A man asks Alan Bailey, manager of the Capuchin Day Centre on Bow Street in Dublin’s inner city, if he is a priest and, if so, could he bless his child, a little girl who is sitting in a buggy weighted down with several plastic bags and a very large suitcase. His partner pushes the buggy and looks tired and cold. Bailey explains that he is not but directs them to a priest’s house close by. The man thanks him and moves along, the little girl smiling and waving as they leave.
Inside the centre, service users carry their breakfasts of sausages and boiled eggs to tables scattered around the room. On any given day 500 people could show up for breakfast or lunch.
For a lot of people, it’s the pits coming here. This year we have people coming to use the service that last year were donating to us
Founded in 1969 by Brother Kevin of the Capuchin order, the original centre was just a prefab. He has since retired and Fr Kevin has now taken his place. This is the last line of defence for many people who are in need of a hot meal, a shower or just some everyday kindness. The service comes into its own at Christmas time – this year Bailey will hand out up to 3,000 hampers to families that will not be able to put food on the table. In the 1980s, 400 to 500 hampers were given to those in need, last year that number was 2,600 and this year they’ll probably give out 3,000. “We usually spend €95,000 on food, but this year we’ll spend €150,000,” he says.
The extra room would have cost €700,000 to build but a contractor insisted on doing the job for nothing, under strict instructions his good deed would remain between him and the centre
The centre opens for breakfast from 8am to 11.30am and reopens at 12, serving a full three-course dinner consisting of fish or chicken, potato and other vegetables, all prepared freshly on site. Some 28 staff help look after the people who come from all over the city and from all walks of life but are homeless, hungry or both. Volunteers work on the floor among the service users, cleaning tables and bringing them food, or just having a friendly chat. Volunteers hand out fresh socks and underwear to clients, who can have a hot shower before they eat.
There is a designated children’s area that before Covid could facilitate 18 minors but during the lockdown the centre got permission to build and can now take up to 54 children per day. The extra room would have cost €700,000 to build but a contractor insisted on doing the job for nothing, under strict instructions his good deed would remain between him and the centre.
“When there are children in the area we have security at the entrance and a member of staff inside. We see anything from infants up to 18-year-olds, but they must be with a parent. Every Monday we give out nappies and baby food and usually we have 180 to 200 queuing for this service. It’s an expensive service – you know the cost of baby food and nappies,” Bailey says.
Users include the undocumented, migrants, those “on the breadline” or others who have an apartment but can’t afford rent and food so they have to make that choice, one or the other, Bailey says. “We don’t ask questions and don’t judge. We were asked some time ago would we document people attending by nationality and we said no. If you’re hungry you’re hungry, it doesn’t matter if you’re from Abyssinia or Maynooth. People feel safe and secure here, there might be all nationalities and creeds sitting at the one table and no one is going to say: ‘You shouldn’t be here’.”
“A lot of people we see for breakfast and lunch and we provide takeaway packs too. Someone might say: ‘I have a child coming in from school at 4pm and I have nothing to feed them.’”
The centre will host several kids’ parties coming up to Christmas and they’ll provide toys for the children. “We’ll buy so many and some will be sponsored but we’re lucky to get lots of donations of new toys each year. We don’t give out second-hand toys,” he says.
A man had dinner here the other day and when going out the door he gave me a tenner. A tenner to that man could be an absolute fortune
The centre has an on-site doctor, dentist, chiropodist, dietitian and nurse, many who offer their services for free. “We tried counselling, but people are reluctant to share. For a lot of people, it’s the pits coming here. This year we have people coming to use the service that last year were donating to us. What was sufficient last year just isn’t this year. It can turn on a dime for anyone,” Bailey says.
With running costs in excess of €4 million each year, and with just €400,000 of that coming from central Government, the centre must rely on the kindness of strangers to feed Dublin’s homeless.
“People have always been very good to us, and sometimes it’s those that have the least that give the most. A man had dinner here the other day and when going out the door he gave me a tenner. A tenner to that man could be an absolute fortune but it’s so important for that man’s self-esteem that you say thank you very much and take it,” Bailey says.
In the run-up to Christmas it will get busier, Bailey says, as people’s needs at that time are far greater than they would be throughout the year. “They get by for most of the year but at Christmas they have all these other pressures and problems: toys to buy, dinner has to be put on the table. We come into our own then. We do a Christmas dinner in the week after Christmas, and a kids’ party, run in conjunction with local gardaí. They get a present and meet Santa. We also invite local families and they attend too.
“Our donations come from ordinary people, someone living in the west of Ireland with a relative who is sleeping on the streets, and they’re concerned and we’re here to help. These people might have lost track, have mental health or addiction issues. I was a local garda for 30 years, and when they closed Grangegorman hospital we saw an influx of people into the North Circular Road. They come here now.
“We have a full-time nurse on our team, and she has saved more lives than anyone. But seldom are we left long for an ambulance. Most volunteers are retired, but we also get transition-year students in and the commitment of young people is so great to see.
“We’ll put up decorations for Christmas and the spirit is there. We have very few religious ceremonies but we will have a crib blessing on December 8th, dinner and a group in to play music. We’re not pushing religion on anyone. The Capuchin order own the premises, but we’re a stand-alone company. We have an ethos of help everyone and it doesn’t matter their creed or nationality,” he says.
For Bailey, his reason for carrying on each year is clear. “I enjoy working and helping people, lots I met in a previous existence and we can still talk and be friendly. If you treat someone with respect they will give you the same. Some days it’s pure chaos with queues and noise and chatter of people but nobody will leave hungry, cold or dirty, I can assure you of that.”
To donate go to capuchin day centre