Capuchin friars make room for homeless


Kitty Holland visits the Capuchin Day Centre, where Brother Kevin sadly notes the need to cater for a growing number of homeless

Dropping into the Capuchin Day Centre for the Homeless in Dublin's Bow Street at breakfast-time, one might expect 20 or 30 people there for the tea, bread and sausages served six mornings a week.

It is packed. Rows of tables seating up to eight each are filled with young men and women, older people, mothers with babies, non-nationals. It's like Bewley's at lunchtime.

"We give breakfast between 10.30 and 11 in the morning and a full dinner in the afternoon," explains Brother Kevin Crowley who runs the centre. "Anything from 100 to 220 might turn up each day."

The food, which is free, is cooked by fully-qualified catering staff under head chef, Mr Roy Campbell, in an on-site kitchen. The centre also gives out "about 300" food parcels every Wednesday, containing tea, sugar, bread, tins of stew, soup, and some perishables such as cheese, butter and meat, as well as jam.

"They all go every Wednesday," says Brother Crowley showing the stacked blue plastic bags of food. "And if people ask for more than one, no questions are asked."

Among those at the centre last Wednesday were Michelle (who did not want to give her surname) and her boyfriend, Paul Doyle. Michelle is 28, four months pregnant and living with Paul in a derelict house "on the northside".

Paul, the father of her unborn child, has a two year-old son with another woman whom he has not seen "for months now".

Asked how she became homeless, Michelle explains she had been "strung out on heroin" since she was 13.

"The police smashed my mother's gaff up so she kicked me out."

That was 18 months ago, she says. She already has two children, Kevin (8) and Kyle (6), and she took them with her to the Haven House women's hostel in Dublin.

"They stayed in the hostel for three months and then my ma took them, So they live with her," in Drimnagh, south Dublin.

It was Kyle's and Kevin's father, she says, who got her started on heroin. She married him but because he was a "violent bastard" and beat her, she left him some years ago. She's no longer using heroin or methadone but she describes herself as an alcoholic.

"I drink about three bottles of vodka a day. When I wake in the morning I do be shaking until I get up and get a drink.

"I was in the hostel and met Paul. So, because he couldn't stay there I moved out. The place where we sleep is all right - it's very cold. We light fires but you still only get about two hours' sleep."

After getting up she and Paul come for breakfast at the day centre. They have looked into getting a flat though she is not optimistic.

"We were down in Charles Street [the homeless people's unit run by the Northern Area Health Board] to ask about getting a flat, but I have been on the housing list since my first baby was born and I haven't got nothing yet."

She sees very little of her sons - "that does hurt. But it hurts more to see them and to have to see them crying when I have to walk away from them again. They do miss me too. I can tell that."

Asked whether she is worried about the probable damage her alcohol intake is doing her unborn child, Michelle says: "Well, I have just come off heroin, cocaine and methadone, so I'd say it'd be better to give birth to an alcoholic baby than a drug addict one. But yeah, I would like to stop the drinking if I could get some help."

She has an appointment at the Coombe Hospital soon, so she hopes she will "get some help" then. She and Paul beg to raise the money for their drinking each day. He drinks cider, he says.

Of the day centre, Michelle says she doesn't know what she and Paul would do if it weren't there.

"Especially Paul. He likes his breakfast and it's nice and warm here."

The couple are examples, says Brother Crowley, of the changing nature of homelessness in Dublin.

"When I started here in 1969, it was only older men and about 30 to 40 a day. A few years ago the numbers started to increase significantly.

"And homelessness is becoming more complex. Many of the people have more difficult problems. Drugs are drawing a lot more young people into homelessness - all ages from as young as 16. There are mothers and babies here every day - it is quite sad, really."

He says the centre needs to expand. "The kitchen is too small and we need a separate room where people with children can go, to keep them away from some of the older people who might be under the influence of drink or drugs."

He also has ambitions to extend the building to provide a private room for consultations with a doctor, nurse and social worker.

"It's important that we provide that service because, though they could go to hospitals, that is a burden on the A&Es and also some of the people here would be a bit embarrassed going to hospitals. Here they know they are accepted."

The centre needs €1.2 million to fulfil these plans.

" We've applied for some and will also have to rely on the generosity of the public," says Brother Crowley. He says the service is needed more than ever it was when he started working with the homeless.

"It's a fact that saddens me as much as it frightens me," he says.