It's not the lights on the Christmas tree in the canteen of the Mendicity Institution on Island Street in Dublin 8 that command attention. It's what the tree is decorated with.
Scores of painted and beribboned house keys hang from every branch. Each red or white key symbolises a home: something none of the men who painted them currently have.
Between 40 and 50 long-term homeless men avail of the services of the Mendicity Institution, which will mark its 200th anniversary in the capital next year.
Chief executive Louisa Santoro says that all of those who use its services, which ranges from free cooked breakfasts and lunches to English classes and craft workshops, are from eastern Europe. She is not sure why, but thinks it is because on their staff they have Russian, Polish and Romanian speakers. Those who use their services come mainly from Lithuania, Poland, Moldova, Russia and Romania.
Nikolajc Budans (40) is from Latvia. He translates for his friend Steponas Druseika (59) from Lithuania. He takes my hand and bows by way of a greeting: an old-fashioned courtly gesture. Druseika may not have a home but he retains his dignified, beautiful manners.
"Steponas came to Ireland in 2005, and was working on a construction site. He lost his job, and has been homeless for five years now," Budans says.
He himself came to Ireland 17 years ago, and worked for several years as a fisherman, and then also in the construction industry. “Now I have no job and no life and no home.”
Both men come daily to Mendicity. Each day they have to call a freephone number which Dublin City Council runs to see if there is a bed in a hostel somewhere for them. Chris Andrews, who supervises the woodwork workshop, makes the daily call for Druseika as he can't speak English.
Sometimes there is a bed, sometimes there is a sleeping bag on a mat on the floor, and sometimes, when there is nowhere to go, they sleep rough.
“I never think about tomorrow anymore,” Budans says. He has been homeless for seven years after he lost his job, and then could no longer afford accommodation.
Each window box carries a little metal plate with an image of the Ha'Penny Bridge on it, and the words 'Handmade by Dublin's Homeless'
Two afternoons a week these men and several others work making crafts. They get paid an hourly rate, which comes partly from Mendicity’s own funds and partly from Dublin City Council. They both worked on window boxes, 150 of which will be on sale at Mendicity’s market on Sunday.
Andrews shows me the woodwork workshop. “It’s all recycled wood,” he explains. The window boxes are made of reclaimed wood from pallets that Chadwick’s hardware shop give them. They are all painted different colours. Some have words carved into them. “Have a Jolly Holly Christmas,” says one. “Repeal,” says another. “Peace and Hope,” says yet another.
Each window box carries a little metal plate with an image of the Ha’Penny Bridge on it, and the words “Handmade by Dublin’s Homeless”
Everything these men have made will be on sale on Sunday at what must be Dublin’s most unusual and deserving Christmas market this weekend. The keys on the Christmas tree are for sale at €2 each. The window boxes are €15. Charming handmade cards are €2.
It’s the first time Mendicity has held a market, and it will be at its premises so the public can see the work it does and meet the people it works with.
Many of the men who made the pieces for sale will be present. All the monies raised will go straight into the charity’s funds.
The Mendicity Institution Christmas Market is at Island Street, Dublin 8, from 11am to 7pm on Sunday.