President Michael D Higgins visited the drop-in and coffee shop of the homelessness charity Focus Ireland in Dublin this week. While he was there a mother with four young children arrived.
“They had just become homeless,” says Grace McCormack, manager of the coffee shop. “That is very upsetting. The mother was obviously very upset and the children pick up on that. Well, we sat her down and got in touch with the central placements service.
“They placed the family in emergency accommodation of some kind – a B&B or hostel. And then the long process of trying to house them begins.”
The young family will have joined the 90,000 other families on the housing waiting list, but thankfully not the growing number of people sleeping rough on the capital’s streets each night.
Focus Ireland’s coffee shop, on Eustace Street in Temple Bar, not only serves up 150 hot meals a day, innumerable cups of tea and coffee, and scones, but also functions as a front- line advice and information service for people at risk of becoming homeless or already out of their home. It has seen a 43 per cent increase in people seeking its help in the past year.
Perhaps, as McCormack says, most distressing is the doubling in the number of families coming for help since January, from eight each month to 16 – in Dublin alone.
While Focus Ireland is often seen as a crisis-intervention charity helping homeless people, McCormack is keen to stress it is there to help people also at risk of homelessness, or even just worried about their ability to keep paying the mortgage or rent.
“It’s much easier to help people stay in their home than help them find a new home, and obviously it’s far less of a toll emotionally on them at that stage.”
Among those also at the coffee shop in Dublin this week was Joe Cullen (52). He has been a regular there for advice, inexpensive hot meals (60 cents to €1.80) and familiar company for 18 years.
Originally from Lucan, Co Dublin, he had been homeless from the age of 14 when he ran away from a "boarding school" where he had suffered abuse. He attempted suicide five times and drank heavily until five years ago. He is dry now.
Before that, Focus had put him in contact with the Iveagh Trust and now he has a flat in supported housing in the inner city. "I come in here for the hot meal a few times a week. The food is grand, yes. It means I don't have to cook every day."
This front-line information and advocacy service, along with the phone-line and email services, are 90 per cent funded by public donations. They will be the first services hit if donations don't pick up, says its chief executive Joyce Loughnan.
Indeed she says the charity will have "grave difficulties" delivering all its services next year if the fall in donations exacerbated by the top-up scandal at the Central Remedial Clinic (CRC) continues. The impact of the CRC scandal on its budget could cost it €1.7 million.
The scandal could not have come at a worse time, with a fall in public donations this Christmas of 30 per cent compared to last year.
“The biggest drive for public donations every year is the November-January period,” Loughnan says. “It is when we raise up to half of our all donations from the public for the following year. The immediate impact of the 30 per cent drop is that we will be down €1.25 million on the Christmas campaign.”
If the CRC effect continues into next year, she continues, the charity could be looking at a collapse in funding of €1.7 million.
Loughnan says 90 cent out of every euro donated to Focus Ireland goes directly to services, seven cent goes to the cost of fundraising and three cent goes into "overall governance costs", which covers wages.
She is paid €125,000 a year.
Almost 60 per cent of Focus Ireland funding comes from the State, with the rest from donations, rental income and investment income. As evident in the last few weeks, donated income is highly precarious. So too, however, is that from the State, a fact which irritates her.
“Even though we are providing proven core services, we are dependent on the benevolence of the State,” she says. “One has to ask why these core services, which are essential to the welfare of society, are not 100 per cent funded by the State.”