Vincent de Paul reports surge in calls from 'a forgotten layer of society'
St Vincent de Paul volunteers are at the coalface in the fight against poverty
Today, the Society of St Vincent de Paul release its figures for the number of people who contacted its offices for help in 2012. For the first time the number of calls have exceeded 100,000; an increase of 104 per cent from 2009.
Once the calls come into any of the 13 offices around the country, volunteers will go out to offer help. Help takes the form of food vouchers, contributions to utility bills, school books, glasses for children, clothes, fuel, and sometimes simply a listening ear to those who feel unable to cope.
There are 10,500 Vincent de Paul volunteers around the State. Jimmy Scurry is one of them. For the last three years, he has gone out most Tuesdays with a partner volunteer to visit homes in Finglas, Dublin between 7 and 10pm.
We’re walking round the parts of Finglas he visits weekly; the Cappagh, Dunsink, and Wellmount areas. “There’s a forgotten layer of society out there I didn’t know even existed until I joined the society,” Scurry says.
Some houses he indicates look neglected, with yards full of abandoned household items. Others are beautifully maintained, with carefully tended gardens. But if you were equating need with appearance, you would be wrong, because all of the houses he points out contain families in need that are visited by Vincent de Paul.
“It’s like a business in that there are cycles,” Scurry observes. “You know when certain things will happen. At the moment, it’s utility bills and requests for fuel. Then there will be confirmations, communions, back to school, Christmas. They are the key times of need during the year.”
As we walk around the area, he talks about some of the families he has visited. Before Christmas, there was the couple, aged 85 and 82 respectively, who were making their first call to the society.
“They were terrified of the cold weather, and had no money to pay for oil.” Told they were too old to qualify for a credit union loan, they were referred to the Society by the fuel company. They were very upset they had to contact us. They had been donors in the past, as had their own parents.”
Some time ago, he got an emergency call to visit a middle-class family in a smart area of Dublin where the husband was no longer working. “They had four children, and there was literally nothing to eat in the house. Their priority had been to keep mortgage repayments up through savings. They didn’t want anyone to know, until they reached breaking point and called us.”
Scurry sees the fact that this family finally contacted the Society as positive. They helped them initially with food vouchers, referred them to Mabs (Money Advice and Budgeting Service), and continue to help on an ongoing basis.
“It’s the people out there in need who haven’t come forward that I worry about,” he says. “And we know they’re out there, in their hundreds and thousands.”
They receive calls from families trying to cope with suicide, or suicide attempts. There was, for instance, the call from the wife whose taxi-driver husband had lost his job and had attempted suicide when the household finances got on top of him. “She told us there was no money coming in, and we only discovered what had happened when we went to visit her.”
Then there are the calls to which they cannot offer any help. “It’s always the women who call,” he explains. They are calling in panic on behalf of husbands, sons or brothers, hoping the Society can help financially with money owing on drug deals.
Frequently, the men have just been released from prison, and are under physical threat. “We can’t ever get involved in that. We tell them to go to the guards. Obviously, we know the chances of that are probably nil, but paying off drug-related debts is not what the Society is about. Unfortunately, it’s the poor women, usually mothers, who are left to pick up the pieces.”
Scurry also talks frankly about “a learned helplessness” of some families who have had generational contact with the Society.
“It’s the next generation of people looking for support that their parents received, because that’s how they were brought up. So you go into some houses where the heat is on full blast all day, all through the house, and there’s maybe €20 paid off the last bill, and you have to ask people, ‘What do you think will happen if you don’t pay your bill?’
“The thing is, for so many people we work with, there is only the now, and they can only deal with today. There might be some money that comes in for something, say a grant for school books, but it gets spent on something else that’s needed today instead.
“We are never judgmental – if people ask for help, we give help – but there is a tough love you have to operate sometimes. Even so, it’s never the case that we say to anyone, ‘goodbye and good luck to you’.”
Scurry is 52, and reports that many volunteers around the country are in the upper age ranges. The society is not managing to attract the numbers of younger volunteers it needs, which is something they are trying to address.
“None of us are immune from the fact we may one day have to ask for help from the Society,” he points out. “If the network of volunteers weren’t there, who would bridge the gap between these people and what they need?”