St Vincent de Paul charity prepares for tough winter as pandemic bites

Lack of face-to-face interaction due to Covid-19 has made volunteers’ work more difficult

Coronavirus restrictions have changed the way charities such as St Vincent de Paul operate but a surge in appeals for help with utility bills and food supplies is expected as winter approaches.

Noel Boyce, a member of the Crumlin and Kimmage "conference" group in Dublin, has increased the number of days he volunteers in order to keep up with demand.

In the past six months, his conference has assisted 600 people. “We normally would visit once a week, but since Covid, and particularly since the [children are] back to school, we’re out every day or every two days,” he says.

Hospital Report

Instead of visiting people’s homes, assessments are now carried out by telephone, and vouchers sent in the post.

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“What we do now is we ring them on the phone and look at what their requirements are,” he says. “The idea is that then you would post out the help but because I’m on my bike all the time, I normally just drop it into their letter box myself.”

‘Not satisfactory’

While the organisation was able to continue its work during lockdown, operating by phone was "not satisfactory", says Kieran Stafford, who was national president of the charity until recently.

“Part and parcel of what we do is to go in and sit down in somebody’s home and spend some time with them and tease out what the root of their problems are and how we can best assist them in that,” he says.

Mr Stafford believes the winter period will see an increase in appeals for help as the true impact of the pandemic is felt.

Measures introduced by Government, such as the pandemic unemployment payment and a ban on evictions, mitigated the initial blow of the virus, he says.

“We expect to see more over the coming months and year as the full impact comes home for a lot of people who won’t go back to work, for people who have lost businesses, people who have fallen behind on their rents and are trying to secure their stay.

“I think we have a lot of tough days ahead of us but we will continue to do what we can to help people.”

More difficult

The lack of face-to-face interaction has made the charity's task more difficult, says Marie Cronin, the organisation's east region president.

“It’s more time consuming now, there’s more paperwork, there are more phone calls, more effort.”

She generally begins her days at 6am, and could still be working until 10pm. One day last week she worked for 14 hours, which she described as a “short day”.

The recent Late Late Show fundraiser was “very good to us”, Ms Cronin said. The RTÉ show’s donation appeal in May raised more than €1 million for the charity. They are “still in the black” but winter will be a challenge.

Christmas food vouchers

St Vincent de Paul will need to order Christmas food vouchers by the end of October, and affording them is a “concern for us at the moment”.

“We can’t just go to one of the supermarkets and ask them for €20,000 worth of vouchers and tell them we’ll pay them in January. We have to pay up front.”

Ms Cronin says the number of people in the Cherry Orchard and Ballyfermot area requiring food during the lockdown period rose from 120 to a peak of 400, before "stabilising" at 300.

"Apart from the food we get from the Department of Social Protection that would feed about 120 a week, we actually had to buy in stuff. For Ballyfermot and Cherry Orchard alone we spent just under €20,000 on food." There was huge demand for nappies, too, she adds.