Opinion

With Deprivation Rising, the Community Has Stepped Up to Help

Dara Quigley portrait
Dara Quigley

Dara Quigley blogs at degreeofuncertainty.wordpress.com. You can reach her via info@dubinq.com, or follow her at @daquigles.

You might expect the government to take note of those CSO figures that came out at the end of January that showed that well over a third of children were experiencing deprivation.

These figures come on the back of a 2014 UNICEF report that found that child poverty had risen by almost 12 percent.

For a twenty-first-century society, this situation should be more than a scandal – it should be a state of emergency.

The tough choices and difficult decisions the government made to pay our 42 percent share of the banking bailout and maintain our place at the top of the austerity class have sent almost 40 percent of our children to bed hungry, leaving them unable to concentrate in school in the morning, their stomachs growling until lunch.

This is the structural violence of austerity. And it’s all hidden behind economic policies leading to real tough choices and stress levels no child should have to experience.

In the year of the centenary of the 1916 Rising, we’re witnessing a state which is attacking unmarried parents by cutting the lone parent allowance and forcing single parents into back-to-work schemes once their child is seven. Children are the inevitable casualty.

As always, when the social contract is this strained, the community rather than the government is what keeps day-to-day life running as smoothly as is possible on the front line of austerity.

Single parents and hungry children are supported, as they always have been, by a network of people all contributing small amounts, donating food and offering the cup of tea and a chat just when they are needed.

So Who’s Looking Out for Us?

One of the expected effects of austerity was the rupturing of the fabric of society, as we fought over the scraps in a competitive, unforgiving world. But that isn’t happening.

Instead, communities are stepping up, like they always have done, to plug as many of the gaps and chasms as they can. They’re even being helped by large corporate chains.

Take what was going on at Whitefriar Aungier Area Community Council in Greenside House on Cuffe Street, when I recently went down there to speak with Brendan Power who runs the centre.

One of the city’s many community-run food banks, it’s a distribution point for donations from social enterprise Food Cloud. A guy called Brian was picking up some supplies because, he said, “food is the easy one to cut back on”.

Staff avoid the word “charity”. And even though some retailers donate food they would otherwise have thrown away, others set aside enough to provide a supply of high-quality food. Classes in healthy eating and even tending the community garden are advertised everywhere in the centre.

“It’s a great place,” said Paddy O’Donovan of Bishop’s Square. “I used to come down here for four other men who can’t make the trip. Lifesaver for families now. Food goes fast with kids.”

Paddy filled me in on the places I could get a hot meal for a €1 or less.

Far from rupturing it, austerity has tightened the cohesion of this community in the Liberties, and many others. (Although this one has been around long enough to see empires come and go while maintaining safety nets and helping hands for those who need them the most.)

There is an intense pride in this: that no matter how bad things get, there will always be a safety net of sorts.

Matriarchs

This safety net is maintained by the most dedicated, like the powerhouse of a woman I found myself chatting with.

They match their effect on the community only with their steadfast refusal to acknowledge that they are doing anything special that would merit them being singled out, or identified.

I was directed her way both in the community centre, from friends, and by word of mouth in the Liberties area. And then I was allowed to invite myself over for a cup of tea and a chat.

She told me about some of the work I had seen first hand. She’d been part of a group of ladies who ran an after-school club for children whose parents had drug problems.

She was quick to talk down the drug angle, and utterly clear that this centre is a community effort, and she is just one of many volunteers. Although retired, she also helps to organise bridge for the other women like her who would otherwise be alone.

She also told me about the local penny dinners, which have been in existence for over 100 years and are still feeding people for a small donation, and giving them a slap-up meal for the full price of a few euro.

Officially, and from this trusted source, this centre was started by the church. But I was later pulled aside and told not to mind that.

“It’s always the community, it’s always people who do it,” said a guy called Dave from Pimlico, a local community member who tends one of the plots in the Fatima community garden.

Since the water protests began, I’ve often heard confusion expressed as to who and what communities are.

Dave summed it up nicely: “The community is what’s there when no one else is.” And this one has been adapting, and working with as many people as possible for a very long time.

Opening When They Should Be Closing

The government lacks the self-awareness to realise that Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton should be turning up at the closings of food banks, not the openings.

Talking up an incredibly unequal recovery on the back of all those “adjustments”, as more and more safety nets are cut, the government doesn’t seem to think that keeping its citizens out of food poverty is a priority – or something they should have to do.

Although the Department of Social Protection couldn’t be convinced to comment on food banks or their role in keeping citizens out of poverty, I found insight in the most unexpected of places: Lidl.

“Food poverty is a huge issue in this country so we have put into practice a very simple idea, giving surplus food to those who need it,” said Lidl spokesperson Caitriona McCarry. “We are very proud of the fact that we can help Crosscare and Bia Food Initiative in supporting individuals and families to cope with food poverty and make a small difference in their lives.”

She also said: “Our chief ambassador, Paul Flynn, helped us to launch the partnership with Bia Food and was quite struck with how bad food poverty is in this country.”

I remarked on how struck I was that a supermarket chain has a greater insight into the crippling levels of poverty in the country and the implications for their day-to-day lives than the state, which refuses to provide these services, while continuing to attack other vital services.

Communities at the sharp edge of government policy have a nearly instinctive understanding of how power works. It’s no coincidence that as we’ve moved from being colonised by the Catholic empire to the being colonised by the corporate one. The communities know exactly who can get things done.

Back around the Whitefriar community centre, more than a hundred years after the penny dinners began, Jette, an incredibly friendly and healthy American food stylist, bounces in with trays of beautifully styled food to donate.

Community-run food programmes are common in the US, she told me. And with “this growing poverty, the levels are so high now . . . and waste, I mean there’s a lot of waste here”, she had wanted to donate some food.

After searching on Yelp for a place to give it to, she had tried a hostel, which had refused it, because it wasn’t sealed. Word of mouth helped her find her way to the centre.

The staff here are incredibly friendly, as they have been the entire time I’ve known them. People from the local community are hired, and, within weeks, a lot more people than you’ve spoken to know your name.

A Lifeline

When I first moved to Rathmines a few years ago, I felt like a refugee in my own city.

Neighbours barely nod, let alone loan sugar and chats. A year down the line, during a difficult time for me, I found myself gravitating away from Rathmines.

That’s when I had my first encounter with the community safety nets, designed to catch anyone who needs them in this local community centre and food bank.

It’s since become a home away from home, and has helped me from the first time I went in, head down, to grab some yogurts and bread. The staff were friendly and didn’t react to the tears which welled up before dropping on to a sign-in sheet. After hearing some stories, I’m not surprised.

As I got back on my feet, the various classes and courses on offer started to grab my attention. Tai chi and yoga classes for €4 or a donation. An instructor who asks for €1 each for classes that run for up to two and a half hours.

This is dedication you don’t see in most private courses. The same can be said for the homework club, or for Brendan, who is up early managing deliveries, connections and the community garden, which he encourages the kids to work in.

The garden provides a sense of pride and a knowledge of food, resilience and a mesh for the community explained Aoibheann, who helped establish Food Cloud. It also allows them to reach men like Brian, who I spoke to earlier. Along with the local garden here, there is a men’s shed and a larger garden in Fatima, which even boasts a bio-dome and a cafe with reduced prices.

The social aspect is as important as any other. ‘Some days, you come out for a few hours and feel like you’ve done a days work,” said James, at the Fatima community garden. “Getting out and about, working with the plants and that – clears the head.”

The food produced from the larger garden is also shared around centers, but it is meager and a long way from providing more than a few bags of fresh vegetables with taste. Running water in the gardens from Dublin City Council would help.

But for a community which has protected its interests and its members for over a hundred years, working with whoever is the dominant power – be it Lidl or the Catholic Church – and getting what they need to survive, running water is something I’m sure they’ll work out.

[CORRECTION: This article was corrected at 9.10 am on Thursday 4 February. An early version got the name of the Whitefriar Aungier Area Community Council wrong. Apologies for the mistake.]

 

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