Coronavirus and the Homeless“I just believe that the sadness that’s going to prevail in another week or two in the country is going to hit everybody very, very hard.”

As heard on Today with Sean O'Rourke

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The spread of the coronavirus has made life difficult for most people: everybody’s had to change the way they spend their day and some people have lost their jobs or their businesses. Today with Seán O’Rourke reporter Brian O’Connell told Seán about the remarkable scenes at Cork Penny Dinners, as restaurant owners, forced to close their premises, arrived at the door to donate food to the charity, which has switched to take away only for the first time in its history.

The first chef Brian spoke to was Sam, from Bocelli Kitchen and Wine Bar in Maylor Street, Cork. “We have a kitchen and a wine bar and we are closing down,” Sam told him, struggling to keep his composure.

“There’s no point us throwing away the stuff when these people are here and they’re serving all these people around this area.”

Sam was giving food to his neighbours and to elderly people, as well as to Cork Penny Dinners. He’s been running Bocelli for a year and a half and it’s clear from his voice as he tells Brian how busy it’s been that things were just getting started for his business and now, thanks to the COVID-19 outbreak, he has to close it all down. His story is not an isolated one. The building, Brian told Seán, was full of food items delivered by restaurant owners.

Michael Sheehan, from the Killumney Inn in Ovens. Co Cork told Brian that as he couldn’t use the items he was donating from his restaurant, he wanted to make sure that they went to someone who could use them. This is the first time he’s had to close his restaurant:

“First time we ever close the door. We were flooded, we stayed open, we got through it. So, sad for all the staff, the customers and ourselves, but, sure, life goes on.” 

The staff of the Killumney Inn – almost 70 full-time workers – were like friends to him, Michael added.

Usually, Brian told Seán, when you step inside Cork Penny Dinners, it’s a bustling hive of activity. When he went in, Brian said, it was eerily quiet, except for the amazing staff, cooking food and deciding what to do with all the donations they’ve received. He spoke to Caitríona Twoomey, Volunteer Coordinator, who told him that she expects things to get worse for the people that Cork Penny Dinners help on a daily basis.

“I just believe that the sadness that’s going to prevail in another week or two in the country is going to hit everybody very, very hard. We’re grateful that we’re getting this to give to the families that have no option at all.”

Caitríona told Brian that Cork Penny Dinners are now serving the four course meal to take away, so people can eat it outside the premises or take it with them to another location.

“We go around at night and give everybody another four-course meal and we give everybody sandwiches, sleeping bags, tents, whatever they need.”

The measures everyone has had to take to try to mitigate the spread of the Coronavirus have had serious repercussions for other charities as well, including those providing accommodation services for the homeless.  Brian visited the Cork Simon shelter and spoke to Campaigns and Communications Director, Paul Sheehan, who told him about the changes they have to make to ensure social distancing at the shelter:

“Up to recently, it was up to sixteen, seventeen people a night, seventeen mattresses on the floor. But because of this whole social distancing, we’ve reduced that to ten.” 

It’s not just immediate logistical issues that have become more difficult, either. Fundraising has been hugely affected by the pandemic:

“Already we’ve cancelled our annual fundraising ball, that’s in early April. And there are events being planned for May, June and July and they’re under consideration. We depend on voluntary donations to the tune of 50% of our annual income.”

Paul stressed that the best thing people can do to help during this prolonged period of uncertainty is to make a donation. If you can, the charity of your choice would certainly welcome it.

You can hear Brian’s full report for the Today programme here.

Niall Ó Sioradáin

© The Listener 2020

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