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Belfast soup kitchen sees demand rise more than tenfold

Paul McCusker outside St Patrick's Soup Kitchen in Donegall Street, Belfast. Picture by Matt Bohill
Marie Louise McConville

ST Patrick’s Soup Kitchen, which opened on Donegall Street in Belfast in April 2017, initially served an average of 20 meals each weekend but two years on, it dishes out almost 250.

Set up by then St Patrick's priest Fr Dominic McGrattan and homeless support worker Paul McCusker, after they recognised the growing needs of homeless and those suffering with addictions, the facility opened with a basic service consisting of just a tea trolley with warm drinks and sandwiches.

Now, having had to move into bigger premises but still based at St Patrick's Church, the soup kitchen offers a range of services including hot food, a clothes bank and a food bank.

Users of the facility, which opens from 7pm-11pm on a Friday and Saturday, include rough sleepers, families with young children, pensioners and young people, all of whom have found themselves on the periphery of society and struggling to make ends meet.

For many of those who turn up for a hot meal, it is the only one they will have perhaps for days and the only company they will enjoy from week to week.

Many of those using the soup kitchen are living in hostels which they must leave by 7am.

Some are parents under pressure to feed their young families following changes to the benefits system, while some have lost their homes and families through addiction.

There are even one or two who live in their cars because they have nothing and no-one.

On leaving the soup kitchen after a hot meal and dessert, many will bring with them bags of sandwiches as well as used clothes, toiletries and a food parcel, which will get them through the week until they return to St Patrick's.

Mr McCusker said demand for the services continues to grow.

Paul McCusker (left) pictured with his team of volunteers at St Partrick's Soup Kitchen. Pictured from left are Paul McCusker, Elenor Fennell, Marion Hughes, Geraldine Smyth and Rita Campbell. Picture Matt Bohill

He said before the soup kitchen opens on a Friday night, he has often taken numerous calls for emergency food parcels.

"One of the big things we recognise is there’s a whole stigma around food banks, people are embarrassed," he said.

"When people come here, we don’t ask any questions. If they need food, we will give it and support the need.

"You also then have rough sleepers who come here. We make sure we get them off the streets and signpost them to the Salvation Army.

Read More: Rough sleepers 'on the increase', councillor warns

"The mixture of people who would use here would be families experiencing poverty, people who are homeless, both people in hostels and on the street, and people also who are socially isolated.

"You get a lot of older people coming down just to have a chat, a cup of tea, meet new friends. We have families who present from small babies to adults, the oldest probably in their eighties.

"At the minute, we are sitting at 50 volunteers aged from 16 to their seventies.

"Numbers have obviously increased. There's a need from people who are experiencing the knock-on of Universal Credit, the welfare reform that has been introduced. It’s crippling people and people are feeling the pinch around either heat or eat in their own homes.

"We want to use this place as a very safe environment. It’s about food and listening as well. People are lonely, we are probably the first people they have spoken to all day."

Mr McCusker, who is an SDLP councillor in north Belfast and a qualified nurse, said the facility is completely reliant on donations and goodwill.

"The community have been very supportive to us. From day one, since we opened. I think Belfast, beside all the negative stuff, when it comes to actually supporting each other, Belfast is very good," he said.

"We have had money donations too and we buy the food.

"This is all volunteer based. They are from different backgrounds, from disability workers and retirees to students. Many of the volunteers who do it, keep on doing it.

"You meet the most inspirational people, from people who have lost their way in life to people who have a family at home but can’t return because of addiction.

"They are people who are generally in a dark place and have nowhere else to go."

The north Belfast man said those who use the facility receive support and can be signposted to other services.

He added that the soup kitchen is looking at enhancing its services over the summer break, such is the need.

"Obviously the schools are closed, the children will no doubt go without food, so we are looking at maybe opening a few days over the summer months during the week to specifically look at families to make sure the kids are fed," he said.

Martin Quinn eats a meal at St Patrick's Soup Kitchen. Picture Matt Bohill

"We are looking at maybe opening more nights. Last Saturday, we did a drop-in from 11.30pm to 7am. It’s a similar service but at night. There's food and if they need anything it will be there. Last Saturday, we had six rough sleepers with us overnight at the night time drop-in.

"There’s massive pressures on the current services around emergency accommodation. Today there are no beds in Belfast. From 3pm today, that’s also including families and also individuals.

"Last week, we had a couple and an 18-month-old baby and despite our efforts we couldn't get them a bed and they spent the night in their car."

He continued: "We’re basically meeting their immediate need but how do we then move them to the next level that they are not going to have to use a soup kitchen but there isn’t anything like that in place.

"When people are queuing up with their kids to come to the soup kitchen on a Friday night one of the things our volunteers recognise is how to break that cycle. We can feed them and clothe them and support them but how does that young person break that cycle and their family break that cycle of actually having to use a soup kitchen?

Volunteers Linda Duffy and Rosaleen Beattie sort out clothes donations at the soup kitchen. Picture Matt Bohill

"Here is open to any religion, even though it's attached to a Catholic church. The need is definitely in the communities around welfare reform.

"This lady actually came down a few weeks ago and drove outside and parked and asked for something to eat. She was sleeping in her car. There's mothers and fathers who use here who have lost their way because of addiction. We had three overdoses last weekend just here in the soup kitchen.

"What we do in here, we also do on the streets. The team will head out around 9pm and they will spend a few hours bringing, clothes and food to the rough sleeping. The main thing is to get them off the streets."

He added: "In terms of poverty and people suffering, we know it is on the increase. The situation is dire. We assess and we provide support and we make sure people get the right help and intervention they need.

"All services are stretched to the bare bones.

"The main thing is to highlight we are here and people can donate. No-one should be going hungry in Belfast in 2019 but unfortunately, that is the sad reality".

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STORY 1: Thomas John Galeraith

Newry native Thomas John Galeraith is a regular face at St Patrick's Soup Kitchen.

The 64-year-old found himself in need around nine months ago when his marriage broke down.

Having moved to Belfast, he stayed at the Morning Star Hostel but the father-of-six decided he no longer wanted to be there.

Newry man Thomas John Galeraith, who is a regular face at St Patrick's Soup Kitchen, has been sleeping in his car since his marriage broke down. Picture by Matt Bohill

He found the funds for a Toyota car in which he has been sleeping for the last eight months.

Despite this, he considers himself lucky because he is not sleeping on the streets.

"I left home when my marriage broke down," he said.

"I have been living in my car for the past eight months. It's a roof over my head. You put the seat back but you sometimes wake up three or four times a night. It's not comfortable.

"I go up the Crumlin Road and park. I'm the happiest man going. It's not the ideal roof but I have the car."

Mr Galeraith said he goes to St Patrick's Soup Kitchen both for the food and the company.

"I am waiting on a house in Newry. All you can do is wait," he said.

"I go for a walk every day. I hoke the skips for anything you can sell in the scrap yards.

"There's people out there have families and need a house more than me. Rome wasn't built in a day. There's people need help more than me.

"I mostly come here for the chat, make new friends and get a bit to eat. I take the odd bit if I need it. They are doing a great job here. People would be lost without this place".

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STORY 2: Sonya McKnight

Two years ago, Sonya McKnight was living a normal life, working in an office and living in a house.

However, when her marriage broke down in 2017, she found herself on the streets with nowhere to go and no-one to turn to.

She was left with no choice but to seek emergency accommodation at a Simon Community hostel, and to make matters worse, the then 42-year-old was made redundant from her admin job.

"I ended up with mental health issues," she said.

Sonya McKnight (right), who found herself homeless and redundant two years ago, pictured with soup kitchen volunteer, Colleen Scott. Picture Matt Bohill

"It's a struggle living on Jobseeker's Allowance. I didn't have the money to have a meal at night. There's some people don't have food."

After discovering St Patrick's Soup Kitchen, the Newtownabbey woman found the help she needed.

Volunteer Colleen Scott befriended Sonya when she would arrive and helped support her through some of her darkest days.

"I get a hot meal and a dessert," she said.

"I also come here for the company. It's a life saver for some people. What Paul and his team have done here, I would recommend to anybody. You come here and ask and they will point you in the right direction."

Now in her own house, back at college studying for new qualifications and volunteering for a number of charities, Sonya said her life is back on track.

"My life in the last two years has been a struggle," she said.

"Until you have been there, you don't know. You don't realise it until it comes to your door. The old saying `You are only a pay check away from homelessness' - I didn't think I would be a pay check away.

"I'm a better, independent, stronger woman now."

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STORY 3: Lenny Craig

Lisburn man Lenny Craig had his first pint at the age of 15 and an addiction to alcohol soon followed.

After a number of relationship breakdowns, the now 47-year-old found his life hit rock bottom in 2012 when his 13-year-old son died as a result of appendicitis and septicaemia. on his daughter's birthday.

Admitting he "hit the drink", he said he "lost my relationship with my children" and later found himself in and out of rehab.

Lisburn man Lenny Craig, who has now been sober for 90 days, now volunteers at St Patrick's Soup Kitchen to help others. Picture Matt Bohill

Now living at Rosemount House on the Antrim Road, he has been sober for more than 90 days and is determined to continue to improve his life.

He now volunteers at St Patrick's Soup Kitchen where he supports others going through the same experiences.

"I have been on the streets," he said.

"They are going through mental torture. They are getting beaten on the streets, getting urinated on and women are vulnerable.

"This offers them a bit of shelter. It helps me in my recovery".

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** Donations including non-perishable food, toiletries and clothing can be dropped off at St Patrick's Soup Kitchen on Donegall Street, beside St Patrick's Church, between 7pm and 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays.

Arrangements can also be made for donations to be picked up. Contact Paul McCusker on 07467 339637.

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