The number of people seeking assistance from the Galway branch of the St Vincent de Paul Society has rocketed by 50 per cent this year.
The charity, which spends €1m in the city annually helping those in need, hopes to raise €400,000 from its Christmas appeal. The combination of the effects of the hard-hitting recession and the recent Budget means more and more people are appealing for help.
It is the first time the society has used the word “urgent” to describe its countrywide drive for donations, according to its local administrator Colm Noonan.
“We are using the word urgent this year, we have never used that word in our appeals before and I’ve been a volunteer with the organisation since the 1970s and been employed here since the 1980s,” he says. “The children’s allowance, the winter fuel allowance and rent allowance were all hit in the Budget. I welcome the fact that social welfare rates were not touched. The Budget, while it did not touch social welfare it got people in other ways.”
He says the fact that the charity’s Christmas collection was down substantially - by 15 per cent - last year meant the organisation had “a lot of making-up to do”.
The face of poverty has changed a lot in the last few years, there is not a family who has not been touched by this “terrible” recession, he outlines.
Many of the people whom the charity helped this year had supported it in the past, he says. The “new poor”, those who were comfortably off previously but are now in financial trouble, come to the society “indirectly”, he explains. A friend may contact it on their behalf or the organisation’s members may be approached.
“Our strength is our members who do their work quietly and anonymously. Help and support is always offered in a confidential and non judgmental way.”
Mr Noonan points out the society spent more than €70m nationally last year helping those in need. “That’s an awful indictment on the state of the country - which was the second wealthiest country five years ago. The bulk of this money is spent on food and fuel.
“We are looking at a very severe winter and people have not caught up [with high fuel bills] since last year. Fuel poverty is a major issue. Fuel is so expensive and people are trying to spare it. If you are unemployed and sitting at home you need heat. It is a major problem, people are being forced to make choices, to put the heat on or off. When the St Vincent de Paul call people are often in bed to save fuel. They are cutting back on food too and having more cereal-type meals.
“People with children are being hit most this year I feel. We are also concerned about the elderly, many will struggle. Grandparents are doing the best they can to help out their children.”
He fears 2012 is going to be a very “tough” year for the society with rising demands for its services. “But it is going to be so much tougher for families. The worst part of the winter is January/February/March. People do whatever they can for Christmas.”
Growing demand for its service has prompted the St Vincent de Paul Society to open additional county branches, including ones in Connemara and Oughterard, and it has re-opened a dormant branch in Portumna. Rural poverty is a growing problem, according to Mr Noonan.
“The sheer [geographical] isolation compounds the problem,” he says. “It is heartbreaking, you see elderly people alone and very isolated. It is harder to get to these people. Television is often the only bit of company they have. Now with the changeover to digital I would have huge concerns for them. We are saying to the Government something has got to be put in place for them.”
He describes the society’s 250 local volunteers as “unsung heroes”, totally committed “foot soldiers” who give their time and energy to helping those in need.
The St Vincent de Paul society is appealing to the public to support its Christmas fundraising appeal. Donations can be forwarded to the charity at Ozanam House, St Augustine Street, Galway. It is also seeking footstuffs.
“While it is lovely to get items like peas, beans and spaghetti ‘luxury’ foods, such as biscuits, sweets, Christmas crackers and soft drinks are really welcome too. We are also looking for toys.”