THEY found them in the kitchen. With no electricity, the couple sat in the dark. The fridge was empty, the house frigid with cold.
When the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP) volunteers got to the house, they were shocked at the conditions the family were living in. But they were not living in a run-down rural cottage or in an inner-city flat, they were in a large house in Foxrock, one of Dublin's wealthiest suburbs.
While shocking, these cases are no longer a surprise to the SVP, as Ireland in 2012 is a different place with poverty no respecter of class.
"The thing that has changed significantly is that some of the people coming to us now once had it all," says Patricia Carey.
Ms Carey is director of services in Dublin for the SVP, the country's largest, voluntary, charitable organisation. Last week, she was busy crunching some quite staggering numbers at the inner city headquarters of the national charity.
They looked incredibly bleak when laid out on the table before her:
- 17,000 calls in 2006
- 23,000 in 2007
- 26,000 in 2008
- 35,000 in 2009
- 47,000 in 2010
- 65,000 last year.
The charity, founded by student Frederic Ozanam and a few friends in Paris on April 23, 1833, is expecting more than 75,000 calls this year as the needy, the hungry, the homeless and the plain desperate look for help.
It already runs a hugely successful toy appeal with broadcaster Ryan Tubridy and 2FM -- but what it needs most of all from this Christmas appeal is cash.
This week, the Irish Independent will shed light on some of the key issues and challenges facing the charity, like fuel poverty, where people cannot afford heat and light, and the mechanics of running such a vast organisation.
As the calls come in on the national helpline, they are quickly disbursed to the SVP's 13 regional offices.
From there, the requests for assistance are taken up by a 10,000-strong army of volunteers who investigate further; and help is quickly on hand for, among other things, coal, Christmas essentials, toys and bills.
Once the SVP gets your donation, it is quickly utilised to buy the food vouchers and fuel (coal and oil) for the 50,000 Irish families who use the SVP each year
Significantly, the SVP never gives out cash.
"We would provide a voucher that can be used in shops and we give vouchers for clothes that can be redeemed at our own shops," says Ms Carey.
It is also unable to contribute money to pay for state services and this year it has declined requests for help from dozens of HSE social workers who are trying to plug the gap in funding to look after sick and vulnerable people.
The reason for this strict rule is simple; the SVP raises more than €80m annually and the money is carefully spent on the donor's behalf.
Perhaps surprisingly in these hard economic times, donations from already hard-pressed individuals are up while donations from corporate sources are down.
A Christmas church-gate collection this weekend will be a crucial barometer and the fundraising target is €1m.
"If the donations drop, we will be in difficulty," acknowledges Ms Carey.
Linda Kenny knows all about the calls.
She takes them, overseeing a team of five staff and 12 volunteers as they work their way through 700 every day.
For 33 years, Linda, from Crumlin in Dublin, has been one of the friendly voices on the end of the phone as people, some of them in shock at their suddenly changed circumstances, call the SVP.
"Often they are extremely upset but we have a fantastic team here and we help each other to help the callers as best we can."
The spread of those reaching out for assistance tells the story of Ireland in 2012: there are dole recipients, plumbers, solicitors, taxi drivers, accountants, carpenters, builders, shop owners and former property developers.
The SVP says the self-employed have suffered a particularly harsh year, with little in the way of state supports.
"We've seen a lot from this area and so we're doing our best this year to ensure children in particular can be looked after. It's never easy but people are generous," Ms Carey said.
This year, the Irish Independent has partnered the St Vincentde Paul charity in an appeal to our readers to give generouslyto those living in difficult circumstances. Your help is vital
1. Send a cheque to SVP, PO Box 1234, Dublin 1, made payable to Society of St. Vincent de Paul National Council.
2. Pay direct to Bank of Ireland, Phibsborough, Dublin 7 to St. Vincent De Paul Council of Ireland. A/C Number: 80005599. Sort Code: 90-06-23
3. Call the SVP National Office on 01 8386990
4. Text SVP to 57500 (Terms & Conditions apply)
5. If you prefer to give locally you can send cheques to a regional office. Addresses can be found on www.svp.ie