“Poverty isn’t always about money. Poverty is also about loneliness and lack of connection,” says Rose McGowan, incoming president of the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP), and only the second female one in its 176-year history.
In that time, the charity has survived the challenges of a famine, a civil war, the War of Independence, world wars and several recessions. But the Covid-19 pandemic may be its most significant yet. “Once again, the most vulnerable people are the ones who are struggling most,” says McGowan.
“It’s about your underlying health. It’s about where you live. It’s about whether you have that spare cash” when you were already on the margins. Up to July, the society was taking 15,000 calls for help every month, many from people who had lost their jobs and needed help with rent and utility bills.
Lone parents – half of whom were already experiencing deprivation before Covid – have been particularly hard hit, says McGowan. The moratorium on rent evictions which expired in August, and was replaced by new rental laws that mean landlords must give 90 days’ notice, bought some time for people in vulnerable situations, but it has also left many with mounting arrears. “The children are at home, so they’re eating more. You’re heating the house all day. If you’ve no childcare, you can’t work.”
Before, children were getting fed in schools, but during lockdown that stopped. McGowan cites teachers in her own area of north inner-city Dublin who delivered lunches to children themselves when schools were shut.
The pandemic has made all aspects of the society’s work more difficult. Home, hospital and prison visits have been curtailed. Assessments now have to be done over the phone, and food or vouchers dropped to the door. When I arrive at the headquarters on Sean McDermott Street in Dublin, two volunteers have just left with 20 bags of shopping and vouchers, and they’ll be back later to pick up more.
McGowan, who started volunteering with SVP at 15 and describes herself as “a doer”, never imagined she would one day take on the volunteer role of president. “I never expected to be sitting here as a president. Even earlier this year, I hesitated . . . You fall into jobs in this society. You say you’ll do it for a few weeks, and suddenly, you’re the president,” she laughs.
She is taking a hands-on approach to her new role. “You have to know what’s going on on the ground. You have to have that knowledge.”
The day before we meet, she was helping a client who has just moved into her first rented home to buy beds. She describes a call recently from a woman who was looking for sanitiser, because she couldn’t afford it. “I told her she could use soap and water, but she felt everybody else was using sanitiser, so it must be better,” she says.
She believes we need to broaden our definition of poverty, particularly in light of the pandemic. “The isolation is a huge aspect of it. Not everybody is able to operate a screen, or has a screen. We would have a lot of very vulnerable men in this area, who might have had addiction problems, or might have been homeless” who relied on weekly outings to the resource centre to play pool or have a cup of tea.
“They’re saying, when are we going back to our club? That’s heartbreaking. We keep thinking we might be able to restart and have six back at a time, but then another level of restrictions comes in, and we have to postpone it again.”
She’s equally worried about vulnerable children who are still being cocooned by their parents, and missing out on afterschool activities, or even school itself. “Parents are afraid. Some of them are afraid to let their children go to school. And so what’s happening is they’re left sitting in front of the TV all day.”
Fundraising during a pandemic is also a challenge. In normal years, “you wouldn’t be able to get into the building with all the toys and food” that pile up during the charity’s Christmas appeal. This year, because of hygiene restrictions, an appeal is going out for vouchers instead.
The problems people come to the St Vincent de Paul for help with have changed over the years, though food poverty has been a constant. Recent data from the Central Statistics Office showed almost 900,000 people were going without basics prior to the pandemic – up by more than 140,000 on the previous year. One in five children doesn’t have enough nutritious food or warm clothing.
“Poverty was always there. When I started, people lived in tenements. Now people have decent apartments and houses. But we’re also visiting people in hostels and hotels.”
McGowan describes one family, a mother and three children, who left their family home in Co Clare after a marriage break-up. “She couldn’t pay the mortgage. She didn’t think of the Vincent de Paul. They came to Dublin because the family were here, but the family couldn’t put them up.” The family ended up living for two years in a hotel room.
“They were eating in the car because they didn’t want the room to smell of chips.” McGowan made sure they had fruit so they could eat in the room.
That woman turned out to be one of the charity’s success stories. “She has since gone back to college and graduated. We got the daughter a bursary and she has gone to college in Galway. They got a house just before last Christmas. That woman was so determined.”
One thing that hasn’t changed during the pandemic is the stigma that surrounds poverty. She gets calls from people who say, “would you please leave the car up the road. Because they’re afraid people will see the Vincent’s coming. I visited a woman in a car for three years because the family didn’t know I was helping”.
She never judges the cars in people’s driveways, or whether they have a credit card. “The only criteria for help is need.”
Even during a time when Frances Fitzgerald [then minister for justice] was referring to a "cycle of scandals in the charity sector", St Vincent de Paul – which has a Catholic ethos but is lay-run – has managed to avoid being embroiled in controversy. "We've always been very transparent and open. Our donors are the public, like you, and it's their money. They're quite correct in wanting to know how their money is spent," she says.
“We are very careful with governance. We have safeguarding policies and procedures and three strands of training for volunteers.” Since the beginning, volunteers have always visited in pairs, which acted as a safeguarding measure long before the term entered the public consciousness.
As we speak someone knocks on the door, and calls her to a video meeting of the Covid-19 response committee. Despite the challenges, she is optimistic that we have become a more empathetic society over the past year. “People have been looking at life differently. This pandemic has touched everybody in different ways. And you don’t know what’s going on behind the hall door until you get there.”