On the streets of Cork City, a Christian organisation and charity called ‘Hope for the Homeless’ is trying to make a difference. Led by Cork woman Gillian Horgan, the volunteers gives support to Cork’s homeless; every other Friday night meeting outside Brown Thomas before traversing the streets in groups, providing food, clothing, financial assistance and a kind and listening ear.
Nine years ago Gillian Horgan herself was going through a tough time struggling with an addiction. “My faith got me through and I just wanted to bring hope to people who didn’t have any,” she explains to Mary O’Brien. Gillian went on to complete courses in youth and community work and addiction studies. After doing a work placement at The Light House, a homeless outreach centre with a Christian mission in Dublin, she says she realised that this is what she needed to do in Cork. In September 2016, ‘Hope for the Homeless’ was born.
The Hope Café is open every Saturday in The Haven, Bachelors Quay, where a hot meal, shelter and support is provided for those who really need it. The organisation also tries to place one person each weekend in a B&B to have a comfortable and warm night.
The Hope 12 Steps recovery programme is also available every Tuesday in The Haven for anyone trying to overcome addictions.
While the longterm vision of the organisation is to have its own building, right now the group is fundraising for a van. It would allow volunteers to collect donations from anywhere in County Cork, carry any clothing and food to outreach locations and also carry emergency kits for anyone sleeping on the streets of Cork.
“There are people ranging in age from 19 to 71 but we are seeing a lot of young people, under 30, on the streets,” says Gillian. “One young woman came up to us a few weeks ago in an awful state; she’d found out she was pregnant. We put her up in a B&B for a few nights. Another girl’s boyfriend threatened to beat her up in front of us. We helped her get back to her family in the UK.
“The way I look at it is if you can help even one person, you’re making a difference. We’re trying to help people live a purposeful live…to be what they can be.
“People are quick to judge but you shouldn’t tar everyone with the same brush,” says Gillian passionately. “There are a lot of people out there who didn’t become homeless through their own fault. It’s not all down to addiction; there are lots of people who have lost their jobs, have suffered abuse or have problems with their families.
“People living on the streets get beaten up, robbed and urinated on every day of the week. That’s always someone’s daughter, son, mother or father. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity, we’re all human beings.”
West Cork women Bernie Walsh, her daughter Sharon, and Lorraine Marshall-King are volunteers with Hope for the Homeless.
Bernie’s brother died on the streets of Cork outside Simon ten years ago.
“There are lots of people out there on the streets,” says Bernie, “people who have been priced out of the private rental market, people who are afraid to go into hostels because they feel they’re not safe and people with addictions. But they’re all beautiful people and none of them want to be on the streets. Because they don’t have an address, these people can’t access supports or education and they’re marginalised.
“Not one of us can say we’ll never be homeless in the future, it can knock on anyone’s door.”
“I feel very sympathetic towards somebody who’s just sitting there, invisible to many,” says Lorraine.
“We meet these people week in, week out, in Cork City; some of them are just desperate for a Friday night to come around, just to talk and have a conversation. It gives them some hope.”
When she first started volunteering with Hope for the Homeless, Lorraine admits she did feel awkward and at a loss. “But then I stopped and thought about it and just started a conversation like I would with anyone else.
“You do get frustrated. What we’re doing is like putting a sticking plaster on a wound; we’re just patching it up, but it’s still important to do it because you might be the difference between life and death for someone.”
After seven hours on the streets through a Friday night and Saturday morning, Lorraine says she feels wiped out. “And these people are constantly in a place of ‘coping’ on the streets. They’re either a target or they’re ignored. It’s like people can’t see their value as human beings anymore. And there are such a lot of kindhearted, generous, really good people there. I don’t know how they keep going.”
“One night we came across a girl who was drunk, very upset, aggressive, and you could see she was self-harming,” says Bernie. “She started crying and out of the blue said ‘Why did my mother have to hang herself in front of me when I was five? Why did my father have to rape me? Why did my brothers have to rape me too?’ I think she’s the bravest woman I’ve ever met. I absolutely admire her for the fact that she’s fought to live. All I could do was wrap my arms around her and let her cry.”
“The next time you see somebody on the streets, before judging, I want you to stop and consider what their story is,” says Bernie emotionally.
“There’s another young person on the streets who introduced himself to me as a ‘transgender Pentecostal Christian’.
“When he was a little boy his stepfather disciplined him by chaining him to a wall and throwing him food. His mother didn’t intervene. He was beaten. He was raped by his 16-year-old brother.
“One father from West Cork, now on the streets, ended up there after pulling his daughter out of a bath. She had overdosed on heroin.
“There are so many stories, so many sad stories,” says Bernie.
“And there’s so many people using substances like heroin to run away from the pain. You can smell it on the streets and you can see it in their faces.
“These were once children and their childhoods were stolen from them.”
Hope for the Homeless is only possible because of the kind support and compassion of the public, which is constantly needed. The charity is always looking for volunteers – of any religion or none – and donations of clothes, shoes and toiletries. For more information go to www.facebook.com/hopehomeless/ or contact Gillian on 086 0557115.