Sunday 16 June 2019

Soup kitchen provides lifeline for the homeless

Balbriggan soup kitchen was busy over the festive period

Founder Mark O'Neill
Founder Mark O'Neill

Ken Phelan

Opened in September of this year, Balbriggan Soup Kitchen continues to grow in strength, providing much-needed respite for the less fortunate and marginalised in the Fingal town.

Despite the centre's many challenges, it has quickly gained momentum, and offers not just nourishment and warmth, but the promise of friendship and hope to members of the community who feel they have none.

Not just for the homeless, Balbriggan Soup Kitchen opens its doors to anyone going through difficult times - the single mother or father, the alcohol-dependent, the drug addicted, the mentally ill and the elderly.

Visiting the centre in the run-up to Christmas, The Fingal Independent speaks to founder Mark O'Neill, who explains how the service is doing so far:

'Things are very, very busy at the moment. The food parcel service in Balbriggan is up to between 130 to 145 parcels a week, whereas when we were originally operating out of Drogheda, we were only bringing about 30 or 35 parcels to the area. It's a bit of a nightmare at the moment, but we have enough supplies which is great.'

He says: 'The media have done great coverage on us, and word of mouth has travelled very fast. It's a small town when it comes to something like this, so I think most people know about us at this stage. Christmas is obviously very busy, so where we would normally do between 350 and 370 deliveries between the three centres, we're probably touching about 800.'

Balbriggan Soup Kitchen offers both a restaurant and a parcel delivery service, depending on a person's needs. Food parcels are dropped to front doors by unmarked vans, 'to preserve people's dignity'. Many families, Mark says, would avail of this service, which allows children to stay at home and eat in a family environment.

Mark says: 'You have a lot of people who would be regulars. In our other centres in Drogheda and Navan for example, you might have people who only need the service for four to six weeks when they're under pressure. They might come back to you three or four months done the line, but that's the way it goes.

'People can fall behind on their mortgage payments or their rents, so we bridge that gap for them to catch up. Christmas is an expensive time of the year; every mother and father wants to spoil their children, so they often neglect something else in doing so. Food-wise, we'd be able to keep them going throughout the Christmas, and that makes a big difference.'

According to Mark, a lot of single mothers and single fathers would drop in to the soup kitchen, with the centre also receiving a lot of referrals from the HSE and resource centres. These could be for people with addiction or mental health problems, though he says he doesn't ask questions, as to him it's not important.

He says: 'You have individuals with drink problems, drug problems, health problems... We have a lot of pensioners in this time of year too, who simply can't afford to eat or heat their home. For them, it's one or the other, especially if it's one pensioner on their own. It can be very very difficult for them to manage. They tend to come up to us for the two or three months of the winter time, and it's a chat and conversation for them as well.

'If we have enough volunteers on the day, we like them to sit down with people and have a chat, just to say 'how are things' and a few kind words. We like the volunteers to get to know people on a first-name basis, because there's nothing as nice as walking in and someone saying 'howya John?', or whatever your name may be. It's a practice that we always had in Drogheda and Navan, and that we'll continue to have.'

He adds: 'We have people of all ages coming in. Today for example, school finishes at three, so we'll have maybe four families who come in with their children at that particular time. We're getting food parcels out to them, so eventually you won't see them here, which is probably better for the children.'

With centres already open in Drogheda, Navan and Balbriggan, Mark says a new centre is due to open shortly in Dundalk. So far this week, he says, he has still managed to deliver 'over one hundred' food parcels to the area.

Such is the success of the three existing soup kitchens, there are now plans to open centres in Mullingar, Tullamore and Galway, all under Mark's leadership. He has, he says, 'a good board of directors' - an ex-superintendent, a garda inspector and a lady from the Meath Enterprise - between themselves and Mark himself, a formidable force.

Speaking of how he got involved in the project, Mark says:

'I was a publican, and I had five pubs as well as restaurants and apartments, and all that kind of thing. When the recession hit, I got rid of an awful lot of property. I got caught with one or two things, but overall I would have done considerably well.

'I had a quadruple bypass in 2010 and I was at home twiddling my thumbs, and my daughter told me there was a guy over in the west doing soup kitchens, and suggested I go and have a look at what he was doing. So I went and looked at two or three soup kitchens, and to be honest, I didn't like what I saw.'

He says: 'I know people will say 'when you're hungry you're hungry', but I don't think that's right. It doesn't have to be hotel quality food you serve, but to keep people's dignity, it has to be good products out there. I just felt that if I was going to do something like this myself, that I'd have to it the right way, with fully-fitted kitchens and decent nourishing food.

'So that's the way we've done it; we have a full Irish breakfast in the morning, along with cereal, tea and coffee and toast, and a choice of maybe two or three meals at dinner time. We have a big supplier who provides most of our food and there's a lot of goodwill from different towns, so you get bits and pieces here and there.'

Mark says the reaction from the Balbriggan community has been 'absolutely fantastic', with even representatives from the Chamber of Commerce and Intreo coming in for a cup of tea and voicing their support. The centre also has the full backing of local Cllr Malachy Quinn, 'a good solid worker' whom Mark says he works with 'hand in hand.'

Balbriggan Soup Kitchen remained open from December 23 until January 2 from 11am to 2pm daily, and to allow volunteers at least some chance to spend time with their own families.

It's thanks to Mark and his band of volunteers that at least a little festive peace and goodwill will spread throught the whole of Balbriggan this Christmas, along with the promise that no-one this festive season will go without a decent meal.

Fingal Independent