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Making it through

The father of three young children was very anxious about money he and his wife owed to family and friends, which they had borrowed to keep on top of bills.

He had been out of work for 12 months, and with no work on the horizon, opening the family's front door to Rose McGowan from the St Vincent de Paul was the couple's last desperate resort to pay for a crippling heating bill after the very cold spell.

"After years and years of usually meeting women, and it being women who sorted out a family's problems and kept the show on the road, now I am meeting couples," says Rose, president of the St Vincent de Paul Dublin Region.

"Partners are sitting down together as a couple to sort out the family's finances. It is a new generation of joint bank accounts and more openness from men, and I find it very encouraging that couples are there for each other more now, that they are supporting each other more," she says.

"The man said to me that he felt terrible because he felt it was his responsibility to support his family. It was his first time to ask for help in this way, he had worked all his life and his wife had given up work to mind their small children.

"It can be a terrifying position for families to find themselves in, and I could see that in them. They felt they had no one else to turn to for the money to pay for a heating bill for that very cold spell we had.

"They just didn't feel they could ask anything more from their friends and family," says Rose, who has volunteered for the St Vincent de Paul for more than 30 years, beginning when she was in school, and who in the past 24 months has seen the numbers seeking help in the Dublin area rise by 40pc.

It is estimated that in excess of 3,000 families are being actively supported by St Vincent de Paul in the Dublin region. This is expected to rise significantly with the advent of communions and confirmations. Most recipients need help with fuel bills, rent/mortgage advice and their children's education.

Gambling

Rose says: "Every case is different, but what this first visit had in common with other families I have visited is that there was a lot of nervousness at the outset. I or any other volunteer is an unknown to them, and I could sense they were afraid of any question I might ask.

Roses stresses that the St Vincent de Paul is a non-judgmental organisation. "Our job is to suggest ways people can get out of their financial difficulties, and to support them through what they have to go through to get back on their feet again. It's never been my business to point out that someone has a problem with drink or gambling, but I can suggest other organisations which a family may seek help from.

"It is not my business to comment on any credit card bills which people might have, although I do hear it from people who say: 'You help out families who have credit cards!' One woman said to me recently that she was still using her credit card and I said 'Oh Janey', but she then went on to tell me that she had bought the previous week's shopping on the credit card.

"Honestly, if I think anything it's thank God I don't have the stress of large credit card bills. But if that's the situation people find themselves in for whatever reasons, then it is a situation they need help to get out of.

"In the same way it's not for me to judge if a family had two cars in the drive. My only concern is to get young families to talk openly and honestly about the situation they have found themselves in so we can get a full picture of what needs to be done.

"If anyone doubts that these people have real money problems, ask yourself what it would take to ring me up and invite me to meet and discuss finances. It's hard for people, and I love it when they offer me a cup of tea as it's a real ice breaker from both sides.

"We talk about a football match on the telly, or Fair City, and then the reason they invited me for a chat. Often people ring up and say an ESB bill has to be paid. But as they talk and I listen, a whole different picture will emerge of the situation they are in. I always tell them that putting things on the table is the hardest part," Rose says.

"We're not just about a quick injection of cash to stop a family losing heat for their home. We're not just about food vouchers, although we give them out. We are about directing people towards help, whether it is assisting them in seeking help from the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS), or negotiating with people they owe money to, or sending someone in with them to talk about their mortgage arrears.

"We can't take on people's mortgages, it is too big an amount of money for us, but we do have people who are very experienced in this area, and who can go in with people to their mortgage holder and help them negotiate. When you are stressed and distressed, just feeling someone is on your side can make a huge difference," Rose says.

She adds: "I don't know how long I will be seeing the young couple with three children who needed money for their heating bill. When I asked the couple what they would wish for most, the man said it would be to repay the friends and family who so far have helped bail them out. I suppose our priority is to meet the bills needed to keep the home operating.

"It's a new world for people like this couple, who have worked all their lives and have never asked for anything, and who now feel that their money business isn't private. It's a devastating place for them. But I honestly think the situation in this country is going to improve. It worries me that in the meantime people won't feel that they can approach the St Vincent de Paul, but that's what we are here for," Rose says.

For advice or assistance from the St Vincent de Paul, or to volunteer or to donate, phone 01 8550022.


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