‘We have lots of people coming for the first time’ – charity boss on rising need

SVP president Rose McGowan said more people in work who need help are coming to them.

Rose McGowan, head of the SVP charity, says there has been a high number of people coming to the charity for the first time, as people struggle with the rising cost of living
Rose McGowan Rose McGowan, head of the SVP charity, says there has been a high number of people coming to the charity for the first time, as people struggle with the rising cost of living

The last year could prove to have been one of St Vincent de Paul’s busiest – with half a million people thought to have contacted the charity looking for help.

Rose McGowan, national president of the anti-poverty charity, has been involved in the organisation for several years and said the noticeable change is the number of people with jobs going to the charity.

She said parents are put under pressure all year round, and will cut down on their food to make sure their children can eat.

Elderly people sometimes go to bed early to stay warm during the colder months.

“Really, what we find is that people juggle; this week they’ll say, I’ll pay my rent because if I pay something off the rent, or pay the rent, at least I won’t be evicted or homeless.

“Next week, I get an energy bill, I need to pay something off that so that I won’t be disconnected. In the meantime, how am I going to afford food? So they would come to us looking for food, and people are cutting back on food, there is no doubt about that.

“Parents are not going to see children hungry, but they cut back themselves.”

She added: “I went into a house recently and a woman had phoned in for help.

“She said, ‘I wish Christmas was over’. I said, ‘we’ll be back, don’t worry, we’ll sort it’.

“Now, I’m a Christmassy person, I love Christmas. And somebody saying ‘I wish Christmas was over’ … that’s really hard to hear in a house where there’s children. And I think back to my own children and the excitement in our house when Santy comes. So parents are under huge pressure.”

She said the previous year was the charity’s busiest in 10 years, with 230,000 calls for help being made, and in 2023 that number was reached by the end of November.

There are also “huge issues” around how the stress of finances is affecting people’s mental health, she added.

“I suppose the biggest change is that it’s not just people on social welfare. People are coming who are working and who are on low pay, mortgages are huge, rents are huge.

“So there’s a spectrum of people and we have lots and lots of people coming for the first time.

“Recently, in my own conference, which is a small group, one of the girls was on the calls and when they rang the lady to say we’d be there, and just give me a little bit of detail before we come, she said, ‘Well, I’m not sure whether I can ask for help – I’m working’.

“Our answer is, of course, you can ask for help, need is our only criteria. But she felt ‘I should be able to afford all of this and shouldn’t be looking for help’.”

She said during one house call, her colleague remarked that the woman aged in her 70s was in bed to keep warm.

“She come down (in a) dressing gown, the whole lot, and I could feel the cold air coming out of the house. And I said ‘have you no heat on?’ and she said ‘it’s costing me 70 euro a week in the metre’. She said ‘I just can’t afford it’.

“So she gets into bed early, she puts it on an hour in the morning, an hour in the early evening. Now she’s an elderly woman in her 70s, and she has emphysema – she should have heat.

“We were calling that night with energy vouchers for her, she was so grateful. She’s on an old age pension, she’s getting the fuel allowance.”

She said that if people come to them, they will get food, toys or whatever else is needed.

“And that’s thanks to our donors who are just amazing. The Irish public are fabulous. We couldn’t survive, we can’t do what we’re doing without donors and without volunteers.”

Ms McGowan also said that they had seen an increase in people visiting their charity shops as sustainability is more important for consumers – particularly young people.

“People come for value as well as to recycle. But certainly, the younger generation they absolutely love the Vincent’s shops and charity shops – I see students in all of the shops and they would be very conscious not throwing things out and recycling and reusing.”