Cooking up a second chance for the homeless people
How a food course offered Cork city's most vulnerable the chance of a fresh beginning
It's a Tuesday afternoon in Cork city centre, and in the kitchen above the An Spailpín Fánach pub a group of trainee culinary students are carefully preparing their dish of the day, chilli con carne.
One tips his head towards the saucepan and with a wooden spoon tastes the sizzling food. His eyes narrow and he turns to his fellow students. "More salt, I think,"he says. "What do you reckon, lads?" Nods of agreement all around.
Another scrubs the worktop as desserts are prepared on the opposite side of the cosy kitchen, but this isn't your run-of-the-mill cooking class. All the men dressed in white are members of Cork's ever-growing homeless community.
Some have only recently been helped off the streets, others are still in sheltered accommodation and a few, though now living independently, still receive assistance from the Cork Simon Community charity, which runs this course.
The landlord of the bar, John O'Connor, gives his kitchen for free and the whites are supplied by local business Coppinger Uniforms.
"By the time that they finish the course, these guys are as good as the trained chefs I have in my kitchen," says course tutor and head chef at the nearby Clancy's bar and restaurant, Don Bullman.
"In terms of budgeting, knowing shelf-lives of ingredients and being able to complete the necessary health and safety paperwork, they're all extremely able."
The aim of this Fetac level three culinary operations course is to help people off the streets and into work, and its success over the last number of years has been nothing short of extraordinary.
Of the 19 students who this week completed the most recent course, 11 have already secured work in local businesses. Others have relief and casual work in the pipeline. "Some have gone on to become chefs, commis chefs and others kitchen porters," explains Don as he helps dish up a freshly cooked meal.
Fiona Hagensen, the employment and training services co-ordinator at Cork Simon, believes these courses are the key to helping people move out of homelessness and regain control of their lives.
"Undoubtedly training and education are the most effective ways of eliminating homelessness," she tells me before we tuck into the perfectly prepared grub.
"Ninety-two pc of people who got work with Cork Simon's help last year are no longer in homeless services, so we can see that these programmes are working.
"With more resources we could take more people off the streets. The most frustrating thing from my point of view is how much we are under-achieving.
"I know if we had more time, more staff and more resources, we could make an even bigger impact combating homelessness in Cork."
But it's not just the homeless that benefit – it's local businesses too. "When I go out to employers, I go looking for equal opportunity – I do not go looking for preferential treatment," Fiona tells me.
"We want these people to be judged on their work and abilities rather than anything else."
In the kitchen, the men work away diligently, chopping, preparing and cleaning, with the occasional burst of laughter flowing out into the dining area. There's an unmistakable sense of loyalty and respect here.
It is hoped that, by September, Cork Simon will have received the necessary funding to move the culinary course up a notch to Fetac Level 4 standard – thereby increasing the work opportunities successful graduates can avail of.
"At the moment I have seven of the lads who came through these courses working in my kitchen at Clancy's," explains Don.
"They're anti-establishment – they have problems trusting people and confidence issues – but we work with them to overcome these and help them take control of their lives. It's fantastic when employers give them a chance."
At the Cork Airport hotel, six staff on the books came via Simon courses. "We took our first employee through the charity four years ago," says Ingrid Homich, the hotel's human resources manager.
"I've always believed it's so important to support the local community and to help people.
"These staff members are eager to work and so it's a good fit. Cork Simon make sure that not only are they capable of doing the job, but that they are emotionally ready to re-enter the workforce too, and that's very important."
Marks and Spencer has also become involved in the initiative. "Five people have taken part in this link-up over the last two years," says Cork M&S store manager Ray O'Callaghan.
"They have worked in various parts of the store, with the bakery and café being particularly popular."
In addition to Marks & Spencer, facilities management services company OCS has taken on around 15 people during the past four years.
"At the moment, there are nine employed as office cleaners with us, and we're delighted to be involved," says Marks & Spencer spokeswoman Ronnie Griffin.
"For many who come to us via this route, we're a stepping stone to something else. It's so great to see them blossoming, regaining their confidence and having a structure in their lives.
"I'm so proud to be involved with Cork Simon – they're out there helping people at their lowest ebb build themselves back up, and these courses are key to that."
Denis: It's about more than cooking
Last summer, I slept rough on a bench by a lake near the city for three months. It was tough going but the weather was good. I knew though as the autumn came I'd have to sort myself out.
I have no addiction problems and always took care of myself when I was homeless. I'd buy clothes in charity shops and changed every two days. No one really knew my situation and that's the way I wanted it to be.
How did I end up homeless? Stubbornness and family rifts. At the shelter I was told about this course and I jumped at it. It's about more than cooking, it's about working towards a career and a better life.
Even if I feel like giving up, the workers and volunteers won't give up on me – knowing support is there empowers me.
Niall: My life looks a lot better
I've been clean now for six months and life looks a lot better. I was partial to tablets and drink together, and weed was my constant crutch.
When I was 16, I left home – I had to, my behaviour was out of control. I was floating from place to place, shelters, HSE, the streets, you name it.
Last Christmas, I met my mother. I hadn't seen her for a year. We talked and I realised that I couldn't keep doing what I was doing.
I stopped using and have copped myself on. I have an apartment and, because of the Cork Simon culinary course, I have a job as a kitchen porter at Clancy's restaurant.
The people who run the course are truly amazing. They are life-savers.
Tomas: I'm happy for the first time in years
When I was 15 I decided to leave home. My mother had passed away and that hit me hard. I found my way to England and landed a job in a hotel.
After a few months I came home, then headed to my brother who was living in Boston. By the time I was 18, I was earning at least $700 a week as a carpenter, but the money was easy to spend.
I came back to Ireland around 2007 and got into cooking before working in a kitchen in Lanzarote for seven months. Life was a bit wild and by the time I came back to Cork I was drinking a lot.
My father got sick – he broke his neck in an accident. I had to move out of home and ended up in St Vincents house (which provides emergency accommodation).
Things were spiralling out of control, but then last year someone told me about Cork Simon and this course. Within two weeks of starting it I had work, and now I'm employed by Clancy's restaurant in the city.
In two weeks' time I'm even getting married to a Filipino girl I met in America. She's still living in the Philippines so we'll get married over there.
I still have to be on the look-out should I start going down the wrong road again of course, but I'm happy now for the first time in years.
TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE WORK CORK SIMON IS INVOLVED IN, OR TO DONATE, VISIT WWW.CORKSIMON.IE.