Life on the streets of Dublin can be both emotionally and physically trying. Two weeks ago, the Trinity volunteers of Vincent De Paul broke up an impromptu fight between two homeless people in Temple Bar. As they sat with the man who had been attacked, the group could do little to comfort him. His wife had left him that night, he had lost his job, and he had no idea where he was going to go or what he was going to do. In that moment, the words of the co-ordinator from early that night rang in my ears, “Don’t all go up around one person. They’re vulnerable already. It can feel like the world’s come to an end”.
The VDP soup runs aim to help the homeless around Dublin. Every Tuesday and Friday until 10pm, Coman Brady and Philip Bane lead a group of volunteers down to Teach Mhuire centre, where they picked up a box filled with sandwiches, fruit, biscuits — whatever had been donated that week.
“As we traveled through the city, the sounds of construction work, smells of restaurants and the chill in the air all made me wonder what it would be like to be out for the entire night on the streets.”
I was told it was a quiet night and that not as many were out as there normally were. Our route covered a large proportion of the city centre, from Gardiner Street, along the quays, up Westmoreland Street, Temple Bar, ending in Georges Street before we looped around back over Ha’penny bridge, culminating on Henry Street and Talbot Street. As we traveled through the city, the sounds of construction work, smells of restaurants and the chill in the air all made me wonder what it would be like to be out for the entire night on the streets.
Úna, Jack, Eoin and Coman are all the volunteers from Trinity, while couple Tania and Gabriel from Teach Mhuire joined VDP as well. They explain that in the time we’ve talked to one person, they’ve helped 10 on the same route before. “Maybe there’s more beds opened tonight”, Úna ponders. As we find more homeless, I notice many have sandwiches and other “essentials” already. It’s the luxury items that they can’t afford to buy that can really make a face light up. One man insists he doesn’t need anything, and refuses the various offers, shaking his head. No to soup, to fruit, to sandwiches, but he seems to hesitate at the last offer:
“Ah sure. Okay,”
Armed with leftover food donated from Offbeat, it was easy to get a smile and appreciative handshake from most of the people we talked to. It was a good sign that they could be picky. Donuts, fruit and chocolate in particular are always popular items.
“For many on the streets, conversation is more valuable than any of the food provided.”
While some of our group sat down to talk with the man, I spoke to volunteers Jack and Eoin. “Chatting is more worthwhile,” they explained. For many on the streets, conversation is more valuable than any of the food provided. A lot of their work is sitting and just talking to the various people on the streets. Different people have different needs, but for many, a bit of company can be more warming than any soup or coffee. If anyone demonstrated this, it had to be the homeless couple, Tom and Winnie.
“He fell into the Liffey the other day! I had to help him out. All I heard was “Help! Help!””
“Your one here took her time helping too!”
“I had to take some clothes off. I didn’t want to get soaked through like you!”
Huddled in a corner for the night, the pair told us they’ve been together for three years. To prove his devotion, Tom proudly rolled up his sleeve and showed us his tattoo declaring, “I Love Winnie”. Unfazed by the hefty twenty euro it cost him, we saw how committed they were to each other. Both give as good as they get, and any moments of offense are quickly fixed by a genuine love and appreciation for each others company.
As we settled down to tea with them, Winnie asked Gabriel how long he has been with Tania, and how they had been finding Ireland, conversing as if they had met at an outing.
Brazilian couple Tania and Gabriel were helping out for the second time on the night of the run. Here with the intention of pursuing new career paths and a fresh start, we found out they’ve only been in the country for 18 days. Not satisfied with the simple bus tours, the two volunteered for the soup run to see the real Dublin and to help those in need. Already together for over 6 years, Winnie was taken by the doting couple’s commitment, just as we were with Tom to her.
When we were told it was Tom’s birthday tomorrow, the whole group burst into song, and insisted he take some birthday donuts to celebrate the big day. Hiding under his blanket, Winnie chortled at her partner for going red. Having been sufficiently embarrassed, Tom was happy to let Winnie lead the conversation, occasionally chiding in a cheeky remark or teasing some of the volunteers. Not to let him away with it, a “Shut up you, will ya?” was playfully thrown from Winnie, and Tom went back to watching and smiling in the corner. After sitting with the couple for half an hour, before we got ready to move on, Tom agreed to do an interview for the VDP Christmas appeal, and was excited for his imminent fame.
“As Coman bantered with a different pair resting in the doorway further down Henry Street, some of the people were disappointed none of our group had managed to catch the end of the match to give them the results.”
Conversations between the volunteers and the homeless varied hugely. For some, it was an opportunity to get something off their chest. For others, it’s a chance at normal human interaction. As Coman bantered with a different pair resting in the doorway further down Henry Street, some of the people were disappointed none of our group had managed to catch the end of the match to give them the results. We had left Teach Mhuire shortly after Barcelona had scored, but apparently Man City had managed a comeback and flew ahead 3-1. Two of men had been watching the match, but had to leave before it was over due to strict management: “We were watching the match through the railings, but they kicked us out”.
One thing that was most surprising was the amount of requests for socks. Throughout the night, time and again we were asked if we had any with us. Being able to use them for layers, doubling as gloves and the fact that they get dirty so quickly makes them a valuable commodity on the street.
It was heartbreaking to tell them we had none with us this week, and could only hope they’d have some donated by next Tuesday. Telling those in need to wait another week in hope must have felt to the volunteers as hallow as it sounds to those on the street.
While we were in Temple Bar, the volunteers recognised a familiar face. The man from two weeks ago came up to Jack and Úna, and excitedly thanked them for all they had done.
We found out he had secured a job in Marks and Spencer’s, his wife had agreed to meet him for dinner that night, and he was unscathed after last week’s brawl. Life was beginning to look up for him again. “One week is the difference. He was really happy about it.” The pair reflected.
He refused our donuts, and off he went to meet his wife. His thanks echoed all the gratitude we had heard that night from “Fair play to ya’s” to “God Bless”. While I had been warned that the cold weather made many of those they helped bitter, that really hadn’t been my experience. We had seen people fallen on the hardest of times, but had also managed to glimpse the light brought into someone’s day by a gesture as small as a glazed donut.