” she says.

Not that being just a soup run isn’t amazing – but I definitely want to do more.

I’m reminded of Inner City Helping Homeless who I went out with last year and who will be back on the streets later tonight. Initially set up as a soup run, the charity has now grown to do a lot of advocacy work on behalf of homeless adults and families.

People start by handing out food, but before long many will see how they can help people out of homelessness rather than help them in homelessness – effective altruism.

Direct action 

I say bye to Keira and the volunteers and head back towards my bike. On the way, I bump into another soup run – this one made up of a group of Polish Christians giving out tea, coffee, soup and spreading their belief.

I don’t spend too long chatting to them, and head off on my bike towards Grafton Street, on the off-chance I might bump into another group.

IMG_20180618_205637 Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

It’s not long before I come across yet another soup run on Suffolk Street. This time, the group is called Feed Our Homeless, and is run by an energetic man named Tony Walsh.

Tony used to be homeless himself, and set up the group about 18 months ago to help others in the same situation he used to be in.

While the origin stories are different for Dougie, Keira, Brian  and Tony and all the other hundreds of volunteers, the motivation is the same – a desire to help those less fortunate.

After I take my leave of Tony, I come across a homeless man, Glen, sitting in a shop doorway on Grafton Street.

Glen’s been homeless for more than three years. He says that the homeless hostels are dangerous and full of drug users, so he sleeps on the streets instead.

For Glen, the soup runs provide an important lifeline for him, and a connection to the wider world.

“Otherwise you… wouldn’t basically have anything only for them they’re a very good service they are,” he says.

It would be very difficult without them.

Glen says that “it’s a hard life” on the streets and the supplies and food given by the soup runs make it that bit easier.

“Otherwise you wouldn’t have the food and you wouldn’t have the sleeping bags and basically you’d be lying there in cardboard covering yourself,” he says.

Closing time 

Back on my bike, a cycle over the river again back to the north side where I come across the Mustard Seed Soup Run on O’Connell Street at the GPO.

It’s about 10 o’clock and getting dark. Hope for Homeless have left by now, with no sign that just over an hour ago the GPO had been full of people eating freshly cooked meals.

Dougie isn’t with the soup run, but the group of six they let me fall in with them as they do their rounds.

It’s the same story – the group hands out Pot Noodles, tea, coffee, sandwiches. As they walk down Henry Street, the stop to talk to people along the way.

A man tells them about just getting out of hospital, another man on a bike talks about the distance he has to cycle.

IMG_20180618_220059

People are appreciative and grateful. Later, Inner City helping Homeless volunteers will walk the same paths handing out tea and coffee and food to those who want it.

Tomorrow, entirely different groups of volunteers will set up stalls at the GPO and Central Bank, while others will walk the streets.

I leave the volunteers to head home and am reminded of something Keira said to me at Central Bank:

“We’re ordinary citizens. We don’t do anything that spectacular that others couldn’t do, do you know?

“And I think that if everyone was just a bit kinder we’d have a much nicer world to live in. The reason we’re here is just to bring a little bit of humanity back.”

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About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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