Sonya MacMahon the driving force behind the Help Our Homeless bus for Kingscourt.

All aboard to help homeless

A Kingscourt woman is planning to enlist local tradespeople to help tackle the homeless crisis.

“I have donated a double-decker bus,” said Sonya McMahon, who owns 'Little Buds' florist in the town. “I'm hoping members of the local community will help me to convert it into sleeping pods, sleeping either eight men or women at any time.”

She is hopeful that Dublin County Council will allocate a piece of land to turn into a community area and park the bus.

“Something similar was in Bristol,” explains Sonya, “which started with a bus, and now they have shipping containers, where people stay for up to a year until they get a house or whatever they need.”

She also plans to do something in the local area as well.

“I’d like to do something for homeless people in Cavan. I see more and more people sleeping rough but also a lot of vacant properties, so something needs to be done.”

Sonya has been committed to helping the homeless for the past three years.

“During the first lockdown I decided to feed the homeless because a lot of the charities who had been doing it had stopped due to Covid,” she recalls. “I put a status on Facebook looking for people to donate food such as buns, sandwiches, or crisps etc, then I’d bring it to the homeless and feed them.”

Her husband Gerard and kids- Courtney, Jason, and Katie- also chipped in while Gardaí provided permission for them to travel given the nature of their work. From there Help Our Homeless was born.

“If I had known then what it would entail I wouldn’t have done it. We started out bringing up food to another charity that distributed it for us, but then decided to do it ourselves.

“We set up at the GPO one night feeding 200-300 people a week. At the time there was nobody on the streets only the homeless and those who couldn’t feed themselves. We continued at this for a year before moving to three nights a week.”

Since then they have expanded their operations considerably.

“We give out tents, clothes, blankets as well as food seven nights a week to up to 800-1,000 people. Currently we have two vans, one in Kingscourt that brings food to Dublin. The other is based in Dublin and travels around places like Fairview Park, Malahide Beach, Howth Beach, and St Anne's Park because there are lots of homeless people there who are afraid to come into the city centre because it is too rough. We give out supplies and check on them to make sure they’re ok.”

A wide network of people across Cavan, Monaghan, and Meath make the deliveries possible.

“We have a collection point in Kingscourt on Sunday and Monday. People can also drop in food at my flower shop in Kingscourt. There are also collections in Carrickmacross, Shercock, Cootehill, and Castleblayney where people drop things in.

“We also have a host of 35-40 people who volunteer to give food out. Some of them might do one shift every six months, but others do it every week. On any given night there can be up to 10 people working.”

Running the organisation is challenging, as it is not yet a registered charity, which limits the amount of funding it can get.

“We’re not allowed to take money because we’re not properly registered, but it is something we’re trying to do. Last year we spent a lot of our own money getting set up. We have people and schools doing fundraisers and donating vouchers, but it’s mostly self-funded.”

She finds the process of setting up as a charity frustrating and laborious.

“There is a lot of work getting registered as a charity, especially with getting policies and documents together. I’ve done five nights feeding this week and don’t get home until after 12. When I get home to sit down to do registrations I’m generally too tired to look at the computer and put it off until the next day, but then the same thing happens again.

“Some of the authorities don’t want us to operate until we’re registered, but it’s very hard to do that. I can’t tell anyone we’re not feeding them.”

Despite the venture taking a huge effort, on top of her own job, Sonya can't walk away from it.

“If I’m going to Dublin I close my shop early, at around 3.30 pm. People say, 'Why do you keep doing it?' But it’s for all of the good people who appreciate the food. When they say ‘Thanks Sonya’, or ‘Thanks Cavan lady’, it’s worth it.”

Sonya maintains that the homeless situation in Ireland has worsened and can often be attributed to bad luck for any given person.

“We had someone accompany us on a night to Dublin and they couldn’t believe the level of homelessness. People would crawl out from under the ditches and bushes, to get their meals and go back. It’s definitely getting worse.

“People might say that it’s just drug addicts but it’s not. We have a pregnant woman and an old man sleeping in tents. We also have well qualified people such as a chef and a plumber who can’t get work because they don’t have a fixed abode. They’re down on their luck.”

However, drugs and antisocial behaviour have become increasingly bigger problems.

“Drugs are a huge issue. They’ve gotten worse.”

“Some nights can be rough. We hope every night going up that you’re going to have a quiet night, but we don’t always get one. Last week someone told us they would throw acid on our faces.”

Sonya says that the lack of support for homeless people in Cavan is driving them to undesirable places.

“There’s a big problem in Cavan because there are no hostels for the homeless. They have to go to Dublin, Drogheda, or Dundalk, but people don’t want to use hostels because they are dangerous. A lot of my clients say that they would rather lie in the snow than go to a hostel.”

While doing their rounds in recent days the group recently made the tragic discovery of a deceased person in a Clontarf Park.

“It was a man who appeared to be in his 30s and was stiff and cold when we found him. We don't know how he died, but there were no obvious signs of drug use. It was very tough to find him. The next night we went back to the place and said a few prayers for him.”

Sonya says she regularly fears for the well-being of her clients, especially over winter.

“A few weeks ago we called an ambulance for someone, we're always concerned for their well-being. Things will get worse over the winter as people spend more time outside breathing cold air, which can cause a lot of respiratory problems. We regularly find someone who is very underweight so we give them extra food to put more weight on them. We don't have any medical training so we just point them in the right direction. It's hard to look at people in such tough conditions. We get to know them so well, even getting to know how many sugars they take in their tea.”