'We are getting so many distressing calls, we need to debrief our staff once a week'
Some first-time callers to St Vincent de Paul can barely get their words out, they are so upset to be contacting the organisation
If you spend an hour at the bank of phones at the St Vincent de Paul headquarters on Dublin’s Seán MacDermott Street, these are some of things you hear the helpline operators say in response to callers.
“You’ve nothing for the child for Christmas?”
“You’ve nothing for Christmas?”
“You need help with food?”
“You were homeless for a while, and now you need help with bedding?”
“Your electricity is about to run out because you’ve no money for the meter?”
“You’ve lost your job and this is your first time contacting the helpline?”
There are up to eight people at any one time answering calls to this helpline: calls that are only coming from the Dublin, Wicklow and south Kildare area.
There are a further 13 regional offices around the State, also fielding calls. Last week, between Monday and Friday, there were 3,907 calls to the Dublin office alone from members of the public, all seeking help.
In certain regions, such as Dublin, Cork and Galway, calls are up 80 per cent since 2009.
“We are getting so many distressing calls, we need to debrief our staff once a week,” reveals Linda Kenny, who has 33 years of experience answering calls to the organisation.
Half a dozen red lights flash permanently on her phone from calls waiting.
She is unfailingly kind, efficient and respectful to every caller, as well as patient. Some first-time callers can barely get their words out, they are so upset to be contacting the organisation.
Purse was stolen
“Don’t worry, pet. You’re right to ring us,” she repeats gently to callers, over and over again.
The first thing everyone is asked is if it is their first time to call. These days, the answer is often yes. One in four people now contacting Vincent de Paul is new to the organisation.
Their details are then taken and the nature of the help they need. Callers are assured that someone will be out to them within days.
If it is urgent, such as in the case of the elderly woman whose electricity is about to run out, and who only has €2 left because her purse was stolen with her pension money in it, someone from the organisation will visit that day.
One of the organisation’s most frequent requests for help at present is for solid fuel.
“People are using their fireplaces again. It’s too expensive for them to fill the tank with oil, or pay electricity heating bills and so we are getting huge demand for coal and briquettes,” says Kenny. “There is real poverty in this country now. We hear their stories every day.”