A night in the life of a Dublin soup kitchen worker who says homeless crisis ‘like social cleansing’
‘Nowadays we feed people in their work gear, people with jobs hugging and kissing you because you gave them lunch for the week’
On a Monday night in later October at 7.30pm, as Keira Gill and her team of volunteers are setting up their makeshift canteen outside the Bank of Ireland building on College Green, a queue of around 50 people is already beginning to form around the pop-up trestle table.
It is 8C, and the early visitors are mothers and their children.
Most are wearing their school uniform under zipped up and tightly pulled winter coats. When the food is beginning to be brought to the table from waiting nearby cars, some pushing starts between small girls and boys, the youngest of whom is around five.
One mother gets involved, telling them to wait, to stop playing with the pile of napkins, and nervously looks around to see who is watching her chastise the children.
“They get ratty because they’re so hungry, they don’t want to wait,” Keira says.
She started the “soup-run”, now known as A Lending Hand, in 2013, after she was turned down for a mortgage.
“I had worked and saved for so long, and when I was turned down, I basically had a breakdown, after that I just felt there has to be more to life than this, more to life than material things, I wanted to help people.”
She started off with one friend and one flask of stew. Nowadays she can feed up to 400 people a night, depending on the weather.
“I know myself, when I’m hungry, I can’t concentrate – you see kids having tantrums because they just want fed,” Keira says, as she sets up a heated tray and lights the fuel dish underneath.
“I would like to say ‘feed the kids first’, but you can’t do that because everyone’s hungry.”
Later she tells me that the children at the front of the queue being told off by their mother are a family of six who live in homeless accommodation. They were previously living in a car after their landlord increased their rent, and they could not afford it.
Keira’s group linked the family with Inner City Helping Homeless, a charity, who eventually found them emergency accommodation.
There are around 14 volunteers per night, men and women. One man, Alan from Ballymun, who is retired and in his late fifties, has designated himself the bouncer. He collects hot water from the Spar on Dame Street for tea and coffee, collects the rubbish, and hangs around if any of the minor rows or pushing get too animated.
The food is placed along the long table in a row, hot food first; pasta bakes, stew, chicken curry, rice, potatoes, meatballs and spaghetti, with Styrofoam bowls, plastic forks and napkins also available.
Keira says: “We can’t count the people as there’s too many, so we work out how many people we’ve fed by counting the bowls we use. Most people have two bowls each.”
When I tell her I’m struck by the amount of families, she sighs: “The children, that would be a newer thing for most people. Not to us – we’ve been dealing with more and more kids the last three years.
“We help them with school stuff, books and uniforms, it’s nice seeing them getting housed.
“People are really embarrassed, there’s a lot more pride than acceptance.
“Nowadays, there are so many levels of homelessness. Years ago we would’ve dealt with more rough sleepers – ‘down-and-outs’, my da would’ve called them. Nowadays we feed people in their work gear.
“People with jobs, hugging and kissing you because you gave them lunch for the week.
“There’s no dignity queuing for food, but it shows the level of deprivation if you’re forced to publicly wait for your dinner in the street.”
While I’m there, there are many, mostly men, in work clothes, branded polo shirts and reflective trousers, but there are women too, in clean clothes and shoes, avoiding eye contact as they come and go quickly into the night carrying steaming bowls in freezing air.
“We find a lot more men than women – men take their chances on the street,” Keira adds.
“Women can’t as easily sleep in a doorway, but we’ve seen an increase in a lot of women coming here for food, some of the girls that come to us dress well, speak well, it’s their living circumstances that bring them to us.
“The hostels, they’re vile, they don’t offer what they’re supposed to offer. If you have any kind of addiction problem and you’re put into an emergency hostel – you’ll end up back on it.
“That’s why we have more men using our service, they’re just so beaten down and fed up with a system that hasn’t worked for them.”
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Further along the table, dotted with volunteers on one side, there’s mini bottles of water and Capri-Suns, donated from a corner shop along with boxes of mini muffins, and a tray of apple crumble. A doughnut shop along Westmoreland Street has also donated, so there is an array of different pastries on offer, as well as tea and coffee from Alan at the end.
One woman who has been volunteering for more than a year is handing out pasta. She tells me her cooker at home broke that day.
“Don’t think there’s much life left in it, not the way we cook, anyway,” she says.
When I ask about the emotional toll of volunteering, she says: “It sounds strange but I see this like work, you don’t even think about it after a while, but I did have a breakdown about three weeks ago.
“This young girl came with her baby, a tiny baby, and I just burst into tears.”
Next to the table at the far side are men in charge of giving out clothes, gloves, socks, hats, blankets and rucksacks – all donated from strangers who found Keira and her group on Facebook.
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A small girl, aged around seven, with dark circles under her eyes, pulls on a pink woolly hat, and someone tells her she looks gorgeous.
The group are not a registered charity, so do not handle money, while all the food is cooked from donations made to a butcher’s in Northside Shopping Centre, near where Keira and most of the volunteers are based in Coolock.
People find the group on Facebook and offer to cook or donate ingredients. One a woman who works in a bakery in Navan appears with a huge bag of artisan breads left over from that day.
Loaves are handed out when someone asks: “Do you have any butter for the bread?” A volunteer replies: “I’m not a Mace!”
There’s laughter, and a lot of chat. Keira is pulled away several times to speak to people who know her by name. Sometimes they’re in tears or distress.
“To be honest, it feels like social cleansing,” Keira says after an emotional conversation with a teenage girl, who has left state care after turning 18 and has nowhere to go.
“When I went back to college, to Trinity, my dole was cut three or four times.
“I genuinely felt it was personal because I was from a working class area, and even when you’re trying to better yourself, they’re kicking you down and you’ll give up.
“The kids are going backwards, they don’t have the skills they need for life because they’re so secluded in a hotel room, socially they’re going backwards. Imagine what the next generation is going to be like – they’re messing up an entire generation because it’s easier than building houses.”