How St Vincent de Paul €10m voucher system gives people back their dignity
THE vouchers look just like any you'd get as a gift or a special treat at any time of the year.
Some are for Dunnes Stores, others are for Aldi and Lidl, while the Tesco gift cards have a seasonal ribbon and bow on them.
The St Vincent De Paul spends almost €10m annually helping families and individuals put food on the table.
Getting the help to the right people in the right way means that cash is never handed out by the charity.
It's a high-wire act maintaining the dignity of those receiving assistance; these vouchers ensure food can be bought discreetly and without any stigma.
Even though the SVP also hands out Christmas hampers, the voucher system means families can make their own choices, though alcohol cannot be bought under the scheme.
"You can go into a supermarket without having to show the world you have taken some help and that's huge," says a spokesman for the country's largest, voluntary charitable organisation.
This Christmas, thousands of people will be able to feed themselves and their children with the support of the SVP from its annual €80m budget.
For others, a Christmas hamper made up of essentials and the odd little luxury will be delivered to their homes.
Some will contain unwanted corporate gifts, while foods include cheddar cheese blocks donated by the European Union and long-life foods from different supermarkets.
The Irish Independent has partnered the SVP in asking our readers to donate to the society's annual Christmas appeal.
The requests are taken up by a 10,500-strong army of volunteers spread across 1,200 chapters where direct contact is made with the person or family seeking help.
It's not just food, though. Fuel poverty is a major issue and in a report last year the SVP uncovered that rural older people were twice as likely to lack central heating than their urban counterparts.
Fuel was the greatest single demand on their income after food. Some reported going to bed early to conserve heat and light.
The SVP spends between €4m and €5m helping people keep the lights on and stay warm and countless hours intervening on behalf of people struggling to pay energy bills.
It buys coal, distributes fuel logs gifted to their head office and helps with oil fills.
"Access to heat and light is an enormous issue," says John-Mark McCafferty, the SVP's head of social justice and policy. "We've seen an 80pc increase in calls from 2009 to 2011.
"In 2010, our spend on energy alone was €8.8m and while we expect that to be even higher for 2011, the numbers are not yet in."
Mr McCafferty says the aim these days is to help people avoid getting to the stage of disconnection.
Surprisingly, it's almost always younger people, of a working age, who get into difficulty, rather than older people.
Mr McCafferty adds: "Older people are more sparing and perhaps afraid to get into trouble so they are more likely to go without heat and light."
As a result, the SVP is advocating the use of Pay As You Go meters as the best way of staying on top of costs.
Welfare recipients can get them installed for free while others can expect to pay around €300.
One SVP official with experience of people who can't keep up with payments is Brendan Hennessy, based in Cork.
As a national membership liaison officer, part of his role is to hear what issues volunteers are dealing with.
"The figure that most concerns me is the number of around 400,000 people who are in payment programmes," he says.
"A lot of those people are repeats, meaning that they are in a second repayment programme after the first one did not work. Energy arrears is a major issue and it shows that people have been robbing Peter to pay Paul."
Mr Hennessy supports the SVP's push to educate about over-consuming electricity – the practice of unintentionally using far more than required.
This year, the Irish Independent has partnered the St Vincent de Paul charity in an appeal to our readers to give generously to 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