The queue for the food table snakes along Grafton Street, about 80 people long, before turning the corner onto Chatham Street.

The menu on this Monday evening offers choice, lots of it.

Lasagne, shepherd’s pie, or chicken pasta bake. Chicken curry – with rice or chips. Sausages with mash and gravy or chili con carne. Bacon macaroni cheese, vegetarian macaroni cheese, or pesto pasta.

Or, there are burgers, filled rolls, scones and cakes, water, soft drinks, tea and coffee.

Andy Flack sits on Grafton Street across from the Together for Homeless pitch, where volunteers in yellow high-vis jackets are handing out hot meals.

Flack regularly eats from on-street services like this, he says.

He really relied on them while he was unemployed and sleeping in his car, he says. “If I hadn’t had access to this, I don’t know what I would have done.”

Now, he is back working. But he still uses these services sometimes, like when waiting to get paid, he says. The food is good quality and it’s healthier than take-aways, he says.

Seven years ago when they started out, Together for Homeless volunteers would serve around 150 meals a night, says Colette Talbot, one of the founders. Tonight they will serve around 400, she says.

In the fast-moving line there are some people who are homeless, but others with homes but low incomes who have to choose between paying for heating or groceries.

Says Talbot: “We have a lot of elderly people – their pension is not stretching.”

“Every soup run tells the same thing,” says Lorraine O’Connor, founder of the Muslim Sisters of Éire, which runs a food table outside the GPO. “We are all being inundated with demand.”

As groups that give out food each night on the city streets say the need for them is greater than ever, Dublin city councillors have been debating what oversight the council should have of these stalls and stands – and what rules it should set.

Dublin City Council is considering bringing in a permit system to regulate on-street food services, said a recent presentation to councillors on the housing committee, that mentions food safety, charity status, designated spots and more-limited operating hours.

“‌A licensing system, based on compliance with the strengthened standards should be introduced and applied rigorously to all services, to ensure the quality of services and that those not compliant with them are not permitted to operate,” says the presentation.

Councillors discussed the proposals last week. A new permit system would need their support to introduce new bye-laws.

Some councillors say they support regulation, especially when it is to ensure that all services comply with food-safety requirements. But they also want the council to help the voluntary services to meet the requirements.

Many soup runs are not registered charities. To get a permit, they would need to get registered, the presentation also suggests.

Talbot says that the volunteers with Together for Homeless have done food-safety training. She has started the process to register with the Charities Regulator, but still she fears that the council is trying to close down the on-street food services.

“The food is cooked with love,” she says. “A lot of our friends are afraid to sleep in the hostels, they are not safe, and that really needs to be looked at.”

For people on the streets

The council presentation says there are 16 to 20 groups operating these on-street services in the city – but there could be more.

Flack says that at one point he was sleeping in his car and it was lashing rain outside when a volunteer from the Mustard Seed soup run phoned him to find out where he was.

Half an hour later he arrived with hot drinks, sandwiches and a chat. “Absolutely lovely guy,” says Flack. “It meant I didn’t have to go out and get absolutely drenched.”

Not everyone who uses the food services is homeless but they are a lifeline for rough sleepers, says Mary Kilgarriff, the homeless ministry coordinator with Dublin Central Mission. “The food services are absolutely essential.”

Dublin Central Mission is a registered charity based in Abbey Street Methodist Church and Kilgarriff is an employee who runs a street outreach programme staffed by volunteers.

The charity started doing outreach with rough sleepers in 2007. “Back then we knew everyone,” she says. “We have relationships with people going back decades, we would love to close once nobody needs us.”

Nowadays lots more people are becoming homeless, perhaps a relationship breaks down or their mother passes away. “People who grew up in care are much more vulnerable, they have less of a social safety net,” she says.

So far this year, she has seen an increase in people sleeping rough, including women saying that there were no female beds available, she says.

Others report being refused accommodation because they lack a local connection, says Kilgarriff.

Voluntary outreach teams are needed because the bureaucracy involved in trying to access state services is overwhelming.

“I can’t see bye-laws fixing the problem,” she says. “I don’t think we would agree with the DRHE [Dublin Region Homeless Executive] as to what the problem is.”

Meeting rules

Kilgarriff says all food services should comply with food-safety rules. And for their own protection, it is a good idea for voluntary groups to start to register as charities, she says.

In 2021, the HSE started inspecting on-street food services – in other words, soup runs – for compliance with food-safety rules. Since then, many have trained in food safety.

Flack says he worries that regulation will push the services off the main streets where people can find them easily and that some services might not have the money to become registered charities.

With the voluntary services, “all the money they get goes directly to the food, there are no admin charges”, says Flack.

The Muslim Sisters of Éire, a registered charity, runs a food table outside the GPO on Friday nights. Last year they served nearly 20,000 meals and handed out 400 tents to homeless people, according to their Facebook page.

Most on-street services are not registered charities though, says O’Connor. So they would need a long lead in time to be able to comply with the new rules because it takes years to get registered with the charity’s regulator, she says.

Right now the council shouldn’t shut down food services because demand is increasing due to the cost-of-living crisis, says O’Connor.

“Poverty is getting worse,” she says. “The numbers on the street will increase if that is not addressed.”

Kilgarriff also says that any reduction in on-street services would be detrimental.

“We would notice a spike in demand if there was no table at the GPO,” she says. “The level of distress and urgency is much higher.”

The council presentation says times and pitches should be restricted, and suggests that on-street services should only be available Monday to Friday.

Kilgarriff says Sunday is the busiest day for on-street services and they are needed most at weekends when many other services are shut.

“Voluntary services provide invaluable services to people at the weekend when many other services are shut,” says Louisa Santoro, CEO of the Mendicity Institution, a homeless day centre.

All services absolutely must meet legal requirements around food safety, she says, to protect the people eating the food.

Research is needed into the extent of food poverty in the city and a network of food banks might be required in Dublin, says Santoro.

She doesn’t accept the information in the presentation which says that people in private hostels are happy with the food. She has helped multiple people with formal complaints about food in private hostels.

They continue to complain about the quality of food and restrictions on portions including limits on the number of spoons of sugar allowed in tea and coffee, says Santoro.

She also has concerns about safety at soup runs, and previously raised concerns about money lenders exploiting people at on-street food services.

“Regulation of both private emergency accommodation and on-street services is required,” she says.

Filling gaps

“For all the other big services, you have to tick the right boxes,” says Flack. He didn’t.

When he returned to Ireland from the UK, he couldn’t access social welfare because they said he wasn’t habitually resident here.

He couldn’t get a spot in a hostel either as most hostels don’t accept dogs. He ended up sleeping in the car, he says.

He had no money and even take-aways are expensive in Dublin. So these services were vital.

“I get the food-hygiene thing and trying to protect the public,” he says, but he has found the quality of food to be high, in the ones he has tried.

Most of it is home-cooking, similar to what volunteers cook for their own families, he says and some of it comes from food businesses as well, through Food Cloud.

Flack says he likes the informal approach taken by the on-street services. “You’re not an outcast, you’re not a burden on society, you are treated as human,” says Flack.

These services can offer other supports, too, for homeless people.

“We are here with tents, with sleeping bags, with ground mats,” says Talbot of Together for Homeless.

The on-street services won’t move easily from their current pitches, she says. “We are not going to stop, I’ve been doing this for seven years,” says Talbot. “Our friends who come to the table know we are here.”

Will the regulations be introduced?

The new permit system will only be introduced if councillors agree to change bye-laws.

Social Democrats Councillor Karl Stanley and Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí Doolan said they would support some regulation, but want the council to support the voluntary groups to meet it.

“Regulation serves to protect both the service provider and the person receiving the service,” says Doolan. People in homelessness and food poverty should be able to be certain about the quality of the food, he says.

That said, the council should comprehensively consult with on-street food providers, he says. “These people are providing the service through the goodness of their hearts. We need to support them in that.”

Said Stanley: “Safety is the key thing, we really don’t want to overregulate this.”

The people providing these services are the experts, said Stanley. (Since the meeting, he has stepped down as a councillor to return the seat to his party colleague Catherine Stocker.)

The council should run training programmes to help existing services, Stanley says. “The intention is good but we need to do more outreach with the providers.”

Green Party Councillor Janet Horner also said that “there should be appropriate regulation to ensure that food is up to standard and appropriate safeguards are in place”.

People are volunteering their time and providing services that some people rely heavily on, she said. The council shouldn’t clamp down on that, she says, but ensure that it is done safely.

Food poverty is a major issue in the city, says Stanley. More indoor food services may be needed too, he says.

UPDATE: This article was updated at 4.10pm to remove one of the people quoted.

Laoise Neylon is a reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at

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