'We are getting so many distressing calls, we need to debrief our staff once a week'


Some first-time callers to St Vincent de Paul can barely get their words out, they are so upset to be contacting the organisation

If you spend an hour at the bank of phones at the St Vincent de Paul headquarters on Dublin’s Seán MacDermott Street, these are some of things you hear the helpline operators say in response to callers.

“You’ve nothing for the child for Christmas?”

“You’ve nothing for Christmas?”

“You need help with food?”

“You were homeless for a while, and now you need help with bedding?”

“Your electricity is about to run out because you’ve no money for the meter?”

“You’ve lost your job and this is your first time contacting the helpline?”

There are up to eight people at any one time answering calls to this helpline: calls that are only coming from the Dublin, Wicklow and south Kildare area.

There are a further 13 regional offices around the State, also fielding calls. Last week, between Monday and Friday, there were 3,907 calls to the Dublin office alone from members of the public, all seeking help.

In certain regions, such as Dublin, Cork and Galway, calls are up 80 per cent since 2009.

“We are getting so many distressing calls, we need to debrief our staff once a week,” reveals Linda Kenny, who has 33 years of experience answering calls to the organisation.

Half a dozen red lights flash permanently on her phone from calls waiting.

She is unfailingly kind, efficient and respectful to every caller, as well as patient. Some first-time callers can barely get their words out, they are so upset to be contacting the organisation.

Purse was stolen

“Don’t worry, pet. You’re right to ring us,” she repeats gently to callers, over and over again.

The first thing everyone is asked is if it is their first time to call. These days, the answer is often yes. One in four people now contacting Vincent de Paul is new to the organisation.

Their details are then taken and the nature of the help they need. Callers are assured that someone will be out to them within days.

If it is urgent, such as in the case of the elderly woman whose electricity is about to run out, and who only has €2 left because her purse was stolen with her pension money in it, someone from the organisation will visit that day.

One of the organisation’s most frequent requests for help at present is for solid fuel.

“People are using their fireplaces again. It’s too expensive for them to fill the tank with oil, or pay electricity heating bills and so we are getting huge demand for coal and briquettes,” says Kenny. “There is real poverty in this country now. We hear their stories every day.”

The organisation is getting increasingly frequent calls from people in states of severe mental distress, ranging from those who are newly unemployed to those who cannot pay bills or provide food for their families.

“I took one call this week from a woman who has cancer and is due to go for surgery next week. She was afraid that if she went into hospital, she’d miss the person from Vincent de Paul coming with the Christmas hamper she needs for her family,” says Kenny.

“Can you imagine? You have the stress of having cancer and needing surgery, and you’re more worried about making sure you have food for your family at Christmas?”

Noel Boyce is one of the volunteers at the helpline. He speaks of a case that stands out most for him at present.

Earlier in the week, clothes vouchers, toys and a hamper had been sent to a 19-year-old girl in Dublin. Both her parents had died in the last couple of years and she is now the sole carer for her three younger siblings, the youngest of whom is eight.

“She’s looking after her whole family,” he says, almost in disbelief.

Kieran Murphy is the national director of Vincent de Paul, and his office is at the Seán MacDermott Street centre.

“There’s a big level of support for us at Christmas, but it’s after Christmas that we need help,” he explains. “People will be coming back to us in January for more help, especially with heating bills.”

Boxes of donations

This year Vincent de Paul spent €4.5 million nationally. Donations come to them in the form of bags of copper coins, €10 notes in the post, cheques for €20 and some from donors for €100,000 at a time. Everything is welcome. Aldi recently announced they would donate €150,000 to the organisation.

“When it comes, that money will go into our fund to disperse throughout the regions,” says Murphy.

In the basement of the building on Seán MacDermott Street, there is a sorting point for an ever-changing assortment of donations, from the public and from companies. At 10am on Friday morning, there was nothing there. By noon, a large portion of the floor was covered with boxes of donations of food, which were being sorted by volunteer transition year students.

“We’ll make up Christmas hampers from these,” explains Patricia Carey, director of services for the organisation. The hampers are actually Londis bags-for-life: the company donated 50,000 of them to Vincent de Paul. “The bags are one of the most useful donations we’ve had,” says Carey. “It’s a classic example of how, if you can’t give cash as a company, you can give us products.”

Christmas luxuries

On one side of the space are rows of shelves with tins of beans and peas. On the other, are what Carey describes as “luxuries”. There are boxes of chocolate biscuits, packets of coffee, tins of sweets, pasta sauces, mustard, chutneys, teabags, Christmas puddings, soft drinks, crisps, selection boxes and Christmas cakes, among many other things.

“We try to concentrate on luxuries for the Christmas hampers,” says Carey. “Nobody wants to see a hamper full of peas and beans at Christmas. We try to make them full of things you’d like to have yourself.” Nothing will be wasted: the peas and beans will go into food hampers that will be distributed in January.

She opens a box from a member of the public. Inside is a range of expensive branded products from an upmarket supermarket. “You can really see when someone has thought about what they’ll donate, as opposed to someone just clearing out their press,” she says.

Every food hamper is different, depending on what the donations of the day are. The volunteers who pack them try to ensure they all contain some basics such as tea, coffee and sugar, and then a selection of pasta, biscuits, chocolates, a pudding or cake and other treats.

Between now and Christmas this centre will distribute 5,000 Christmas food hampers. Vincent de Paul will not buy any of the food for these thousands of hampers: they are dependent on donations.

“Food is the one thing everyone needs. Supermarket vouchers used to be popular, but we’re finding now that people ask for food, because it’s an immediate need.”

An “immediate need” is defined as meaning that there is no food in the house.

There is car access at the Seán MacDermott Street office, so the public and others can drive in and drop off donations – a crucial element to the building’s function as headquarters. “Cars pull up all the time,” says Carey. “We always get a couple of turkeys on Christmas Eve, which is unfortunately usually too late for us to do anything with them.”

On Christmas Eve also, the centre traditionally gets callers who are prisoners at Mountjoy, out on release for Christmas. “They come in there, looking for toys for their children or something to bring home to their mother. Everyone gets something,” stresses Carey.