St Vincent de Paul volunteers are at the coalface in the fight against poverty.
the Society of St Vincent de Paul release its figures for the number of
people who contacted its offices for help in 2012. For the first time
the number of calls have exceeded 100,000; an increase of 104 per cent
Once the calls come into any of the 13 offices around
the country, volunteers will go out to offer help. Help takes the form
of food vouchers, contributions to utility bills, school books, glasses
for children, clothes, fuel, and sometimes simply a listening ear to
those who feel unable to cope.
There are 10,500 Vincent de Paul
volunteers around the State. Jimmy Scurry is one of them.
For the last
three years, he has gone out most Tuesdays with a partner volunteer to
visit homes in Finglas, Dublin between 7 and 10pm.
round the parts of Finglas he visits weekly; the Cappagh, Dunsink, and
Wellmount areas. “There’s a forgotten layer of society out there I
didn’t know even existed until I joined the society,” Scurry says.
houses he indicates look neglected, with yards full of abandoned
Others are beautifully maintained, with carefully
tended gardens. But if you were equating need with appearance, you would
be wrong, because all of the houses he points out contain families in
need that are visited by Vincent de Paul.
“It’s like a business in
that there are cycles,” Scurry observes. “You know when certain things
will happen. At the moment, it’s utility bills and requests for fuel.
Then there will be confirmations, communions, back to school, Christmas.
They are the key times of need during the year.”
we walk around the area, he talks about some of the families he has
visited. Before Christmas, there was the couple, aged 85 and 82
respectively, who were making their first call to the society.
were terrified of the cold weather, and had no money to pay for oil.”
Told they were too old to qualify for a credit union loan, they were
referred to the Society by the fuel company. They were very upset they
had to contact us. They had been donors in the past, as had their own
Some time ago, he got an emergency call to visit a
middle-class family in a smart area of Dublin where the husband was no
longer working. “They had four children, and there was literally nothing
to eat in the house. Their priority had been to keep mortgage
repayments up through savings. They didn’t want anyone to know, until
they reached breaking point and called us.”
Scurry sees the fact
that this family finally contacted the Society as positive. They helped
them initially with food vouchers, referred them to Mabs (Money Advice
and Budgeting Service), and continue to help on an ongoing basis.
the people out there in need who haven’t come forward that I worry
about,” he says. “And we know they’re out there, in their hundreds and
They receive calls from families trying to cope with
suicide, or suicide attempts. There was, for instance, the call from the
wife whose taxi-driver husband had lost his job and had attempted
suicide when the household finances got on top of him.
“She told us
there was no money coming in, and we only discovered what had happened
when we went to visit her.”
there are the calls to which they cannot offer any help.
the women who call,” he explains. They are calling in panic on behalf of
husbands, sons or brothers, hoping the Society can help financially
with money owing on drug deals.
Frequently, the men have just been
released from prison, and are under physical threat. “We can’t ever get
involved in that. We tell them to go to the guards. Obviously, we know
the chances of that are probably nil, but paying off drug-related debts
is not what the Society is about. Unfortunately, it’s the poor women,
usually mothers, who are left to pick up the pieces.”
Scurry also talks frankly about “a learned helplessness” of some families who have had generational contact with the Society.
the next generation of people looking for support that their parents
received, because that’s how they were brought up. So you go into some
houses where the heat is on full blast all day, all through the house,
and there’s maybe €20 paid off the last bill, and you have to ask
people, ‘What do you think will happen if you don’t pay your bill?’
thing is, for so many people we work with, there is only the now, and
they can only deal with today. There might be some money that comes in
for something, say a grant for school books, but it gets spent on
something else that’s needed today instead. We are never
judgmental – if people ask for help, we give help – but there is a tough
love you have to operate sometimes. Even so, it’s never the case that
we say to anyone, ‘goodbye and good luck to you’.”
is 52, and reports that many volunteers around the country are in the
upper age ranges. The society is not managing to attract the numbers of
younger volunteers it needs, which is something they are trying to
“None of us are immune from the fact we may one day have
to ask for help from the Society,” he points out. “If the network of
volunteers weren’t there, who would bridge the gap between these people
and what they need?”