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'Feed who you see' - Group tackles homeless crisis on city streets

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Volunteers from the IICH (Inner City Helping Homeless) getting ready to go out to help some of the homeless people in Dublin City.

Volunteers from the IICH (Inner City Helping Homeless) getting ready to go out to help some of the homeless people in Dublin City.

Volunteers from the IICH (Inner City Helping Homeless) getting ready to go out to help some of the homeless people in Dublin City.

The temperature is dropping towards zero and Christmas lights are twink-ling across the city centre.

But for many sleeping rough on the streets and in alleyways, decorations mean little. The streets are a cold, tough place for anyone to call home.

Last Wednesday night, 69 homeless people were fed by volunteers from the Inner City Helping the Homeless (ICHH) group. It was just another routine night for the group.

ICHH has just celebrated its first birthday. The group started as a conversation in a pub and now has around 350 volunteers.

With an estimated 168 people sleeping rough in the capital on one night last month, there is a growing need for this support network, whose work begins well before the nightly food and clothing runs begin.

From early evening, Mary Kinlan (Love/Hate actor Laurence Kinlan's mother, hence her nickname 'Elmo's Ma') sets about making more than 150 sandwiches and food packets. These are packed with yogurts, biscuits and, if the stock is there, crisps and chocolate. Flasks are filled to make tea, coffee and hot chocolate.

Volunteer Jason O'Reilly asks where the vegetarian lunchpack is. The group have encountered a Muslim man who sleeps under a flower stall in Henry Street every night. He doesn't want to go to a hostel. There is a cheese sandwich for him.

Two rooms of the ICHH HQ are filled with donated clothes. Jackets, pants and shoes are loaded into suitcases along with packs of socks, gloves and scarves before the volunteers set out.

All are told to stay in groups. "Feed who you see" is the mantra as they leave just before 11pm.

Jason (25) has been involved with ICHH from the start.

"Going out is just part of my life now. It takes lumps out of you - by the weekend you're wrecked, but you'll never walk past a homeless person without trying to help," the childcare worker says.

treatment

First off, a static team sets up at the GPO. Those on the streets expect them - usually there is a queue.

Tonight, things are quieter but people stop by, usually in pairs. They are given new clothes, a hot drink and food. Every Wednesday, 150 pieces of chicken are donated by a Mary Street chipper to ICHH- they go down a treat with the recipients.

"It's going to be a hard winter this year for people who are homeless. You can feel it already," says Stewart from Tipperary, outside the GPO. He is talking as though he is referring to someone else, but the 26-year-old has been living on the streets of Dublin for nine months.

I've just watched him wolf down a doorstep sandwich using the windowsill of the post office as his table. The Christmas decorations peek out at him from behind the glass.

He will sleep rough later, but says he will try to find somewhere safe, away from drunk people.

Some people stop to chat, others are quieter. As people try on second-hand runners, groups of people dressed up for a night out walk past. It is uncomfortable to see the contrast.

Next, we move to Henry Street and then around to Store Street garda station. On some nights people are allowed to sleep in the foyer there. "They like it because the radiators go right around the room," ICHH director Anthony Flynn informs me.

But tonight three men are asked to leave for health and safety reasons. Lord Mayor Christie Burke tries to intervene, but there is nothing to be done. There are no beds available in any of the capital's hostels.

"People think straight away, 'Oh, there's the politician just turning the palm'," says the mayor, who often joins the ICHH volunteers on their rounds.

But he makes calls for sleeping bags for those who don't have them. He tries to talk one man into treatment but he doesn't push it. At the Custom House we encounter a man helping a woman to shoot up. They seem to be struggling to find a vein. We leave them to it, it's too dangerous to intervene.

"That's the territory, folks," says the mayor.

We move to the southside where another team has been weaving through Temple Bar. Dame Street is a busy spot for handouts. The volunteers are pleased that it is a slow night. It means that most people probably have a bed for the night. Alternatively, they have just moved outside of the city centre - this is a growing trend.

We finish at St Stephen's Green. It's 1am and freezing. Some stragglers stop by for a second cup of tea. A soft-spoken woman isn't sure she can ask for another. They offer her underwear and she accepts socks. She is painfully thin, wrapped in layers of mismatched clothes.

The team will return to Killarney Street to decamp and unpack what is left. Mr Burke wonders if the council's cold weather initiative is behind the drop in numbers. Around 100 people who usually meet the team on their nightly run are missing tonight.

But Dublin city centre is a relatively small area and the team have walked most of it in about 90 minutes.

"Sixty homeless people is still too many," Mr Burke says as we leave.

hnews@herald.ie


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